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The Fosters tackles the pressure women face to be either smart or pretty

We’ve always known that The Fosters has been a groundbreaking show, what with the two gorgeous gay moms raising a passel of foster kids. What we didn’t expect was to see them address personal identity issues beyond sexual orientation and to do it so perfectly.

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Last night’s The Fosters saw Jesus’ ex-girlfriend, Emma, struggle with her identity. No, this wasn’t another sexuality struggle. Instead, she found herself torn between being the smart girl in the geeky trivia club or the pretty girl in the dance club. She’d spent time wrestling, P0WN3D the kids on the academics team and could tear it up on the dance floor. Yet because kids are mean and ages of gender bias and an overwhelming desire to categorize people was weighing heavily on her shoulders, she was convinced she couldn’t be all of those things.

That struggle isn’t something made up for TV, like the time Michelle was scarred by teasing about her big feet on Full House. Our culture’s need to put people in neat little boxes is very real and very widespread. Any girl who has read a Baby-sitters Club book has witnessed that firm sense of categorizing people. Kristy was the bossy tomboy who never wore dresses, Claudia was artistic and, of course, eccentric and Mary Anne was the shy, bookish nerdy girl. Those roles didn’t change, even when Mary Anne got a makeover and started wearing makeup. And remember Little Women? Even if you never read Louisa May Alcott’s tomes dedicated to the March sisters, one view of the movies left you with that same sense of forceful categorization of personality. Jo was willful but smart, Meg is beautiful and motherly, Beth was shy and quiet (and, ultimately, the weakest in health) and Amy was artistic and self-centered. Their hobbies never overlapped. They rarely had things in common, except for the love of Laurie and their penchant for playing make-believe in the attic.

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Any girl who grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s understands the struggle everyone, especially girls, faced when trying to decide who they wanted to be. Nowadays, Top 40 radio plays everything from rock and rap to country, all on the same station. In the late ’90s, radio stations chose to segregate their music and, because of this, kids were forced to choose what musical subculture they’d take part in. Would you wear JNCOs and a Korn T-shirt? Would you rock baggie jeans and Jordans? You had to pick just one.

The Fosters challenged all of that last night. After joining the dance team, Emma felt slighted by the boys after they refer to her as “actually a girl,” and when she misses out on heading up social media for her accelerated program, she feels the slight comes because no one believes she can be that smart if she’s on the dance team. As adults, we now know the idea of firm, hard lines between between being pretty and smart or girly and athletic are complete bullshit. We can be successful writers and sexy girlfriends. We can be caring, compassionate mamas and badass bitches in a courtroom. We can kill it when we play Jeopardy, but still be a “woo girl” on Friday nights at the bar. Emma spent the episode learning that very lesson: that she can be pretty, tough and smart all at once and that it didn’t take anything away from any of those traits — it only added to the beautiful person she is.

Props to The Fosters for pulling Emma out of her box.

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