When Law and Order's
Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn was fired on this week's episode
of the long-running NBC drama Law and Order, no one was surprised:
the news of actress Elizabeth Rohm's impending departure from the series
after four years had been announced months before.
But almost no one was prepared for her final scene, in which Southerlyn came out as a lesbian.
Elisabeth Rohm (Angel, One Life to Live) joined the cast of Law and Order in 2001 as ADA Serena Southerlyn, and quickly became one of the show's more disliked characters for what was perceived by many to be her cold and robotic personality.
But she did have some fans, including many lesbian viewers who had their suspicions about Southerlyn's sexuality. Since the writers have offered few personal details about Southerlyn (or most of the other characters), this was only conjecture — until last night.
In the final scene of the January 12, 2005 episode ("Ain't
No Love"), District Attorney Branch (Fred Thompson) fired Southerlyn for
being too passionate and personally involved with her work, telling her she
would be better suited for advocacy work than criminal law. Southerlyn asked
"Is it because I'm a lesbian?" Branch replied "No,"
and Southerlyn responded "Good…good" before the screen faded to
black and the credits began to roll.
That was the end of the episode, and Southerlyn's career on Law and Order.
Law and Order is one of the most-watched series on television, garnering millions of viewers every week on primetime and in syndication. The series is also credited with launching the popularity of the procedural drama on TV, spawning a number of imitators in the last decade including two Law & Order spinoffs, which have also gone on to do very well in the ratings.
The series has been criticized, however, for its lack of openly gay and lesbian characters in the last fifteen years. There have been plenty of lesbian guest characters — either as victims, witnesses, or perpetrators — but no lesbians among its cast. Then rumors began to circulate last year that one of the ADAs would be outed, and we hoped we might finally get a lesbian on Law and Order — although not quite like this.
To out Southerlyn in her final scene on the series feels a little
like having your cake and eating it too: Law and Order gets to expand
its diversity of characters and lay claim to a token lesbian among its cast,
but avoid the ramifications of it because the character leaves the series immediately
after her sexuality is revealed.
Many viewersare likely to feel cheated out of the opportunity to see Southerlyn on the series as a lesbian character. Watching the series with the knowledge of Southerlyn's sexual orientation changes and enriches the viewing experience for many lesbian and bisexual women — both of the series in general, and of Southerlyn in particular — even if her personal life is never explored. In a world where lesbians are still rare on network television, just knowing a character is gay is important, and enough to keep many viewers tuned in.
The decision to disclose Southerlyn's sexuality during the
termination of her employment — rather than in a more neutral context — is also
problematic. While the information was imparted in the matter-of-fact style
in which Law and Order discloses all personal information about its
regular characters, introducing it for the first time in such a negative context — as
a possible reason for termination — subtly reinforce the association between
coming out as a lesbian and negative consequences.
Even if Branch indicated that Southerlyn's sexuality wasn't the issue (and we have no reason to think it was), the fact that the writers revealed Southerlyn's sexuality in the context of being a potential problem, with no scenes during the last four years with positive references to her sexuality to offset this negative association, leaves viewers with a negative impression of lesbianism overall — particularly given that Southerlyn is not the most popular character.
Whatever your opinion of Serena Southerlyn and
her outing, she is still a confidant, assertive character with a successful
career (her recent firing notwithstanding) who has been watched by millions
of Americans for four years. She may not be the warmest woman on the planet,
but Southerlyn is certainly not an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of a lesbian — no
small accomplishment given the parade of lesbian stereotypes we've seen
on network TV recently.
While the way the writers handled Southerlyn's sexual orientation certainly leaves much to be desired, the fact remains that with this disclosure, Southerlyn has become one of the most prominent lesbian characters on network TV in the last few years.
She also gives the endless Law & Order reruns on TV — and the fourteenth season, which is now available on DVD — a whole new appeal for lesbian viewers.
Get Law and Order
Season 14 on DVD