How 'Younger' Is Capturing Sexual Fluidity on TV

Younger -Ep. 404 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of TV Land

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the Aug. 2 episode of TV Land's Younger.]

When Molly Bernard first auditioned for the role of Lauren on Younger, a note given to her by creator Darren Star signaled there was more to the character than met her eye. Her six-line audition scene centered on Lauren's reaction to the main character Liza (Sutton Foster) having "a bush."

Bernard initially played her 20-something character's response as disgusted — highlighting the generational difference between Lauren and Liza, the latter who was 40 and posing as a 20-something in order to land a job in the publishing world she had left to become a mother years ago. But Star told Bernard: "What if Lauren's reaction is also filled with wonderment?"

In that moment, "I realized Lauren is completely non-judgmental and is a unicorn of a person," Bernard tells The Hollywood Reporter of the character that now, four seasons later, has expanded from a recurring role as Kelsey's (Hilary Duff) best friend to a series regular and key member of the show's ensemble cast. Lauren also happens to be sexually fluid, something that was expressed early on in the first season when Lauren's parents (played by Kathy Najimy and Josh Pais) commented on the unpredictability of her sex life. "Lauren, even by her parents, is accepted as a pansexual and not as a straight woman, which I just love. That was all laid out pretty early for her."

But Lauren's sexuality hasn't defined her as a character, something Star also set up from the get-go. Wednesday's episode saw post-breakup Lauren "oozing sex" and leaning on an ex-lover and now friend, Maggie (Debi Mazar), as her wing-woman. After breaking up with her boyfriend Max (Ben Rappaport), Lauren announces that she's looking for a woman to tend her briefly broken heart. 

"Lauren is a fluid pansexual female," the actress explains of her character's intention to get over a man by finding a woman. "There's no preference. She doesn't skew gay or straight, she just skews Lauren."

The reminder that Lauren is sexually fluid is intentionally subtle. Though Lauren is exploring her sexuality, she doesn't struggle with it — a representation of bisexual and pansexual characters that is rarely seen on TV. "I just love the idea of a sexually fluid character where it's just part of who she is," Star tells THR of Lauren, a character that he says was influenced by Bernard landing the role. "She has zero judgments about it, her parents have zero judgments about it, it's just a parcel of who she is. People in their 20s now have a greater sense of sexual freedom and have grown up with a lot more openness in terms of how they see the world, and they perceive gender and sexuality. Lauren and Younger reflect the world."

Despite the groundbreaking portrayal, Star says he never set out intentionally to blaze a trail. "I just think of it as trying to write an authentic character," he says. "Whether the characters are two women, two guys or a guy and a girl, the emotional value doesn't change. Emotions in terms of relationships are the gray area. Sexuality and gender are never an issue."

In fact, the writers room is more often debating the gray area between Liza's romantic relationship with her boss Charles (Peter Herman) than where Lauren's sexuality will take her. "We have a pretty queer room, we’re very aware," Alison Brown, a veteran writer on Younger, plainly tells THR. Max was simply too "boring and safe" for Lauren, and they were never meant to last. "Lauren is a multi-faceted character. Her sexuality doesn't eclipse the rest of her character and that's just what it's like to be a bisexual in real life. What I think is really cool about this is that we don't make a big deal of her sexuality, and neither do any of the characters." 

Brown admits that the lack of representation on TV for sexually fluid characters is frustrating, and she doesn't have a good reason as to why. "I feel like there's still a lot of criticism of bisexuality, people think you're promiscuous or really gay but not willing to admit it," she says. "I'm thrilled to be on a show where we're talking about this. For whatever reason, now is the time that it's in the conversation."

For Bernard, the past few years of playing Lauren, along with her role on Amazon's Transparent and friendship with co-star Nico Tortorella (who plays Liza's love interest, Josh, and who is sexually fluid), have further ignited her desire to demand acceptance. In a chat below with THR, Bernard, who doesn't put a label on her own sexuality, discusses Lauren's season four journey and the need for more visibility: "The way that she views the world, sometimes I borrow."

How was Lauren's sexuality initially described on Younger and at what point did you become aware of her fluidity? 

