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Lesbians in Primetime Television: Coming Out Is Not The Only Issue

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November 13, 2012

This post is part of a series about reproductive justice and the media done in partnership with Women, Action, & the Media.

Given that television’s primetime line-up consists of Glee, The New Normal, and Modern Family, it’s surreal to think that same-sex moments on television were once considered scandalous. But not too long ago, the mere rumor of homosexual content in a program was justification enough for a station to pull its broadcast. Even in the late 90s and early 00s, homosexuality was still very much a Wildean “love that dare not speak its name” in the television world. When “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen aired in 1997, numerous sponsors–from JC Penny to Wendy’s–dropped their support. A Birmingham affiliate of ABC refused to show the episode. In 2005, the US Department of Education discouraged PBS from airing an episode of the kids’ show Postcards from Buster simply because it featured lesbian parents.

By the onset of the 21st century, the Internet had made its way into many American homes. Blogs and other mediums for for queer media advocacy and critique were popping up online, becoming accessible to millions. Brother and sister websites AfterEllen and AfterElton were launched in 2002 under the tagline “Visibility matters.” This coincided with the premium cable network Showtime’s production of Queer as Folk and The L Word, two shows which predominantly featured LGBT characters. Between the interwebs and the availability of hot new programming, a shift occurred among audiences. Queer television aficionados began to realize that we could have a lot more than the meager scraps of airtime we’d been thrown by the major networks. We began talking about it, and people listened up.

The Other New Normal

After a decade of ranting and raving about visibility, things have vastly improved. We now have a handful of programs such as Grey’s Anatomy, Once Upon a Time, and Pretty Little Liars which feature female characters who also identify as LBT. To put this in perspective: Ten years ago in 2002, Will & Grace was the most reliable source of queer entertainment on the air and The Rosie O’ Donnell Show was in its final season. We’ve come a long way, babies!

According to this year’s GLAAD Network Responsibility Index (NRI), most major broadcast networks received “good” and “adequate” scores with the exception of CBS, which received a “failing” score (Personally, I’m already biased against this network given its refusal to can the sexist manifesto which is Two And A Half Men).

There is clearly more than enough room for improvement, particularly when it comes to lesbian, gay, and trans* women. According to the NRI, our representations take the backseat to (usually white) gay characters. Predictably, an even smaller number of queer women on television are queer women of color. Glee has been consistently lauded for being the queerest thing on broadcast television next to Ellen Degeneres dancing with P!nk, questions have been raised about its treatment of race and a lesbian relationship.

Furthermore, while the NRI delves into the amount of time gender and sexual minorities are featured on television, it fails to touch upon what they are doing during that time. In one hour of screentime, a hell of a lot can happen. A queer character could be murdered or fall in love; be a one-dimensional token to her straight counterparts or experience an epiphany which resonates with all viewers, queer and straight alike. Equal amounts of time spent on-screen does not necessarily imply that all storytelling is a positive representation of these characters.

Just as the opposite of visibility is invisibility, the opposite of fair representation is most certainly defamation. As we enter this new era of inclusive television, the way we critique media must evolve alongside programming. Can we see ourselves in these characters and their respective storylines? Can I see slivers of my queer experience in Callie Torres on Grey’s? What about Pretty Little Liars’ Paige McCullers? What’s more, how does this sort of visibility (or lacktherof) affect those with intersecting minority identities? People of color? The disabled? The elderly?

Under Rug Swept

There are also other issues with the way queer women are portrayed in primetime television. Way back in 2003, AfterEllen creator Sarah Warn called out networks for using sensationalist lesbian storylines to spike their Neilson Ratings:

Networks’ relentless drive for ratings have also been responsible for pushing television to make more progress around lesbian visibility on TV–prior to 2000, in fact, Sweeps weeks were often the only time you’d see lesbian themes on television. Even today, when there are more lesbian characters on TV than ever, Sweeps periods increase lesbian visibility on TV exponentially.

While it’s tempting to be grateful that we’re getting this increase in representation during Sweeps, the Sweeps period gives viewers a distorted impression of lesbian visibility on TV. Single lesbian-themed episodes of varying quality are not equivalent to ongoing representation with multi-faceted lesbian characters the viewers come to care about.

