Peter Paige, the Co-Creator of 'The Fosters,' Is the Best Kind of Storyteller: Empowering Young People Through TV

(Peter Paige, Co-Creator and Executive Producer, "The Fosters." [Freeform/Craig Sjodin])

This post was co-authored by Bryan S. Rosenberg, a doctoral student in the Sociology of Education program at NYU Steinhardt.

Peter Paige is a storyteller. In front of the camera, for five seasons on Showtime's American version of Queer as Folk, he was the proud, unapologetic, loyal, and loving Emmett Honeycutt. These days, Paige tells stories from behind the camera as the co-creator (with Bradley Bredeweg) and executive producer/showrunner (with Bredeweg and Joanna Johnson) of The Fosters, an empowering, poignant, and successful family drama now airing its third season Monday nights on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). The Fosters tells the story of Stef and Lena Adams Foster and their lives as mothers of five teenage children: a mix of biological and adopted kids (via foster care), a multi-racial family facing the same combination of mundane, exhilarating, terrifying, and joyful moments experienced by most parents and their kids.

Peter Paige also is politically engaged and an active, vocal advocate for LGBTQ equality. He is a longtime Board member of the Los Angeles LGBT Center and is enthusiastically and visibly involved in supporting the work of the Center.

Paige tells the best kinds of stories: the ones that pull us into seeing the world in a different way, that draw us away from our couches and warm our hearts as we rewind and replay them over and over again. We remember how Emmett navigated his relationship with a closeted professional football player, and we tune in now as Paige helms a show that features two 13 year-old boys - best friends - flirtatiously throwing around a baseball and locking pinkies at the movies (Jude + Connor = #Jonnor, for those who don't know. They became friends when popular-kid and athlete Connor showed his support for new-kid-in-school Jude by painting his nails the same color blue that Jude had been teased for wearing to school).

The way that Paige brings storytelling and politics together is never accidental. He is a firm believer in the potential and capacity of art and pop culture to give way to social justice and the power of a story to change hearts and minds. In our conversations with him for our book on the connection between pop culture and LGBTQ social change, we have felt like we're talking to another nerdy academic (and we mean this in the best way!) who spends his days thinking about the power of story, media, and social change.

As The Fosters returns to season three after its fall hiatus, we were thrilled to have another chance to talk with the always-generous Paige. This time, we focused the conversation on the way that the show connects with young people and showcases their power and their agency, and on the way the show builds communities in our digital age. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited a bit for flow here).

Bryan and Lisa: One thing that's fascinating to us is the way that young people (especially) are combining their consumption of TV, as kind of an old medium, with their use of social media. How do you think young people are using TV these days with this show?

Peter: That's a really interesting thing. I do think it is an incredible social event that's happening with young people. They don't just watch TV. They tweet about it live when it's happening, and that sort of seems to authenticate the experience on some level. I understand that. We just talked on the telephone when we were watching TV. I would just literally be, like, doing my homework and have the radio on and have the TV on and would be on the phone with my best friend and we'd be like, "Hey did you get number 16?" and "Oh my god, oh my god, what just happened?!" So I definitely think that social media is just a more streamlined runway to a bigger audience and to likeminded people.

I think so much of adolescence is about finding your tribe, and what kids today have that we did not have is access to the whole world. So you can be alone, you can be a freak in your high school or in your junior high, but you can go home and turn on your favorite show and go "hashtag The Fosters" and suddenly be like: "Look, there are people out there that think like me, who value what I value, who want what I want out of my life." It's sort of a great thing that has come of all this: that TV doesn't have to be an isolated experience where I sit at home alone on my couch. Instead, I'm engaged in conversations with other people who share my interests.

And not only engaging in conversations with people who share interests but also with the people who are creating the work, like the actors and you. There's now a two-way communication around the show. That's really new.

Oh, yes, entirely new. It's hard sometimes. I'm not going to lie and say it's all so great. At times it's like, "oh ... I don't want anymore feedback. Please stop complaining. We've got a long game. We're trying to make this work, and just because your ship couple didn't get enough screen time this week please don't get on social media and yell at me." It can be frustrating that I will get, I'm not making this up, two tweets back-to-back: "You're ruining your show because there's too much Brallie. #TheFosters," followed by the tweet, "You're ruining your show because there is not enough Brallie. #TheFosters." So I can't win. Those are the times I want to run away and not be on social media anymore!

Can you talk a little bit more about the community-building that happens through social media and the show and how you've seen it work?

I mean I'm on Twitter every single week. It's sort of like being a playwright standing in the back of the theater. You get immediate feedback about what's landing or what's not, and we try very hard to try to not let that dictate our creative choices, but it is fascinating, satisfying, and sometimes upsetting to see how things are landing, how they're being received.

In terms of community: There's a lot on our show that generates that. Moments like "Blue for Jude." I think to myself: Wow, that's an amazing thing. That's a beautiful, powerful thing that people got on board with, where a little bit of genderqueer in everybody's life wouldn't be such a bad thing. And that took off! I can't tell you how many blue fingernails I've seen in the past few years. I think our social media team hashtagged it #blueforjude. Our social media team puts hashtags up during the show and that was one of those that really caught fire. Our social media team is so engaged and present and relentless and really enjoy what they do, and they're a big part of all that.

