ABC Family A New Kind of Family

The characters on ABC Family shows look surprisingly similar to the viewers of those same shows. The demographic to which I refer is diverse—racially and otherwise—educated, and interested in viewing different facets of American culture that are prime for exploration. An apt description, as ABC Family seems dedicated to creating content that matches those exact parameters.

Why is this important? Because representation on television is one of the most important aspects of how entertainment collides with our own culture.

Scour your favorite channels to see how racial and sexual minorities are represented on television, and you’ll get a rough sense of how our culture views those social sub-sets.

That is why ABC Family’s representation of racial and sexual minorities, as well as individuals with disabilities, is so important: it takes a step (a marathon, really) away from the televised standard of relegating minorities to the boundaries, and instead represents them as commonplace and equal—the way they should be represented.

Launched in 2001 after several years of ownership handover, ABC Family started off as a sanitized version of an already sanitized youth programming landscape. For a time, ABC Family was the place to revisit your favorite shows; at any given time, one could always find 7th HeavenGilmore Girls or Smallville reruns to occupy your evening.

As far as original content, ABC Family created shows aimed at younger viewers, from Wildfire in 2005 to Kyle XY in 2007. But it wasn’t until 2008 that ABC Family found controversial run-away success with The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Since then, ABC Family has championed a startlingly refreshing trend: writing about and casting minority ways of life. This change may be due to The Secret Life‘s success; fictionalizing the pregnancy of a well-informed, middle class, white high school girl meant staring down every available stereotype and opting for the road less traveled.

And viewers responded.

ABC Family The Secret Life of the American Teenager

Since then, ABC Family shows have diversified in every way. There are more racial and sexual minorities present; real world issues like adoption, burgeoning sexuality—both homosexuality and heterosexuality alike—and the place for the deaf in an audio-dominated world are approached with (mostly) real world solutions. And all of this is accomplished without trivializing those minority aspects.

It’s easy to look at ABC Family and roll your eyes at the “cheesiness” on which some of the shows center: Pretty Little Liars, for instance, focuses on a group of girls being punished either by or in the place of a friend long dead; Switched at Birth focuses on a pair of girls who were just as the title suggests; and the biggest mystery of ABC Family’s newest addition Twisted centers on whether one teen is a sociopathic murderer.

The topics can get as heavy as you like, but the ABC Family tone—youthfully campy seasoned with all the synthetic gravity and self-importance high school can imbue—never subsides.

Again, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the “cheese factor,” but when one takes a deeper look at each of these shows, it’s clear to see that ABC Family has made a conscious choice to reflect the real world on screens tuned to its station. And in cable television, that’s a pretty big deal.

One of the most glaring oversights of everyday television is lack of meaningful racial and sexual minority representation. As mainstream Hollywood would have you believe it, homosexuals and people with darker skin tones stick to the shadows, available only to deliver sassy lines of retort or support to white friends in distress.

Though that sad fact began as a reflection of societal views, it has now turned into a standard from which the entertainment industry finds it difficult to break away. And when you think of the vast swaths of America yet to diversify, it’s not hard to see how this standard became the norm—but it’s meaningful that ABC Family decided to break away from that standard.

Twisted Main Cast ABC Family

Though we live in an America with a bi-racial President; an America on the cusp of changing the dominant race in many states, we still don’t live in an America that is entirely accepting of liberal points of view where race is concerned.

Take, for example, this video of an elderly woman on ABC’s What Would You Do? crying over the notion that a black man and white woman would want to be in a relationship with one another. (This woman was no relation to either party.)

This country has significant room for improvement where race is concerned, which is why I was so surprised by ABC Family’s portrayal of various characters on its newest soapy teen drama, Twisted.

On Twisted not only is main character Danny Desai (Avan Jogia) played by an actor who is decidedly brown (being of Indian, Welsh and Irish descent) but his onscreen parentage reflects the racial make-up of his own ancestry—his mother is played by Denise Richards. The other main characters are played by black actress Kylie Bunbury and white actress Maddie Hasson. Jogia’s character is romantically linked to both of them (it’s less scandalous than it sounds).

In real life—at least on the West Coast—being friends with and romantically tied to individuals across racial lines is not a life-stopping revelation, and it’s refreshing to watch a show portray that fact without turning it into a racial statement. There are, however, places in America in which these facts would still be considered a large, bolded asterisk to an otherwise commonplace story. Thankfully, unlike other entertainment content, ABC Family chooses not to cater to these close-minded views of the world.

And ABC Family isn’t just knocking it out of the park where race is concerned.

On Pretty Little Liars, a show filled with beautiful young women, arguably one of the most beautiful characters, Emily, comes to terms with her homosexuality, and the narrative doesn’t treat her character as if she is “going through a phase.” She’s not lumped into some restrictive, derogatory, and trivializing “lipstick lesbian” category, she merely carves out her own path where her sexuality is concerned.

Many shows characterize young women hiding their sexuality as somehow “different”—think of the way Janis Ian from Mean Girls was quickly assumed to be a lesbian—but on the surface, Emily is average in every way. The only thing that differentiates her from her friends is her sexuality—and ABC Family makes a point to show that this isn’t an important difference at all.

ABC Family Pretty Little Liars

Moreover, the show allows the audience the opportunity to peek into a home where one parent denies her daughter’s sexuality, hoping it will go away, and another parent accepts it, ready to love the person his daughter is, instead of who she has been pretending to be. There’s no outrageously dramatic confrontations, no dust-off-the-shoulder acceptance, but rather realistic tension, bullish denial.

Most importantly, the narrative doesn’t force her “coming out” as an overnight process; the character struggles over seasons to adapt to accepting herself and other people accepting her.

In that same vein, The Fosters, another new ABC Family program, centers on a family led by a homosexual couple—one black and one white—with several adopted children, including Latinos.

Even beyond the representation of race and sexuality, maybe most impressive is the all-encompassing representation of individuals with hearing impairments on Switched at Birth.

After watching only a few minutes of one episode, it was heartening to observe how equally the hearing-capable characters treated the deaf characters on the show. For example, two girls meet two deaf boys one afternoon and spend the rest of their afternoon talking about how cute the boys were, how they wish they knew more sign language so they could speak with them.

ABC Family The Fosters

It was a quick scene and the sentiment was only right—if they were cute, then that’s all that should matter (you know, beside personality and all that other stuff). But it’s another thing entirely to see such a heartwarmingly accepting view on television. Especially where romance is concerned.

To be clear, my argument is not that ABC Family should be lauded for treating various minorities as equal because that’s somehow contrary to what the world knows. Hopefully, we all know that deaf people, homosexual people and racial minorities are equal to majority groups.

My argument is that ABC Family should be lauded for succeeding in this equal treatment where others have failed even to try.

The minorities in ABC Family shows are not characterized by their status as a minority—they are people first, and that’s a novel concept for a medium used to boiling characters down to their most convenient distinctions.

I have white friends, black friends, Asian friends, and Persian friends—and I’ll wager you do, too. Some are adopted, most are not; some are gay, some are not. But ultimately, each of these friends is just a personality that meshes with mine. A personality. And this article has just been a long way of acknowledging that ABC Family seems more interested in inspecting the personalities that make people the way they are, rather than the arbitrary colors of their skin, people they choose to love, or things they can or cannot hear.

Good job, ABC Family. Here’s hoping others follow in your footsteps.