In 2005, a year after The L Word premiered on Showtime, it seemed like television might finally give lesbians a turn: Degrassi, airing on the N (now Teen Nick) had introduced out teen Alex Nuñez (Deanna Casaluce), who romanced none other than queen bee Paige Michalchuk.
That same year, the network premiered South of Nowhere.
The show followed 16-year-old girl Spencer Carlin (Gabrielle Christian), whose life was uprooted when her family moved from Ohio to Los Angeles. It addressed Spencer’s journey of sexual identity head on, as she fell for Ashley Davies (Mandy Musgrave), the bisexual daughter of a rock star.
While this storyline might sound commonplace in a post-Glee world, Nowhere was risky at the time: Not only was Spencer a minor struggling with her sexuality, but she was having sex—with another girl.
Teen sexuality has always been difficult for networks—how much to show, whether to reflect real life or set an example—but gay teen sexuality was practically taboo at the time. For queer young women, this was the closest they’d come to seeing to their own lives reflected on the small screen—and it was based on real life: South of Nowhere creator Tommy Lynch crafted Spencer’s character based on the friend of one of his sons, who had come out in high school and was struggling.
“Tommy was the perfect person to be an advocate for gay kids coming of age,” says out South of Nowhere executive producer Nancylee Myatt. “[He had] no agenda other than telling a relatable story. He’s a married Irish Catholic guy who raised a bunch of straight boys.”
Because the show was driven from an honest place with lesbian writers and producers, South Of Nowhere provided much-needed visibility for queer and questioning young women: In the first season, Spencer worked to figure out her feelings for Ashley. Eventually, she came out to her family and friends, and over the course of South of Nowhere’s three seasons, became proud of her lesbian identity.
Spencer’s coming to terms with her sexuality was tempered by her mother, Paula, initially rejecting her—a reality too many young LGBT women are familiar with. Later, Paula comes to defend her daughter against her own mother, and join the family at L.A. Pride, in an emotional culmination of her character’s story arc.
And Spencer’s relationship with Ashley (dubbed “Spashley” by fans) was as physical as any other teen romance on TV, if not more so. For the first time, two young women were sharing intimate moments, including the long-awaited episode when Spencer lost her virginity. The sex scenes weren’t watered down but they also weren’t gratuitous, and were always woven into the show’s storylines.
When South of Nowhere was canceled in 2008, Lynch released a statement addressing his love for the show and its fans.
“South Of Nowhere has been a great journey. A show like this could not have existed ten years ago on youth-oriented television or any television for that matter. … I have loved my experience with The N for having the courage and vision to air South.
I love the fans for allowing me to tell real stories about their lives… To create a show that touches the hearts and lives of a generation is a gift. Thank you for allowing me and Spashley into your hearts.”
Nearly a decade later, Spashley is still on the minds—and lips—of LGBT women: Christian and Musgrave reunited at ClexaCon, a convention for and about queer women in media and entertainment, held earlier this month in Las Vegas.
During their panel, Musgrave mused that, despite kicking open the closet door for shows like Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters, South of Nowhere really wasn’t ahead of its time.
“It was the only show that had a lead teen lesbian storyline,” she said. “I think it was necessary—so I wouldn’t say it was ahead of its time. I would say it was appropriate at any time. Maybe it should have come sooner.”
Even beyond sexuality, the show’s themes—interracial relationships, teen pregnancy, abortion, drug use and violence—still resonate. South Of Nowhere remains groundbreaking for its frank depiction of teen sexuality and its ability to move past the coming out storyline and into rich, textured storylines about two young women who just happen to be into other young women.
It was a weekly example of lesbianism not being taboo; a show that LGBT people could watch and feel normal and noticed, even if it was a glossier version of normal.
What dedicated fans find in South Of Nowhere is not just a love story—there was familial homophobia, struggles with self-acceptance, and trying to find out who you are among the chaos.
That can already feel impossible at 16, but try being a teenage lesbian.
Although fans were disheartened when South of Nowhere was canceled, their passion helped to spur “Five Years Later” webisodes, which saw Spencer and Ashely not only still a couple, but married and expecting a baby. In today’s TV landscape, where gay and bi female characters characters are often sacrificed (sometimes literally) to create more storylines for their straight counterparts, it gave the characters—and viewers—a real fairytale ending.
South of Nowhere Seasons One and Two are available on LogoTV.com