Very early on, in episode four or five of season one, a couple of different things happened. Lauren was attracted to this guy at an art opening that her friend is also into. There's this whole scene where Lauren calls dibs on the guy and her friend makes a comment that Lauren calls dibs on everyone. Two episodes later when my parents are introduced, the beautiful, glorious Kathy Najimy says, "Oh she'll sleep with anything so she doesn't count." I think Darren really loves Lauren, and I know the writers have a special place for Lauren because she's just so over the top. They can put anything in the script as long as Lauren says it.

What were some of the conversations you had with Darren and the writers about getting her right?

It was just accepted that she was who she was and that we were going to go with the flow. Now we have conversations, but in the early days we didn't. It was my first job out of grad school and to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I was simultaneously afraid and excited for every piece of material that they gave me. I had no choice but to play Lauren full-out. And now, thank God I got to play this wild character because everything else I've done after Lauren I do on as large a scale as I can. She requires nothing short of full commitment.

Darren Star described Lauren as sexually fluid, and Alison Brown said she is pansexual because "I don't see her discriminating against anyone who she was interested in." How do you describe her sexuality?

I think she's pansexual. I also think she’s fluid. So she's a fluid, pansexual female. She identifies as a woman and she loves being a woman, but she is not straight and she's not gay. I don't think she identifies with either and therefore falls into the category of fluidity. I don't think she's necessarily going in between men and women, but I think she's attracted to, basically, human. There's no preference.

Why does that make her so relatable to 20-somethings?

She's relatable for so many different reasons. She's relatable for her sexuality, because she's kind of breaking the box open. And she doesn't struggle with it. What she does struggle with in terms of her identity are things like, "Am I basic?" She struggles with feeling a little bit trapped in a heterosexual relationship where she's not sure if he's for her — Max is super straight. She identifies more with the size of her experience in the world, and I think that has to be inspiring to watch because it's really inspiring to play. I have anxiety issues and other emotional issues and she's worried about if what she's doing in the world is limiting her. It's a good view of the world and a good way to experience the world. I also think she's really inspiring to young people because she really does love herself and she's not a judgmental person. She's really curious and excited and there's no self-loathing. That is fucking inspiring. Here is a character on TV who is by definition, perhaps "struggling with her sexuality," but she's not. She's comfortable with the unknown and with moving freely between male identifying partners and female identifying partners, and that's such a gift.

How does that make her relatable to you?

She is a big part of my life and so the way that she views the world sometimes I borrow, because it's healthy. She is very wealthy, born in New York and raised probably in the West Village, so she has a different set of worries and can afford to be free. The best way that Lauren has impacted my life particularly with sexuality — I have a potty mouth and I'm probably the one in my girlfriend circle who will talk about my wax. I don't mind being gross. But Lauren is interested in female pleasure and her pursuit of pleasure. I have actually thought a lot about Lauren and her evolution, if she ever reaches her 40s or 50s, and how she has a conscience about sexuality and a deeper understanding about gender, pleasure and maybe eroticism. She's just a fuller creature. When you're playing a character on TV, of course you play the scene that is in front of you, but you also have to think about what this person thinks about before they go to bed and their insecurities. So that scene when I breakup with Max, I think it's about her losing the security of a relationship, but that particular kind of relationship isn't what she wants and that's a big and important moment.

How do you describe your sexuality?

I describe it one of two ways. A lot of my friends joke that I'm the straightest gay person they know, and some say I'm the gayest straight person they know. I have boyfriends, I skew pretty straight, but I would love to date a woman. If I fell in love with a gorgeous perfect woman, it would be easy to ride off into the sunset with her. That would be a ball. I also am very deep in the LGBTQ community. It's a complicated question. I was on Fire Island a couple weeks ago and this adorable lesbian told me I was cute and I said, "Thanks, so are you." She asked if I was gay or straight and I said neither, and she said, "Great, give me your number and let's hang out." So there's one way to answer your question.

Would you say that openness and exploration is a theme of the season, especially as Younger digs into more of the ensemble characters?

