Queer Love Is Not So 'Atypical' After All
This Netflix show illuminates the struggles of queer adolescent relationships.
Posted February 17, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
“It’s just sometimes a thing, like…feels so right.”— Casey, Atypical character, as she holds her best friend Izzie's hand for the first time.
This Valentine’s Day, I found myself reflecting on what it’s like to try and love others while young and queer. A perfect jumping-off point for the topic is Netflix’s Atypical, which released its third season in the Fall of 2019. While the show centers on Sam, an autistic teenager and his journey through relationships, family, and school, his sister Casey's emerging queer identity bubbles to the forefront of the show in Season 3.
This show has been dubbed a part of the "Queer TV Revolution," as the depiction of queer characters is on the rise (in addition to its important place in the visibility of autism in pop culture). And let's not underestimate the power of representation in TV; for many now adult queer folks, we didn't see ourselves on the screen when we were adolescents. The show Atypical even helped the star behind Casey, Brigette Lundy-Paine, to come out as nonbinary.
There's power in what young queer people see on screen and Netflix's Atypical begins to redefine what is 'normal' for teenagers by adding to the growing body of adolescent LGBTQ representation. It's good for teenagers' mental health to see themselves reflected on the screens we know they love.
Here are five elements of queer teenage relationships Atypical depicts well.
1.) Relationships can be confusing (and hard) when you're a queer teen
There's a subtle reality running beneath this show slowly as Casey leaves behind her long-term boyfriend Evan to make way for Izzie, her best friend and track teammate: finding, navigating, and sustaining love is messy and confusing for adolescent queer folks, especially if they haven't yet figured out they identify on the LGBTQ spectrum to begin with!
We see Casey, Sam's younger sister, left to grapple with her sexuality in the wee hours of the night in her small bathroom by herself. Evan and Izzie lay asleep in her bed, Izzie clearly frustrated by Casey having a boyfriend, while Evan is (initially) blissfully unaware. Casey can't sleep, her adolescent agony over this love triangle in full swing. Any queer person who spent time in the closet crushing on their best 'friends,' whilst trying to have a boyfriend, can relate to this scene.
2.) The closet can take a toll on teen health
Casey is just waking up to having feelings for another woman and her parents have yet to catch on. And like many young queer folks, Casey doesn't have anyone to walk her through it. It becomes so stressful for her she ends up in the Emergency Room with appendicitis and is mostly in the closet. This isn't an exaggeration; it's well documented that living in the closet can lead to physical health issues.
Casey and Elsa (the mother) have a contentious relationship and while Elsa picks up on something being off with Casey and wonders if the appendicitis is due to stress. Their relationship is disconnected and contentious, at best. It's clear Casey is not going to open up to her mother about her sexuality. Casey's left to a tiny bathroom in her room where she pensively sits in the middle of the night, torn between her boyfriend and her closest friend — a young queer person's dilemma as old as the beginning of time, I might add.
3.) Teens' consciousness about their sexuality takes time to develop
What's interesting about the show is the witnessing of the emergence of Sam and Casey's own awakening to the idea that they are 'atypical' within their smalltown Connecticut standards. Arguably, Sam, clearly diagnosed with autism, is more aware and self-reflective than Casey in this regard. Sam's been told his whole life by Elsa that the world is not set up for him; he seems to understand, on some level, he's not 'typical.' Casey's understanding of her differences in sexuality drags us through almost three seasons of agony waiting for Casey to leave her boyfriend and be with Izzie.
Sam's honesty about the struggles of dating is endearing — he doesn't pretend to know for a second what he's doing. He knows he needs help with dating and is often baffled by his girlfriend, Paige. (And understandably so, Sam is overwhelmed by sensory input but Paige never seems to stop talking). He enlists his best friend, Zahid, to teach him the 'rules' of the heterosexual dating game, which he feverously takes note of.
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But part of what unfolds is Casey's own awakening: She, too, is 'atypical' in her own way, her queer consciousness slowly waking up.
4). Queer teens need support they don't always get in coming out
Casey doesn't have someone to turn to with her dating questions. Casey needs the 'dating rulebook' as much as Sam, but queerness might not be included in the rules of straight dating (heteronormativity) Sam is learning to abide by.
This is a real struggle for young emerging queer teens — who can they talk to? How can they 'figure out' our their sexuality? Who can they turn to when questions begin to emerge and will it be safe? What does it mean if they are 'atypical?'
Notably, while there are scenes of the parents, Elsa and Doug, talking to Sam about his dating needs, the parenting conversation around Casey's sexuality and relationships is largely absent from the show. But this leads me to my final point:
5.) It can be hard to talk to teens about their sexuality
Sure, times are changing and parents are increasingly having conversations about sexuality with their children, but it also doesn't guarantee teens will reciprocate parents' best efforts. It also brings to light a simple truth: Parents (still) have a hard time talking to their kids about sexuality.
The parents in Atypical are also navigating their disintegrating marriage after one affair (and another that seems to be brewing in retaliation) and are largely unskilled at helping their children navigate the questions emerging about their bodies, their sexuality, and their desires for closeness in relationships.
Burdened by their own dysfunction, helping Casey navigate her way out of the closet seems like more than Doug and Elsa bargained for. Elsa's busy lighting mattresses on fire, closet smoking to heal from her affair and emotionally distant husband, and overprotecting her son on the autism spectrum.
Ready or not, teens need support
Atypical is a heartfelt attempt at illuminating queer adolescent's plights to navigate the ever-elusive world of relationships. It asks my favorite question when it comes to human psychology and relationships: What is 'normal,' anyway? Is Casey's plight to discover her sexuality and explore this budding romance with her best friend 'atypical' or quite normal, after all?
But it also begs the question: How do we equip our teens for love? How do we talk to adolescents so they'll trust us when difficult questions come their way?
Well, I may not have the answers today but Atypical brings a much-needed conversation to the forefront on supporting queer teens as they navigate relationships, love, sexuality, and romance. And ready or not we may be for their quests for romance, teens need our support.