2004 – 2010
However, in 2004 Shortland Street did something unprecedented. They introduced a lesbian character and they kept her, front and centre, through good times and bad times, in sickness and health, for the next seven years. Show me another soap opera, from anywhere in the world that has done that? Anna Julienne played character Maia Jeffries, who moved to Ferndale from a stint in Australia, to take up the position of charge nurse at Shortland Street Hospital.
Arriving along with her was her partner Jay Copeland (Jaime Passier-Armstrong) who was initially planned to be a temporary character on the show for three months, but due to the massive upswell of support for the two characters amongst the viewers, Passier-Armstrong’s contract was renewed and Jay Copeland also became a central character for the next three years. During their time onscreen together, the couple were subject to all the typical soap opera storylines: they broke up, were reunited, argued, cheated, kissed, planned babies, went to bed together, and their big romantic civil union was screened on New Zealand television on Valentine’s Day 2006.
Jay cheated — with a man — and yes, Maia got artificially inseminated, with sperm from a dude who had feelings for her, and yes after they broke up Jay was murdered by a serial killer and the viewers mourned and raged. But this, after all, is Shortland Street. It’s truly what happens to everyone and lesbianism does not exempt you.
Maia continued on as a main character for the next four years, first kissing straight character Brooke Freeman (Beth Allen), then falling for a new nurse, Nicole Miller (Sally Martin). Nicole and Maia’s relationship was quite sweetly portrayed, and during Nicole’s coming out story arc, caused accidental offence to the city of Tauranga, when her character made an off-hand remark about her hometown being homophobic. Such is the influence of Shortland Street that Tauranga’s tourism board immediately felt the need to put out a press statement that Tauranga was in fact, extremely welcoming to gay people, while TV3 News interviewed various members of the local community absolutely enraged at the insinuation that they might not welcome any and all TV lesbians with their arms open wide, thank you very much.
In 2011, Maia cheated on Nicole with a new female doctor, Jennifer Mason (Sarah Wiseman), prior to her final exit this year. Nicole has continued on as a main character and is currently involved in a relationship with a man. However her character is still referred to as bisexual and she’s in good company; one of the very first gay male characters — Jonathan McKenna — has returned to the show after 15 years, causing huge outrage initially as he was rewritten as bisexual and dating a woman. His current storyline however, revolves around his attraction to a younger man. There is no need to panic you guys! This after all, is Shortland Street, where things turn on the flip of a coin, over and over again and that is precisely why we love it.
Maia and Jennifer
While the presence of queer characters on Shortland Street waxes and wanes, to my mind the show is still er, streets ahead of most soap operas across the globe, if for nothing more than the sheer number of queer male and female characters and the depth and centrality of their storylines. What strikes me is that if you’re a young queer woman in New Zealand, then ever since the early nineties there have been visible lesbian characters on the country’s most ubiquitous television drama; whether you’re of the Annie/Meredith, Caroline/Laura or Maia/Jay generation, there’s been someone there who reflects you. And that very simple fact saves lives.
This show is watched by school kids, their grandparents and by whole families after dinner, every week night at seven. It’s about a million miles from perfect and the storylines are usually entirely divorced from reality, but it constantly highlights to the nation that queer people are everywhere — falling in love, murdering people and having their sister’s partner’s children — just like everybody else.
Does anyone else remember when Carla killed Bernie, actually with a candlestick? When Rachel got drunk and called good Christian character Rebecca a slut even though she was dead and they were at her funeral? When Rachel was hit by lightning and it gave her temporary brain damage so she thought Nick was attractive, until she got zapped again by a faulty light switch and it cured her just in time before she slept with him? Did anyone else watch Lord of the Rings and say, out loud, in the movie theatre, Hey look, there’s Lionel, owner of the muffin cart?
Please share your favourite ridiculous Shortland Street moments and bask in your glorious Nuw Zullundness with me. You’re not in Guatemala now Dr. Ropata! Yeah, I miss you Shorters.
Thank you to AfterEllen.com reader Aquila whose blog and catch-up tips helped form this article.