Jumping the Lesbian Shark: Network TV


As we come to the end of this week’s upfront presentations, the annual event when the TV networks unveil their primetime schedules for the upcoming season, one thing is clear: the only thing disappearing faster than network news viewers are lesbians.

In the 2006-2007, almost ten years after Ellen came out on her ABC sitcom and made lesbian TV history, there is not a single regular lesbian character slated for scripted primetime TV.

That’s right: none.

CBS’s Out of Practice, the only series from last season with a regular lesbian character, was not renewed for next season. ABC’s legal drama High Bar (aka Women in Law), the only potential new series with a prominent lesbian character, was not picked up by ABC, for its fall or mid-season schedule. ER‘s Kerry Weaver will still probably continue to exist for another season or so, but her character barely has recurring status.

Even the quasi-bisexual characters are fleeing the scene, as Will & Grace‘s Karen Walker (Megan Mullaly) departs along with her series tonight, and (spoiler warning) Fox’s The O.C. will return next season sans Marisa (Mischa Barton). We’ll still have Girlfriends’ occasionally bisexual Lynn (Persia White), but as I elaborated on previously, the UPN sitcom (now transitioning to The CW) has made such a mockery of this subject that Lynn’s continued existence doesn’t help lesbian and bisexual visibility, it threatens it.

There has been progress elsewhere: out lesbians Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell have found success on daytime talk shows, more lesbians are cropping up on reality TV shows, and there are far more lesbian characters on cable and premium TV than ten years ago, on shows like South of Nowhere (The N), The Wire (HBO), Nip/Tuck (FX) and of course, The L Word (Showtime).

But on America’s most-watched TV comedies and dramas, it’s as if the last ten years of lesbian visibility never happened. Regular lesbian or bisexual characters are few and far between, and those we do get are either teenagers exploring their sexuality in relationships that don’t go anywhere, or adult women whose storylines revolve almost entirely around being parents–it’s no accident that High Bar’s lesbian character (played by Kelli Williams) was going to be a pregnant lawyer. (Note for new readers: I don’t have a problem with lesbian moms–some of my best friends are lesbian moms–but with the fact that trying to conceive, adopt, get custody, or otherwise deal with children are the only storylines adult lesbians get on TV anymore. Read this for a better explanation).

Out of Practice‘s Regina (Paula Marshall), the only new lesbian character on network TV last season, was a realistic, funny, and envelope-pushing character in many ways, but her dating life took place conspicuously off-screen compared to the other (heterosexual) characters on the show. Not that it matters anymore, since she isn’t coming back (perhaps she should have tried getting pregnant).

It all seemed so promising in 1997, when Ellen Morgan (and Ellen DeGeneres) proclaimed she was gay, and news headlines dubbed that decade ‘The Gay 90s’. There were never more than a handful of prominent lesbian characters on network TV at one time, but the numbers grew slightly over the years, peaking in 2000 with lesbians on Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, and The Ellen Show, and holding steady at two or three characters each season after that.

Then the numbers began to dwindle again, as long-running lesbian characters were retired along with their shows, and few new ones arose to take their place. Many of those that did–like Wonderfalls’ Sharon, and Coupling’s Jane–were on shows that were quickly canceled.

Finally, in the 2005-2006 season, there was only one regular lesbian character on primetime network TV (Out of Practice).

And then there were none.

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