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Freeform Summit Was a Breath of Fresh Air That Ranged From Intersectional Feminism to Mermaid Sexuality

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Amid the hustle and bustle of the recent Television Critics Association press tour, where networks tout their latest shows and big plans, the Freeform network (formerly ABC Family) decided to do something a little different, and as their new network motto touted, “a little forward.” Instead of a staid presentation and screenings, they hosted the first ever Freeform Summit, a night of conversation between leading voices—not just from the network, but from social media and the industry in general. It was a bold choice, and it paid off in a lively night where the discussion ranged from intersectional feminism to mermaid sexuality. The overall message was Freeform cementing its place as a network where diversity and progressive storytelling, geared towards a savvy and liberal millennial audience, is not just an afterthought, but the core of their brand.

The evening began with perhaps the most moving and inspiring moment of the event, as Freeform President Tom Ascheim introduced the summit with an extremely personal story. He recounted his own millennial daughter’s coming out to him, and her insistence on how much seeing herself represented in media was nourishing for her, and a way to feel less alone. It was powerful to see an executive from the older generation internalizing and actualizing the idea that representation matters, to young people and minorities across the spectrum, and the summit was very much focused on the idea that change and representation must be seen and that media can lead and shape the conversation around important issues.

The first panel was entitled “Millennials Are Destroying All The Industries” and included a variety of speakers, from model and philanthropist Karlie Kloss, and Katie Stevens of The Bold Type, to Teen Vogue’s former editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth. The panel discussed how millennials are redefining success, not just in the entertainment industry, but for themselves and what they want out of life. The blockbuster quote of the panel came from grown-ish Executive producer Kenya Barris, that “millennials and woman are destroying everything … because they need to be destroyed.” Sharing in the spotlight was grown-ish star Yara Shahidi, who wowed the audience and panel alike with her poise and discussion of wanting to see not just millennial or minority characters on-screen, but multi-dimensional ones.

Another theme of the panel was that millennials have redefined the media because now everyone has a voice and a story, through social media or other platforms. Everyone has the power of the pen now, Kloss and others agreed. The entertainment industry is catching up, especially at a place like Freeform, where the powers that be are acknowledging that these are stories that need, and deserve, to be told.

The second panel, on “Understanding and Cultivating Love On and Off Screen,” turned the focus to telling stories about men and women in a more genuine way that didn’t simply reduce women to love interests, or their stories to just love stories. The discussion encompassed the stars and writers of the new series Alone Together, Esther Povitsky and Benji Aflalo, expounding on the fact that they wanted to depict a platonic friendship on-screen between a man and woman, something that is so rare. Joanna Coles, author and content officer, emphasized that in real life, one must have many full and complex relationships, and that people need that to thrive.

However, the panelists also discussed that there is a tension between depicting what is healthy and what is entertaining. Pretty Little Liars producer Marlene King made the distinction between aspirational and inspirational relationships and characters, and the panel agreed that media cannot always show what people should be, but should show what people are, even at their worst. I was very pleased with the acknowledgement of this tension, as it continues to be a dialog in media regarding when something is a good story that should be told, even if it depicts odious behavior.

This theme was carried over into the next panel, “Exploring the Narrative without Exploiting It,” which focused on the portrayal of LGBT characters and stories. Panelists noted that Freeform had been very supportive with telling most LGBT stories, only intervening when it came to a character’s age for a first kiss. Panelists included sexologist and author Shan Boodram, who lamented that sex education for LGBT young people is nearly non-existent, and for many queer young people, the only affirmation of their identity that they receive from any authority figure often comes from the media. Not only does representation matter to members of minorities, but as Fosters EP and former Queer as Folk star Peter Paige expounded, it matters to others because once we are seen; we can’t be dismissed.

The panel also recognized that one instance of representation is never enough, and that there is always room for more. Elliot Fletcher, a trans actor portraying The Fosters’ first trans character, discussed how it was wonderful that he had this exposure, but lamented that there are still barley enough known trans actors to count on one hand, and none are people of color. It was refreshing and inspiring to see these discussions taking place in an environment supported and fostered by a network, rather than just on a Tumblr post. To see The Bold Type star Aisha Dee say that she saw the bisexual subtext in her character from the first script, and to know that subtext was paid off, was a refreshing change when, for so long, unacknowledged subtext was all queer audiences could find. The focus remained on the story, however, and that these stories are worth being told.

The final panel was a preview of Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger, debuting June 9. After sharing a sneak peek, the cast and creators discussed adapting the new series. The takeaway from this panel emphasized what had been a theme for all these panels: that the important aspect of this series is not that these people are superheroes, but that they are people with complex and important stories to tell. This is true for character of color, women, LGBT characters and so many more. It’s not just about being seen on-screen for a moment; it’s about exploring the interesting and challenging aspects of these characters’ lives and, by doing so, giving the audience something to look up to and learn from.

To see a network make this ethos the core of their brand gave this writer quite a lot of hope for the future.

(image: Freeform)

Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.

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