This fall, in their annual “Where We Are on TV” report, GLAAD declared that LGBT visibility was at an all-time high — a pronouncement that left us scratching our heads at AfterEllen.com, wondering if we’d missed something. And then we got to the subsection on gender and felt that familiar pang of marginalization: “Lesbian and bisexual women are … weakly represented with female characters making up less than 30% of all LGBT representations.”
30 percent doesn’t sound too bleak, until you consider that there are only 76 total LGBT characters on television. Of those, 22 are lesbian or bisexual. And of those 22, only four are lead characters.
But 2010 wasn’t all bad for lesbians on TV. We saw an upswing in positive lesbian visibility on reality TV. Favored real-life lesbians Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, Jane Valez-Mitchell and Suze Orman continued to dominate daytime and news ratings. And the United Kingdom shone through with a banner year for queer women on the telly.
LEAD CHARACTERS ON SCRIPTED TV
Four lead lesbian and bisexual characters survived the 2010 TV season.
Callie and Arizona (Sara Ramierz and Jessica Capshaw) from Grey’s Anatomy were the only two lead queer characters on our radar going into the fall season. Their relationship endured milestones, mayhem, murder, and even the age-old Will They/Won’t They Have a Baby trope. They broke up because Callie was resolute in her desire to have kids and Arizona was resolute in her reluctance. They made up in the season finale after a lunatic gunned down half the employees at Seattle Grace.
However, the current season of Grey’s hasn’t been so kind to them. The couple broke up when Callie refused to follow Arizona on a philanthropic move to Africa — but all signs point to a reunion when Capshaw returns from maternity leave in 2011.
Two lead queer characters in 2010 took us by surprise. The first was Dr. Elanore O’Hara (Eve Best) on Nurse Jackie. Dr. O’Hara has been a source of stability (and sexiness) in Jackie’s life since the show’s inception, and this season she was revealed as bisexual when her on-again-off-again girlfriend Sarah Khouri (Julia Ormond) made an appearance for three episodes. TheLinster declared them “the hottest couple on the small screen,” and even promised that their union was blessed by Jesus himself.
The other lead character that amazed us this year was Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) from ABC Family’s summer breakout hit Pretty Little Liars. Like most American teen shows we’ve been subjected to in the past, we expected Pretty Little Liars — and Emily’s rumored bisexuality — to be a momentary diversion. Instead, Emily’s struggle to come to terms with her feelings for her female friend(s) has been poignant and, frankly, soul-nourishing. And it’s only going to get better. Unlike in Sara Shepherd‘s novels, the TV series is going to explore Emily’s sexuality fully when it returns in January.
While we lost two lead queer characters in 2010 — Ella (Katie Cassidy) from CW’s Melrose Place reboot and Claire (Hayden Panettiere) — it is hard to mourn their absence. Both were only ever involved in Sapphic dalliances during Sweeps weeks.