“1600 Penn” Gives Us a Pre-Teen Lesbian Character to Believe In

At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Trish Bendix got a hot tip that Marigold Gilchrist, one of the teenage characters in NBC’s midseason comedy 1600 Penn, was going to come out as a lesbian. And she did. At the end of the pilot episode, after we’d been introduced to all of the other kids in the quirky First Family — the awkward but lovable Skip, the overachieving but accidentally pregnant Becca, the middle school prodigy Xander — Marigold revealed her sexuality without any fanfare. When her stepmom asked the name of the boy she had a crush on, Marigold simply said, “Jessica.”

1600 Penn has aired 13 episodes so far, and most of them have focused on Skip and Becca’s highjinks, but during episode five, “Frosting Nixon,” we did get to meet the object of Marigold’s affection. Jessica is the queen bee of Xander and Marigold’s prep school, and a shoe-in for class president, until First Lady/stepmom Emily steps in to run Xander’s campaign. Jessica obviously knows Marigold has feelings for her, but rather than mocking or deriding her, Jessica gives her a too-long hug that causes Marigold to confess the location of Xander’s campaign plans. Later, after she realizes Jessica exploited her, she dons a trench coat and picks Jessica’s locker and dimes her out to the school’s administration.

In episode 11, “Dinner, Bath, Puzzle,” Marigold comes out to Skip. Like the way she came out to her stepmom, her coming out is less of a confession and more of a nonchalant acknowledgement. When Skip tells her she’s too young to be reading Cosmopolitan, she says, “I guess. I just wanted to figure out how to get girls to like me.” Skip asks if she meant to say “boys,” and Marigold says, “No, I mean girls.” Skip rushes out of the room mumbling about how “all our bodies are changing” but comes back later to have a heart-to-heart with his little sister. His reaction marks the first time she wonders if there’s something wrong with being a girl who likes other girls. Awesomely, it hadn’t crossed her mind before.

Marigold: Did I say something wrong earlier?
Skip: No! No, absolutely not! I am so sorry. I never meant to make you feel that way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking girls. You know, I’m a huge fan myself. And it is really hard getting them to like you.
Marigold: Ugh. I know, right?
Skip: Tell you what, whichever one of us figures it out first promises to tell the other one. Deal?
Marigold: Deal!

While Marigold’s story is refreshing in its portrayal of young lesbianism, she and Xander have taken a backseat in the first half of the show’s season. But there’s a good reason to hope we’ll be seeing more of her. When Trish spoke to Amara Miller, who plays Marigold, at TCA, she said: “Definitely in the episodes later into the season, you really get to see another side of Marigold, with the relationships she forms with the other characters — because in the first couple episodes she’s just usually with her stepmom and her little brother and that kind of expands later on in the season.”

If I had to guess, I’d say Marigold is going to have a relationship with one of the super-smart mathletes she met a couple of episodes ago. She was all set to drop advanced algebra and focus on photography, but ten minutes of bonding with the nerdy girls, and she was back on the math train.

Overall, 1600 Penn takes a while to find its rhythm, and surprisingly, the show is at its best when it doesn’t focus on Bill Pullman‘s President Gilchrist. Josh Gad‘s Skip is weirdly endearing and Jenna Elfman as Emily Nash Gilchrist is sexier and more hilarious and energetic than we’ve ever seen her. And while Marigold hasn’t had a lot to do, the episodes in which she is featured really are a breath of fresh air. (If you’re looking to do a quick Marigold primer on Hulu, I’d suggest episode one, “Putting Out Fires,” episode five, “Frosting Nixon,” episode eight “Live from the Lincoln Bedroom,” and episode 11 “Dinner, Bath, Puzzle.”)

Are you watching 1600 Penn? What do you think of Marigold’s storyline so far?