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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