Fictional small American soap towns such as Pine Valley, Springfield, and Llanview have historically dabbled in social angst as it relates to abortion, war, and AIDS, but until recently, have avoided directly addressing homosexuality and same-sex relationships, as if shooting an unscripted pregnancy behind a laundry basket.
This has changed in the last decade or so, however, as a few American daytime dramas have introduced gay and lesbian characters, and achieved several important “firsts” in the portrayal of same-sex relationships.
“I certainly think the impact of these stories have been huge,” says Michael Fairman, Advocate.com soap reporter and columnist. “These stories have hit mainstream press and have heterosexual men and women, as well as the gay audience, embracing them.”
Long considered one of the most politically conservative art forms in the country, American daytime television’s progress is commendable — but how strong is their commitment to representation when it comes to lesbian and bisexual storylines and characters? And how far have they come?
In 1977, an unhappily married character played by Sally Stark on Days of Our Lives (NBC) admitted to her friend that she was bisexual and in love with her, but the storyline never went anywhere.
The first out lesbian soap character appeared on All My Children (ABC) in 1983, when AMC introduced psychologist, Lynne Carson, played by Saturday Night Fever alumnus, Donna Pescow (pictured, right). Dr. Carson was a short-time lesbian psyche consult used merely to prove the heterosexuality of another character. The doctor was given no history in Pine Valley, no romantic pairing, and no future. She moved on to obscurity after only two months.
It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that another lesbian character was introduced to daytime audiences, again on AMC. In 2000, the teenage daughter of uber-diva, Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), came out as a lesbian, a decision which would transform the soap opera landscape.
Mimi Torchin, founding editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Weekly says the coming out of Erica Kane’s daughter “could not have had more impact and import, other than Erica herself coming out! Also, I was very surprised that the show would choose to do this as there was no way of brushing the fact under the carpet once it was Bianca, who we have known since birth.”
Although this storyline was billed as original, it was full of platitudes. From Bianca (Eden Riegel) disclosing a prior affair with a fellow rehab patient who eventually marries a man, to a crush with the obligatory straight girl, the storyline seemed little more than superficial and stereotypical until Mary Frances “Frankie” Stone (Elizabeth Hendrickson) was introduced into Bianca’s life.
It was widely believed that Bianca’s relationship with Frankie, who was struggling with sexuality demons of her own, would become daytime’s first same-sex pairing — until, in a dramatic moment of lesbian cliche, Frankie ended up face down dead in her bedroom.
Some viewers began to wonder if this retreat was a network cave-in to the controversy of the budding same-sex relationship. But the impact of Bianca and Frankie had been felt by the network. Organized fan networks delivered emotional letters to ABC and the national soap media in hopes that AMC would reconsider killing this storyline.
A fan base of this size could not be ignored, and as a result, Mary Margaret “Maggie” Stone (also played by Hendrickson), the love interest’s twin sister, arrived in Pine Valley.