Visibility Matters: The Disappearing Lesbian on Primetime Broadcast TV

Obviously, a show could include both lesbian and bisexual women, but that will happen only rarely until we get to the point where true diversity of characters is the norm.

But before we point too many fingers at mainstream TV writers, it’s worth nothing that we still don’t have diversity in shows aimed at an LGBT audience, at least not when it comes to sexual orientation.

Bisexual women on shows aimed primarily at a lesbian audience are still ignored (Exes & Ohs); vilified (Tina on The L Word); or turned gay (Alice on The L Word).

The cast of Exes & Ohs

“Lesbian” shows don’t include bisexual women because many lesbians have negative or mixed emotional reactions to bisexuality — often lumping it in with heterosexual experimentation, or buying into stereotypes that equate bisexuality with promiscuity — and showrunners and network execs don’t want to alienate the largest segment of their audience, or they just want to prioritize the types of characters their audience is most likely to respond to.

Which means bisexual women are absent from lesbian shows for the same reason lesbians are absent from mainstream shows — the creators/writers/producers are playing to their base.

It also doesn’t help that many heterosexuals and gay men don’t understand, or want to understand, the difference between lesbian and bisexual women.

In her statement reassuring Grey’s Anatomy fans that Brooke Smith wasn’t dismissed because her character became a lesbian, Rhimes said, “Clearly it’s not an issue as we have a lesbian character on the show – Calliope Torres.” But only four days earlier, the writers had clearly established Callie’s bisexuality with a convoluted storyline involving her sleeping with a male doctor twice and concluding that she liked sex with men just as much as with women.

Either Rhimes doesn’t know the difference between lesbian and bisexual women, or she does and doesn’t think anyone else will. Unfortunately, the latter is probably true.

There is one place lesbians still show up with some regularity on primetime scripted broadcast TV: crime dramas. Not as cops, detectives, FBI agents, forensics specialists, or anyone else on the crime-fighting team, but as victims or criminals. Especially during Sweeps periods.

In just the first two months of the 2009-2009 season, we’ve had sadomasochistic lesbian crime victims on Life; a dead lesbian astronaut and her grieving partner on Law and Order: SVU; and a dead lesbian victim’s advocate on Without a Trace.

How many of these shows have ever had lesbians (or even bi women) in lead roles? None.

Last week I blogged about the Without a Trace episode, in which the agents drop a lesbian abduction case halfway through in favor of tracking down a kidnapped child, because it was such a clear example of the way writers on crime shows use lesbians only when it’s convenient to advance another story line, or to maximize ratings (Without a Trace has never had a lesbian character as part of the cast).

A lesbian — and a lesbian storyline — disappear
Without a Trace

As I was writing about the episode, I debated internally whether to include the same explanation I and other writers on have provided many, many times over the years about the problem with lesbians on crime dramas — that it isn’t that there are lesbian and bisexual crime victims and criminals mixed in with all the heterosexual ones, but that there are virtually never any lesbian/bi cops, FBI agents, forensics investigators, etc. to balance them out (whereas there are plenty of heterosexual lead characters to balance out the heterosexual crime victims and perpetrators).

In other words: that it’s not as much about the individual episode, as about how the episode fits into the context of that show, and the broader TV landscape.

But I decided against going into all that again in the Without a Trace blog post, because after six years of explaining this every time we criticize a crime drama that features a lesbian criminal/victim, it felt redundant, and I thought it was understood by now, at least by our readers.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

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