Bravo’s “Out of the Closet” Ignores Lesbians and Bisexual Women


Out of the Closet, unfortunately, completely ignores this important moment in the history of gays and lesbians on television, skipping blithely onward to Billy Crystal’s role as the somewhat-effeminate but lovable gay man Jodie Dallas on the comedy Soap.

The documentary neglects to mention that there was also a lesbian on Soap–Jodie’s friend Alice, whom he meets while considering suicide at the top of the Triborough Bridge (she is also considering suicide). They become best friends and roommates, but their relationship ends when Jodie is forced to choose between custody of his daughter or living with a lesbian (he chooses his daughter).

Soap was groundbreaking not only because it had a gay man as a regular cast member, but it also contained a recurring lesbian character and one of the few happy lesbian-gay friendships to be seen on television.

In the 1980s the US was forced to deal with the AIDS crisis, and much of television in the first half of the decade revolved around this illness. Out of the Closet discusses the TV movie An Early Frost which deals with this issue, the sometimes-gay character Steven Carrington on Dynasty, and the 1989 Thirtysomething episode “Strangers” in which we see our first gay male couple in bed together.

But Out of the Closet ignores the short-lived medical drama Heartbeat (1988-89), which featured television’s first regular lesbian character, nurse Marilyn McGrath (played by Gail Strickland), who was in a long-term relationship with her partner Patti (Gina Hecht). On Heartbeat, Marilyn and Patti were never allowed to touch affectionately or sexually (the case with most gay couples on network TV), but they were fully accepted by the other characters on the show and thus provided a relatively positive image for lesbians and bisexual women.

Out of the Closet also neglects the well-received miniseries The Women of Brewster Place (1989), which was produced by and starred Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Donna Deitch, who also directed the lesbian classic Desert Hearts, this miniseries was set in a 1967 tenement and has provided one of the few representations of African American lesbians to ever be seen on television.

The lesbian couple Lorraine (Lunette McKee) and Tee (Paula Kelly) are the most stable romantic couple in the two-part movie, but they are constantly discriminated against by their neighbors.

Eventually Lorraine is raped by a gang leader and in the aftermath physically assaults their handyman neighbor Ben. In the Gloria Naylor novel that this miniseries was based on, Lorraine kills the handyman, but in the miniseries version it is unclear whether Ben dies.

Although once again we encounter the stereotype of the murderous lesbian, The Women of Brewster Place was significant because it portrayed a physically affectionate African American lesbian couple who appeared to be fairly happy together. Lorraine’s attack on Ben could be read as motivated to some degree by the trauma she experienced during her rape, and while unfortunate, it was not anywhere near as stereotypical as the killer lesbians in Police Woman.

The 1990s saw a growing number of lesbians and gay men on television, and this is where Out of the Closet suddenly remembers that lesbians do exist, making sure to pay lip service to Ellen DeGeneres’s significant contribution in coming out in 1997, but dismisses important events like the L.A. Law kiss as “sweeps lesbianism.”

While it is true that television has repeatedly hyped lesbian kisses during sweeps period in order to improve ratings (with shows like Ally McBeal notable for their repeated employment of this tactic, as Closet mentions) L.A. Law’s 1991 kiss between bisexual attorney C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) and her coworker Abby Perkins (Michele Greene) was not merely the first of many sensational smooches, it was a groundbreaking moment in the representation of bisexual women on television: this was the first time that an openly bisexual character expressed physical attraction to another woman, and was not rejected by her or called crazy names.

Roseanne was another 1990s television show that sometimes featured two women kissing and that is dismissed by Out of the Closet as mere “sweeps lesbianism.” Out of the Closet neglects to reveal that Roseanne featured the openly bisexual actress Sandra Bernhard playing a bisexual character on TV–something that had never before been done, and still has not been repeated.

One of the strangest aspects of Out of the Closet’s timeline of lesbians on television is that it focuses a significant segment on Xena: Warrior Princess. Although Xena was certainly a lesbian icon for many viewers and fans of the show, the producers of Xena never went beyond subtext with their character. Co-executive producer (and lesbian) Liz Friedman noted that Xena and Gabrielle being gay “wasn’t ruled out as a possibility,” but goes on to admit, “I think that if they had been definitively and declaratively gay, that would have meant less eyeballs on the screen.”

It was Buffy: The Vampire Slayer that proved that subtext was not enough when in 2000 the character of Willow Rosenberg came out as a lesbian. Out of the Closet does include a brief interview with Joss Whedon, but the overall impression that the documentary leaves is that Willow being gay was matter-of-course and not the revolutionary development that it actually was. The relationship between Willow and Tara was the longest-running lesbian relationship on network television, and Buffy was also the program on which the first lesbian love scene (between Willow and Kennedy in 2003) was aired.

The last segment of Out of the Closet focuses on developments in the last few years, including Queer as Folk (but no mention of Melanie and Lindsay–although perhaps that’s a good thing), Dr. Laura Innes on ER, Sex and the City, Oz, and Bravo’s reality TV series’ Boy Meets Boy and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Although The L Word is mentioned, it is only noted in passing (“now lesbians have their own show”), which begs the question presented by the casual discussion of Buffy: why doesn’t it seem important when lesbians are on TV?

The fact is, lesbians have often been dismissed as less significant than gay men for several reasons. First, lesbians are women, and Americans tend to feel that women are more sexually experimental than men; the fact that a woman kisses or even has sex with another woman does not always mean that they are exclusively gay. (If you’re in doubt, turn on your TV in the middle of the night and catch an infomercial for the Girls Gone Wild videos.) In addition, the vast majority of lesbians on television look conventionally feminine and thus straight; they don’t challenge heterosexist norms with their appearance and it’s easy to think that they would be equally willing to date men.

These cultural beliefs signal the fact that it’s easy to think that lesbians aren’t really gay; they’re just experimenting, and they’re going to go back to dating men and being wives and mothers as soon as they’re done trying out girls. Very few television programs challenge these beliefs, with Buffy being a notable exception (after Willow loses Tara, she does not go back to dating men).

It is only when lesbians on television challenge heterosexuality by not going back to being straight or by looking less than straight that the mainstream viewer is threatened. That threat is linked to a fear that maybe these lesbians don’t need men in their lives after all, which is not only discomforting to men but also to heterosexual women who are committed to what might be termed “traditional values.”

In other words, lesbians who remain lesbians and who might even look like they “ought to be driving a diesel truck” blatantly challenge the cultural status quo, from career choices to marriage licenses to the way we raise our children.

The only way to blunt the significance of this challenge is to deny that it is of any importance. So lesbians have their own TV show now–so what, it’s safely on pay cable and besides, it’s titillating enough to straight men that they can ignore the fact that The L Word is about a whole world of gay women whose relationships are vastly different from those that Mrs. Cleaver had in the idyllic 1950s.

There has certainly been a revolution on television over the past half-century, and lesbians and bisexual women have definitely been a part of making that revolution happen. The general exclusion of lesbians and bisexual women from programs like Out of the Closet show that there are still, however, many battles to be fought.

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