How does “Casual” depict teenage sexuality?


Hulu’s Golden Globe-nominated comedy, Casual (2015), from executive producer Jason Reitman and star Michaela Watkins – who appeared as unforgettable supporting characters in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015) and Transparent (2015) – follows Watkins’ Valerie, a single mother who moves into her brother’s home with her teenage daughter, Laura. Valerie is going through a disastrous divorce caused by her husband’s infidelity, but the series is an ensemble piece that delves into the characters’ complex, interconnected love lives. We watch Valerie’s desperate, flailing attempts to find sexual fulfillment while her depressed brother, the creator of a dating site, attempts to make a meaningful connection with another person. Like many relationship-centric prestige shows, this is a work full of spectacularly messy, poignant, complicated adult relationships. What makes Casual unusual is the seriousness with which it explores the sexual and romantic feelings of Valerie’s teenage daughter, Laura.

The very first episode of the show features Laura having experienced, enjoyable sex with her high school boyfriend. Already, at the opening of the series, she is naked, confident and unapologetic. Even when talking about sex with her mother, she appears far more comfortable than the older woman. This introduction seems to establish Laura as unusually precocious and confident in her young sexuality. As the series progresses, however, instead of running with what could have been a joke throughout the series – the teenager more erotically bold and comfortable than the adults in her life – the show consistently complicates this portrait. While the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s well-intentioned over-sharing has created an early yet superficial erotic and romantic maturity in Laura, a self-destructive unrequited crush illuminates the vulnerable young girl’s confusion beneath her sheen of confidence.

Throughout the series, Laura’s infatuation with her photography teacher, Michael, and her unacknowledged sadness over her parents’ separation spurs a series of irresponsible decisions. After breaking up with her boyfriend, Laura makes calculated attempts to pursue her teacher: she requests one-on-one help, begins texting with him, and goes on a outing to shoot photos. In her boldest move, Laura ditches a party and drunkenly goes to Michael’s home, only to walk in on him hooking up with her mother. Michael’s insistence that he think of her only as a student and Laura’s feelings of betrayal toward her mother inspire destructive behavior, including running away to her father’s home and secretly making and disseminating a sex tape.

While Laura’s choices could seem deluded and outrageous, the show never condescends or criticizes. Laura is given just as much screen time as the adults in her life, so viewers are allowed to see her struggles and decisions in detail, with context. Her actions are never the random acts of rebellion of a hormonal teenager – instead, the audience intimately understands her pain and confusion, as well as her difficult position of being an unusually intelligent young woman struggling to figure out her sexuality without any positive role models in sight. Further, as part of a deeply empathetic ensemble story, this lack of positive examples is pointed out without demonizing the adults in her life. In the world of Casual, everyone is flawed, lost, hurting and, ultimately, redeemable. Where other shows might depict Laura as just another source of stress in her mother’s life, Casual offers a portrait of an intelligent teenage woman that is complex, nuanced and full of affection.