Because I’ve spent thousands of hours over the the last few years writing about television for AfterEllen.com, I often make the extrapolation that modern media is as saturated with lesbian and bisexual characters as my daily life. But every year when I sit down to write our annual TV review, I am reminded that while we’ve come so far in terms of positive LGBT representation on television, we still have a long way to go.
2011 was roller coaster ride for lesbian and bisexual TV viewers. On the upside, we saw a history-making lesbian wedding on primetime network television; a fan-favorite lesbian couple cross the line from subtext to main text on one of TV’s most-viewed programs; and a sensitive, authentic portrayal of teenage lesbianism on the most popular show in the world (according to Twitter). Also on the upside were the international lesbian TV couples that took our website by storm, and the real-life lesbian and bisexual women who continued to dominate ratings with their talk shows and cooking shows and news shows.
On the downside, we saw almost a dozen lezzy departures on TV due to death, dismemberment and cancellation — a startling number when you consider that we kicked off the 2011 TV season with only around 30 lesbian and bisexual characters.
In 2011, all seven of the leading lesbian and bisexual characters on primetime American TV saw ample screen time.
After a year of ups and downs, breakups and makeups, Callie and Arizona tied the knot in highly publicized episode of Grey’s Anatomy. While some viewers were frustrated at the timing — Callie was pregnant with Mark Sloane’s baby and Arizona was feeling jealous of their connection when she popped the question — it is impossible to overstate the historic significance of the occasion. The first lesbian wedding on primetime TV took place in 1996 on Friends. Between then and now only ten lesbian weddings have been seen on TV, and none of them took place between two leading characters. In a year when the same-sex marriage debate in the U.S. reached a fevered pitch, Grey’s chose to portray their lesbian couple as one of the most stable and committed on the show — and they gave them a fairy tale wedding to boot.
This year also saw the confirmation of a couple AfterEllen.com readers have been swooning over since Brad Falchuck penned the lines: “Sex is not dating.” “Yeah, if it was, Santana and I would be dating.” The exchange between Brittany and Santana took place in 2009 during Glee‘s first season, and it drove fans wild with speculation about the subtle looks and touches between the Cheerios BFFs. During the second half of the show’s second season, Santana finally acknowledged to herself that she’s a lesbian. Thanks to a committed, nuanced performance by Naya Rivera, Santana’s coming out and subsequent love confession to Brittany was the emotional anchor of Glee‘s 2011 run. (It also earned her the top spot in our annual AfterEllen.com Hot 100!) When the show kicked off its third season, it finally gave Brittany and Santana a chance to have a real, on-screen relationship. And it gave Rivera a chance to show off her acting chops with a public coming out to her grandmother.
ABC Family’s breakout hit Pretty Little Liars continued to impress us this year with its characterization of lesbian teen Emily Fields. The premise is deliciously campy: Four teenagers find themselves being blackmailed by the ubiquitous ghost of their dead best friend as they try to solve the mystery of her death. But the emotional elements of the show — especially the ones involving Emily — ring true to viewers of all ages. After a tumultuous coming out experience with her family, 2011 saw Emily’s mom, Pam, accept her daughter’s sexuality and defend her against homophobic parents at Rosewood High School. The show also gave the same amount of gravitas to Emily’s dating relationships as it did to her three (straight) best friends. Emily dated rival swimmer Paige (who got her own emotional coming out moment on-screen), GSA counselor Samara, and she reconnected with her first girlfriend Maya. Pretty Little Liars doesn’t shy away from gay-specific storylines and content, but it also doesn’t treat those storylines as Very Special Episode elements. For a teenage murder mystery, Pretty Little Liars packs an organic emotional punch.
One of the most intriguing characters on primetime continues to be The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma — and lucky for us, Archie Panjabi‘s Emmy Award-winning role happens to be one of the most well-rounded bisexual characters we’ve ever seen on TV. After a dicey moment last year when she shared her first on-screen kiss with a woman behind a closed garage door, The Good Wife‘s writers haven’t shied away from showing Kalinda in passionate situations with other women. In 2011, Kalinda shared intimate moments with Lana Delaney and Sophia Russo. She also shared them with co-worker Blake. Kalinda’s sexual dalliances always result in audience insight into her mysterious character. They make her more sympathetic; they make her motivations clearer; and they make AfterEllen.com readers dizzy with glee. Authentic bisexual characters are as elusive as unicorns, but in Kalinda we have a bisexual lady who is as well-rounded as she is critically acclaimed.