Last year’s biggest TV surprise was the way New Girl‘s writers were able to turn the freshman sitcom away from a grating manic pixie dream girl makeover and into a hilarious, complicated, affable ensemble comedy. I went from cringing to fawning over the show in the space of about two months last fall, and have guffawed during nearly every episode since it started working out its kinks. So it was with a heavy heart that I read some complaints in our AfterEllen tips box about last night’s episode, which featured the return of Jess’ lesbian gynecologist BFF, Sadie, and the introduction of her longterm girlfriend.
The consternation was twofold: 1) The episode featured a parental advisory for suggestive dialogue, sexual situations, and language. It’s an antiquated thing broadcast networks used to do as a preface to their Big Gay Episodes. 2) A pregnant Sadie said the words, “It’s the baby hormones, they are not as gay as me” to a dude while fanning her lust-filled face.
Sounds pretty suspect, right? But after watching the episode, I think the outrage is much ado about nothing. In fact, in context, I think it’s a hyper-friendly episode of lesbian TV.
For starters, the parental warning had nothing to do with the lesbianism and everything to do with Schmidt’s euphemistic diatribe in which he explained his way around a vagina to Sadie, who was trying to give him some advanced sex techniques advice with a diagram. This is the dialogue that earned the warning:
After Schmidt finished his tutorial, Sadie dropped the line about the baby hormones and forced Schmidt out of her office, but it had pretty much nothing to do with Schmidt being a dude and everything to do with Sadie being turned on by someone who was as much of a “vagenius” as she is. One of the running gags about Sadie is that she is the gold standard of sexual pleasure because she is a lesbian and a gynecologist. It’s actually kind of revolutionary the way the show doesn’t shy away from sexualizing Sadie’s lesbianism, but not in a way that glorifies the male gaze. None of the guys are leering at her and her girlfriend, or trying to turn them straight. They just want her advice about sex.
In the dinner party cold open, for example, she explained that the key to a lasting relationship is “Love, understanding, and two sets of boobs.” Which caused her girlfriend to wax poetic for a full minute about boobs. Her girlfriend went on to explain that while she’s only in her 30s, her ovaries are in their 40s, and her vagina is in its 90s. “And it gets better with age. It’s the vagina Helen Mirren,” Sadie said. “I’ve got big plans for the centennial.”
The way some lesbians bristled at last night’s New Girl reminded me of the way some lesbians bristled at the episode of Go On earlier this season when the lesbian character, Ann, kissed Ryan, a dude from her grief therapy group, right on the mouth because she wanted to go on a date with another woman, but hadn’t been able to bring herself to kiss anyone after the death of her partner. On the surface, it was a lesbian character kissing a man. But in context, it was a lesbian character getting a kiss that didn’t matter out of the way so she could start kissing again in a way that did matter. It was funny and it was sweet and it made me wonder if we’ve reached a new normal with lesbian characters on TV.
There are always going to be real-life gay ladies who despise the idea of lesbian TV characters kissing or flirting with or even leaning toward anything semi-sexual with male characters, no matter the context, no matter the motivation, no matter the social implication. For them, it is a cut-and-dry issue that calls to mind far too many fictional days of yore when lesbian characters turned straight when the “right man” came along. It offends their view of lesbian sexual orientation and their political sensibility. Some even see it as a danger to lesbian civil liberties and safety.
There are others, however, who have a more spectrum-based view of lesbian sexual orientation, who have sensed a changing tide in the LGBT rights movement and in lesbian media visibility, and who are ready to embrace these kinds of stories as accurate portrayals of a multi-faceted queer community.
And, of course, there are lesbians who just want to have a laugh, regardless of politics, and maybe they, too, are a little hot and bothered by Schmidt’s vagina monologue.
Regardless, it does seem like lesbian jokes that were once off-limits are now in play, and that the general consensus among TV writers and showrunners is that they’re not negatively affecting the lesbian community. After all, Sadie never questioned her sexuality or her commitment to her girlfriend; she was just hot under the collar after meeting another “vagenius.” Likewise, Ann didn’t suddenly switch to Team Hetero after locking lips with a dude; she was just working out her grief so she could get on with her lesbian life. Like Sadie, the end result was still love, understanding, and two sets of boobs.
Are you cool with these kinds of stories where the lesbian character has a semi-sexual encounter with a dude? Do you think it’s all about context and motivation? Or is there a clear, black-and-white line between the rights and wrongs of writing lesbian characters?