The Unicorn Scale: The Fosters

10/9/2018

“The Fosters” began with a season one slogan that spoke directly to queer hearts everywhere: “How do you define family?” Over the course of five seasons, the ABC Family-to-Freeform drama asked and answered that question over and over again. A loving same gender couple raising their family in an impeccably decorated home, “The Fosters” told us from the beginning it would confront real issues. As a show created by two gay men and led by queer women matriarchs, it promised to be a safe place for queer people. The Fosters was touted as a bastion of queer representation, one that welcomed us time and again with the message we were secure inside. Now that the series has wrapped, was it a place we could see ourselves?

Let’s dive past the Spoiler Line to find out.

What I Liked

The Fosters genuinely brought us so many ways to be a family. Stef and Lena Adams Foster raising their children: Brandon, Stef’s son from her first marriage; twins Jesus and Mariana, who they adopted around six years of age; and Jude and Callie, who have come to Stef and Lena as foster kids when the show begins.

Over the course of the show we get to know Brandon’s father, who works with Stef and remains an involved parent. We’re also introduced to some of the kids’ biological parents, who bring themselves into the family in various ways. The Fosters takes topics head on, and viewers join the Adams Fosters through fostering, adoption, juvenile detention, invisible disabilities, fertility, aging, cheating, drug abuse, terminal illness, immigration, and more. The show uses the term “ableism” and explains it; the family acknowledges mental health as just as important as physical. Lena is the vice principal of the school the kids all go to—a stunning beachfront campus. 

“The Fosters” had multiple trans characters, specifically multiple young men, and those characters were played by trans actors. We saw storylines about women in STEM, putting on musicals, and following your dreams. There were some very excellent sweaters in the fifth season. After falling in love with them as a couple, viewers get to attend Stef and Lena’s joyous wedding. The couple is often affectionate, and normalize a loving, sexually active marriage between two women that is not objectified in any way.

Youngest son Jude is the only queer kid in the family. His early explorations with queerness are met with attentive acceptance from Lena in one of what would be their many quiet mama-and-son moments. Though he has a brief flirtation with a girl friend, he eventually comes out as gay.

What I Didn’t Like

Stef’s previous marriage to a man was treated as a misstep she made when she was trying to be a straight version of herself. While gays and lesbians do marry and have children with people of different genders, we see the sudden sexuality trope, in which a character is straight until they are gay, often.

This usually occurs in a universe where there are no bi people. Of course this isn’t the case in The Fosters —the show eventually introduced bi characters. But bi parents, especially bi women, are the most likely of the queer population to be parentsThe Fosters had an immediate opportunity to bring visibility to this underrepresented group, and chose not to. Stef continuing to work with her ex-husband could have been a longer and more nuanced storyline—there are a lot of crags and creeks that are a part of the bi experience that could have been followed here.

Stef continues to be a prickly thorn in an otherwise smooth queer family outlook. She seems to approach the world with binary thinking—straight or gay. Throughout the series she makes condescending remarks about bi people, all the way up until the final season in which she barely veils her contempt for an old friend newly exploring her sexuality. Stef’s biphobia remains uncontested, a harmful reminder that “LGBT” friendly often means putting our bi selves in mental harm’s way.

Bisexuality, when introduced, was never an established facet, but a character testing the waters. The school’s new principal Monte Porter bordered on predatory in her pursuit of Lena. Late series neighbor Tess Bayfield was at least initially presented as a threat to Stef and Lena’s steadfast coupledom, a person and feelings to worry about. Every storyline that involved potential nonmonosexuality also brought uncontested biphobia.

Bisexuality was often erased to create more tension—is Tess straight, or gay?!!? An entire fifth season arc was dedicated to Stef’s first love returning, sparks flying, and then Tess’ whole family ascending into upheaval because she started questioning her sexuality. In this moment the series doubles down on a harmful premise. Liking someone of the same gender doesn’t mean your other attractions or relationships are moot.

Jude, the gay son, also had a truly lovely flirtation with a girl who would become his good friend—bi representation in young men is lacking, and The Fosters would have done well to let Jude be fluid.

The Rating

So many issues-of-the-week, month, season were handled with care. So why wasn’t bisexuality? It was hurtful and harmful to see biphobia play out unresolved on a show known for guiding tough topics to resolution. Were there bi people? Yes! Also yes? That show had five whole seasons to be better about bisexuality, and never was.

The Fosters’ delightfully named spinoff Good Trouble has the opportunity to correct the biphobia present in the universe the two share. I do hope it will. As far as “The Fosters,” it gets two unicorns. 

SB Swartz
SB Swartz is an author covering inclusive wellness, queer family, and reflections of our world as seen on tv. As a contributing writer for bi.org, SB created the Step Bi Step series for bi parents and originated the This Bi Life series showcasing bi community stories.

SB would very much like to talk to you about your pets, her pets, and the way you view the world. She's her favorite somebody's mama. And yes, she's #StillBisexual.

Find SB Swartz @sbswrites on Twitter and read more of her latest @sbswartz on Medium.