Visibility Matters: The Disappearing Lesbian on Primetime Broadcast TV


When the decline in lesbian TV visibility is discussed, the factors most often mentioned are the conservative political climate, and the proliferation of reality TV (which has drastically reduced the number of scripted series).

But one factor has been left out of the discussion, and it may be the most critical one of all: the increasing visibility of bisexual women.

When I reviewed the way The O.C. portrayed its bisexual teen character Alex (Olivia Wilde) in early 2005, I commented that, “bisexual characters on network television are about as rare as a rainy day in Orange County.”

What a difference three years makes.

In the current 2008-2009 season, the only queer female characters on scripted broadcast television are bisexual.

Grey’s Anatomy (ABC), House, M.D. (Fox), and Bones (Fox) all include regular or recurring bisexual characters who have had romantic relationships with men and women.

L to R: Angela on Bones; Callie on Grey’s, and Thirteen on House

The first openly bisexual TV character was L.A. Law‘s C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe), who came out in an episode in 1991. Roseanne‘s recurring character Nancy (Sandra Bernhard) followed a year later, but there were no new bisexual characters until the turn of the century, when short-lived comedies like That ’80s Show (2000) and Coupling (2003) introduced one-dimensional bisexual characters.

That same year, Two and a Half Men (2003) debuted with Marin Hinkle playing Jon Cryer’s character’s maybe-bisexual wife, but that aspect of her sexuality was soon dropped.

It wasn’t until 2005 that we saw the first attempt at well-developed bisexual characters, on The O.C. (at least until the storyline jumped the shark halfway through the season), and One Tree Hill.

That same year, Persia White’s technically-bisexual character Lynn on The UPN sitcom Girlfriends finally had on-screen relationship with a woman for the first time in an ill-fated storyline.

Around this time, bisexual characters started turning up occasionally in minor guest-star roles on primetime broadcast dramas like North Shore and Wonderfalls.

On basic cable TV, there was a jump in bisexual characters in the mid 2000s, especially on “edgy” shows like Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Degrassi, and South of Nowhere.

Queer teen couple Spencer and Ashley, far right, on South of Nowhere

But it wasn’t until the last year or two that bisexual women began cropping up on primetime scripted broadcast TV as supporting or leading characters.

In most cases, the character’s bisexuality still exists primarily in name only, with the occasional Sweeps episode exploring her Sapphic side. But there has been a slow but steady improvement in bisexual visibility on TV.

More (mostly positive) visibility for bisexual women is a good thing, considering how marginalized they’ve been for so long.

But it appears that improved visibility for bisexual women has come at the expense of visibility for lesbians, and this trade-off is only going to happen more frequently moving forward.

In a television environment in which lesbian and bisexual women are still primarily confined to token or supporting characters, and there’s only room for one leading queer woman (if any), writers on mainstream TV shows will choose a bisexual character over a lesbian every time.

Why? It’s all about keeping your options open.

Primetime broadcast TV shows aimed at a audience comprised of a majority of heterosexual viewers prefer bisexual characters over lesbians because they allow for maximum titillation (which translates to ratings) and storytelling options (since they can be paired with a man or a woman), and minimal potential for alienating a majority of their audience (straight men).

The only reason TV writers didn’t make this switch years ago is because social taboos around bisexuality prevented them from doing so. Now that social restrictions around portraying female bisexuality have been relaxed, network execs, showrunners, and writers are free to exploit female bisexuality at will.

There will always be far more shows targeted to a broad audience, rather than a niche audience (lesbians).

From a business standpoint, there’s no good reason to add a prominent lesbian character (limited storytelling options, more alienating to straight men) over a bisexual one (broader storytelling options, more pleasing to straight men).

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