Visibility Matters: Entertaining the Future

Visibility Matters is a monthly-ish column by AfterEllen.com Founder Sarah Warn about larger trends affecting lesbian/bi women in entertainment and the media.

Visibility Matters: Entertaining the Future

Lesbian/bi visibility in entertainment today is a mass of contradictions. It’s both better and worse than it was when I started writing about it more than seven years ago.

There are more lesbian talk show hosts than ever before on network TV, but still very few fictional lesbian characters on broadcast or cable TV.

We now have well-developed, prominent lesbian characters and superheroes in comics — from Willow to Batwoman — but even the most minor lesbian characters are missing from, or “straightened out” in, most studio theatrical releases. Sometimes an entire lesbian subculture is de-gayed, as demonstrated in Whip It.

Female musicians are coming out left and right as gay or bisexual, as we saw when Brandi Carlile finally confirmed last week that she’s a lesbian, but there are many women — especially those signed to major labels — who remain closeted, at least to their fans.

Musician Brandi Carlile

More books by openly queer authors are getting published, but books with LGBT characters and themes are still getting banned at libraries and schools, and some major booksellers are still skittish about including them, as Scholastic demonstrated last week when it pulled Lauren Myracle‘s new elementary school book from its school book fairs because one of the four girls has two moms.

What’s the common factor determining whether and where queer women and characters are represented or included? Financial risk. In businesses, a sure thing is always better than an unknown entity when money is on the line.

That means whenever there’s significant money at stake, the queer woman (real or fictional) who are cast in roles, written in as characters, signed by a major label, or included in bookstores are almost always limited to those who are already a proven success.

Which is why Ellen DeGeneres was only offered her own talk show after Finding Nemo resurrected her popularity following the controversy surrounding her former sitcom.

Lesbian and bisexual women are most likely to be left out whenever a small group of people (studios, bookstores, record labels) are trying to guess how a large group of people will react, because we’re still considered likely to be controversial just by virtue of being gay or bisexual.

And in some ways and in some areas of the country and the world, queer people and content are still controversial.

But that’s increasingly less true.

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