In Praise of Sweeps Lesbianism


Mandy Musgrave and Gabrielle Christian in South of NowhereCalista Flockhart and Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal

It’s that time of year again. That’s right, a Sweeps Month. A few times each year, American television networks pull out all the stops to compete for the more-precious-than-gold viewership of the nation. Sweeps Month is that golden time of alien autopsies, cheating spouses, and various miniseries on different channels about the same thing (usually Jesus).

But Sweeps also brings with it another phenomenon: sweeps lesbianism.

Sweeps lesbianism has been around for a while now. In fact, it was during May Sweeps two years ago that Liz Friedman, one of the masterminds behind Xena: Warrior Princess, brought the term to the public (or at least, the public watching Bravo’s TV Revolution: Out of the Closet).

Suddenly the phenomenon had a name.

Over the last decade and a half, there have been countless examples of lesbians and bisexual women hitting the airwaves during Sweeps. From L.A. Law to Ally McBeal, women’s lips seem to be especially drawn to each other during these particular months of the year.

Even full-time lesbians get to pop out of the closet, pun intended, during this time period. ER‘s Kerry Weaver, for example, usually gets her most interesting storylines during sweeps–although it may be safe to say that she hasn’t had an interesting storyline since Dr. Legaspi left five years ago (that was a storyline which, coincidentally, started just in time for November Sweeps, peaked in February Sweeps, and died in May Sweeps).

The common critique of sweeps lesbianism lies in its exploitation of women and, specifically, women who aren’t heterosexual (for however short a period of time). With the lack of any decent depictions of lesbian and bisexual women on television, sweeps lesbianism can easily be seen as just another nail in the coffin of equal representation. The women are usually attractive, always feminine, and never discuss their forays into same-sex loving ever again.

This isn’t really an accurate representation of lesbians and bisexual women; it’s a male fantasy of straight women kissing each other. Arguably, it’s very rarely even a depiction of lesbian women, as most of the women involved in the storylines are bisexual.

So the question remains: what’s so great about sweeps lesbianism if it is a focal point for the already over-done exploitation of women?

The answer lies in the old adage, “no publicity is bad publicity.” Dismiss it as a naïve statement, along the lines of “well, it’s not great, but it’s all we’ve got,” but the evolution of sweeps lesbianism suggests that while it may be exploitive in the short term, it leads to better lesbian visibility in the long run.

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