Now that Labor Day has come and gone, it’s time to say goodbye to the most jam-packed summer of lesbian TV ever. Over the last few months, there have been times when we were convinced we were living inside a fever dream of queer lady heaven. Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters, Under The Dome, Orange Is the New Black, Mistresses, Skins Fire, The Bridge, The Killing, Defiance, True Blood, and Warehouse 13 all featured lesbian/bi characters this summer — but it wasn’t all lesbian weddings and lady-on-lady makeouts. So, let’s take a look at the 10 things we learned during the summer of lesbian plenty.
1) It Gets Better
When ABC’s short-lived Sex and the City-style professional drama, Cashmere Mafia, premiered in January 2008, it provided us with one leading lesbian TV character on primetime network television. One. This summer, we saw 22 lesbian/bi TV characters on our TVs. Not all of them survived, not all of them inhabited fresh and exciting stories, but 24 — twenty-four! — of them existed. In five years, it really has gotten better.
2) Lesbians are still easy prey
Unfortunately, we lost a lot of good fictional women this summer to good ol’ Lesbian Death and Dismemberment Syndrome. Of all the lesbian/bi characters we started out with, four of them didn’t make it through the season. That’s a whopping 17 percent death rate, which is high even by minority visibility standards.
3) Killing lesbian/bi characters can mean equality is here
Three of the four lesbian/bi characters who died — Kenya on Defiance, Alice on Under the Dome, and Bullet on The Killing — were new this summer. None of them were killed because they were queer; none of them were introduced as one-dimensional plot points to advance the stories of other characters; and none of them were denied meaningful romantic relationships with other women. They were all well-rounded women who were on their way to being fully realized characters, and their deaths provided emotional anchors for their audiences, which means the writers were counting on the audience to root for them/identity with them in the same way they root for/identify with straight characters. It’s also notable that all three characters exist on shows where death is a major part of the narrative. Sometimes on TV, dying means equality.
4) But it also can mean hackneyed, cruel writing
The fourth character we lost this summer was Naomi Campbell from Skins to a form of malignant rapid-fire cell mutation that made Dana Fairbanks’ battle with cancer on The L Word look nuanced and authentic. Skins‘ writers brought back Naomi to kill her as a catalyst for drama for Effy, and then expressed disdain when lesbian/bi viewers were shocked and outraged. Unlike the three characters mentioned above, Naomi wasn’t a new entry into the fictional lesbian canon. In fact, her story had already been put to bed by Skins and iconized by queer women. She was more than an ensemble character in a new drama; she had become a symbol of hope and triumph in the years since her story ended. Sometimes you can find the courage to come out and get the girl! Sometimes lesbians do get happy endings! Noami and Emily’s happily ever after was as rare as a unicorn, and in all my time of writing about queer women on TV, the Skins‘ writers decision to bring Naomi back, parade her around, and then kill her is truly the cruelest thing I’ve ever seen.
5) Old tropes die hard
It’s not just the lesbian death trope that still gives us pause (though we are working to reprogram ourselves to contextualize each story of loss). One of the hardest tropes to swallow is the bicurious main character who experiments with another woman only to return to men after a cliched three-episode arc. We need more organic portrayals of bisexuality on our TVs, but we’ve been jerked around by ratings stunts for so long it’s hard not to assume we’re being played every time sexual fluidity enters the picture. So we watched Mistresses with a side-eye this summer. A hopeful side-eye, but a side-eye nonetheless — which, it turns out, was the correct decision.