Back in the Day: The Lesbian Made-for-TV Movie

 
 

O'Connor did, however, make a few sharp-eyed observations about homosexuality on television. “If male homosexuals have had a bumpy ride in entertainment, lesbians have generally been treated with an ignorance, he noted. “When not lurching around toughly in somebody's conception of a butch dyke, they are likely to be menacingly psychopathic."

Given this track record, he found A Question of Love to be one of the best portraits of lesbianism ever made.

“Virtual saintliness is courted as Linda Ray and Barbara, superbly played by Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander, are portrayed as uncommonly sensitive people whose decency and intelligence are seemingly incomparable," he wrote, praising as well the fact that the movie kept all physical contact between the two women to the barest minimum.

But while the mainstream New York Times found A Question of Love to be an admirable television film, reaction in the lesbian media was less positive. In the Lesbian Tide, Bridget Overton wrote, “Gena Rowlands was the biggest disappointment. Badly miscast as the heroine, Rowlands' portrait of Linda Ray Guettner (Mary Jo Risher) lacked conviction and was an embarrassment. Her discomfort with the role was glaring."

On the contrary, Jane Alexander as her lover Barbara, did an outstanding job given the number of inadequacies surrounding her. Overton went on to criticize the screenplay, stating, “The interaction between the two women was repeatedly marred by contrived dialogue and mindless non-sequiturs, citing Linda Ray's line “I wish to hell I had never met you as evidence.

The contrast between the reviews in the New York Times and Lesbian Tide reveal a difference of opinion that often remains to this day. While mainstream critics feel that movies like A Question of Love represent progress — and they do, in terms of representing lesbianism to heterosexual audiences — lesbian critics write from an insider perspective that is skeptical of outsider (or straight) attempts at portraying lesbian culture. Though this position does draw attention to the fact that it is extremely valuable to have cultural products made from an insider perspective, it also loses sight of the broader perspective.

Before an insider from a cultural minority has the power to create something like a television movie, it is often friendly outsiders who help us do the work of progressing the cause.

Since 1978, lesbians and gay men have made much progress in Hollywood, both on-screen and behind-the-scenes.

The 2001 Lifetime movie What Makes a Family demonstrates both how far we have come and the limitations of the television movie genre. Based on the real-life story of lesbian mother Janine Ratcliffe, who fought for custody of her daughter after her partner died of lupus, What Makes a Family is fortunately much happier than A Question of Love, as Ratcliffe eventually did win custody of her child despite the fact that Florida did not, and still does not, allow gay adoption.

The film was executive produced by Craig Zadan, Neff Meron, Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman in their first collaboration after Serving in Silence (1995), the television movie about Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who was expelled from the military after coming out. This team, which has several openly gay members, also cast openly gay actress Cherry Jones as Sandy Cataldi, the lesbian mother who dies, and Whoopi Goldberg as the attorney who represents Jones' lover Janine in the custody battle, played by Brooke Shields.

In a review of What Makes a Family, the Washington Post observed, “This film has an agenda that is not hidden. The creators want you to feel sorry for these women, and angry at the laws that allow a child to be taken from her surviving parent. In that, they succeed. Despite the fact that praising a movie because it makes lesbian mothers seem pitiable is not necessarily the best sign of progress, the Washington Post's positive review and the positive press surrounding the movie when it premiered did mark change in the representation of lesbian parents on television.

Even though Cherry Jones' character died, Brooke Shield's character did win the court battle and was reunited with her child.

Since What Makes a Family aired, lesbian mothers have continued to battle for custody on television on programs like ER and Queer as Folk. Though this storyline is undeniably overused, it does still point to a major point of contention in the fight for LGBT civil rights in the United States.

Marriage is only the beginning, because as everyone knows, children come after marriage. Until gay marriage is fully legalized and every state allows gay parents to adopt their partners' children, expect a few more TV movies about custody battles. It would be nice, though, if they began to focus on gay men instead, and allow the lesbian motherhood storyline to retire.

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