In the pilot of Ilene Chaiken’s seminal series The L Word, one can view almost every lesbian stereotype known to woman. Androgynous womaniser Shane parties all night on the lesbian scene, sports dyke Dana is struggling with coming out to her parents, Alice fends off biphobic comments from her lesbian friends while navigating her extensive ex-girlfriend baggage and – in questionable taste – long-term partners Bette and Tina try to trick a man into an unprotected threesome so Tina can become impregnated with his sperm.
This year marks a decade since The L Word first debuted on Showtime in the US. It was a trailblazer at the time – although Ellen Degeneres had come out on her self-titled show in 1997, and Willow fell for Tara on Buffy in 2000, 2004 marked the first time a show had focused exclusively on lesbians and lesbian relationships. Over a long six seasons, The L Word became inextricably embedded in Western lesbian culture; it is hated and loved, offensive and progressive, terribly written and utterly engaging. (Perhaps most notoriously, The L Word’s opening theme music is roundly condemned as “the worst of all time”. Think this is a big call? Listen to it.)
Over the ensuing ten years, we’ve seen a proliferation of lesbians in Western television serials. Spencer and Ashley of South of Nowhere came to our screens in 2005, we met Santana from Glee in 2009, 2010 brought both Lip Service and Emily from Pretty Little Liars. Then, with 2013 and beyond, The Fosters, Faking It, Orphan Black and Orange is the New Black brought an unprecedented – albeit still small – number of leading queer female characters to television.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Where We Are On TV report provides an annual analysis of the representation of LGBT people on television in the US. The 2014 report shows four per cent of regular characters on US broadcast television are gay, lesbian or bisexual, with the remaining 96 per cent straight. Women – queer and straight alike – lose out to men when it comes to representation, with a 60-40 gender split. Unsurprisingly, people of colour lose out to white people as well: 27 per cent of regular characters were people of colour, including 13 per cent black and eight per cent Hispanic. These figures are telling – even predictable – but there are obvious issues associated with quantitative measures of representation; the portrayal of a character is manifestly more important than their existence alone.
As such, there are many aspects of lesbian culture passed over by GLAAD’s report. We know the number of lesbians on screen has increased since The L Word. But who are these lesbians? What are their ages, their life situations, their desires? And – importantly – what part, if any, of their sexuality is highlighted?
High school narratives have constituted one trend in lesbian TV portrayals over the past decade, including shows South of Nowhere, Glee, Pretty Little Liars and, most recently, Faking It. While the lesbian storylines of the former three all revolve around the discovery of sexuality in a heteronormative environment and a subsequently difficult coming out, Faking It is a clear outlier. Set in a progressive Austin high school where the outcasts are the ‘cool kids’, Amy and Karma pretend to be in a lesbian relationship in order to become more popular. However, their plan goes awry when Amy actually falls for Karma.
Before you protest – yes, it sounds terribly clichéd – the show outdoes its premise, and actually serves as something as a clever inversion of a regular coming out story. Having already come out as a fake lesbian and won the admiration of her peers, Amy is left scared only of her own feelings and how her most trusted friend will react to them. Her predicament highlights that coming out to oneself – regardless of external pressure – is a difficult part of grappling with sexuality as a teenager. (Although Amy’s mother is non too pleased at her daughter’s revelation, her discomfort is used more as a tool for comedy rather than a genuine interaction with the issue).
While lesbian high schoolers have popped up consistently over the past decade, lesbian families are less common. The L Word saw Bette and Tina’s child Angelica – the result of endless conversations about sperm donors, turkey basters, custody, co-parenting and every other possible dramatic lesbian parenting scenario. In other shows, lesbian parenting is barely touched. However, the strongest show about a lesbian family currently in production is undeniably The Fosters. The soap revolves around lesbian couple Stef Foster and Lena Adams, and their motley collection of biological, adopted and foster children.
The Fosters touches on issues of coming out and homophobia, but also on race and, in particular, family identity. In the first episode, foster child Callie reacts rudely to the discovery her new family has two mothers:
“So you’re dykes,” she says.
“They prefer the term people, but yeah. They’re gay,” says Stef and Lena’s adopted son, Jesus.
Jesus’s offhand response carries through to the rest of the show, in which Stef and Lena’s sexuality takes a back seat to just about everything else in their lives – a much more accurate portrayal of adult lesbian life than the sexuality-centric The L Word. Stef and Lena’s lesbianism is not the most interesting thing about them, and the writers of The Fosters acknowledge it.
There remains a serious dearth of butch lesbians on television, with strong femme identities preferred by networks and creators. Butch dykes transgress normative lines of not just sexuality, but also gender, making them a risky – and perhaps genuinely forgotten – choice for mainstream broadcast and cable program characters. Even with this in mind, the continual absence of such an enormous lesbian subculture is somewhat remarkable. Teen shows especially steer clear of portraying butch lesbians, preferring to give their lesbian characters a sporty (Emily on Pretty Little Liars), headstrong and aggressive (Santana on Glee) or vaguely tomboyish (Amy on Faking It) persona instead.
Soft butches Shane in The L Word and Sam in the Scottish serial Lip Service are the closest thing we saw to a butch lesbian until Lea DeLaria appeared as Big Boo in Orange is the New Black. DeLaria – a self-proclaimed “big dyke” – has BUTCH tattooed prominently down her arm and has spoken extensively about her identity as a butch lesbian in the media. However, the mere existence of Big Boo can’t be taken as an immediate positive – in some episodes, she verges on being sexually predatory – and butch dykes remain a bizarrely underrepresented group.
The past decade has seen enormous shifts in the way lesbians are portrayed on TV. Although The L Word remains dear to many lesbian hearts, some of the writing in that show was unforgivable – the undignified portrayal of trans man Max Sweeney, for one, and the entirety of season six, for another. It was steeped in stereotypes, thick with unbelievable drama, and showcased an array of characters who constantly lacked the ability to make good decisions. But ultimately, The L Word set the foundation for myriad lesbian shows to follow.
Where will the next decade take us? Perhaps the best indicators lie in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. In this lauded show, there is far less ‘coming out’ than past lesbian shows have indulged in, sexuality is expressed both through conversation and physicality, and diverse representations of lesbians abound, including lesbians of colour and a transgender lesbian. If other recent lesbian shows are anything to go by, these trends will continue – each new show less of a trailblazer than the last.