Although the number of regular lesbian characters on prime-time broadcast television fell from one to zero over the course of 2007, that bleak statistic does not reflect the generally positive and even groundbreaking ways that lesbian and bisexual women were represented on American television in the past year. From sex and dating to gender expression, lesbians and bi women came out of the closet this year as fully fledged individuals with romantic lives and political beliefs — whether you liked them or not.
Programs with regular lesbian/bi characters, such as Nip/Tuck, South of Nowhere and Degrassi: The Next Generation, aired story lines that made room for lesbian sexuality — a change from previous years when lesbian characters were largely celibate or sexuality was pushed off-screen. And joining The L Word in the category of scripted, lesbian-themed programming were several shows from the two gay TV channels, here! and Logo, AfterEllen.com’s parent company, bringing more lesbian romance and drama to television than ever before.
In unscripted or reality programs, lesbians and bisexual women continued to be represented in nearly every genre, from competitions such as Top Chef and The Amazing Race to docudramas such as Work Out. Most significantly, lesbian/bi women finally got their own reality dating show this year in MTV’s A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila, a show that both featured stereotypes and smashed them.
As in 2006, the vast majority of lesbians on television in 2007 were traditionally feminine in appearance, but this year the gender envelope was pushed by several lesbian/bi women who had more androgynous looks. On A Shot at Love, Dani Campbell developed a major fan following in part because of her “futch” appearance, while programs including The Kill Point, The L Word, The Wire, Top Chef and I’m With Rolling Stone featured women with a more genderqueer appearance.
The number of lesbian-themed shows more than doubled this year, from two in 2006 (The L Word and Work Out) to five (with the addition of A Shot at Love, Curl Girls and Exes & Ohs), with other shows featuring prominent lesbian story lines (South of Nowhere, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Nip/Tuck) that were largely absent the year before. Though there is still plenty of room for improvement — particularly on broadcast TV — the low points of 2007 do not contradict the fact that lesbian/bi representation on TV this past year has increased and improved significantly.
If there was one overarching theme in lesbian/bi story lines on scripted television in the past year, it would be romance. On shows from South of Nowhere to Exes & Ohs, dating and relationships — as well as on-screen lesbian sexuality — became the norm. This marks a major improvement from 2006, when one of the few dramas with regular lesbian characters, South of Nowhere, largely suppressed any signs of physical affection between its two lesbian characters. This year could even be called the Year of the Bachelorette.
The L Word: Progress and Problems
Showtime’s lesbian-themed drama ended its third season in 2006 on a sour note for many viewers when Dana (Erin Daniels) died of breast cancer, and Carmen (Sarah Shahi) was left at the altar by Shane (Kate Moennig). But Season 4, which aired in the first few months of 2007, improved in many areas, particularly in gender diversity and its transgender story line.
Though much of the fourth-season story line involving Max (Daniela Sea) resembled a public service announcement, it addressed several problems: Max’s use of under-the-table hormones in Season 3; transphobia in the workplace and in relationships; and discomfort within the lesbian community with female-to-male transfolk. By the end of the fourth season, Max began a sexual relationship with a woman who was quite supportive of him as a transgender man. Despite the fact that Max is not a fan favorite, these story lines humanized him and presented a more well-rounded picture of television’s only FTM character.
The L Word also incorporated more gender diversity in its cast in Season 4 with the character of Tasha Williams (Rose Rollins), an African-American soldier with an androgynous appearance and somewhat butch mannerisms. Tasha and Shane are not the stereotypical bull-dagger lesbians that many people associate with the term “butch,” but their masculine-of-center dress and physical presence have carved out a space — however slim — for more lesbians who are not traditionally feminine on television.
Though Tasha contributed positively to racial diversity in the cast of The L Word, the show fared less well with its new Latina character, Papi (Janina Gavankar). Based on the racially charged stereotype of the Latin lover (right down to her unfortunate name), Papi was played by an actress of Indian and Dutch descent, Janina Gavankar. This marks the second time that The L Word has cast a non-Latina actress to play a Latina role that is largely based in stereotype (Sarah Shahi, who is of Persian descent, played Carmen de la Pica Morales, the epitome of a hot Latina babe), and it is the fourth season’s lowest moment.
Thus, like every season that came before, the fourth season of The L Word was marked by both progress and problems. At least no lesbians got pregnant or became involved in child custody battles.