Where We Belong – Fostering a Belief in Love, Family and Ourselves
By: Alex Steele
Art is to life as life is to art. Fostering love, family and belief, Stef and Lena Adams Foster have unapologetically progressed television in the subtlest of ways. When “The Fosters” hit our screens three seasons ago, the television climate had not known a more diverse representation of family in the twenty first century. More so even, television had not yet seen a family helmed by two lesbian moms. The ironic thing; this type of family had been a reality long before The Fosters graced our screens.
Stumbling upon “The Fosters” late, a binge watch was on the menu and oh boy was it satisfying. At the time, I was on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance, somewhat searching for answers. Answers regarding my sexuality. Answers in regards to “the right time.” Answers about whether “it was ok.” Those answers were uncovered through watching and being completely transformed by the characters of Stef and Lena Adams Foster (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum). Stef, a stoic, in control protector of all things she loves – a wife, a mother, a police officer. Lena, an equally stoic, heart on her sleeve wearing, completely devoted individual as a wife, a mother and a principal. Now, before you say “Really Alex, that’s it?” keep reading. Stef and Lena Adams Foster are so much more than a couple of descriptive words and their titles. They are so much more than just their characters. They are trailblazers, role models and genuine representations of all of us. It is a testament to Teri Polo and Sherri Saum whom inhabit these characters effortlessly. Characters such as Stef and Lena aren’t just imaginary friends or made up objects, but at times provide a mirror image of ourselves. They provide guidance. They provide strength. They provide answers.
“Who I love shouldn’t be an issue for you or anyone else.”
I’m known to love hard and love fast – a fact I learnt about myself very early on. It’s something, similar to my sexuality, I’ve grown to celebrate instead of apologizing for. My first “relationship” grew from a very strong friendship. We were young, and we liked each other (a lot) and one thing lead to another. At the time, being together wasn’t “allowed” or so we thought. So we were lead to believe. After nine months of secret moments, it ended. Our relationship and friendship were no more. During this time, we were confronted with opinions and views about what we were doing, questions of why. Not to mention, we both attended a Catholic all-girls school where particular religious beliefs were taught and meant to be upheld. To say I let these particular views affect me would be an understatement; I let them dictate how I lived from there on in. When I watched Stef during the episode I Do subconsciously fighting a battle against similar beliefs, it was the first time I felt understood. I remember yelling “YES” at the screen while I was watching. And when Stef stood up to her Dad, confronting head-on his beliefs that inadvertently had become her beliefs, she gave me and I am sure so many others a comrade in arms. She spoke words, passionately, that I had been so afraid to say myself – words I wasn’t sure would ever leave my lips.
Sure, Stef and Lena are lesbians, a fact I am not discounting, but at the end of the day they are humans. Just like you and me. And everyone, no matter who you are, deserves happiness. They deserve to be unconditionally loved by another. Stef and Lena are in the trenches; they’re standing side by side with each other, and with us, as we all experience this thing called life. More specifically, they are beacons of light for those of us in the LGBTQ community. I’ve spoken to other individuals in the community who have said that if Stef and Lena were around when they were younger that their coming out may have been different. That having a family never really came into their thought process; they weren’t given a representation to say that it was even a possibility. Yet they go on to say that having them now is just as important. Stef and Lena teach us that love is profound and knows no boundaries. That your love, is your love. That my love, is my love.
“The thing is, if you’re taught to hide what makes you different, you end up feeling a lot of shame about who you are. And that’s not okay.”
I spent a good part of my teenage years attempting to “play straight.” I was concerned that my attraction to women was wrong or a phase. This was misguided infatuation that I’d grow out of. I believed this because this is what I was told by countless different people. So, to avoid the risk of bullying or rejection, I tried my hardest to “play straight.” But what I didn’t realise was this just fed the feeling of shame I would face in the future and that the longer time went on and the longer I lied to myself, the harder it would become and the more lost I’d be. When Morning After aired (ten years after this experience of mine) and Lena shared her experience as a gay woman with Jude, (Hayden Byerly) who at the time was being bullied for wearing makeup to school, I was floored at the honesty and truth in this exchange. You know those uh-huh moments we all have? When the light bulb goes on and everything becomes clearer? Hiding who I was, was not okay. Hiding who we are is not okay. Not only are Stef and Lena members of the LGBTQ family themselves, but they consistently portray strong, guiding models of support and encouragement for the younger generation. They are parents. Mothers. They know the importance of being nurtured; that growing up in a household where who you are is celebrated not rejected is essential. That support, love and devotion to those you love – partner, child, or sibling – is priceless and could save a life. It saved mine.
