Please stop killing us! The state of lesbians and bi women on TV

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GLAAD’s new Network Responsibility Index has, for the first time ever, awarded three television networks an “excellent” rating when it comes to LGBT representation on their programming. GLAAD found that ABC Family, HBO and MTV met the quality, quantity and diversity that qualifies them as having LGBT-friendly shows, while ABC, The CW, FOX, NBC, FX, Showtime all received a rating of “Good.” (Note that the NRI covers the last year so does not include new fall TV shows like Gotham or Red Band Society. It also only covers network and cable television so digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon are not included.)

Every year this report gives us the opportunity to see where networks are lacking in representation of queer women, and every year there are facets that remain the same. Lesbian, gay female and bisexual characters are most often very feminine, meaning there are very few androgynous, genderqueer or butch-presenting characters. Most often, the queer women characters are not major characters. Instead, they are recurring and, if they are a major character, they are part of a larger ensemble. And frequently, the woman of color on a show is often also the queer one, which is great for representation but problematic in terms of networks attempting to fill their diversity quotient within one person.

Of course there are exceptions, but these trends remain a part of our television landscape, just like one hugely disappointing trope of The Dead Lesbian. There were at least nine queer female characters killed off their prospective shows in 2013 alone.

Last week’s Season 3 premiere of Chicago Fire killed off lesbian EMT Leslie Shay, who was a major character and also one of the first ever regular queer characters on a Dick Wolf series. Despite some issues with a pregnancy storyline, Shay was a well-liked, out and proud gay woman who was written as a three-dimensional person. She had friendships, relationships, a passion for her job, just like her straight peers. So when the producers decided it was Shay who should die in order to create stories for the rest of the firehouse to be so deeply affected, it was crushing to fans.

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Executive producer Matt Olmstead told Entertainment Weekly of the decision:

At the end of season two, we were in the room talking about finales, cliffhangers and what was going to come with season three. I’ve been through it before on other shows, on Prison Break, where you feel a little bit like you’ve exhausted some of the story lines and romances, enough people have slept with each other and you feel a little bit stuck. The conversation came up, “What about killing one of the characters?” Not too far-fetched, because it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in America, working as a firefighter. That started to gain traction because you invariably get a lot of material from the emotional ramifications. We started to map out what it would look like, who it would involve, and at a certain point we all looked around and said this is the way to go. Some people are going to be pissed off. Hopefully people are emotionally affected by the storyline. Having seen the episode after this, it’s pretty much what we had hoped for in terms of shaking things up and giving other characters story lines to play all because of this one event.

Essentially, Shay is decidedly less important than the other straight characters if her death is a plot point. What makes it even more infuriating is this is part of a long history of killing off lesbian characters. This past summer, True Blood also felt they needed to kill a character for emotional pull on more major characters, and chose out lesbian vampire Tara. Out writer Angela Robinson told us of that decision:

In the writers’ room we had a lot of discussion about the final season and how to bring the show to an end. It’s the seventh year of this incredible TV show and we wanted, collectively, to reign in the show a little bit and bring it back close to season one in its intimacy. [And we wanted] to focus more on the characters and their relationships to each other. As the seasons went on there were a lot of werewolf storylines and fairies, and it took us all sorts of places, which was really exciting. But for the final season we wanted to bring it back to Bon Temps and tell stories about the town and about Sookie’s relationship to the town. And this put Sookie back in the forefront of the story. And when there’s so much death that happens all the time in the series, we wanted to dramatically figure out a way where death mattered. At the end of last season, we were contemplating “life matters.”

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When the powers that be are telling us they have to kill off a beloved lesbian character, it’s a backward compliment. These characters are used as pawns, placed in stories that are still revolving around straight characters and themes where lesbians are expendable. Without them, the show can go on. Even on Pretty Little Liars, queer characters aren’t safe, as Emily’s girlfriend Maya was murdered early on. So far none of the other main Liars’ love interests (Toby, Liam or Caleb) have received the same fate. This last season, Shana, another lesbian and woman of color, also died on the show.

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The good news is that things are some shows are getting it. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy with Callie and Arizona and The Fosters with Lena and Stef are exceptions to the rule, both helping their respective networks to receive positive ratings from GLAAD. And even though some have smaller roles and storylines, like Margo on Hannibal, Adriana on The Bridge, Betty on Masters of Sex, Black Canary on Arrow, Kalinda on The Good Wife, Lena on Ray Donovan and Santana on Glee, queer women having a presence on some of television’s most-watched shows is a major improvement from just a few years ago. Reality television helps, too, with lesbians appearing on American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and Couples Therapy.

What the GLAAD NRI shows, year after year, is that things are changing for the better, but major missteps are still happening. MTV received an excellent rating in part due to Faking It, which continues to be a debatable show in the community after their major character, Amy, fell in love with her female best friend but slept with her best friend’s boyfriend. (Yet another tired trope: A queer woman sleeps with a guy, which also happened on Hannibal this season.) Chasing Life fared better with teenage bisexual character Brenna choosing between two love interests, one male, one female. Networks are doing a much better job of writing gay male characters who rarely, if ever, end up in any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with a woman.

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In 2014, queer female characters are still underutilized and largely written to be in the world around the straight, major characters that carry a show. Digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon are currently trailblazing with shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, showing that viewers are craving more from what they’re tuning in for and the kinds of characters they find watch-worthy. Those characters range in sexuality, ethnicity, class, abilities, backgrounds and identities, and they are trusted with being the story itself, not a plot point to score some diversity points and later seen as removable.

It’s no wonder that queer women are still following shows that are queerbaiting us with lead female pairings. We’re still struggling to find out where we can survive on television, which remains the most constant form of regular, mass-consumed entertainment in America. Television aims to reflect and expand on themes and stories from real life, and if lesbian and bisexual women are written as unimportant, it sends the wrong message to all who are watching. We deserve more from those with the power to create art based on reality. Please stop killing us. Instead, here’s an idea: Take a storyline you give a straight character and make them queer. Tell that story through that character’s perspective. Imagine the possibilities like we do missed opportunities.

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