Lesbian Love in the Afternoon: Queer Women on American Daytime Dramas

 
 

Just as Breese was beginning to die down, the light began to shine on a new female same-sex pairing — Guiding Light’s (CBS) Olivia Spencer (Crystal Chappell), a character with a history of broken heterosexual relationships, was falling in love with her best friend, Natalia (Jessica Leccia).

This writers utilized a traditional slow-build soap model in developing this label-less love story over more than a year, which helped viewers to gradually become comfortable with — and invested in — this unexpected romance.

According to Fairman, "This was a different story. These weren’t two out and proud lesbians. They were two women who had previously had heterosexual relationships, they were married, had children, it was complicated. They did take on a very complex telling of two women who fall in love with each other. That was very different than what we had seen before and I thought it was exceptional in that way."

Natalia (Jessica Leccia) and Olivia (Crystal Chappell)

For the first time on daytime television the issue of coming out to your children was addressed. The character of Olivia had a small child with limited understanding of relationships and required a careful transition from one to two mommies. Natalia was a single mother of a troubled teenage son who had difficulty accepting his mother’s life decisions. 

Guiding Light also introduced a third lesbian character, Doris (Orlagh Cassidy), the town mayor who had long kept her sexual orientation a secret from her daughter, now a young woman.

In the portrayal of "Otalia," Guiding Light also devoted effort into the aspects of personal faith. Natalia grappled with reconciling her new feelings with her strict religious upbringing, her love for Olivia with her love of God. Natalia’s conversations with her priest, with herself, and with God broke new ground in daytime.

The slow build of the foundation coupled with the women’s struggle to accept the implications of being in a same-sex relationship created anticipation that perhaps a three-dimensional lesbian relationship was imminent.

But it slowly became obvious that the writers were intentionally avoiding showing any physical intimacy between the characters, beyond an initial kiss between them that was used for shock value only.

The staple of daytime television is, to coin a phrase, love in the afternoon. As other couples in Springfield enjoyed public displays of crumpled sheets and long, slow kisses, Otalia was relegated to the occasional hand-hold and forehead bump. As the storyline progressed, the lack of physical affection between Natalia and Olivia communicated Guiding Light‘s resistance to including a fully developed same-sex relationship.

When asked her opinion of why the network restraints were applied in the physical aspects of the Otalia relationship, Chappell tells me, "I was never really given an answer. Somebody just made a decision. I’ve asked other people those questions and there have been no reasonable answers from not only them, but from my own investigation of trying to figure out why. The end game is Otalia, and they have a life together. But in regards to any type of intimacy besides head butting and hair pulling, I just know that I walked away from it feeling confused by it and wishing I could do more."

The cancellation of Guiding Light, the logistics of Leccia’s maternity leave, and the insertion into the lives of this female couple an ill-received pregnancy in conjunction with their imposed lack of intimacy all added to the frustration of the audience.

"When the writers/network refused to let the couple kiss," Warn writes about the end of Otalia, "…they made them — and us — second-class citizens, and ruined the fantasy element that is at the heart of daytime drama."

Says Torchin, "We would have accepted Natalia’s pregnancy and the forced separation from Olivia caused by Leccia’s maternity leave if they had given the viewers some satisfaction before the separation. But there was none, so nothing but rage could ensue."

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