More Lesbian Kisses on TV – Between Straight Women

Rory and Paris kiss on "Gilmore Girls"Random lesbian/bi characaters on "North Shore"

In 2003, there were a total of 12 shows on American TV that featured lesbian kisses. Ten months into 2004, we have already seen 14 shows with lesbian kisses, and there are still two months and a sweeps period to go.

But the numbers are misleading, because the increase in lesbian kisses on TV is largely to due to a proliferation of kisses between heterosexual characters, or kisses between one-time guest lesbian characters.

Fake lesbian kisses (i.e. kisses between two straight women) have cropped up five times already in 2004, on the WB’s Gilmore Girls (when one of the girls wanted to test her kissing abilities), Smallville (in which a jealous girl fools the main character into kissing her in order to poison her), and last week’s episode of One Tree Hill (when two girls kiss to fulfill a dare), as well as episodes of FX’s Nip/Tuck (between two women in a dream sequence) and FOX’s Quintuplets (when one of the girls kisses another as part of a play).

Last year, the fake lesbian kiss was only used once, on CBS’s The Handler.

Random lesbian kisses — kisses which have no bearing on the plot and appear to be thrown in just for fun, or to get ratings — are getting more popular, too, showing up in 2004 on HBO’s Deadwood, NBC’s Father of the Pride (which momentarily flashed on two female chipmunks making out), and FX’s Rescue Me (in which a woman unexpectedly kissed an unknown woman in a bar before collapsing from an cocaine overdose); the fake kisses on One Tree Hill and Quintuplets also fall into this category, since they arguably weren’t necessary to advance the story.

By contrast, last year we only saw one random lesbian kiss: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of two women kissing in the background of a scene on HBO’s Dead Like Me.

At the same time, with the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2003, and the shift away from the romantic lives of the regular lesbian characters on ER, The Wire, and All My Children in 2004, there haven’t been many lesbian kisses between full-time cast members in actual lesbian relationships this year outside of the gay-themed shows Queer as Folk and The L Word (Six Feet Under is a notable exception, although the main character involved ultimately decided she was straight and ended the relationship). Two of the shows employing fake or random kisses — Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck — do have lesbian or bisexual characters in the regular cast, but the only lesbian kisses on the shows were between heterosexual characters.

Which means most of the kisses between actual lesbian or bisexual characters in 2004 have been between guest characters on shows like North Shore or Whoopi, rather than between lesbian characters we see on a regular basis.

Not surprisingly, premium channels are far more likely to offer lesbian kisses in the context of actual lesbian relationships, with cable not far behind; lesbian kisses on network TV are more likely to be random or between straight women.

So while we’re seeing more women kiss on TV, outside of the gay-themed series it’s not usually lesbian or bisexual women doing the kissing — and when it is, you’re not likely to see the lesbian characters ever again.

This increase in women kissing on TV can be construed as positive if you’re trying to foster an environment in which women feel more open to experimentation, to exploring the sexuality continuum. This trend is also helpful for de-sensitizing viewers to the image of two women kissing.

But the addition of more fake and de-contextualized kisses obscures the fact that lesbian relationships on television aren’t actually improving much beyond The L Word and other premium channel shows.

A random and fake lesbian kiss on "Smallville"Dana and Lara on "The L Word"

Lesbian and bisexual viewers understand that fake or random lesbian kisses are not equivalent to, or an acceptable substitute for, the development of actual lesbian relationships on TV, any more than throwing in a token Asian character with no storyline is equivalent to creating a fleshed-out, multi-dimensional Asian character. But with an ever-changing and overwhelming number of TV shows and channels available, many heterosexual viewers have a hard time discerning the difference — all they take away from the viewing is that two women were kissing on TV.

It’s hard to argue that lesbians are underrepresented on television when it seems like there’s a lesbian kiss on TV every other week. Worse, anti-gay critics often cite these fake or random kisses as evidence that homosexuality is all over television, and many journalists fall for this argument, reporting on the rise of same-sex kisses on TV without differentiating between the kind of kiss, or pointing out that the number of regular lesbian characters on network TV is actually declining.

Context matters, and while fake or random lesbian kisses may continue to be a popular tool in the never-ending war for ratings, all lesbian kisses are not created equal.