Lesbian Representation in the Early 2000s

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When AfterEllen was created in April 2002 by then-editor Sarah Warn, its goal was to provide a critical analysis of the portrayal of lesbian and bisexual women in the media and flag for readers new characters and trends. At the time, there was such little LGBT visibility in Hollywood that Warn was able to contribute to the website part-time, as a hobby, with articles relatively few and far between.

Since then, the number of non-heterosexual female characters on screen has grown by leaps and bounds, and most of the pernicious tropes that once plagued these characters have finally been banished, in part as a result of sites like AfterEllen shining a spotlight on them. In honor of this month’s LGBT History Month, AfterEllen looks back at lesbian and bisexual representation on the large and small screen as during the early 2000s.

2002

In the early 2000s and before, LGBT representation on the big and small screen was all but nonexistent. As a result, every character and storyline was noted, analyzed in-depth, and compared to those that had come before. Although positive trends in portrayals of lesbian and bisexual female characters had finally started to emerge by 2002, too many negative stereotypes and tropes persisted. The most pernicious of these was the “evil/crazy bisexual girl” trope, which created a subconscious association between bisexuality and death, jail, drugs, or satanic cults (yes, seriously). Luckily, the trope seems to have largely been abandoned by Hollywood no later than the late 2000s…probably because by then Mia Kirshner, who played all the evil bisexuals in the early 2000s, had moved on to play crazy Jenny on “The L Word.”

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Mia Kirshner plays ALL the crazy bisexuals.

TV in 2002: In the 2001-02 TV season, there were only 20 regular or recurring lesbian or bisexual characters, the most visible of which were Willow (Alyson Hannigan) from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) from “ER.” Unfortunately, “Once and Again” was cancelled just after it achieved three landmark firsts: 1) the first primetime drama to show two lesbian kisses in one episode, 2) the first primetime show to have a teenage girl engaging in more than a single episode of sexual experimentation, and 3) the first positive depiction of a lesbian relationship between teenagers on TV.

The character Jessie, played by Evan Rachel Wood, represented only the fourth primary character in a TV drama to have developed into a lesbian during the show (the other three were Bianca of “All My Children,” Willow and Dr. Weaver). Although “Once and Again” had experienced last-place ratings for months, the “Gay/Straight Alliance” episode had record-breaking ratings, a fact that dovetails with AfterEllen’s recent analysis that lesbian storylines pump TV viewership numbers.

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SO CUTE our heads exploded

Movies in 2002: Although films were beginning to explore new ways to look at sexuality, visibility still was a mixed bag in 2002. The new breed of middle-class, professional-oriented films for the black community coming out around then, for example, produced the following false messages: 1) straight black people do not have lesbian family members or friends, 2) lesbians and lesbianism are only used to serve as a warning to straight black women about how to behave, and 3) bisexuality among black women does not exist. On the other hand, “Kissing Jessica Stein” countered the Hollywood trope of bisexuals all being murderers or promiscuous (the lead characters were neither) while generating positive images and discussion of bisexuality (particularly the introduction of the sexual continuum) in a new and engaging way.

LOL moment of 2002: Then titled “Earthlings,” AfterEllen asked if the show, still in development, that would become “The L Word” would be the lesbian “Queer as Folk.” Answer: YES.

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