Year in Queer 2006: Television

 
 

In 2006, Tyra Banks’ hit reality show, America’s Next Top Model, finally broke its one-lesbian-per-series rule. Early on in Cycle 7 of Top Model, Megan Morris came out during a phone call with her girlfriend on the air. After Morris was eliminated in the second episode, 19-year-old Michelle Babin, who became one of the five finalists, came out on the air to both her twin sister and her mother, who was immediately accepting of her daughter.

Although Morris and Babin were not out at the same time on Top Model, the fact that the show featured two queer contestants in the same season marks clear progress. In Cycle 5, which included openly gay finalist Kim Stolz, two other contestants were also reportedly queer but were not out on the show. In another example of de-gaying, African-American contestant Zulema Griffin of the second season of Project Runway was reportedly out to her fellow contestants, but producers chose not to reveal that she is a lesbian on the show.

The reality series that definitively put lesbians on the unscripted map this year was Bravo’s Work Out, which followed the business and love life of Los Angeles-based trainer and lesbian Jackie Warner. Significantly, Jackie’s girlfriend, Mimi, was an integral part of the six-episode series, which has been picked up for a second season due to air in 2007. Jackie and Mimi’s on-and-off relationship was portrayed in all its dramatic glory, and the couple were often seen kissing or cuddling together, as well as talking frankly about their sexual attraction to each other. Outside of premium cable shows such as The L Word, there has never been such a multi-faceted portrayal of a lesbian relationship on television.

Talk Shows and Documentaries

One of the most significant signs that lesbians are now generally welcome into the American living room is the continued success of Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. Indeed, DeGeneres’ popularity has resulted in her being tapped to host the 79th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 25, 2007. She will be only the second woman to host the show (Whoopi Goldberg previously hosted the Oscars four times), and she will likely do it while wearing a suit, thereby continuing to quietly but steadily make room for women who do not tow the traditionally feminine fashion line.

Rosie O’Donnell‘s return to daytime this year as a co-host of ABC’s The View resulted in a ratings boom for the Barbara Walters-led gabfest, proving that mainstream Americans were willing and ready to listen to someone speak openly about her lesbian identity. O’Donnell consistently mentioned her partner, Kelly, talked openly about their marriage, and even called out television personality Kelly Ripa for making a possibly homophobic comment. Unfortunately, O’Donnell’s popularity — and her positive impact on mainstream America in the realm of gay rights — may now have been compromised by her recent insensitive remarks about Chinese people, and by the inadequate apology she delivered after being chastised by a number of Asian-American organizations.

Prior to her arrival on The View, O’Donnell was also on television in the HBO documentary All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise, which documented the maiden voyage of O’Donnell’s R Family Cruises. HBO also delivered a very positive portrait of tennis legend and out lesbian Billie Jean King with their special, Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer.

Last but not least, Oprah Winfrey tackled the subject of lesbians coming out while in heterosexual marriages on an episode of Oprah. Though the stories of these women discovering their sexual orientation after getting married to men rang true for many viewers, Winfrey’s professed ignorance of many gay issues seemed a bit doubtful — especially after she and best friend Gayle King did their best to explain that they are not gay in a lengthy interview with O magazine.

Scripted Television: Broadcast

On scripted television in 2006, as in 2005, lesbians and bisexual women remained marginalized on the broadcast networks, with most regular or recurring roles for queer characters appearing on cable channels.

Although several scripted television series included standalone episodes featuring lesbian characters, there were only three regular or recurring lesbian characters on broadcast television in 2006: ER‘s Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), Out of Practice‘s Dr. Regina Barnes (Paula Marshall) and Book of Daniel‘s Victoria Conlin (Cheryl White). Of those three characters, only Dr. Kerry Weaver is still standing at the end of this year, as both Out of Practice (CBS) and Book of Daniel (NBC) were canceled — Book of Daniel after airing only four episodes last January. As of this month, Dr. Kerry Weaver is the only recurring lesbian character on scripted broadcast television, a situation that is, frankly, inexcusable.

Thankfully, last month Dr. Weaver’s character met a woman, went out on dates with her, and even was granted a kiss in prime time — something that Dr. Weaver hasn’t experienced in years. The kiss on its own is significant, as it is also one of the more passionate same-sex kisses to be aired on network television. Laura Innes is rumored to be departing ER in the near future, so at least she may be leaving the show on a high note.

In the situation comedy Out of Practice, Dr. Regina Barnes’ character did not share any kisses with any women, but her sexual orientation was often mentioned and became an integral part of her character. Unfortunately, any development in the relationship arena was truncated when the show was not renewed for a second season.

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