The British “Queer As Folk”: It’s not just for the boys

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To celebrate its 25th birthday, the
U.K.’s Channel 4 has been re-screening some of its landmark programs
on the digital spin-off channel More4. Among them is the original British
Queer As Folk
, first aired in 1999: a ten-episode serial that spawned
the much more substantial American series. I remembered enjoying the
British version the first time around: less because of its gay themes,
in fact, than because of the sheer talent of its screenwriter, Russell
T. Davies, who has gone on to become something of a power player in
U.K. television. I remembered the writing as strong, the characters as
entertaining. But it was the gay male characters who had stuck in my
memory. I’d forgotten about the lesbians.

That might not seem surprising to
viewers of the American series, which was criticized
for consistently sidelining its two lesbian characters, Lindsay Peterson
(Thea Gill) and Melanie Marcus (Michelle Clunie), and saddling them
with boring, sexist or stereotypical storylines.

Watching the British series for the
second time around, however, I found it was the lesbian representation that
really caught my attention. To be sure, Romey Sullivan (played by Esther
Hall
), the origin for Lindsay, is a fairly sweet, bland woman, who doesn’t
get much development. And this isn’t the show to watch if you want
an in-depth portrayal of female relationships — what we see of the lesbians
consists almost entirely of them interacting with the male characters.

The character that most stood out
for me this time, though, was solicitor Lisa Levene, the origin for
the U.S.’s Melanie. A lot of the credit for that goes to Saira Todd,
the actress, whose line delivery could not possibly be better. But credit
must also go to Davies, for giving her some of the best lines of the
show. In some ways, she comes across as an even stronger, even wittier,
female version of Stuart (the origin for Brian Kinney in the U.S. series).
And a lot of her screentime goes into slapping Stuart down, as when
for plot reasons she has given him the early love letters between her
and Romey:

Stuart:
[leering] Lesbian letters. Can I read them?
Lisa: I doubt it; it’s joined-up handwriting.

Given that the U.S. lesbians were criticized
for being stereotypically ‘nurturing’ and obsessed with motherhood,
it’s interesting to note that Lisa seems decidedly ambivalent about
the concept (telling Stuart, who has acted as sperm donor for Romey,
that “I look after your kid every day; every night he’s screaming
the place down. You owe me.”) She’s also capable of being as devious
as any of the male characters in pursuit of what she wants — concocting
a plan that actually results in Romey’s over-attentive male lodger,
Lance, being deported.

Unlike Melanie and Lindsay, Lisa
and Romey are almost always shown surrounded by a crowd of lesbian friends
— giving the impression that they do have their own social lives and
circle apart from the gay men, even if we’re not permitted to see
much of it. And one of the friends, Siobhan (played by Juley McCann)
breaks a persisting taboo of television by being uncompromisingly
butch — something that’s still very rarely seen on TV in the U.K. or U.S.

With his more recent projects for
U.K. television, including Bob & Rose, The Second Coming
and the revamped Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies has shown
that he can create strong, interesting, straight female protagonists.
His most recent show, Torchwood, seemed disappointingly
to slip when it came to bisexual women. But his creation of Lisa Levene
shows that he is capable of writing a charismatic, non-stereotypical
lesbian character. Let’s hope that one of these days, he will give
a character like that center stage.

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