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Grown-ish's Emily Arlook on her Bi Character Finding Queer Community

Grown-ish's Emily Arlook on her Bi Character Finding Queer Community

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The actress spoke with The Advocate about playing opposite Katherine Moennig and the evolution of queer characters.  

Recently, grown-ish, Freeform's breakout series about navigating friendship, love, sex, social issues, and -- occasionally -- grades, in college, leaned into its bisexual character Nomi's reputation as a player with a penchant for "straight" girls. The series tapped into prescient issues around biphobia, coming out, and slut-shaming in the process.

Now in its sophomore season, grown-ish just introduced Katherine Moennig -- who wooed a generation of queer women as the lovable lothario Shane on The L Word-- as a lesbian gender studies professor. Moennig's Paige not only mentors Nomi (Emily Arlook) on the psychology behind the young woman's aversion to intimacy but becomes the first character on the show to truly recognize and validate Nomi's identity.

With a wink and a nudge, in just a few scenes, grown-ish acknowledges that Ray Donovan star Moennig (who is forever associated with her L Word character) is passing a baton of sorts to a new generation of queer women and characters. But a moment between Nomi and her professor also speaks to something that was at the core of the L Word -- the importance of having a queer community.

"Let's talk gay woman to bi woman," Paige tells Nomi who's seeking advice. Without having to come out, per se, to Paige, the professor recognizes something in Nomi that her friends, no matter how well-intentioned, have not fully grasped.

"[Nomi] has this moment --and I haven't had this moment with her so far, which is why I loved it so much -- where she's totally seen," Arlook tells The Advocate.

"[It] is a watershed moment, because up to that point, she doesn't have a queer community," Arlook says. "She's really around straight friends. I think she's experienced a lot of bi erasure from her friends, where they don't really understand, and a lot of people diminishing her truth -- the truth about her sexuality."

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Emily Arlook and Katherine Moennig

Grown-ish, the spin-off of ABC's sociologically-searing comedy black-ish, follows the travails of the parent show's eldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) and her group of friends at the fictional Cal-U. Nomi has been unabashedly out about her bisexuality from the series' onset and has refreshingly bucked hackneyed TV tropes about bi people. The series has depicted her as having dated and hooked up with men and women, illustrating a breadth of experience for bi people in a television landscape that has tended to forget that bi people are attracted to more than one gender.

But it's revealed this season that Nomi, who is outwardly teeming with pride, is not out to her Connecticut-based Jewish parents, and that her revolving door of hook-ups with women who don't identify as queer may be a result of her reluctance to come out to her folks.

"Last [week's] episode says a lot. We knew that she hooked up a lot, but we didn't know that it was primarily with 'straight' women," Arlook says. When she goes to talk to Kate's character, the revelation of what that means -- of If I'm only hooking up with straight women, maybe that's a barrier. Maybe that's a way to avoid intimacy. There's no pressure for her to come out to her parents."

At 28, Arlook was in her early teens when the L Word premiered 15 years ago. Still, she says she was aware of Moennig, the show, and its impact on representation for queer women.

"I think I was in high school when the show came out, and I just remember how amazingly groundbreaking it was," Arlook says. "The fact that I get to work with her [Moennig] -- it's the coolest thing ever."

"She's who the character was written for, and the fact that she agreed to do it and she was available and able to do it... Having Kate is the win, and then that she does have her own audience and fan base --to usher them in and have them be aware of the [grown-ish] is the icing on the cake."

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For all of its revolutionary visibility, TheL Word was notoriously unkind to its bisexual characters -- its lesbian characters continually chiding them to "pick a side." And that's where shows like grown-ish and its sibling shows on Freeform including The Bold Type and the new Good Trouble are carrying representation further for a new generation.

"There's a lot of change that's happened since The L Word and the stories TheL Word has tackled. The realities of being a millennial and being bisexual -- it's a different time," Arlook says. "Nomi has a different story to tell."

Since taking on the role of Nomi, Arlook is attuned to the responsibility of portraying LGBTQ people. She has also spoken out about marginalization that affects bisexual people. Thoughtful representation of bi people "is a long time coming," she says.

"It's only right, and it's only fair, because, in the media, the most important thing is that we're able to see ourselves in representation," Arlook says. And the reality is that bisexual people make up the majority of the LGBTQ community, so why wouldn't that represented in what we see on TV and in film?"

Moennig's appearance on grown-ish is a nod to the evolution of LGBTQ visibility and Arlook's Nomi is a sign of progress in terms of portraying fully-rounded bisexual people. But she recognizes that there is even more room for growth.

"There's work to be done. The fact that with the bisexual characters that are portrayed on TV that the majority are women and not men," Arlook says. "The next frontier is probably having more male characters. That's the next wave."

Watch a scene between Arlook and Moennig below.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.
Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.