Here’s How TV Can Win Gay and Lesbian Viewers’ Trust

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TV Has Caused “Bury Your Gays” PTSD Among Its Gay and Lesbian Audiences

According to my friends at LezWatchTV, a recent episode of “Jane the Virgin” had a whopping seven non-heterosexual women on a single episode of the show: Luisa Alver, Rose Solano, Petra Solano, Jane Ramos (“JR”), Petra’s assistant Krishna Dhawan, Luisa’s ex-wife Allison, and Allison’s assistant.

In all seriousness, seven non-heterosexual female characters (almost all of whom had names!) who were not in an episode of “The L Word” or “Orange is the New Black” has to be some kind of a record. As someone who remembers decades of “representation” on TV being seven lesbian or bisexual characters total across all US channels for an entire year, I couldn’t help but feel the knee-jerk reaction, “Is that…allowed?” Based on decades of historical experience, it feels like the unspoken laws of Hollywood forbid just such a cosmically impossible feat.

The feeling that Hollywood has rules for representation is, of course, more than a feeling. The Will Hays’ Hollywood Production Code of 1930 consisted of 36 rules intended to limit the representation and normalization of characters and behaviors considered by religious groups to be “unsavory” or morally corrupt. One of these was “sexual perversion,” which at the time meant any behavior deviating from the perceived natural order for sex and gender.

The Will Hays’ Hollywood Production Code of 1930 consisted of 36 rules intended to limit the representation and normalization of characters and behaviors considered by religious groups to be “unsavory” or morally corrupt. One of these was “sexual perversion,” which at the time meant any behavior deviating from the perceived natural order for sex and gender.

Into the 2000s, the application of the Hays Code often took the form of the marginalization of gay characters by numbers: if a show had non-heterosexual characters, it seemed to be capped at two, max three. Two to make a pair, the third to add some love triangle drama. And of course, any physical affection was a chaste peck on the lips, lest there be any implication that gay people *gasp* actually have sex.

 

In point of fact, the immediate cognitive dissonance of seeing (or hearing about) seven non-heterosexual women on a single TV episode is actually a good indicator of the progress we’ve made in representation on TV. It is obvious both quantitatively and qualitatively that the pernicious effects of the Hayes Code have been slowly being rolled back for some time, with a rapid acceleration of the trend in the last two years. “Sens8” had 15 non-heterosexual female characters, one of whom was transgender; “Pretty Little Liars” and “Orange is the New Black” both had 11 lesbian or bisexual female characters and a heterosexual transgender character; and “Glee” had at least 12 male and female LGBT characters. “Legends of Tomorrow” has had six non-heterosexual female characters (seven if you count the cross-over with Alex Danvers of “Supergirl”), not to mention the three non-heterosexual men.

It is obvious both quantitatively and qualitatively that the pernicious effects of the Hayes Code have been slowly being rolled back for some time, with a rapid acceleration of the trend in the last two years.

In the next few years, once this new representation trend has been established, the appearance of multiple non-heterosexual recurring characters on a single show will lose its novelty. Move over, shipper wars between fandoms, we’re already encountering shipper wars within the same show: are you team Ruisa or team Petramos?

The tectonic shift in representation can be quantified in other ways, as well. For example, a mere two years ago, of the seven non-heterosexual female characters, at least two would have been killed off, based on prevalent statistics at the time. It was hard to watch JR walk into a room in which a gun was drawn during the cliffhanger ending of “Jane the Virgin,” for example, because we all know how that once would have ended. And if not in death, then nevertheless how could all seven of the show’s lesbian and bisexual characters have happy endings? Surely one or more of the women would have gone crazy or been dumped in a particularly devastating way at the end of her storyline.

As viewers, we were conditioned to expect unhappy endings.

Before 2017, only about 30 lesbian or bisexual female characters in the history of TV representation got happy endings, a number you can count on your fingers, toes, and your girlfriend’s fingers. As viewers, we were conditioned to expect unhappy endings.

 

The trust deficit caused by “Bury Your Gays” and the previous treatment of LGBT characters on TV is both painful and palpable, but it is likely to be quickly overcome if current trends continue. According to LezWatchTV’s statistics, in 2016, 43 non-heterosexual female TV characters were killed. In 2018 so far, only four characters have been killed. “Jane the Virgin” has had 13 non-heterosexual female characters in its four seasons, none of whom have been killed (permanently), and none of the six non-heterosexual women on “Legends of Tomorrow” have been killed and stayed dead. Both shows, it should be noted, air on the CW, the same channel that airs “The 100.” The CW seems to have learned from its mistake.

All Hollywood needs to do in order to overcome the trust deficit it has with lesbian and bisexual female viewers is to keep having gay characters and not kill them.

By becoming “woke” to LGBT representation issues, Hollywood has started down a path from which it would be difficult to backtrack. All Hollywood needs to do in order to overcome the trust deficit it has with lesbian and bisexual female viewers is to keep having gay characters and not kill them. That said, here are a few points of improvement that might help viewers have confidence that TV will treat its lesbian and bisexual characters well:

1) We need more happy endings.

Until there have been so many happy endings that it’s a moot point to count them all, every happy ending counts. A character not dying is insufficient; we need positive depictions that get away from inculcating the message that LGBT people lead sad lives that end unhappily.

lesbian Tv characters

 

2) American soap operas need to increase visibility.

This year, Camryn Grimes won a Daytime Emmy for playing pansexual Mariah Copeland on “The Young and the Restless.” Mariah is the only officially non-heterosexual female on American soap operas in 2018 so far. Meanwhile, in the UK, there are 16 such characters (for the record, the US has almost five times the population of the UK). (Daytime) soap operas are probably the TV genre currently doing the worst on representation in the United States. This is important because in America, soap operas represent the last bastion of conservative social attitudes. In order to really spread representation and educate viewers—particularly older viewers—we desperately need more visibility on daytime television.

In order to really spread representation and educate viewers—particularly older viewers—we desperately need more visibility on daytime television.

3) TV needs to ensure its characters always pass both the Bechdel Test and the Vito Russo Test.

The Bechdel Test requires that a product have at least two named, female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. The Vito Russo Test requires that a gay character have characteristics other than their sexual orientation and be involved in the plot in a meaningful way. Given that TV has generally moved beyond these two tests, we might add the further criteria that a lesbian or bisexual character should strive to be more than just “the love interest.”

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