In 2006, five years after purchasing the network from Fox (and eight years after Pat Robertson sold what was then known only as The Family Channel), The Walt Disney Company rebranded ABC Family Channel with the tagline: A New Kind of Family. Since then, they’ve backed up the slogan with a slate of shows that feature teen sex, teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, and bisexuality.
With their new drama, The Fosters, which airs over the summer season, the network is pushing the boundaries of “family entertainment” yet again, adding gay parenting and possibly transgenderism (more on that below) to their list.
With Jennifer Lopez executive producing, The Fosters stars Teri Polo and Sheri Saum as Stef and Lena, a lesbian couple raising a biological son (David Lambert) from Stef’s previous marriage, as well as adopted fraternal twins (Cierra Ramirez and Jake T. Austin). As the show progresses, they also add a troubled teen girl fresh out of juvie and her angel-faced little brother to their brood.
Despite a few after-school-special-type problems—dealing with ADD, sharing prescription pills with friends, and angst over meeting a birth parent—nothing in the plotting or character development of the first two episodes suggests growing up with lesbian moms is anything but idyllic. Even the high school the kids attend offers a kind of fantasy, located only steps from a sunny beach where the gorgeous, perfectly tousled students can surf the waves after class. If that weren’t enough catering to teen notions of paradise, later, one of the moms offers to buy her son condoms, good-naturedly ruffling his hair and sighing, “You’re growing up so fast,” when the boy blushes at the suggestion.
Those few problems on the show that are related to the parents’ uncommon domestic arrangement springs from ignorance and intolerance outside the family rather than anything intrinsic to having only one gender guiding the children’s development. Yet although the show presents as idealized a view of new millennium nontraditional family life as Father Knows Best did of 1950s nuclear families, there’s no denying that The Fosters makes for engaging viewing.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to hope that Callie, an abused girl who’s bounced from foster home to foster home all her life, has finally found in Stef and Lena some adults she can rely on—or at least some adults who will treat her better than her previous guardian, a gun-toting heterosexual male who would beat her 11-year-old brother whenever he caught the boy trying on dresses.
On the adult side, Polo brings an impressive balance of toughness and tenderness to her role as a divorced woman struggling to do her best by her kids that’s likely to resonant with moms of all ideological backgrounds. And, of course, appealing to viewers of all ideologies (or, even more, to viewers who’ve yet to form ideologies) may be largely the point of shows like The Fosters.
In 2012, The Hollywood Reporter commissioned a study that found that 27 percent of TV watchers say shows with homosexual characters have made them more accepting of gay marriage and homosexuality in general. The poll found that gay-promoting programming was particularly influential on younger viewers, with 38 percent of respondents under 35 saying shows like Modern Family and Glee have made them more accepting of gay marriage.
That same year, GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) singled out three youth-targeted networks—Teen Nick, MTV, and ABC Family—for their positive portrayal of homosexuality in their annual “Where We Are in TV” report. GLAAD found that a full 55 percent of ABC Family’s original primetime programming in 2011 featured LGBT storylines. One wonders what percentage the network has reached now with The Fosters and whether Pat Robertson ever regrets his decision to sell.