Monday, January 12, 2015

Power and Privilege on ABC Family's The Fosters

I’ve seen plenty of criticism claiming that the writers and creators of The Fosters aren’t aware of the degree of privilege their characters hold. I’ll concede that, to a point, particularly given this tweet by Bradley Bredeweg, the executive producer. If everyone involved in the show truly grasped the power dynamics at hand, Brandon and Callie would not be acceptable. But, fear not Braillie shippers, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. 
I think the show has done some interesting things with privilege, particularly in the way it shifts. Similar to real life, no one on the show has a static level of privilege. Take Lena, for example. In many ways, she is highly privileged. Comfortable income, middle-class lifestyle, highly educated. However, she’s also a member of both a racial and a sexual minority. She is the one who shares the most stories of being discriminated against, and she experiences outsider status in her family due to having light skin. The these different levels of privilege allow her to be ignorant at times—her praising of Timothy edges on problematic what with the sitar joke—and somewhat judgmental when it comes to dealing with people who do not inhabit the privileged part of her world—Callie at Juvie, Daphne—but also to be vulnerable in other ways. 
Stef’s privilege is different than her wife’s. It is implied that she comes from a more blue-collar background than Lena. She also has white privilege, which the show demonstrates subtlety, such as when she comments that she “[doesn’t] understand why Dana [Lena’s mother] stresses [Lena] out so much.” This plays as an in-law joke, but once we see that Dana stresses Lena out, at this juncture, because of the way she talks about Lena’s light skin, it casts a different light on Stef’s comment—she doesn’t understand, because this has to be explained to her. However, she lacks privilege in being a woman on the police force, and coming out as a lesbian late in life, both which are things she struggles with explicitly.  
Four of the kids—Jesus, Mariana, Callie and Jude—have experienced a change in privilege. For Jesus and Mariana this happened at a young age, but the effects are still visible. While Mariana seems to be a spoiled, middle-class girl at the beginning of the show, it’s revealed that this illustrates how much she’s changed since her adoption, but also changes as she confronts her biological mother. I think we’ll continue to see her journey in this regard over the next season. Lexi seemed to be her only connection to Latin@ culture, and her hair in the promo suggests that she may be acting out against it, perhaps in light of the ostracizing she is now encountering at her—highly affluent, mostly white—school. She’s still young enough to be trying on identities, and coming to terms with the different layers of herself.
I have plenty more to say in terms of Jesus and Jude—oh, Jude, there are so many cool ways your life could go—but this is getting long, and I want to move on to Callie. Callie has the unique position of being explicitly aware of her new privilege, and of the bullshit factor involved in that. I imagine there’s plenty of rough stuff in her background—I want to know how she got her cartilage piercing, just because of the negative associations piercings seem to have on this show—but by the time she gets to Girls United, she’s in a good place. The other girls are quick to call her out on that.* They make her realize that by leaving The Fosters, she is intentionally making her life harder, and the show highlights this in that conversation between her and Brandon where they both realize that she doesn’t have to be in a position to worry about buying a kitchen table at the age of fifteen. This theme is continued after she leaves Girls United, and this is where I’m resting my hope for next season. 
Callie has gained privilege at the Fosters, and that means more than just that she’s disdainful of her classmates. It means that she understands the power that comes with privilege, which she is learning to use for good. Rather than making it easier for herself by distancing herself from the foster system, she immediately figures out how she can help other foster kids. And she doesn’t do this in an unintentionally condescending way, as Stef or Lena might. It’s a give and take, and when she does take on the judgmental point of view with Daphne, she is proven wrong. I foresee her doing more to bridge the gap between the world she inhabits now, and the world she used to inhabit to improve things for other foster kids. There’s real potential there, I think.
Overall, I really love the diversity in The Fosters, mostly because it’s more than diversity. Every characters’ background affects their life and relationships in a realistic way. None of them are perfect, not even Saint Lena. And even minor characters, like Wyatt, are layered. He’s less economically privileged than most of Anchor Beach, and ends up homeless/living with Daphne, at which point he’s clearly in over his head at that point. Arguably, the most privileged character introduced is Liam—his family golfs recreationally, Callie describes the house as the best they’d had, and she has a lot of guilt for losing that placement until she comes to grips with what happened—but the power he has because of his privilege is highly negative. On the other hand, the show doesn’t shy away from showing the result of that power. I think the result of that pre-trial hearing will be another huge motivator for Callie becoming a force for change.
I realize I haven’t addressed the white boy in the room, here. Brandon’s privilege, his arrogance, and the tendency he has to not act like he was raised by two wonderful ladies and an okay-guy are the show’s biggest failure, in terms of privilege. I’m also not thrilled about the whole injured-hand thing, because it’ll either give him more manpain, or humble him in a contrived way. So. I’m going to have to wait and see before I can really address him in terms of the generally successful ways the show deals with privilege.  
*The diversity of the girls’ backgrounds, the way their privileges collide, is explored very well on the Girls United webseries, and I hope the main show goes there soon. 

Originally Posted June 11th, 2014 Updated to reflect Season Two


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