We’re celebrating AfterEllen.com’s 10-year anniversary this week, and today we talk to the site’s founder and original Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Warn. Sarah tells us what inspired her to launch the site a decade ago, weighs in on the most notable changes she’s observed since then and fills us in on her latest endeavors, including building mobile games with lesbian/bi characters. Old habits die hard!
(left to right) Sarah Warn, Lori Grant, and their nieces Kyra, Madeline and Gabrielle
AfterEllen.com: You launched the site 10 years ago this week. Was there any single pop culture incident that inspired you to create AfterEllen.com? What were you doing at the time career-wise?
Three things really motivated me to start AfterEllen: the fact that it was so difficult to find any information on lesbian/bi TV and movie characters online and in entertainment magazines; the sexism within the LGBT press online and offline, which translated to covering gay men far more than gay women; and the desire to do something with all the useless trivia I had in my head about queer women in entertainment.
It was a strange, limbo-y time for queer entertainment. Ellen DeGeneres‘s sitcom had just been canceled, and she was in that Hollywood pariah stage where she couldn’t get any work, but at the same time, The L Word was just being announced, Melissa Etheridge was out and doing well, and there were some good movies with lesbian themes in the works.
As for the name of the site, I just thought it would be a nice way to honor the significance of her coming-out on the show and in real life. I had no way of knowing at the time that Ellen would have this big comeback and become a much bigger star, that was just luck.
AfterEllen.com in 2002
AE: What were you were watching back in 2002? Were there any particular shows or films that you thought were making a positive difference? Were there any specific networks or individuals who were on your s–t list at the time?
Evan Rachel Wood and Mischa Barton in Once and Again
The pregnant lesbian storyline was frustrating me, as was the lesbian/bi woman-as-killer theme that was so popular in movies at the time. Fortunately, the latter trend has died down a bit.
AE: What do you think have been the biggest/most important changes that you’ve seen take place over the last 10 years in terms of how lesbians/bi women are represented in pop culture? Anything surprise you for the better (or the worse)?
The portrayal of bisexuality has improved a lot. Where it once used to signify a dangerous or unstable character, there are now bi characters like Brittany on Glee, whose sexuality is just not a big deal. Bi women are still too often stereotyped as promiscuous or untrustworthy, though, and I hope this changes over time.
One of the most positive changes I’ve seen has been the increase in the number of prominent lesbian/bi characters who are women of color, like Kalinda on The Good Wife, Santana on Glee, Emily on Pretty Little Liars, and Callie on Grey’s Anatomy. When I started AfterEllen.com, the few few lesbian/bi characters on TV and in popular movies were all played by white women; women of color were always relegated to minor roles with no lines, with a few notable exceptions (Dark Angel, ER).
Jessica Capshaw and Sara Ramirez in Grey’s Anatomy
I think The L Word deserves some of the credit for this improvement, because although it wasn’t as widely watched as a broadcast network show, it really put lesbians on the mainstream press radar, and definitely pushed the envelope on what it means/looks like to be gay or bi.
The number of actors and musicians who are out now is really amazing, too, even if it’s still a potentially career-limiting decision. In 2002 I could name on one hand the number of prominent out actresses; in 2012, the plethora of out women in leading and supporting roles — like Portia de Rossi, Sarah Paulson (who was terrific in Game Change), Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Kirsten Vangsness, Jasika Nicole, Rachel Maddow, and of course, Ellen — is somewhat taken for granted, which is a remarkable change.
Other than k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, there weren’t a lot of out mainstream musicians in 2002, and now there are too many to count — including (finally) a country star. The internet deserves a lot of the credit for this, since it’s lessened the stranglehold the music labels have over musicians, and created so many new opportunities for musicians and bands to be discovered.
The internet has really changed the landscape for queer entertainment in general. It’s allowed audiences to find great gay characters on international shows like Skins and Hand Aufs Herz, as well as to learn about out gay/bi celebrities, athletes and musicians in other countries. It’s also provided a platform for queer filmmakers, actors, comedians, or just interesting lesbian/bi women with strong opinions to entertain the masses via video blogs, web series, and streamed indie films.
Ten years ago you really only had what the Hollywood movie and TV studios decided to give you, unless you were willing to work really hard to find alternatives — and there’s only so many times you can watch Desert Hearts!
AE: What are you watching on TV these days? What shows or celebrities do you think are helping lesbian/bi representation in pop culture most right now?
Bianca Lawson and Shay Mitchelle in Pretty Little Liars
When we don’t have the nieces, we’re watching shows like Homeland, Happy Endings, Fringe, Nikita, Downton Abbey, In Plain Sight, and Rizzoli and Isles. Basically, well-written shows with strong female leads. [laughs]
AE: What projects are you working on these days?
Gaming in general is still where TV and film was 10 years ago – male dominated and largely devoid of gay characters or themes (with some notable exceptions, like the Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Sims, and Fable games) and I’d like to do my part to help change that.