Visibility Matters: Talk of the Nation

 
 

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

Yesterday I participated in an interesting live, 30-minute discussion about The L Word and lesbian/bi visibility in general on National Public Radio‘s national radio show "Talk of the Nation."

Click here to listen to the segment now on NPR.com

With interviews like this, where you have multiple guests and callers and a lot of ground to cover, you usually don’t get to mention more than 10% of what you had planned to, and you say "um" more frequently than you would like (or maybe that’s just me).

But I think the resulting discussion overall was interesting and revealing — and hopefully enlightening to some of the show’s straight listeners. (NPR overall reportedly skews white and male, and averages about 20 million listeners a week, according to a 2003 study).

The host, Neal Conan, kicked thing off by asking me some questions about The L Word (what it meant to lesbians/bi women, reactions to the finale, etc.), and that led to a discussion with segment’s other guest, Larry Gross — a professor and director of the School of Communication at USC Annenberg, and the author of the 2002 book Up From Invisibility — about the role of television in validating minority groups. Presence on television, said Gross, confers full membership in American society.

Interspersed throughout were calls and emails from listeners, most of whom were queer women, but a few of whom were men.

Opinions on The L Word were diverse: Amy called in to say she was ambivalent about the show, because the storylines were too unbelievable; Susan called in to praise the show, saying she felt like the show gave us a voice in a mostly heterosexual society; bisexual listener Katie emailed to say the show was her lesbian Sex and the City, but tended to oversexualize the characters; and Joey called in to express her disappointment in the show’s lack of butch lesbians.

The cast of "The L Word"

The conversation then moved from The L Word to the current lack of lesbian characters on TV.

I was impressed that NPR did at least some basic homework on the subject (even if Conan did mix up Shane and Tina when talking about The L Word, which was funny). Most people are clueless about the lack of lesbian characters on TV, but Conan asserted this fact repeatedly, which was a nice change from the usual erroneous "lesbians are all over TV!" mantra I hear from straight people who think we’re everywhere because they watch Ellen.

But — and this gets to the heart of the problem — several listeners emailed Conan during the show to claim there are lesbians on TV, by citing Callie on Grey’s Anatomy and Thirteen on House.

Conan’s response was to point out that these characters aren’t very prominent, and Gross provided an interesting analysis of how minorities (including LGBT characters) usually begin in supporting roles, then graduate to more prominent roles over time. But neither Conan nor Gross addressed the most glaring problem with using Callie and Thirteen as examples of lesbian characters: they’re bisexual, not lesbians.

Either Conan, Gross, and the emailers didn’t know this fact, and/or they didn’t think it was an important distinction. TV writers and showrunners enable this confusion by consistently refusing to differentiate between lesbian and bi women, as I noted during the show and as we’ve already addressed at length on this site.

But making the distinction is important because bisexual TV characters overwhelmingly end up dating mostly men; because conflating the two promotes the idea that lesbians sleep with men; and because it leads to people emailing NPR to claim there are prominent lesbian characters on TV, when there aren’t.

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