In the fourth season of Showtime's series Soul Food, a drama about the lives and loves of a middle-class African-American family, we may finally see a first for a black sitcom or drama on television: the development of a lesbian relationship between the youngest sister Tracy "Bird" Van Adams (played by Malinda Williams) and her lesbian friend and television producer Eva Holly (played by Terri J. Vaughn, of The Steve Harvey Show).
Bird's first encounter with a lesbian — she rebuffed a lesbian friend's
advances in Season Two. Then last season, Bird (who owns her own beauty salon
and is married to Lem, who is played by Darrin Dewitt Henson), began appearing
on a local talk show as a beauty consultant where Eva was the producer. The
two became friends, and Eva came out to Bird as a lesbian when Bird made a "dyke"
joke and Eva called her on it.
But these storylines have always been only one or two-episode arcs, and not seriously intended to raise questions about Bird's sexuality…until now.
opening episode of the fourth season (which premiered on Wednesday,
April 9th), Eva is back and
comforts Bird when she is stalked by an ex-lover. While Eva's sexuality
is not referenced in this episode, there is subtext in her concern for Bird,
which is reinforced by Bird's sister Terri's (played by Nicole Ari Parker,
who got her acting start playing a teenage lesbian in the 1995 indie film The
Incredibly True Adventures of 2 girls in Love) obvious dislike for
what cements the development of a sexual relationship between Eva and Bird beyond
mere speculation is a clip in the scenes from the upcoming season in which Terri
catches Bird and Eva kissing. On the official Soul Food site, Eva is
described as a character who will appear in several episodes this season and
"whose appearance will shake up the life of Bird." In an interview
on the site, Vaughn describes Eva as someone who is "professional, strong
and just happens to be a lesbian. I look forward to giving a voice to women
who aren't normally represented." She further notes that her character
will "add a major twist to the Soul Food storyline." "
Clearly, Bird and
Eva's relationship will go beyond friendship, but the question
remains: is Bird bisexual, or just bi-curious? Is this a serious
attempt by the Soul Food writers to integrate this storyline into the
series, or just exploitation designed to improve ratings?
There is evidence to support both arguments.
unlikely that Bird will actually determine she is bisexual (or a lesbian),
for several reasons. Soul Food has always been a show
about family, specifically, the three sisters. Few of the characters interact
on a regular basis with someone they're not related to (either by blood
or marriage), and the only non-family members who ever get any screen time are
someone one of the family members is dating (like Damon).
Since it's unlikely that Eva would be welcomed into the fold, that limits her character development from the start unless the writers wanted to explore how Bird's family would deal with her new girlfriend—which would take a lot of time and detract from the central storyline of the three sisters.
an especially controversial and divisive issue within black
communities, which is likely to make Showtime execs a little more skittish than
usual about introducing the topic in the form of a regular character.
This is one of the reasons network sitcoms with African-American casts like Abby, Bernie Mac, Moesha, or Living Single had never had a recurring lesbian or bisexual character (not that other sitcoms have a lot of them either, but I can at least name a few predominantly-white sitcoms with recurring lesbian or bi characters, like Roseanne, Mad About You, That 80's Show, and both Ellen shows). It's also why middle-class African-American movies (like Love and Basketball, Waiting to Exhale, Brown Sugar, and the 1997 film this series is based on) are noticeably lacking in lesbian and bisexual characters.
Although it attracts
viewers of all aces, African-American viewers are the core of Soul Food's
fan base and Showtime can't afford to alienate them. Where a one or two-episode
character or storyline might create only a few complaints, an integrated, long-running
lesbian theme or character could start driving viewers away — at least,
that's the fear.
But the primary
reason this storyline doesn't seem bound for long-term
development is that it just doesn't seem very consistent
with Bird's character development so far. Bird has always been very heterosexual,
and besides the occasional lesbian friend, has never given any indication of
an attraction to women. Of course, it is possible that Bird is bisexual
and just doesn't realize it yet — many women don't acknowledge
their bisexuality until their 30's or 40's — but this feels similar
to the much-hyped kiss between Ling and Ally on Ally
McBeal: you knew there was no way that Ally was really going to come
out as bisexual because it just wasn't consistent with her character.
It also doesn't make sense given the amount of time and energy the show has put into developing Bird's relationship with Lem over the past three years. Bird and Lem's marriage, even when it's in trouble, is one of the core relationships of the series, and developing a long-term relationship between Bird and Eva would fundamentally change the foundation of the show.
other hand, the fact that this is the third time that the writers have
introduced a lesbian-related storyline around Bird indicates that they may have
been planning to reveal Bird as bisexual (or lesbian) all along, which would
imply a serious intention to explore this issue. The fact that Eva is scheduled
to appear in several episodes this season also supports the argument that Bird
and Eva may well develop a relationship.
It is also arguable
that if any network were to attempt adding a regular bisexual character in an
African-American series, it would be Showtime. Showtime has consistently proven
itself willing to push the envelope on issues of homosexuality, as evidenced
by the controversial series Queer as Folk
and the its new all-lesbian series The
L Word (which follows a group of lesbian friends in L.A. and includes
Jennifer Beals and Pam Grier in the cast).
Although we don't
yet know what will really happen with Bird and Eva this season, it ultimately
seems unlikely that Bird will come out as bisexual; it just has too many implications
for the series as a whole if this were to happen. It's more likely that
the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it too: make the show appear
controversial and cutting-edge to attract lesbian and bisexual viewers (and
liberal straight folks), but keep the core fan base happy by ultimately revealing
Bird to be only bi-curious, not bisexual.
In fact, the relationship between Bird and Eva will most likely end up functioning primarily as a catalyst between Bird and Lem, an obstacle designed to force their relationship to grow and change (Bird's unexpected discovery in next week's episode that she is pregnant serves a similar function).
routinely throw in the temptation of adultery as a plot device for
character development, so there is nothing inherently wrong with Soul Food
just putting a same-sex twist on this tactic. In fact, little about this particular
storyline would be objectionable at all — if it were just one among several
storylines about black lesbian and bisexual women available on Soul Food,
or even on television overall.
But in a world in which black lesbian and bisexual women are virtually non-existent on TV (since, besides the dearth of lesbian or bisexual characters in sitcoms or dramas with all-black casts, lesbian and bisexual women in racially diverse or predominantly-white sitcoms and dramas are almost always white), using lesbianism primarily as a tool for the development of the heterosexual characters smacks of exploitation, and contributes to the marginalization of black gay women.
Even if nothing
happens between Bird and Eva, however, just introducing Eva into the series
as a recurring well-adjusted, non-evil lesbian character is progress. It would
just mean more progress if this storyline didn’t become another flash-in-the-pan
plot device that ends with Eva disappearing and Bird realizing she's straight,
21st Update: on Episode 7 which aired May 21st, the two women
finally did kiss, and as predicted, Bird confirmed to her upset sisters that
it was just "experimentation" and she has no intention of leaving
her husband — but not until after also telling them it was none of their
business. But Bird did admit to Eva after the kiss that she was attracted to
her ("not all women, just you"), instead of taking the easy way out
and pretending it was all just a misunderstanding. The women's friendship
ended shortly thereafter, however, because Bird (wrongly) accused Eva of sabotaging
Bird's career because Bird wouldn't pursue a relationship with Eva.