TV’s Lesbian Baby Boom

The first is the notion that "woman" is synonymous with "mother." The endurance of this stereotype has resulted in a persistent double-standard in television roles for men and women — male roles only sometimes revolve around parenting issues, while roles for women overwhelmingly do

This is slowly changing with the popularity of shows like Everwood and 8 Rules for Dating My Daughter, which revolve heavily around fatherhood, and the proliferation of shows like Law and Order, Alias, and ER, which feature women in roles that focus primarily on their professional life. But it's still hardly a level playing field.

isn't even that so many of the lesbian characters are mothers that is the
problem — it's that their storylines revolve around their
role as a mother as if it defined them exclusively.

There are some exceptions, such as Dr. Weaver's role of as physician on ER and, occasionally, Melanie's role as a lawyer on Queer as Folk, but for the most part, the storylines for lesbian characters who are mothers overwhelmingly focus on issues related to motherhood.

The fact that whenever lesbian mothers on television have children who are still minors (as opposed to children who are already adults), they are almost always boys is a reflection of more stereotypes at work — namely, the underlying belief that gay parents are more likely to raise gay children (especially when the child is of the same gender), and that homosexuals are prone to pedophilia, or some combination of both. This includes the children in A Question of Love, Other Mothers, Friends, NYPD Blue, Two Mothers For Zachary, Popular, and Queer as Folk, among others.

The only two exceptions — Laurie Manning's daughter on Ellen and Brooke Shields' and Cherry Jones' daughter in What Makes a Family — were in projects that were produced by women who are among the most outspoken gay advocates in Hollywood: Ellen DeGeneres (Ellen), and Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Streisand (What Makes a Family). This is hardly a coincidence.

Shields and Jones in What Makes a Family

The networks clearly presume it is less threatening to (straight) television viewers if they show lesbian mothers raising boys instead of girls — since there is less public fear that lesbians will produce gay sons or molest little boys.

One way television series offset the potentially controversial image of lesbian parents is by making TV lesbian mothers extremely conventional — more conventional, in fact, than most of the heterosexual parents or couples on television these days.

Straight parents and mothers can be unconventional or in unconventional relationships — such as just-friends Ross and Rachel on Friends, Sydney's double-agent parents on Alias, Phoebe the witch and her demonic husband on Charmed, or single Ally McBeal as, well, herself on Ally McBeal.

But lesbian mothers usually resemble a same-gender Ozzie and Harriet, with a few quirks but no serious dysfunction allowed.

Jane Alexander and Gina Rowlands in A Question of Love, Brooke Shields and Cherry Jones in What Makes a Family, and Sharon Stone and Ellen Degeneres in If These Walls Could Talk Two all play couples who are closer to perfect that almost any other couple on television, as are Abby Sullivan and her partner on NYPD Blue and Kerry and Sandy on ER (although Kerry is shown to be a multi-dimensional person in the workplace).

Melanie and Lindsay are perhaps allowed more room to have flaws in their relationship than most couples, but this is partly because they are on a series entirely about gay people.

This strategy, as Suzanna Danuta Walters asserts in her book All
The Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in American
, "visually asserts
the absolute ordinariness of the family life as a precursor to the introduction
of the gay theme" which functions to "invite the 'sympathy'
of the viewer" before introducing their sexuality (221).

In other words, the strategy is to make the lesbian characters so "normal" and easy to identify with, viewers will almost forget that they're gay.

It is clear that most television shows do not yet know what to
do with lesbian characters after the "struggling with their sexuality"
storyline, which can only be strung out for so long. So instead of risking potential
controversy by exploring other aspects of being a lesbian — or just being
a person who happens to be a lesbian — they fall back on the one storyline
they know will resonate with a majority of their audience: motherhood.

Another factor contributing to the persistence of this trend is that most TV writers don’t actually watch TV, so they all think they’ve come up with something new and groundbreaking with these lesbian motherhood storylines.

Even when they do know, they don’t necessarily care. Employing a lesbian parenting storyline on an ensemble show is an easy way to intertwine the storyline of the lesbian/bi characters with those of other characters on the show. Lesbian(s) are sometimes saddled with a boring, stereotypical storyline simply because it serves the show’s larger narrative arc, or advances the storylines of other (straight) characters.

The lesbian moms on Friends are a prominent example of this lesbian-mom-as-plot-device, although perhaps not a fair one, since Carol and Susan were never meant to exist anywhere but on the periphery. Better examples are the lesbian insemination storyline on NYPD Blue, and most of Lindsay and Melanie’s storyline on Queer as Folk.

This lesbian-as-mother trend has gotten so out of control that there is currently only one recurrent adult lesbian character on broadcast or cable television who is not a mother — Willow of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and that is probably because she is only a few years out of her teens. If Buffy lasts beyond this season, I won't be at all surprised to see a storyline next year in which Willow and potential new girlfriend Kennedy ask Xander to be the father of their child.

There have been a few other adult lesbian characters in recent years without children, like Original Cindy of Dark Angel and Rhonda on Relativity in 1996, but these characters are historically far outnumbered by the ones who have children (or are in the process of trying to have them).

Subscription channels like HBO and Showtime are the only
place on television where you can consistently find dynamic, multi-dimensional
adult lesbian characters who are not all full-time mothers, on shows like
The Wire and The L Word
and in original movies like Gia, Common Ground, If These
Walls Could Talk 2
, and A Girl
. But these channels are too expensive for many and not available
to some, so they are not an adequate solution to the problem.

Since everyone copies everyone else in Hollywood, it is possible that the success enjoyed by HBO and Showtime with shows and movies that dare to present multi-dimensional lesbian characters will convince network television to give it a try.

In the meantime, I'll be expecting the "good news" from Willow any day now — since on television, biology is destiny, after all.

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