“Manhattan Love Story” illustrates the problem TV has with androgynous queer women

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ABC has canceled the comedy Manhattan Love Story, but recently aired its already-filmed episodes including its holiday-themed “Happy Thankmas,” which they burned off on January 4. The episode followed Dana (Analeigh Tipton) as she spent her first Thanksgiving with new boyfriend Peter (Jake McDorman). Peter’s half-sister Chloe (Chloe Wepper) says she’s telling their mom she’s a “full-on lesbian” so her mother won’t bring a single guy to dinner in an attempt to set them up. (You can watch the full episode at ABC.com.)

Of course, Chloe’s mom takes this as an opportunity to be supportive and invite a woman instead. Kay (played by transgender actor Jay Eisenberg) comes through the door and Chloe is instantly upset. “One year off,” she says to her mom. “I couldn’t have one year off.” And, “I can’t believe you did this. I thought it was just family this year!”

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Chloe’s well-meaning mom shows Kay photos of Chloe in school (“She’s very sporty”) and explains she “just recently came out of the closet.” When Chloe feels the need to come clean, Peter silently begs her to keep the peace because everything else about the holiday is going to shit. (The cookies are terrible, another attendee is drunk, and karaoke was awkward.) So Chloe plays along.

“I found it so hard to come out of the closet. I’ve had to turn down a lot of hot guys,” Chloe says to Kay. “I mean I assume they are hot, but I wouldn’t really know because I like ladies and everything they’ve got going on.” She puts her hand on Kay’s shoulder and marvels at its sturdiness.

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When Kay takes a bite of one of the cookies Dana screwed up, she spits it out, hurting the feelings of the Peter’s brother David. Dana tries to save the day and says, “Everybody knows lesbians are really harsh critics.” She instantly mouths “Sorry” to Kay, but Peter and Chloe’s dad is now very surprised to learn that Kay is “a gay.”

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“Yes, I’m a lesbian, just like your daughter,” Kay says, which leads Chloe to finally telling the truth: She’s straight and just didn’t want to be set up at another Thanksgiving dinner. This was all a terrible waste of Kay’s time, and we’ve seen variations on this storyline before, where straight women pretend to be gay in hopes it will help them out in some way: Miranda wanted to be invited to her boss’s dinner parties on Sex and the City, Karma wanted to be popular on Faking It, and Alex hopes to help Penny keep up a lie on Happy Endings. Eventually the big “I’m not really gay!” reveal happens, and most of the time, there’s a broken-hearted lesbian character that is never heard from again. (Luckily this wasn’t the case on Faking It.)

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What’s frustrating is that roles like the one Jay Eisenberg plays are often the only options for genderqueer, androgynous or butch women in Hollywood. Julie Goldman and Dot Jones have played these kinds of “token lesbian” roles several times. Out actress Noelle Messier played a softball player in a brief “gay party” scene on The McCarthys earlier this year. And while we’ve had increased visibility for lesbians and bisexual women on television, most of them are feminine-presenting. We have yet to see our community fully represented with fully-realized main characters that challenge the gender binary. When TV shows want to bring in a character that reads as a “lesbian,” that’s when they cast LGBT-identified actors for small, token-ish roles like Kay on Manhattan Love Story. More often than not, this is the only time actual LGBT actors are hired to even play LGBT roles, as most of the current lesbian/bisexual roles on television are played by straight-identified women.

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We deserve better parts and representation for all LGBT women, and we are still not seeing that on network television or premium cable. The only places we’ve seen it in the last year has been on Amazon (Transparent) and Netflix (Orange is the New Black). But Tammy and Big Boo can’t represent the butch women on their own. We need more, and there are plenty of hopeful androgynous and queer actors looking for those parts. Jay, Noelle and others like Mel Shimkovitz (Transparent), Petey Gibson (Transparent) and D.Lo (Looking) are faces I’d love to see more permanently on my TV screen. 

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Here’s hoping the success of shows like Transparent and OITNB will signal a sea change for this kind of representation, and that genderqueer actors will be able to audition for parts that serve as more than the butt of the joke.

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