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Let’s Not Celebrate TV’s Lesbian Renaissance Just Yet

I’ve long considered Ellen DeGeneres to be the pioneer for the increased visibility LGBT characters have experienced on television in the last 15 years. But have we progressed that much? I’d argue no: queer characters are notoriously impotent and unaffectionate while their straight counterparts express their love and feelings toward one another more liberally. Not to mention that most queer characters — and when I say queer, I really mean “gay men” and “lesbians,” because there are not many well-written bisexual or gender non-normative characters on television — typically reinforce cultural stereotypes about the LGBT community. It’s a community, of course, that is also usually bundled together under the assumption that every queer person has the same struggles, feelings, and desires. 

So it’s hard for me to read a trend piece about the progressive LGBT characters on television without a very large chunk of salt. In response to a piece that ran on Vulture back in July called “Lesbians Are Having the Best Summer Ever,” this morning Slate’s Willa Paskin claims that lesbians are seeing a bit of a renaissance on television. “They’re now having a great fall,” Paskin writes before offering up her first piece of evidence: “Mulan on Once Upon a Time recently revealed that she was in love with Sleeping Beauty.” Well, that certainly underscores progress! But Paskin goes on to give some more examples that don’t read like Disney princess slash-fiction, with sapphic characters popping up on other shows like Betrayal, The Crazy Ones, The Good Wife, Dracula, Super Fun Night, and Two and a Half Men.

Paskin uses this trend as a launching pad for another conversation: “But you only have to compare the prevalence of lesbians making out on television to the dearth of gay men doing the same to see that the medium is far from a bastion of open-mindedness,” she writes, and that’s a notion with which I can completely agree. Except for cases like The Fosters, The Killing, and Orange Is the New Black, few of these lesbian characters seem like anything other than low-hanging fruit, meant solely for titillation. (And it’s hard to even compare OITNB to anything else on television, considering its “network” and the blunt way it deals with issues of sexuality.) Not to pit lesbians and gay men against each other, or to suggest some hierarchy of suffering here, but there’s a long history of the lesbian themes in art because, quite frankly, lesbians are quite a bit less threatening than gay men to straight men.

That’s why you don’t see many well-developed gay men on television, and especially why you’re not going to see, as Paskin hopes for, “the romantic, sexy storyline about Prince Charming falling for Hercules.” But the other major issue at play is that the mainstream idea of what a gay man looks like is very narrow: it’s typically a professional, well-dressed, cultured, upper-middle-class white man living in a metropolitan area. (Those are the gay men, after all, who are also most likely responsible for putting their own avatars on television.) Looking, a series that follows a group of young gay men in San Francisco, premieres on HBO in January. After reading the pilot’s script, I can attest that the characters are in a lower income bracket and much more diverse than the gay characters we’ve seen on television so far, but I have a feeling that the show will receive the same criticism that befell upon Girls (to which Looking has already been compared). The diverse community of gay men cannot possibly be represented by a group of five or six characters living in San Francisco, in the same way that Lena Dunham’s four girls do not represent an accurate cross section of all young post-graduate women, living in New York or in other cities.

But back to Paskin’s original point: lesbians are having a great fall. Are they really? Or are casual, cheeky, and bland woman-on-woman physical affections becoming more rampant? Are those relationships between women exploring anything about the lesbian experience, or are they just convenient ways to up the dramatic ante on primetime soaps or provide some hilariously awkward moments on network sitcoms? I’d argue that it’s more likely the latter, and that’s problematic. After all, Paskin argues that this exploration of female sexuality, at the very least, makes for good TV: “It’s not just that if you’ve seen one triangle you’ve seen them all, it’s that we have all seen literally hundreds of love triangles. There is very little that straight people can get up to, especially in the PG strictures of network television, that is new.” (I can’t help but take some umbrage with this sentiment. I’m glad we gays can add a bit of spice to your boring straight shows!)

I will argue that sexuality is fluid, and more so for women than men (whether there’s a physiological or cultural explanation for that is the subject for another essay), but visibility as tokenism or titillation is not the solution to television’s lack of diversity. It seems like with lesbian characters, this “renaissance” is really a quick, convenient, and totally insincere effort at examining what a large chunk of humans experiences. But is it progress? Hardly.

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