The stories for the supporting characters are a lot richer and there's just more of them. I wasn't anticipating receiving all of this wild stuff to do. This season has been so intense because everyone has wacky stuff to do — with Liza and Charles, which is hot, but everyone is up to no good. Having affairs and having fun and struggling, and it's why we watch. With long serialized television shows that last for more than four seasons, we watch for the characters. Now that we're lucky enough to be in our fourth season, that's happening more and more. People watch for the relationships. The fact that Maggie (below, with Lauren) comforts Lauren when she's broken up with Max and that Lauren's head is in Maggie's lap, that just gives me such hope. Not many people have a friend group like that. That blows my mind.

Why do you think we see so few pansexual or bisexuals portrayed on TV?

The visibility part of it is exceedingly important. It's so important that there's a character on TV where it's a non-issue. That nobody talks about or makes fun of her sexuality. It's very rarely a discussion, it's just a part of who she is and she's loved and accepted. To have that as a role model for folks to know that there's a cute redhead in her 20s on a TV show who has no problem being both. And she's having a ball and has a group of friends supporting her unconditionally. Sometimes TV is about wish-fulfillment and I think we watch to see what other people do in circumstances that we might be in or have been in, and she's killing it. Younger is not Girls. They're not struggling. It's not that kind of show.

Nico Tortorella is very open about his sexuality. Have you spoken to him to research Lauren, and has your role on Transparent also helped you to play her? 

Yes, are you kidding? Knowing Nico has helped me understand fluidity and helped me play Lauren. Sometimes I swear I'm just Lauren playing Nico. As far as opening my eyes, Transparent is an amazing set. Despite the fact that I play young Shelly (Judith Light), who is very straight, you'll see an amazing story in the upcoming season four finale with Shelly and young Moura (Jeffrey Tambor). Being on that set is unbelievable, and I've learned so much about the trans community, visibility and acceptance because that set really demands it.

Before filming everyday there is a cast and crew building exercise, "The Box," where everyone stands in a circle and anyone can say what they're grateful for or thinking about. It’s a heart-opening exercise. People talk about how coming to the show every day is giving them a purpose and they love how the visibility of the show is helping to change the world. This one guy got up and said, "I realized that because of you guys — this show and this crew — that I used to think that being strong was being hard, but I realized here that being strong is actually crying and being soft and figuring out there's way more to it than the tough stuff." And he started to cry over the vulnerability he witnesses being on set. That a cis white dude who has probably never met a trans person in his life is now working on the set for four years and his whole life has changed because of that is amazing. We were all in tears at 7 a.m. and then had to shoot for 14 hours.

How many episodes are you in of the upcoming season of Transparent?

There is so much amazing stuff this season and there are a lot of flashbacks from the kids' childhood. I'm in four or maybe five episodes. Young Shelly comes back this season — she's showing up. I was filming both shows at the same time. There was one episode where I didn't and then the rest I was back and forth between the two shows for about six weeks. There was one day where I wrapped Younger on Wednesday night, took a redeye, got off the plane, got driven right to Paramount and started shooting Transparent. It was nutty. 

Will we continue to see more of Lauren's romantic life this season on Younger?

No. You see a lot of Josh's romantic life. With Lauren, what happens is you get more intimate with her work life and her drive. There's a great moment for Lauren coming up in episode nine. Something happens with her career and I love that they gave me that great breakup scene and then this, because Lauren is wild and goofy and a pansexual on TV, but you see her deeper meaning. You see she's unfulfilled in that relationship and in this moment, something happens where she realizes she won't let herself fail. She's a full, driven, fucking strong woman. And she identifies as that. Four seasons in, that helps me to identify with her. I'm a careerist and have unreasonably high expectations and it was very cool to know that I shared that with this woman. It's an empowering show about ladies.

Have you wrapped your head around being an icon for the LGBTQ community?

I don't know that I have! I love meeting fans. I love the LGBTQ community so my desire is to be in it, to be an ally, to be and advocate, especially in this presidency and the times we're in right now. We're on a show that really makes people feel good that’s not super hard to watch, and I love that the community loves it. What I love most about Lauren is there's really no one on TV like her right now — or I'm not watching enough TV — and that's the best part. She also, so much more than pansexual, she's a looney toon. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing a cartoon character, and I love it. And then they give me these other moments and these really hard heart things happen, and we see how she navigates it. She really marches to the beat of her own drum, and those are the kind of people that I'm into.