“And what I love about you, is so much more than your body…”
When Stef was diagnosed with breast cancer this last season, she and Lena discussed the options (lumpectomy or double mastectomy) and how they should proceed. Add to that the remnants of hurt and betrayal felt after “Monte-gate,” these two women found themselves on a high level spin cycle. As gut-wrenching as this story arc was, what came out of it was a universal truth that we often forget. It was a reminder that we are so much more than our bodies. We are so much more than the clothes we wear, the size of our hips and the color of our eyes. In a monologue that won’t soon be forgotten, Lena assures Stef that it is her courage and her compassion, her laugh and her smile; that the qualities so insular to us and so unique are the ones of greater importance. Through this, we then learn just how far love and reassurance can go; how being present and “with” someone in the moment is enough to make them feel heard and comfortable; Comfortable to let the walls fall, to let the fears so deeply-seeded in ourselves go.
Not long after this and a double mastectomy, Stef and Lena navigated all the emotions and struggles an individual and a couple go through. Teri Polo delivered some gripping moments of self-consciousness and vulnerability post-surgery and with a perfect balance of humor and despair, Polo and Saum communicated how soul-cracking body image battles can be. That they aren’t the same for everyone. That circumstance and personal experience are contributing factors, just as much as social stereotypes are, in developing and maintaining one’s view of self. We saw that in such a poignant, beautifully crafted episode that showed Breast Cancer survivors unabashedly telling their stories that Stef uses the information to forge ahead with her journey. As a symbol of confidence, she cuts her hair short. And upon the reveal to Lena, Stef admits that it her internalized homophobia that played a part in not making the change sooner. Not only that, she had been struggling with what people would think of her without breasts. I cannot begin to imagine such an ordeal, but what this moment did is resonate with viewers who have ever felt held to a specific standard or predisposed stereotype of how they should look or act. Only recently did I decide to get an undercut – a haircut some may say is synonymous with lesbians. But so what? I didn’t want to cut my hair to make myself “more lesbian.” I wanted to cut my hair because I was finally confident enough in myself and who I was to take this leap. Again, Lena and Stef became the vehicle that drove home the importance in loving one’s self. Every little part that makes us who we are – our hair, our hearts, our brains, our motivation, our goals and our dreams.
“What the hell do I care if people think I’m butch; because they have an idea of what a woman is supposed to look like… I want to look, how I want to look.”
Kismet. A singular word that describes just what Teri Polo and Sherri Saum are. Without them, Stef and Lena cease to exist. From Teri Polo’s most recent work throughout the breast cancer arc to Saum’s soul-reaching performance in Mother both are individually phenomenal and also collectively powerful. As an aspiring screenwriter and lover of all things television, the life and breath these actresses give to the words is next level. Their ability to go from sarcastic, cutting remarks to depth-defying proclamations of love is what makes their relationship on-screen one of the most revered. Teri communicates a vulnerability in Stef so physical and subtle in nature with Sherri communicating a thought, a feeling with just her eyes. Polo and Saum have a commitment to these characters that is unquestionable; a devotion to illustrating their roles as mothers, LGBTQ members and humans undeniably genuine and their respect for one another as artists is unparalleled. There is no doubt I am avid fan of “The Fosters,” but when it comes to the work of Saum and Polo as Lena and Stef it is a respect, it is applause and it is thanks.
Behind these characters is a phenomenal creative team that has delivered “The Fosters” to us week after week for three seasons. Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige have created a family, a support system and a community. It is a safe place, a warm bed. Joanna Johnson, you’ve inserted so much truth and visceral nature to Stef and Lena that myself and the entire Fosters Fam thanks you. And the writers, what can I say? Between the moments of sheer joy to sarcastic little quips to monologues that envelope us in ways we feel like we’re there with you. No writing team deliver more honesty and undeniable family chemistry than you.
Stef and Lena gave me, and I am sure a number of individuals, belief. It was a belief that one day my sexuality won’t define who I am. It is a belief that marriage, a family and a cohesive (yet at times in turmoil) unit is in my future. It is a belief in a love so deep and profound that the scariest of life’s challenges won’t come close to breaking it. Stef and Lena gave me the last piece of courage I needed to speak my truth and to, regardless of any negativity, forge a life for myself I had not been able to live. Stef and Lena are a shining example of the types of representation needed more on television. It is a testament to Teri Polo and Sherri Saum and the work they do to create an honest, respectful and undeniably human relationship that leaves ripples every single week. “The Fosters” have excelled in offering visceral depictions of life events that everyone – no matter your gender, age, sexuality or race – can relate to. Stef and Lena are women, mothers, professionals and protectors. They are in control yet frantic. They are strong and vulnerable. They communicate and they fight. They are fundamentally human; imperfectly perfect.