The Wilds brings the cheesy queer teen drama we deserve

In the first episode of Amazon Prime’s The Wilds, nine teenage girls are en route to a feminist retreat in Hawaii when their plane crashes, marooning them on a deserted island. Hurts to say it, but I can think of no better metaphor for an event from my life roughly 15 years ago: my first date with a woman.

At the time, I was in my early twenties. I’d had a number of sexual experiences with women, including late night trysts, club meetups, and awkward “hangs”, but this was different: a real date, in a restaurant, with someone I had a massive crush on. In the lead-up to the big night, everything had been a flurry of activity: desperate, yearning texts, giddy Facebook stalking, trying on 40+ outfits to make sure that they were flattering and that I could eat in them.

It wasn’t until we were seated at the restaurant, awash with the flickering glow from the candles in the middle of the table, that I realized I had no f*cking idea what to do next. I could compliment her outfit, or the physique she worked so hard to maintain—but maybe that was sexist? I could ask about her family, but that felt awkward, because I wasn’t exactly out to my own. Maybe I should ask about her future plans—

And something about that word, future, it flipped a switch inside of me, and I started to spiral. Would the U.S. ever adopt marriage equality—and if not, what did it really mean to have a “domestic partner”? How would we tell her family—and worse, how would we tell mine? Could we ever have kids, or find a community we felt comfortable in?

And why the f*ck wouldn’t everyone stop starting at us?

Thinking about it now, at 35, it feels like when you burn yourself pulling a cookie sheet out of the oven—both sore and wistfully regretful. I do my own thing, comfortable in the knowledge that the rules of relationships are dictated between the people in them, and that no matter who you are or who you love, some part of society is not going to get on board.

But at that moment, I’d been caught unawares by my own ignorance, and the metaphorical plane was going down. I did my best to power through, but I guess it’s not a surprise she never called me back.

The Wilds
Image courtesy: Amazon Prime

I’ve spent a lot of time since that moment trying to analyze what factors led a strong, intelligent feminist to morph into a straight-up bag of cowardice—but it wasn’t until watching The Wilds, which features more-than-one teenage queer character that does not die at the end, that an answer started to percolate around in the back of my mind. And it wasn’t until a pivotal scene, in which a particularly religious character, Shelby, admits she doesn’t condone homosexuality—and the entire group condemns her for being a bigot—that I realized how profoundly I’d been affected by the lack of media representation of queer and bisexual relationships in my formative teenage years.

That’s the thing about representation. It’s not enough to show a person and say, hey, this person exists, or even, hey, these two characters are doing it, obviously queer! Authentic representation means showing queer people across a spectrum of races, ages, genders, and disability statuses. It means showing all stages of relationships and life—meet-cutes and booty calls and breakups, yes, but also how queer people raise toddlers or nurture their new gardening business or deal with retirement. It means showing queer characters whose story includes all the other things straight characters’ lives get to be about—their relationship to magic, to public institutions, to families and the law (or how they’re going to find food and water on a deserted island). And because queer people live inside of communities, it means showing a variety of ways said community might react public expressions of queerness—including supportive ones, like when five other teenage girls you barely know have your back.

When I meet young lesbian and bisexual women today, it’s actually hard to explain how hard up we were for content. The first romantic lesbian kiss on television didn’t even occur until 1991, on the legal drama L.A. LAW, which spawned a number of other lesbians kisses, all of them clear ratings ploys. But there’s a huge difference between a kiss and a relationship, so it’s even more important to note that the first lesbian wedding on prime-time TV wasn’t until 1996, during an episode of Roseanne. (By then, I’d already pictured my “dream wedding”.) The lesbian relationship between Tara and Willow on Buffy (2001) ignited a near-firestorm of interest—only to end by “burying your gays” (a trope that isstill definitely not dead). By the time the American public was openly besotted with Glee (2009), I’d graduated from college after a youth spent shadowed by the fallout from the AIDS crisis,  the legacy of Matthew Shepherd, and a lifetime of media that proved being “queer” wasn’t for me, regardless of how I felt romantically and sexually.

Another way to frame this is, in both television and in real life, being openly queer was a big-ass decision. Once you crossed that line, you couldn’t go back—which was hard to do, if you believed television’s insistence that not only do queer people have no future, but that their queerness was the only important aspect of their character. Queer characters led lives of pain and drama, specifically caused by their queerness, right up until the moment they randomly took a bullet.

