Faking It is the Real Deal

April 25, 2014 • Culture


I’ll be honest with you: I am really, really sick of watching myself die. To be fair, I don’t always die. Sometimes I’m beaten up, raped, disowned, bullied, tortured, abandoned, ravaged by disease, or just reminded, in some other similarly devastating fashion, that I’m unworthy of love.

Over the past two decades, twenty-three actors have been nominated for Oscars for portraying me. It’s an honor, really, if I don’t think about how so many of those portrayals end in violent, tragic death. By one critic’s count, I’ve only gotten a happy ending four times in twenty years.

And if I’m not a cautionary tale, well, I’m just invisible.

So I have to ask: why are we so averse to happy endings – or, hell, even happy existences – in queer narratives?

Some would argue that any portrayal of queerness which elides homophobia is disrespectful. MTV’s latest sitcom Faking It is catching a lot of heat from proponents of this school of thought. The show’s premise is, on the surface, as outlandish as it is offensive: two straight girls, Karma and Amy, pretend to be a lesbian couple for popularity, prestige, and prom queen glory. This begs the obvious, and very necessary, question: in a world where so many queer girls are forced to play straight out of fear for their lives, why air a television program about straight girls appropriating lesbianism as a sexy party trick?

The only trouble with this criticism is that – spoiler alert – twenty minutes into its first episode, Faking It abandons this premise completely.

During the pilot episode’s climactic pep rally, the antagonistic blonde bigot of the series grabs the microphone, pointing an accusatory finger at Karma and Amy.

“They’re not really lesbians,” she screeches. “They’re mocking the gay rights movement!”

The gymnasium falls silent. All eyes are on Karma and Amy, expectant, doubtful.

“If we’re faking it…” Amy pauses, sucking in a deep breath. “Would I do this?”

She swallows, wraps her arms around Karma’s waist, and pulls her in for a long kiss.

God, it’s magnificent. The bleachers explode into applause. Confetti falls from the ceiling. An indie-pop cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” soars to crescendo.

Karma pulls back. She lets out a breathy little whoa.

“I know,” Amy breathes, her voice full of sincerity.

Karma winks, whispers, “Way to sell it!”, and turns on her heel.

The very last shot of the episode is Amy, looking for all the world like a deer caught in a tractor beam, staring directly into the camera. She’s shell-shocked.

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not straight anymore.

In an interview with TIME, Faking It’s showrunner Carter Covington confirmed that Amy will, in fact, question her sexuality over the course of the series. “I really wanted one of the girls to have genuine feelings for her best friend, and to explore what that feels like,” he said. “That’s something as a gay man that I went through in the closet in high school, to have crushes on my friends and not be able to say anything.” In another interview with The Backlot, Covington confirmed that Amy will struggle with coming out to her family, described as “more Texan and not as accepting.”

So, really, the elements of a typical queer high school drama are all there – the closet, the less-than-tolerant family, the hopeless crush on a straight girl. What’s missing – and what, in my view, will make Faking It special – is the violent, all-consuming homophobia that has tinged queer media from time immemorial. Karma and Amy don’t have to worry about being thrown into dumpsters, slammed into lockers, or tarred with slurs. Their story is allowed to unfold like a silly, lighthearted romantic comedy, like every piece of fluffy femmeslash fanfiction you’ve ever read. They are supported. They are loved. They are alive.

That calls for a celebration, not a condemnation.

See, I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about depicting a queer experience free of ostracization and violence. I do think there’s something offensive about a media culture where the most readily available, if not only, narratives for queer youth are ones of misery and heartbreak and death. The idea that any “realistic” portrayal of queerness must be coloured by pervasive, crushing homophobia is offensive to me. The idea that queer people do nothing but endure oppression is offensive to me. The fact that queerness on celluloid is always an anxiety-ridden struggle or a glittery, Bacchanalian parade, but never uneventful, serial, quotidian – never normal – is offensive to me. There’s something quietly revolutionary about a series that allows its queer characters to just, well… be.

Faking It is not without its faults. There’s an unfortunate, cissexist tendency to equate gender identity and biological sex, erasing trans lesbians and gay trans men. Amy’s early lamentation – “I can’t be a lesbian! I don’t even like looking at my own vagina!” – comes to mind. The main cast is uniformly white, with characters of colour serving as supportive satellites. One of Karma’s ill-conceived quests for popularity involves pretending to be blind, complete with comically large sunglasses and a lot of exaggerated stumbling and bumping into obstacles. If Faking It goes the way of Ryan Murphy’s recently canceled gay parenting sitcom The New Normal, which relied almost entirely on transphobic, racist, and ableist gags for laughs, I’ll be sorely disappointed. There are easy remedies for Faking It’s problems, and I hope Carter Covington and his writers find them sooner rather than later.

Because, ultimately, Faking It is exactly the kind of media queer teenagers so desperately need. It celebrates sexual diversity without reducing the entire queer experience to tragedy and persecution. It’s lighthearted, but not unserious; funny, but never mocking. It gives queer girls access to rom-com cheesiness that, historically, was the exclusive purview of heterosexuals. It treats queer people as human beings, not as lessons in tolerance for straight viewers.

I will gladly take a thousand Faking Its over one more Brokeback Mountain, or Black Swan, or Boys Don’t Cry. Like I said at the outset of this piece: I’m tired of watching myself die. I’d much rather fall in love.

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  • Tia Baheri

    EVERY TIME I READ SOMETHING ON MEDIUM OR SOMETHING AND FIND MYSELF NODDING VIGOROUSLY AND AGREEING AND THINKING HOW GREAT IT IS I LOOK AT THE BYLINE AND IT IS ALWAYS YOU. This is so wonderful!! And not to impose theory on a reading that is already detailed and complete and risk coming off as pedantic but I couldn’t help but think about this in terms of Sedgwick and the need to move beyond a mode of analysis and narrative that is always playing defensive and only concerned with uncovering oppression (not that that isn’t important!) to actually providing reparative narratives and positive groundings for social change. And I think this is a step in that direction. Or rather, it seems it has problems but that those don’t stem from its groundwork/premise.

    Either way (I confess to not having seen the first episode yet but clicked on this because I’m curious about the show) I think critiques are absolutely valid for the issues you mentioned but that the critics need to move beyond “the universe you have created isn’t brutal for queer teenagers.” Like…good?

    Again, really great piece. Bravo.

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