For those looking for evidence that lesbianism has truly permeated American culture, the latest episode of Reba should give you all the proof you need.
It’s hard to imagine a more middle-America, apple-pie sitcom than Reba, which airs on the WB on Friday nights and stars legendary country singer Reba McEntire as the soccer-mom head of a dysfunctional family in Texas, which includes 21-year-old daughter Cheyenne (JoAnna Garcia), who got pregnant at 17 and married her high school sweetheart, Van (Steve Howey); 15-year-old Kyra (Scarlett Pomers); and 10-year-old Jake (Mitch Holleman).
Rounding out the cast is ex-husband Brock (Christopher Rich) and his current wife Barbra Jean (Melissa Petermen), the dental assistant whom he left Reba for after 20 years of marriage.
Now in its fourth season, Reba has been the WB’s most-watched comedy for the last few seasons, and a clear ratings winner at around four million viewers each week.
In last week’s episode ("Van’s Agent"), Van falsely tells gay sports agent Sadie (played by Wendie Malick of Just Shoot Me), whom he is trying to impress, that Reba is gay — and fails to mention his gaffe to Reba.
When Sadie comes over to meet the family, she and Reba hit it off, and Reba — looking for new friends since her "girlfriend" moved away—inadvertently asks Sadie out. When Reba discovers that Sadie "plays for the other team" and thinks Reba does too, Reba excuses herself, finds Van in the kitchen, and demands to know why he told Sadie she was gay. Van’s response is comical:
I didn’t mean to, it’s just Sadie and I were talking about our favorite cities, and I said I really liked Lubbock, and she mentioned San Francisco. I wanted to say something clever and make a joke, but I don’t know anything about San Francisco except cable cars and gay people. So I made a joke about gay people and it wasn’t funny apparently, because she looks at me kind of offended and says "Van, I’m gay. Do you have a problem with gay people?’ And I’m like ‘No! No! Not at all. My mother-in-law is super gay."
Van pleads with his mother-in-law to go along with the lie for a little longer, so that he can secure Sadie as his agent. Reba reluctantly agrees, and Barbra Jean warns Reba not to go to Massachusetts on their date, "because they’re making them get married there."
But later that night, when she’s getting ready for the date, Reba tells Cheyenne and Van that she doesn’t think she can go through with it because "Sadie’s a really nice person and I don’t like lying to her."
When Sadie arrives to pick her up for their date, Reba finally confesses that she’s "a little less gay than Van said I was." In fact, she tells Sadie, "I have no powers of gayness whatsoever." Sadie is bummed but blames herself more, saying "this happens to me all the time" because "I got no gaydar," and asking plaintively, "How am I supposed to meet women?" Reba sympathizes with Sadie’s loneliness, and the two agree to be friends and go to dinner anyway, although, Sadie jokes, "I’m going to have to cancel the violinist and you’re going to have to pay your own way."
The last scene is of the two women leaving the house as Van, Cheyenne, and Barbra Jean look on, dumbfounded. "She turned Reba!" Barbra Jean comments, and Van comments excitedly that their daughter "is going to have two grandmas!"
The most intriguing and telling aspect of this episode is the level of knowledge it assumes its (straight) viewers have about gay rights and gay subculture.
Barbra’s comment about Massachusetts, Sadie’s use of the words "gaydar" and "other team," the comic confusion that ensues when Reba uses the words "coming out" and "my girlfriend" — these are all jokes that hinge on the audience getting the references, and on understanding that these phrases have a different meaning for lesbians than straight women.
When even Reba is making jokes about "gaydar," you know the gay and lesbian subculture has officially pervaded the mainstream.
As is custom with most network television shows, the word "gay" is used almost exclusively to describe Sadie, rather than the more loaded term "lesbian," except twice at the end of the episode (after viewers had a chance to warm up to the subject).
But even just a few uses of the word "lesbian" is helpful in desensitizing it for Reba‘s straight viewers.
The characters’ actions and comments throughout the episode send a remarkably progressive message. Reba’s only concern about being mistaken for gay is that it will hurt Sadie’s feelings, and Sadie’s sexual orientation is clearly not a concern for Reba, nor a barrier to forming a friendship with her.
Reba and Sadie comment repeatedly on their similarities, even after their differing sexual orientations are revealed, and the audience is clearly invited to sympathize with and relate to Sadie’s dating difficulties.
A single well-written lesbian-themed episode is not as progressive as actually incorporating a gay character in the central cast, and the straight-person-mistaken-for-gay storyline is a safe way for sitcoms to approach this potentially explosive subject, with the least risk of alienating viewers. But this episode of Reba is fresh, funny, and subversive, and far better than most sitcoms’ attempts to tackle lesbianism.
On a show that’s likely to attract more conservatives than many other sitcoms, that’s especially good news.