More often than not, bisexuality among female characters is not viewed as a genuine trait but a Sweeps tool to increase ratings; a mechanism to get a character to inevitably retreat back to men (or in the strange case of Alice Pieszecki in The L Word, women). Meanwhile in the real world, bisexual women are struggling to combat the very stereotypes that this sort of representation perpetuates: That women attracted to both sexes are promiscuous and will inevitably “choose sides.”

This tactic has become so prevalent in television that New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan coined the term “lesbian kiss episode” in criticism of the strategy.

Gender Issues

A common form of misrepresentation occurs when feminine gender roles are consistently reinforced, despite the fact that queer culture is far more complex the notion that pink equals girl and blue equals boy.

Over at Autostraddle, Kate raised the question: Why do all queer women on primetime television white and hyper-effeminate?

The media has its own reasons for staying away from butch representation, and maybe they’re legitimate ones. Maybe they’re afraid to tap into representations that could be construed as stereotypes. Maybe they’re afraid that showing a female-bodied person who is not conventionally attractive, whose body and expression is not still desirable to a heterosexual male and thus the mainstream audience, is too risky for ratings. Maybe a legacy of lesbians only appearing in stereotypical roles makes networks want to showcase queer women as being “normal,” and that definition of normal means making them look like traditionally feminine women. Maybe we are in a “post-queer society” where it doesn’t matter what queers look like, and we don’t need to show butch lesbians to represent queerness. Too bad that’s bullshit.

The New Lesbian Bed Death

Primetime television shows have become much more sex-positive since the days of Ozzie and Harriet. According to a 2003 Kaiser Institute survey, 2/3rds of all shows from 7 am to 11 pm have some sexual content. While that number has increased over the last decade, queer female couples on television may as well be sleeping in June and Ward Cleaver’s twin beds.

Simply put, we don’t see lesbians having sex on broadcast television, and rarely do they share simple acts of intimacy such as kissing or hugging. While, it remains to be seen if Pretty Little Liars‘ Emily Fields will ever get busy with her girlfriend, her friend Aria Montgomery is hooking up with her teacher in a bar bathroom. Glee‘s Santana Lopez and Brittany Pierce have been allotted a handful of “sweet lady kisses,” while their peers–gay and straight alike–have consistently hooked up, to the point of unintended pregnancy. Grey’s Anatomy viewers were privy to a McDreamy-Grey hookup within three minutes of the very first episode. Meanwhile, it took Callie Torrez and Dr. Erica Hahn a year to have sex–and even then, the sex was alluded to, never shown (this is a frequent occurrence in queer on-screen relationships; sex is hinted at having taken place outside of an episode and viewers are essentially told to leave it to their imaginations or use those pieces of innuendo as fodder for fanfiction).

Being critical of the disproportionate portrayals of queer women’s sexuality in the media is not biting the (network) hand that feeds us. It’s voicing that the standards for equality are evolving right alongside our struggles for marriage, gender, and sexual equality. If the reluctance to portray queer sexuality is a question of a network’s morality, then networks should also be just as critical of relationships where extramarital affairs and irresponsibility occurs between hetero characters. While problematic, I would at least be able to applaud their consistency.

I will be the first to admit that part of my desire to see these characters get it on is purely selfish. Sometimes, I just want to see a more photogenic and dolled-up version of myself having sex, just as my straight counterparts wait with bated breath each week to see their favorite characters express their desire for one another.

But this need goes much deeper than that. In the context of queer visibility, consistent depictions of intimacy are critically important because they take the wind out of the fetishization and thwart attempts at Sweeps stunts. I want to know that a storyline that piques my interests exists not to manipulate Nielsen Ratings, but because a program’s creators have their viewers’ and characters’ best interests at heart.

I want to see queer women having sex because I believe in sex-positivity. I want youth who are questioning their desires to know that they aren’t alone with the simple press of a remote control button. I want this because I’ve heard “Being gay is okay; just don’t throw it in my face” followed up with “So, how do lesbians do it?” far too often. I want this because, at the end of the day, equality is watching queer women get drunk on tequila, dance on tables, and behave like lovesick idiots just like their straight counterparts (looking at you, Meredith Grey).

When asked about his feelings about television, Steve Jobs once said, “I think it’s brought the world a lot closer together, and will continue to do that. There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything. The most corrosive piece of technology that I’ve ever seen is called television – but then, again, television, at its best, is magnificent.” I’d like to think we have the power to turn that which is corrosive into something much more conducive.

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