This fall on broadcast television, there will be four confirmed lesbian/bisexual characters on scripted shows (Callie and Erica on Grey’s Anatomy, Angela on Bones, Thirteen on House); two potentially lesbian/bi characters (Carrie Rivai on Knight Rider, an unnamed character on 90210); at least one lesbian on a reality show (an unnamed contestant on America’s Next Top Model); and four out lesbian/bi actors working on network shows (Saffron Burrows, Sara Gilbert, Cherry Jones, Kirsten Vangsness).
This marks the highest number of lesbian/bi characters and women on prime-time broadcast television since 2001-02, when there were seven characters on scripted shows. Since then, the number of lesbian/bi characters on broadcast TV has hovered between one and two, an inexcusably low number. Though there are still substantially fewer lesbian/bi women on television than gay men, the increase is a positive sign and hopefully indicates a trend for the future.
When cable television is considered, there are an additional three lesbian/bi characters on a scripted show (Spencer and Ashley on South of Nowhere, Paige Michalchuk on Degrassi); two queer women featured in their own reality shows (Tabatha Coffey, Margaret Cho); and one openly lesbian political commentator hosting her own prime-time program (Rachel Maddow). In addition, the lesbian/bi women on television are more diverse than ever before, with two of the four confirmed lesbian/bi characters played by women of color (Sara Ramirez, Michaela Conlin). A third, potentially lesbian/bi character, Carrie Rivai on Knight Rider, is also played by a woman of color, Sidney Tamiia Poitier.
LGBT People Still Seen as “Issues”
The growth in the number and scope of lesbian/bi representation on television should be applauded, but as always, there is still room for improvement.
During the Television Critics Association press tour in July, it became clear that television producers are open to the idea of LGBT characters on their shows, but actively including them continues to be the exception rather than the rule. A press conference for the new Sci Fi show Sanctuary, about a team of humans who study and protect alien/mystical creatures, exemplified the attitude that many producers expressed: There remains a tendency to view LGBT characters as social issues rather than a minority group deserving of equal representation on-screen.
When Michael Jensen, editor of AfterElton.com, asked whether Sanctuary “will finally go where Star Trek hasn’t dared to and actually include a gay character,” executive producers Sam Egan answered: “Sure. I would say we’re definitely open to it.”
Both Egan and executive producer Damian Kindler went on to equate being gay with being misunderstood or different. Kindler said: “I don’t mean to pander to it, but this show is about prejudice to a large extent, that there are creatures who are misunderstood and hunted and persecuted. … I don’t think you need to be so, you know, kind of on the nose and, say, ‘Here’s a gay character.’ You can actually explore a lot of those themes front and center. That’s what sci-fi allows you to do, explore very relevant social issues without saying, ‘And here comes this socially relevant issue.'”
Egan further elaborated: “When we talk about the abnormal world, we talk about the human experience — everybody feels different. Everybody feels they’re not a part of the mainstream in some way or another, and it’s the metaphor of xenophobia and fear of the unknown, and our discomfort with what we don’t know is so embedded in the themes of the show.”
In order for the number and quality of LGBT characters on television to improve, producers must begin to view LGBT characters primarily as people, not social issues. That appeared to be the main stumbling block for many non-LGBT producers, who seem to have difficulty conceptualizing a gay character as anything other than a billboard for gay issues.
However, it is likely that television producers — who are predominantly straight men — think differently about lesbian/bisexual characters than gay male characters. In fact, two of the bisexual female characters on broadcast TV this fall, Thirteen on House and Angela on Bones, have never been a “socially relevant issue” on their shows, which were both created by men. Of course, it does remain to be seen whether their characters will ever have genuine relationships with women rather than be bisexual in name only.