When Queer as Folk premiered in December 2000 on Showtime it was touted as the most unapologetic, sexy, edgy show about queer folks to ever be made. The drama featured a telegenic cast of men and women living the gay life in Pittsburgh, and it soon became clear that the show was definitely going to push the envelope in terms of portraying gay sex on television.
Even the lesbian couple, Melanie (Michelle Clunie) and Lindsay (Thea Gill) had sex in a way that had never before been seen on TV.
But it also soon became apparent that Queer as Folk was never going to be about gay men and lesbians: it was a show about gay men, and every once in a while their token lesbian friends showed up, usually with their children in tow.
This could be why many lesbian viewers have long had a love-hate relationship with Queer as Folk. Even though Melanie is a successful attorney and Lindsay is the director of a Pittsburgh art gallery, the two rarely are allowed to do more than be mothers. This is a stereotype that has pursued women, both gay and straight, for millennia.
Even after the successes of the women’s movement, women in America are expected to identify wholly, completely, with motherhood. If they don’t possess that longing to mother a child, they are often characterized as abnormal.
Over the past four seasons, Melanie and Lindsay have been gradually more integrated into the group of gay men on the show, but this is due in no small part to the fact that the fathers of their two children are gay men. Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), the show’s resident playboy, fathered Lindsay’s son Gus, while Brian’s childhood friend Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks) fathered Melanie’s newborn daughter Jenny Rebecca. The fifth season promises more mommy drama as Melanie and Lindsay struggle through a rocky patch in their relationship that leads to a child custody battle involving Michael.
This final season of Queer as Folk also includes a three-episode arc featuring Rosie O’Donnell as Loretta Pye, an abused wife who has left her husband and gets a job at the diner, where she meets Debbie (Sharon Gless). Loretta soon develops a romantic attachment to Debbie, who is now living with her boyfriend, Detective Carl Horvath (Peter MacNeill).
Viewers will have to tune in to see if Loretta has any contact with the actual lesbians on the show, but given the fact that Melanie and Lindsay will probably be tied up with their custody battle all season, it’s unlikely.
Last season both women did have brief forays outside of their domestic sphere, when Lindsay had a one-time sexual encounter with a straight male artist that has mostly destroyed her relationship with Melanie. Meanwhile, Melanie suffered some career trauma when the lesbian parents she was representing (yes, in a child custody battle) rejected her in favor of her straight male boss.
Custody battles involving lesbians have long been a staple of primetime drama, beginning with the television movie A Question of Love (1978), starring Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander as two lesbian mothers battling the straight biological father for custody of their children. In Two Mothers for Zachary (1996), a grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave) sued her lesbian daughter (Valerie Bertinelli) for custody of her grandson. In 2001’s What Makes a Family, Brooke Shields’s character is forced to fight for custody of her child after her lesbian partner (Cherry Jones) dies.
Most recently on ER, lesbian Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) successfully gained custody of her child with deceased partner Sandy Lopez after Lopez’s parents tried to take their child away.
Queer as Folk has chosen to go down a well-worn path this season with the child custody storyline, although they are putting a new spin on it by having the father in question be a gay man. Given the fact that gay parents’ rights are now under increasing attack as anti-gay marriage bills spring up all over the country, this storyline has the potential to be timely, touching, and important. It is, however, unfortunate that Melanie and Lindsay’s last season ends with them continuing to have little or no life outside of motherhood, while in comparison the gay men on the show have active careers, social lives, and interests.
Because The L Word now provides a very different portrait of lesbian life, it may be even harder for lesbian viewers to swallow what happens to Melanie and Lindsay. But Melanie and Lindsay occupy a different queer space than do the characters on The L Word. Melanie and Lindsay live in a modest house in Pittsburgh; they have moderately successful careers but are not consumed by them; they seem largely content with their un-glitzy lives.
In comparison, the characters on The L Word live in a glowing, glamorous environment complete with extremely wealthy art patronesses; ambitious women driven by their cut-throat careers; and the allure of Hollywood beckoning from just down the street. Pittsburgh simply moves at a different pace than Los Angeles, and the characters of Melanie and Lindsay reflect the culture of a city defined more by its aging steel mills than movie stars.
It’s likely that Melanie and Lindsay, with their low-key lives, are more representative of most lesbians than the fashion-plate lipstick lesbians of The L Word — not that that necessarily makes for riveting television. But this season’s custody battle combined with Melanie and Lindsay’s messy breakup actually does have the potential to be interesting. Perhaps enough dyke drama will be stirred up in their storyline this year to actually give us a glimpse of what the characters are like, beyond their identities as mothers.
Given that The L Word is gone for the next nine months and there are virtually no other lesbians on television, it won’t hurt to tune in and see.