Lesbian Characters Get Promoted on Fourth Season of NYPD Blue

 
 

In other words, it is all so very ordinary, and the audience relaxes far more quickly than Greg, who finally bursts out, “Is that a vagina on the wall?” Which in a way, kinda says it all about male heterosexual preoccupation where lesbians are concerned.

The women seem flummoxed for a long moment before Kathy assures him that it’s not and gamely offers to switch chairs with him. Greg realizes what an idiot he’s been (but not before taking Kathy up on her offer) and Kathy reassures him, “You’re a cool guy, Greg.”

Her choice of “cool” as a way to reassure Medavoy is a curious choice of words, for a couple of reasons. “Cool” (at least in the conventional usage) is something Greg has never been or ever will be, and “cool” is a privileged status that in this instance, a marginalized group (the lesbians) is appropriating and bestowing upon a member of the dominant one. The reversal of position begun in “Moby Greg” continues.

Even though the dinner in “A Wrenching Experience” is ultimately a success, the real reason for it remains a mystery. In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun noted that there are only two narratives for women “marriage and childbirth. When a lesbian character is introduced into a text, the traditional “marriage” narrative is eliminated for obvious reasons. Which seems to leave most on-screen lesbians, even today, with only one narrative.

Childbirth.

In a “Bad Rap,” Abby tells Greg that she and Kathy invited him over for dinner because they are attempting to conceive a child and would like for him to be the donor. This is where the narrative begins to go off the rails. Because of the limitations of NYPD Blue‘s point of view, the audience, while having a sense of Abby and Kathy’s commitment to one another, knows nothing about how or why the two women have come to this decision at this point in their lives. Nor do they know why ”given Greg’s slightly erratic behavior, not to mention his male-patterned baldness and less-than stellar physique” the women have decided that Greg would be the perfect father of their child.

Perhaps the answer lies in “You’re a cool guy, Greg,” but the audience has no idea. Instead, the narrative is suddenly reduced in “Emission Impossible” to Greg’s ability to produce a “good amount of semen” upon the demand of Abby’s ovulation cycle.

Forgetting that this isn’t even remotely the way artificial insemination works for lesbian or heterosexual couples, the pairing of Greg’s attempt with the on-going saga of who is stealing quarters from the coffee jar in his locker eliminates any vestiges of the emotional involvement for the audience.

Abby and Kathy are seen for the last time in season four when Greg delivers his “good amount of semen” to the women at their doctor’s office, but the narrative isn’t quite finished with them. In the second episode of season five, “Three Girls and a Baby,” the narrative returns to the lesbians when Kathy is brutally murdered and Abby (now in her third trimester) is shot in the arm. On one level it almost seems like having gotten the lesbian successfully pregnant– thus confirming her womanhood– the text cannot allow her to remain a lesbian “a least an active one with a living, breathing partner.

Revisiting the theme of the sacrosanct nature of the detectives”™ domestic spaces and the importance of the audience entering one. “Three Girls and a Baby” returns the audience to Abby and Kathy’s apartment, but this time via the more traditional way “looking over the shoulder of the detectives as they survey the carnage. Within the world of NYPD Blue, violence often appearance senseless and it is up to the detectives to render it comprehensible. Yet Abby fails miserably at this, for not only does she fail to protect her partner in her own home, her behavior with Greg following the murder and reports of “ugly” fights with Kathy immediately prior to it cast doubt on her innocence.

Dirty cops and cops who beat their wives and murder their mistresses are familiar territories to NYPD Blue, but fortunately the narrative spares the audience the portrayal of a pregnant, lesbian cop who beats and murders her life partner. Instead, the writers find another lesbian to pin it on “Abby’s jealous, vindictive ex-lover who has never gotten over her and feels betrayed by Abby having a baby with another woman.

Kate Millet has defined patriarchy as a system in which “every avenue of power within society, including the coercive power of the police, is entirely in male hands.” While this might be something of an overstatement, within the text of NYPD Blue, it certainly raises some interesting questions, at least as far as the lesbians are concerned. Heterosexual women, in the forms of Detective Diane Russell (Kim Delaney) and Detective Jill Kirkendall, seem to wield that “coercive” power if not easily, then at least competently.

In the case of Abby Sullivan, the text doesn’t seem content to recoup her to the realm of the heterosexual, via her pregnancy, and the patriarchy, via the murder of her partner. Instead, the narrative is determined to strip her of the very thing that distinguishes her “her autonomy and competence as a cop” by essentially making Kathy’s murder her fault in every sense of the word.

The Abby Sullivan story arc, for better or worse, marks the high water mark for a lesbian presence on NYPD Blue, which makes it a good thing that most lesbians (myself included) didn’t watch the show for its lesbian content. In subsequent seasons, lesbians are once again reduced to one or two episode appearances, usually as the victim of a crime, once as a new squad lieutenant so odious that even gay John Irvin admits that he dislikes her with a fiery burning passion.

Having said all that, do I recommend the fourth season of NYPD Blue? Definitely. Even though your mileage may vary on the lesbian story arc, viewers are treated to the introduction of Jill Kirkendall, a substantial story arc involving Christopher Meloni as shady gun-runner, the snappy writing skills of Meredith Steihm, and the skillful presence of out directors Paris Barclay and Donna Deitch. Do yourself a favor and sit down to watch an episode, and I”™ll bet it won’t be your last.

Get NYPD Blue Season 4 on DVD

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