For same-sex intimacy and complex relationships, viewers continue to turn to The L Word. Although Dante’s Cove, a supernatural soap from here! also includes a cast of lesbian characters (including Queer as Folk‘s Thea Gill), the program is simply less widely available than The L Word, which unfortunately limits its impact on the mainstream.
Showtime’s lesbian drama rankled many viewers and critics during Season 3 with its transgender story line, involving the female-to-male character of Max (Daniela Sea). The story line portrayed transitioning as a secretive process involving under-the-table hormones taken without a doctor’s advice. The story line also raised many stereotypes about gender expression, continuing the series’ trend of marginalizing lesbians who are not traditionally feminine in appearance.
In addition, the lesbian pregnancy story line introduced in Season 2 became bogged down in a custody battle in Season 3, with Bette ending the season by kidnapping her daughter. Finally, The L Word may have driven the last nail in its coffin for many viewers when the character of Dana (Erin Daniels) died of breast cancer.
Nonetheless, The L Word continues to be one of the only programs in which lesbians can be full-fledged individuals with careers, romantic relationships and friendships. It shows that lesbians can live in a community with its own support structure and cultural practices, and it does deal â€” albeit sometimes in a clumsy fashion â€” with race, class and gender. It depicts women who work in high-powered professions and who are successful at them. It includes women of color who are at the tops of their fields.
And inarguably, The L Word has done more than any other program on television to dispel the stereotype of the ugly lesbian. Although many viewers objected to the series’ fashion-forward ethos at its beginning, it is clear that the feminine, fashionable characters of The L Word have made a difference in the way that mainstream America sees lesbians.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
This past year marked a number of significant gains in the battle for positive representations of lesbians and bisexual women on television. The most positive step undoubtedly came in the genre of unscripted television, in which a lesbian had an entire reality series based around her life. Broadcast television fared less well, with only a couple of regular lesbian characters on prime time. Cable television did include more lesbian characters, but except on The L Word or Dante’s Cove, those characters were not allowed to have active love lives.
The coming year marks many opportunities for lesbians to make further progress in fair representation. Two new cable dramas, Dirt (FX) and Blood Ties (Lifetime), will be featuring lesbian or bisexual characters, and out bisexual actress Kristanna Loken has signed to star as the title role in the Sci-Fi series Painkiller Jane. In addition, previews of Season 4 of The L Word suggest that this coming season will address several of the problems from Season 3 â€” particularly in the way it treated gender issues.
But there is room for improvement. An openly queer contestant of either sex has never been featured on American Idol, the top reality show in the country. And broadcast television could easily do better in its number of regular lesbian characters. Large ensemble dramas such as Lost or Heroes have many opportunities to introduce lesbian characters, and so far there have been none. Let’s hope that in 2007, that will change.