The first and only time I ever considered writing a fan letter was after watching series four of “Bad Girls.” I adored Simone Lahbib, who played Helen Stewart, and liked Mandana Jones, who played Nikki Wade. Helen and Nikki were my favorite characters on the show, and yet the letter would have been not to them, but to Siobhan McCarthy, who played the character of Roisin Connor. Roisin was a unique character in an unconventional scenario: a married mother of two imprisoned for trying to conceal embezzlement by her younger boss/secret lover Cassie Tyler (no backstory was ever given for how their relationship developed, and I’m still curious about what it would have been). While incarcerated at Larkhall Prison, Roisin cracked under the stress of being away from her children and her husband’s threats to take them and turned to drugs as a coping mechanism, eventually suffering a psychological breakdown before recovering and getting a happy ending with Cassie.
McCarthy played the role with depth and empathy, but equally impressive to me personally was that McCarthy was a stage actress who had played the first Donna Sheridan in the musical “Mama Mia!” three years earlier, in 1999. When I bought the “Mama Mia!” CD after seeing the musical on Broadway, it was McCarthy’s voice that sang out in the lead role: she’s part of the original cast recording, music you can still buy today on iTunes.
As a musical aficionado, I couldn’t have been more delighted at the intersection of two of my interests. I therefore wanted to express to McCarthy in a fan letter my simultaneous enjoyment of her work in “Mama Mia!” and admiration that she’d boldly taken on a lesbian TV role – during a time when actresses were still reluctant to take on such roles – and played the role well. I figured she probably didn’t get many such letters since the two acting spheres were likely to have different audiences and also because the Roisin-Cassie pairing wasn’t as popular as the Nikki-Helen pairing among “Bad Girls” viewers; maybe she’d appreciate an expression of thanks.
I never did send the letter, although I hope that other fans sent her supportive letters. Nevertheless, the experience sparked a more lasting interest in how the gay female community supports actresses who have played queer roles. Lesbian and bisexual women can be passionate, devoted fans while a show is on air. Fans of Kasia Borek, as just one example, who played Emma Muller on the German teen soap opera “Hand auf Herz,” once sent her care packages and postcards (which she would then take pictures with and post online–how cool is that?).
But although today sites like jemmatinernational.org remain minimally active and are tracking Borek’s post-HaH career, others such as the Jenny and Emma Facebook page haven’t been active for years. This pattern of intense fan interest followed by waning support is common for many other actresses who once played highly popular roles: once the role is over, women lose interest and their attention shifts to new actresses in new roles. It’s only the truly rare instances–Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor being the only ones that come to mind–in which the lesbian/bi community has continued to support the actress for decades after the character is no longer on the air.
How do actresses who were once warmly embraced by us, and are now largely forgotten feel? Do they miss the interaction and the support of their fans? Do they feel abandoned? Or what if the character they played never really took off with the lesbian community the way others have? Do they feel regret? (I’m thinking here of Leeanna Walsman’s Erica Davidson on “Wentworth,” who was cast off by the show after season one and the role of love interest to inmate Franky Doyle filled instead by Libby Tanner’s Bridget Westfall.)
In many ways, the support of our community is largely emotional vice professional. With few exceptions, we seem to lack the influence to help our favorite actresses acquire high profile onward TV roles, although the media scrutiny of Lexa’s death on “The 100,” for one, probably had a positive effect on actress Alycia Debnam-Carey’s brand profile. Still, emotional support is not to be discounted.
To the contrary, it must be nice to have supportive fans in times of both professional feast and famine, fans that become like friends over time through their unwavering support. (At a Xena: Warrior Princess convention, I once met some nice longtime Xena fans who told me that Claire Stansfield, who played Alti, had invited them over for tea several times.) For the actresses that want it, symbiotic relationships with fans are mutually beneficial and can require as little or as much investment as the actress wants.
For the fans, creating long-term support for fan favorite actresses is a low-cost and emotionally fulfilling way of showing appreciation. But while long-term support requires a minimal investment of time and effort, it requires thought and planning for sustainability. So how do we do it? Right now the cast of “Wynonna Earp,” for example, are single-handedly leading their own gay pride parade, but what happens once the show is over? How will we return the love five years, or ten years down the road?
At present, it’s up to each fandom to figure out its own approach to long-term support, but can we act in a way that transcends individual fandoms, such as by sharing best practices? Can we create a central repository that reminds fans on an annual basis to send out “thank you” Tweets or emails to actresses or shows? Or are all these questions moot because the shifting of attention spans an inevitable facet of fandoms that we should accept without fighting?
From @KatBarrell’s Twitter: A JOY reading all ur beautiful letters and opening #fanart❤️
I don’t have an answer. I want actresses who’ve played gay roles to feel supported, but the answer–whatever it ends up being–requires a systematic vice individual response. So what do you think, AfterEllen readers? How do we show the love for the actresses we love?