Image courtesy: Amazon Prime

Which brings me back to The Wilds, because by five minutes into the first episode, I realized that I recognized this show—not because I’d seen it before, but because I have terrible insomnia, and the only non-pharmacological way I can fall asleep is by re-watching old shows on repeat. In every possible way, the opening of The Wilds is straight-up early to mid-2000’s prime-time teen drama: the quick, awkward setup where we get just enough of the seven characters to peg them to the appropriate stereotype (“bulimic athlete”, “angry lesbian”, etc.) followed by slower, episodic pacing, a frame narrative starting each episode. The logic-defying plane crash, ending in a stripped-down version of the island from Lost. The over-the-top, hit you on the head messaging about feminism and morality. And believe me when I tell you that, at times, the show runs on grade-A teenage cheese—parental conflict, will-they-or-won’t-they relationships, and a lot of screaming at the sky, and all of it told in nested flashbacks. (Later, there’s even an “I’m emotionally unstable and therefore cutting my hair off!” scene.)

And yet, as the series progresses, each of these elements is subtly turned on its head. The show has a refreshing depth and honesty that I found addictive, especially when it came to the lesbian pairings on the show (of which, I will not give too much away, because I can’t bring myself to spoil this bit for anybody—but believe me when I say The Wilds perfectly captures the longing tension of my first queer kiss.) The women get flaking sunburn and acne. They don’t wear makeup; their armpit hair grows in. More importantly, instead of the equally unbelievable poles of kumbaya-harmony or constant infighting, we get the kind of behavior one actually expects out of teenage girls forced to work together in a stressful life-or-death situation—some friction, occasional individuals that don’t pair well together, but overall, they’re all doing their best to chip in, pitch in, and be fair.

The show’s diverse cast rapidly moves away from the initial stereotypes, developing instead into complex, deeply moving characters that deal with the realistic crushing pressures that the teen dramas of the mid-2000’s rarely connected with—in other words, nobody’s worried about “school” or “being popular”. Instead, they’re wrestling with taking care of their dying parent, the foster care system, or navigating complex relationships with people that feel good and harmful at the same time—and all these stories are presented with strong intersectional elements that look at the ways that race and sexuality complicate already complex pictures. Maybe this is one reason that while the majority of the characters are depicted as straight, I found myself in each one: there is no way, I think, to fully separate the “teen queer woman” experience from the “teenage girl” experience.

Like many shows of the mid-2000’s, who were perhaps tapping into the public’s first real understanding of what the internet would come to mean, there’s a thread of voyeurism—oh no, they’re being watched—but the show subverts this, too. By being upfront about that from the very first episode, it makes space to examine ideas like freedom, autonomy, and feminism, or the way that media doesn’t allow teenage girls—and particularly lesbian and bisexual girls—to experience their sexuality on any other level other than the bowdlerized, a phenomenon that echoes strongly the policing of queer media narratives. (Perfectly pure, or a villain, and never the twain shall meet—though they’ll probably both wind up dead.)

And like almost every other teen show with a queer young woman in it, we of course get the requisite “coming out” narrative—but it’s the juxtaposition between the backgrounds of the different characters that really elevates this aspect of it for me, particularly when it comes to the way the cultural context that you’re raised in affects your coming-out decisions on a multi-faceted level. And more important is what happens after coming out—how two teenage girls navigate a space when one of them isn’t sure exactly how they feel or what they’re doing; how they can create a mutual relationship in which they protect and respect each other’s needs, even if those needs aren’t perfect, culturally-sanctioned ones. Over and over, The Wilds highlights the gulf between how people usually navigate on television and the messiness of real life, and I have to say, I’m here for that content.

The Wilds
Image courtesy: Amazon Prime

As a YA show, The Wilds isn’t actually intended for me. And yet, by the end of the first season (there’s a second season in the works!), I wasn’t sure how it could be for anybody but me. I mean the me of now, but also the me of 2005, an awkward new adult that still hadn’t figured anything out, the me that had grown up on a steady diet of teen dramas without ever seeing myself represented. The Wilds is the teen drama that the young queer women growing up in my generation deserved, but never got—and by the moments where the final cliffhanger is revealed, I felt purged, as if I’d just had a good cry or confessed all my deepest secrets to a friend.

If any of this sounds good to you, I recommend giving The Wilds a try—for the chance to consume a slice of mid-2000’s cheese, updated with a greater understanding of the spaces we inhabit.

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