By Arianne Binette | July 19th, 2021
While queer representation is on the rise, queer characters continue to be an anomaly in today’s television landscape. Even though there are a few exceptions, this representation is usually put forward as a secondary story, and usually part of a larger ensemble, where the queer characters exist to fill a quota either as the best friend or the sibling figure. They might have the occasional love story, but rarely at the center of the show. This type of representation perpetuates the idea that queer characters only exist to advance the story of others.
It’s impossible to ignore shows like The L Word (2004-2009) or even Queer As Folk (2000-2005) which paved the way for queer television today. And more recently, we can look at shows that are doing a lot for young queer stories in today’s world, such as Love, Victor (2020) or Pose (2018-2021). But, other than these, how many shows can we count today where most of the main ensemble is queer, or revolves around queer characters? There are very few, and for the most part, they are often coming-of-age stories where the themes of suffering and discovery are at the center of it all.
Enter HBO Max’s Generation (2021- ). We have seen the story before: High school students who try to navigate growing up in today’s world aren’t revolutionary, yet there is nothing like Generation on television. A show that centers on a Gay Straight Alliance club might seem like nothing, but it is a testament to how the show never forgets that these kids are still figuring themselves out, and that they seek those who are like them.
When the show’s first neon-soaked images and trailer were released, many compared it to HBO’s other teen-centric show Euphoria (2019-). And yet, apart from both being set in high schools, they could not be more different.
While Euphoria touches on queer identity and sexuality with broad strokes, the show centers more around addiction and accountability for your actions. Generation on the other hand is imbrewed in queer identity. While being an ensemble cast, the show truly centers around what I have started calling the core four. Chester (Justice Smith), Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), Riley (Chase Sui Wonders) and Greta’s (Haley Sanchez) stories all relate in one way or another to their queer identity but is also simply one aspect of their story. From Chester being so open about his sexuality or Nathan standing up to his mother about his bisexuality, shame never drives them. Instead, their sexuality is just openly there. Even characters like Riley can discover their sexuality throughout the first season. The world of Generation never apologizes for its identity: it is in your face from the very first frame of Chester walking down the quad in a crop top while ‘I Like Boys’ by Todrick Hall plays, owning his sexuality and style even if that means getting pulled up for infringing the school’s dress code. Exploring sexuality through coming of age stories isn’t new, but what this show does so differently is that it isn’t limited to just one character. Sexuality and gender come in all shapes and forms and this show knows that.
Identity and sexuality can be at the center of everything. Being a teenager is after all about exploring yourself. It’s the time where most of us discover who we are, and who we will be for the rest of our lives. It’s messy in every sense of the world, and even if adults try to ignore it, the topics of sexuality and gender still become the center of everything we do growing up, because exploring ourselves and who we are is everything. Generation understands that this discovery process won’t be without bumps in the road, but that we might just become who we are meant to be by the end.
Instead of being like most shows who are a one-stop shop with it’s token queer character, Generation instead depicts the reality that queer life is everywhere. Whether it is explicitly told like with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Sam, the school guidance counsellor, who openly answers the students’ questions when asked if he is himself queer when he becomes a chaperon for the GSA, and Arianna’s (Nathanya Alexander) two dads, or just implied, such as Greta’s aunt Ana played by transgender actress Nava Mau. Being queer in Generation is just part of life.
Finding your people, the ones that stay with you for a long time, is something that we all crave. But when you are also trying to figure yourself out, when your sexuality and gender are part of it, finding those who are like you becomes almost life-saving. Generation’s relationship drama might drive a lot of the show, but friendships are what we should all focus on. Because queer characters are so often by themselves, queer friendships often take the backseat on screen. But whether it’s Nathan and Riley supporting each other at every turn, or Riley running to Chester and hugging him after a particularly rough day, friendships are treated equally to romance in the show. Finding your people can save your life, it can make you feel like you belong, like you are loved, like you are welcomed. Just like with identity, Generation understands that need.
Friendships and love are intertwined. They are part of your identity, especially as a horny teenager. The people you meet in high school are some of the best (and worst) people that you will ever encounter, and whether we want to admit it or not, our high school experiences help define us. Especially, when that identity is embedded in queer life. What makes this show special is how it understands that concept. Most of the characters who don’t know each other at the start become friends throughout the show: By the last frame, it is clear that they each need each other to survive. Queer life is often saved by the people we surround ourselves with, our found family, and Generation portrays that idea perfectly.
Television has for so long ignored this community and familial aspect of queer life, preferring instead to ignore our experiences in high school or put us in a box: Wanting to simply put our queerness to the minimum and never trying to explore the numerous aspects of what defines us. Right now, this show is the exception. A rare occasion where being part of the alphabet mafia isn’t just for one character. It’s about the importance of the friendships you form, the relationships you run away from, the identity crises that you have no clue how to deal with. Generation is the anomaly in today’s television landscape, but hopefully, it’s also the start of something.