We've talked a lot before about your faith in art and pop culture. Can you say a bit more about how you see art and pop culture impacting social and political change these days?

I still very much believe that entertainment, in this day and age and in this culture and probably in every culture, is a profound tool to talk to people. I think television, in particular, is really powerful, because it has this ability to get into people's homes, where their defenses are down, to week after week reaffirm the humanity of people you might not initially think you identify with. I think it's been a huge part of the LGBT movement. Huge, huge, huge! There's still a lot to do. But, without Ellen, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and The Fosters - without those moments - we are at least ten years behind where we are today. And I think, right now, the diversity conversation and the success of shows like Empire and How to Get Away with Murder and The Fosters, we're seeing that people are flocking to stories about diverse people and diverse lives and the kind of notion that we're all one world, one planet, and we're all human and yet we need to accept and celebrate the differences in our experiences and honor the places that we've all come from and come out of and the stories that make us who we are. I think it's the most exciting thing that's happening on that front in this moment in time.

Specifically with respect to racial diversity?

Partly, but it's not just that. You're also seeing a diversity of age happening. There are stories about older people being told in a way that they've always been predominantly invisible. Race is obviously the big one, the hot button one right now, and it's certainly important that we're talking about it. My position of white privilege is that I thought things were getting better, but to be confronted largely through storytelling and media that that's not the case has been powerful and eye opening for me.

Have you gotten feedback about that on the show with Stef and Lena - their relationship and their racially diverse family?

We get a lot of positive feedback. Particularly earlier on for the show, people were coming up to us and saying "I never thought I'd see a family like mine on television," either from an LGBT point of view or from a multiracial point of view. That's certainly something we're very proud of and pleased by. But we've also talked about colorism and we've waded into some very interesting waters. We did a racial profiling story on the show with AJ and Mike, and it's definitely not something we're afraid to talk about. I think we're very thoughtful about the way we talk about it. We want to make sure it's the truth, and it's grounded in reality, but we think it's important.

Do you have conversations with the cast about these concepts and ideas as you're preparing to shoot or run through scripts?

Not generally. They're all really cool, engaged, progressive people, so they tend to light up around that stuff right away. Similar to the fact that it was no accident that I ended up on Queer as Folk, it's no accident that these beautiful people ended up on this show. Their spirits really light up around these ideas and this sense of family and diversity, and all this stuff seems to speak to who they are as human beings. When we do, when we were doing early Jonnor stuff, we would certainly talk to the boys about why the story mattered.

Both the actors who play Jude and Connor, Hayden Byerly and Gavin MacIntosh, have talked a bit about their growing sense of responsibility and growing sense of comfort being allies in the characters they play. Do you have any other favorite stories about the young people on the show: How they've developed as actors or people through their roles?

All of the young people are engaged. They like using their work to say something about the world and they like seeing how the work is impacting people real people in the real world. That's meaningful to them. I think it helps them sometimes when they're like "ugh, another 'poor Callie' story," and they understand how people take it in and it changes a lot of them. I said this to [the actors who play Lena and Stef] Sherri [Saum] and Teri [Polo] right after we cast them: "You know, you're about to get on a train where you're about to become powerful advocates for LGBT people." And it absolutely has happened. Teri said [to me], "I can't believe it took this show to bring out this person in me." And she is ferocious now, which I love.

In watching the show develop over the past three seasons, we're struck by how the show really focuses on young people as agents in their own lives and as people who have decision-making power and the ability to really understand their lives and make changes in their lives. What do you think this means for young people as they are watching the show?

I was certainly a kid who believed he could make a difference in the world. I was, as a young person, cooking up plans. My hero is Billie Jean King, and the thing that I find so impressive about Billie Jean is that she took something as banal as playing tennis and used it to change the world. She really did. It taught me this great lesson about passion and placement of effort and, you know, that you can combine the things that you enjoy and love and are good at, and, with a little bit of focus and direction, you can use them to have real social impact.

That's why I was so grateful that Queer as Folk happened the way that it did and yet not surprised by the fact that that's where my big break came as an actor. And that's why The Fosters matters to me and to Brad [Bredeweg] and why we put our energy into it. If we're going to create a TV show, we might as well make it about something.

One of the things that became apparent to us very quickly when we put the show on the air: A lot of foster kid stories started coming our way. People reached out to us. People put us in contact with foster kids. We had foster kids come to the set to observe and have lunch, and we would talk to them about their own lives and what they wanted to do when they grew up. Almost to the person, every kid in the foster system wanted to be either social worker or a lawyer. They want to fix things for the kids behind them in the system. Those are the two routes that they see as having power and control over their lives. So it's something we felt like Callie would come by very honestly. She's not a great advocate for herself, but she's always been a great advocate for Jude or for the girls from Girls United. You're seeing that in action for Callie. She's building kind of a life's mission, in the way that so many of us are trying to define our journeys in our adolescence.

So it is something I believe that young people have. I believe that young kids have agency and can make a difference in the world.