“Melissa & Joey” attempts to tackle rights for teen lesbians

Someone must have been jonesing for some classic ‘90s sitcom action when they created ABC Family’s Melissa and Joey, but there you have it. Melissa Joan Hart plays an Ohio politician who, after a family scandal, adopts her teenage niece and nephew Lennox and Ryder, and becomes affectionately known as Aunt Mel. When balancing work and teenagers gets to be too much, she hires a nanny, or in this case, “manny.” Enter Joey Lawrence, sans signature hair and telltale “Whoa!”

This week’s episode throws queerness into the mix when Lennox and her friend Phoebe decide to attend their school’s dance together after neither has been asked out. It’s Aunt Mel’s idea, as she exclaims, “Why don’t you just go with each other? I used to do that all the time!” (Clarissa and female bestie Olivia DuPris crash prom? How did I miss that one!)

Not long after the girls’ decision to take each other as dates, Ryder lets Joey and Mel know that according to Facebook, rumor has it that Lennox and Phoebe bought a couples’ ticket to save money, but what it really means is that they’re totes gay.

Cue Joey and Mel’s concern and slight panic.

When Lennox comes home from school, Aunt Mel rushes to her side to ask how she’s holding up. After a moment of blank expression, Ryder cues his sister: “The gay thing.” Apparently Lennox simply finds it amusing. Mel quickly asks if everyone isn’t being cruel to them. “Hard to tell,” deadpans Phoebe (the librarian glasses, the brooding expression —could she be a sapphic player yet?), “it’s high school.”

At least they’ve got their lesbian stereotypes down: Lennox, thrilled to be considered gay, says to fake girlfriend Phoebe, “Let’s go get tickets to Lilith Fair and watch some WNBA action!” And Mel for her part knows what comes next, happily putting together the pieces that what with a fake gay niece and all, she’s sure to be on Oprah.

The plot thickens when the principal bans Lennox and Phoebe from attending the dance as girlfriends. Lennox is set on a path of righteous anger, not even which her Aunt Mel’s pleas to stay out of trouble can contend with. Lennox asks if Mel cares about gay rights or not, and here Mel makes the truest statement of the episode: “You don’t have any gay rights. Not until you experiment in college.” Amen to that.

Lennox’s sisterhood-is-powerful-even-when-you’re-pretending bubble is burst when Mel later “outs” Lennox as straight at a press conference at which every reporter has shown up to ask Mel about her gay niece.

She comes home and confronts Aunt Mel with a sour pout, saying that calling her straight has cost her all her cred at school. “I was the rebel political lesbian,” she laments. “Everybody wanted to talk to me. And now, poof! I’m just another girl.”

Strange but true. The episode ends with fuzzy recognition that Lennox and Phoebe will still attend the dance together. (Joey says he will drive them, in true manny fashion.) Otherwise, we’re left with a slightly bizarre plot on fake gay teenagers and harassment, weirdly enough at a time when real gay teenagers and harassment are in the headlines. Poor timing or a weird attempt to bring up gay issues? There’s something I’d like Melissa to explain, even a little.