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MTV’s "Faking It" Is Changing The Nature of Queer Representation on TV

The teen comedy-drama — about two girls who pretend to be lesbians — was initially the subject of criticism, but the show channels the confusion of adolescence to broaden portrayals of the sexual spectrum.

Karma (Katie Stevens) and Amy (Rita Volk) kiss in front of the entire school. MTV

There was a time when coming out meant assigning oneself a clear label, but in 2014, that’s less of a concern. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of out celebrities like Frank Ocean, Tom Daley, and Maria Bello, among others, we’ve come to accept a conception of queerness that’s less about a person’s stated sexual identity and more about whomever he or she falls in love with. And yet, when it comes to television, the lines are more rigidly drawn. Sexuality is an either-or proposition, with little regard for a spectrum. Bisexuality, already a contentious subject in the real world, is scarcely considered.

Because television still has major strides to make when it comes to queer representation, shows tend to overcompensate. Once Willow Rosenberg went from Oz to Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she was decidedly a lesbian, with little acknowledgment of her past attraction to men. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with characters suddenly realizing that they’re harboring an exclusively same-sex attraction, but there’s nothing wrong with characters falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum either. The concern is that by compartmentalizing sexuality, such a move plays into an old-fashioned and outmoded perception of gayness as an “experimental phase.” And yet, the representation of a fluid and shifting sexuality is just as valid as something more clearly defined. Those rigid lines, in fact, are exactly what now feel dated.

On the surface, MTV’s Faking It — with its central conceit of two high school girls pretending to be in a relationship — may sound like a relic from a different time. But the series is decidedly contemporary. For one thing, Amy (Rita Volk) and Karma (Katie Stevens) find popularity in their new status as Hester High’s token lesbians. However, their goal isn’t titillation in the way that two girls kissing in a ’90s teen comedy functioned. Historically speaking, so-called “girl-on-girl action” on film largely plays into the male gaze. But more to the point, the faux relationship between Karma and Amy is more complicated than either is willing to admit: Amy’s romantic feelings for her best friend are actually sincere. Karma’s feelings, on the other hand, remain muddled.

What distinguishes Faking It from most LGBT-centric series is how loosely it defines its characters’ sexuality. At this point, it’s unclear if Amy is gay or bisexual — right now, she’s just a girl with a crush on another girl. She’s “Karmasexual.” For her part, Karma is mostly too distracted by hunky Liam Booker (Gregg Sulkin) to address her own complicated feelings for Amy, but there’s clearly real sexual tension brewing beneath the surface. During a failed threesome in “Three to Tango,” Karma responds to a kiss from Amy with a pleasantly surprised “whoa.”

Michael J. Willett as Shane. MTV

Years of teen dramas on The CW — and, before that, on The WB — have conditioned us to believe that high school relationships are profound and real, despite the fact that the vast majority of real-life high school students don’t have any fucking clue what they’re doing. The initial anger over Faking It, centered over the fact that two ostensibly straight characters were going to pretend to be a lesbian couple, feels misguided: It’s an exaggeration, yes, but it aptly reflects the tenuous nature of high school relationships, and the performative aspects of trying to be something you’re not in order to survive adolescence. Faking It may not be the ideal representation of every lesbian everywhere, but it’s certainly an accurate depiction of high school and the highs and lows of teenage romance.

For LGBT viewers, it’s tempting to latch onto representations of queer sexuality and turn them into gay and lesbian icons. But the reality is almost always more complex than that. In the future, Amy and Karma may become a same-sex couple to root for — that does seem to be the show’s endgame — but at this point, they’re two young women who are still figuring things out. And though that may be frustrating to viewers watching Faking It for the “Karmy” relationship, it’s truer to life. Strong, self-possessed lesbian characters are essential, but so are depictions of questioning youth — and Faking It is one of the few series willing to take that on.

It helps that Faking It rounds out its cast of characters with Shane (Michael J. Willett), an out and proud gay kid who isn’t dealing with bullying classmates or the laborious process of coming out. He has a hot straight best friend, and he’s not even in love with him. These are valid narratives, yes, but we’ve seen them again and again. Like Looking’s Patrick, Shane is a rare TV portrait of gay normalcy: not boring, not asexual — just comfortable and self-possessed. When so many series present queerness as an “issue” to be dealt with, Shane’s unapologetic existence remains revolutionary.

Because Faking It is only one representation, it is bound to disappoint those who forget that one series cannot be all things to all people. In blurring the lines of sexual identity and categorization, however, it’s a subtle yet significant step forward. This is a new kind of queer love story, sometimes awkward and stilted because that’s how high school relationships tend to play out. We still need LGBT icons to inspire us — and more diverse icons, while we’re at it: trans characters and queer characters of color. (Shout-out to series like Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black for offering both.) But let’s not discount the work Faking It is doing to portray the broad and messy spectrum of queer sexuality.

Faking It airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. on MTV.

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