Does “Life” have a problem with lesbians?


I like Life. I like Sarah Shahi. I like Det. Crews’ (Damian Lewis) attempts to reconcile his Zen Buddhist outlook with the realities of policework.

What I don’t like? The overwhelmingly negative way Life is portraying queer women.

First, to set the stage: there are no out lesbian/bi detectives, police officers, or FBI agents on Life (i.e. none of the good guys are gay). There are actually no lesbian series regulars on any primetime broadcast TV show, and there are only three bisexual series regulars (out of over 500 total).

In the 30 episodes of Life that have aired so far, we’ve seen no sympathetic, prominent, or positive depictions of lesbian or bisexual characters.

Here’s what we have seen:

Bisexual drug users who walk around half-naked at parties and hook up with whomever they’re told to, which included Shahi’s character Det. Dani Reese ("Dig a Hole Part 1")

A lesbian/bi woman engaging in S&M with her female secretary in the office, while &#8212 unknown to her &#8212 her almost-ex husband is dead in a box somewhere ("Find Your Happy Place").

Near-naked women making out in a morgue at a goth party ("5 Quarts").

This most recent scene occurred last night, when Det. Crews and his temporary partner Det. Jane Seever (Gabrielle Union) discover a dead coroner has been renting out his morgue for goth parties (dead bodies included).

So, to summarize, queer women are mostly invisible on Life, but when we see them, they’re promiscuous fetishists and exhibitionists with little regard for the law.

Which begs the question: does Life have a problem with lesbian and bisexual women?

Or more specifically, does its creator/writer Rand Ravich (who wrote two of these episodes himself)?

To be fair, we don’t have a leading lesbian/bi character on any law enforcement show on TV, so it’s not like Ravich is doing anything different the rest of the series creators on broadcast TV. But that defense is about as good as telling your mom you were calling that kid names because everyone else in class was, too.

And yes, I know there are plenty of rebellious, promiscuous, and dishonest straight characters on Life, too. But the show also has plenty of interesting, complicated, and at least semi-positive depictions of straight characters to balance those out. We have no such lesbian/bi characters on Life (or practically anywhere else on broadcast TV) to balance out the stereotypical ones.

There was a gay male couple featured prominently in one episode ("What They Saw"), but one of them killed the other one. (But hey, they were fully clothed! That’s progress, right?)

A New York Times article entitled "Gay Images: TV’s Mixed Signals" that starts off by declaring that, "recurring lesbian and gay characters are scarce on series television," addresses this imbalance issue directly:

…stereotyping is the name of the television entertainment game. No one is exempt. But the heterosexual stereotypes at least encompass an enormously broad and thorough range of heterosexuals. Homosexuals, on the other hand, tend to be defined primarily by their sexuality and are too often limited to a handful of tired depictions, with “sissies” at one extreme and black-leather fetishists at the other.

The article wasn’t talking about Life, but it could have been: a lack of queer recurring characters, a tendency to define the queer characters primarily by their sexuality, and portraying gay people as fetishists. Sound familiar?

The kicker? That article was written in 1991.

It’s 18 years later and those words are just as applicable today, at least on broadcast TV: we’re still begging TV writers not to only show us in stereotypically negative roles that reinforce the kinds of attitudes that lead to discrimination.

Charlie Crews likes to say, "None of us are alone, even as we exhale it is inhaled by others." It doesn’t take a detective to figure out that spewing out these kinds of one-sided, stereotypical portrayals of lesbians and bisexual women — however fleeting — is ultimately bad for the culture we’re all living in.

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