I remember one of my first thoughts when, as a closeted college student, I finally started watching The L Word:
“God, these people are rich.”
Television, of course, is known for depicting characters living in unrealistic circumstances. Friends is often held up as an example—how exactly were any of those people able to afford those massive NYC apartments? We have to allow some room for practical considerations; it is, after all much easier on the film crew to have more space to operate in. But we do have to question other implications of affluence, especially when it is constantly associated with people who are actually more likely to be low-income like gay women.
Bisexual and lesbian women especially have long been associated with aristocracy, and TV is no exception.
In the context of traditional literature and legend, affluent women may have less need to play by heterosexist society’s rules and can indulge in relationships that won’t lead to marriage. This association holds true in contemporary takes on history and high fantasy.
On the HBO television series Rome (2005-2007), for instance, a power play results in a lesbian affair between aristocrats. The vampire legend, according to feminist film theorist Barbara Creed, owes much to Countess Erzsébet Báthory, who was allegedly inspired to murder young women by a bisexual aunt and who, in turn, inspired the bisexual vampiric Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel, as well as many other TV and film characters. More recently, Game of Thrones depicted Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), a lesser aristocrat (but a daughter of a lord nonetheless), as a lesbian.
TV series depicting the contemporary world are also fond of affluent, often powerful women. One surprising instance occurred in Sherlock, whose modern take on Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) is a dominatrix in an incredibly expensive London district and a gay woman who might or might not be intimate with her assistant (Rosalind Halstead). Arrow reimagines Nyssa Raatko of DC Comics as a lesbian and gives her her father’s surname (the show may not emphasize their wealth, but as a comics fan, I should point out the al Ghul family are mega-rich, as in Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen have got nothing on them).
All the women sampled above occupy different time periods and genres, but what they have in common is a great deal of money and power.
Outside of castles and spacious London homes, many lesbians and bi women are depicted as upper middle-class. Professions include doctors, lawyers, detectives (rather than beat cops), or simply being the child of wealthy parents. In academic literature, Ally McBeal, The L Word, and The O.C. were problematized for their association of gay women with upper middle-class wealth and materialism. Subsequent shows such as Desperate Housewives, Pretty Little Liars and even Transparent have continued the tradition of presenting lesbians as fairly affluent. Returning to the vampire, shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries have also been noted by academics for the lesbian/vampirism/wealth association.
On one hand, such depictions may help with visibility. Lesbian and bisexual women can occupy roles we see in daily life, as well as highly popular myths. They can be the couple next door or a new incarnation of a familiar trope. On the other hand (nothing is ever simple, is it?), it can be alienating for women who struggle to find a connection with characters for whom even the middle-class life seems to be a distant, unattainable dream.
In their 2009 report, the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law found that lesbian/gay/bi women (their classification) are statistically likelier to be in poverty than heterosexual women. The Institute’s authors noted that these statistics were determined after adjustments for other factors that influence poverty. The National Survey of Family Growth, which the Institute’s authors cite, found that 24% of gay women were living in poverty in 2002 as opposed to 15% of gay men. A higher poverty level amongst heterosexual people was found only in the California Health Surveys. This was still contingent upon age and level and education. Maybe that explains The L Word.
The report also took race and location into account, finding that gay African-American couples and rural gay couples had “particularly high poverty rates” at the time of data collection. Ultimately, the Institute’s authors were able to argue that “The myth of gay and lesbian affluence is just that—a myth.”
Yet following the recession, affluence continued to dominate popular perceptions of gay people, with same-sex marriage becoming an ideal site for those perceptions. How many times did we hear the joke that same-sex marriage would boost the economy? Gay men would need expensive decorations, femme lesbians would need two overpriced dresses, etc. Some seemed to think gay and lesbian love would single-handedly pull the economy out of the gutter.
Not so. In 2011, Arlene Stein of Rutgers University focused on Newark, New Jersey to demonstrate that images of marriage equality and gay family life center upon the middle class. For gay people who hold less affluent, benefit-granting jobs and who may not necessarily come from accepting families, she argues, marriage equality does not, in fact, bring actual equality.
The Williams Institute released an updated report in 2013. The findings here weren’t much better. Bisexual and lesbian women were still likelier to be poor, though the authors argued that the differences between these women and heterosexual women “are not statistically significant.” I am admittedly not versed in quantitative reasoning of economics or law, but the difference between 29.4% and 21.1% still gives me pause in spite of the authors’ conclusion. Tellingly, however, the updated study finds that women are likelier to “be among the ‘working poor.’” Rurality further compounds the likelihood of poverty among lesbians.
In 2015, the Center for American Progress presented similar findings. As in the Williams Institute study, lesbian women’s financial prospects were determined to be linked to workplace acceptance, health issues, parenthood, and social support networks.
While the correlation between gay women and lower incomes is certainly more nuanced than this snapshot can discuss, there is a consensus across the board: gay women are economically vulnerable.
There are certainly many wealthy lesbian and bi women, but we occupy the lower end of the financial spectrum with frightening regularity. Even if she is privileged in other ways (white, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.), a gay woman has the financial odds stacked against her.
Not too surprisingly, a number of more recent TV shows have worked to depict a broader spectrum of women. Instead of a power couple, Lena (Sherri Saum) and Stef (Teri Polo) of The Fosters appeared to be in the lower middle-class bracket. Both the original UK Shameless and its US iteration include women in its cast of working class and poor gay and lesbian characters, a definite reminder to viewers that homosexuality is not a luxury of the affluent. The American remake of The Killing featured a homeless teenage lesbian (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in a plot that draws attention to the very real dangers facing gay and lesbian youths who, cast out by their families, have nowhere else to turn (the Williams Institute’s 2012 report found that 40% of homeless teens seeking help from agencies identified as LGBT).
Orange Is the New Black placed a wealthy bisexual woman in a prison alongside other bi and gay women of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. Even when the show provides light-hearted moments, it’s impossible to disassociate prison from class (and here, race as well).
Entertainment allows us to escape, albeit briefly, from our lives. A woman struggling to make ends meet may not want to watch fictional women going through the same struggle. But she may also want to see, even in the escapist fantasy of fiction, women who share her fears, anxieties, and hardships. It has long been clear that the myth of gay affluence is indeed a myth.
This article has presented only a small sampling of TV series that draw attention to lesbian and bisexual women and class, some of which promote that myth and some that challenge it. I wouldn’t call any of them perfect representations because I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect representation. But just as the issue of class is elaborately nuanced, so, too, are the media that depict it. Gay women’s increased presence in popular media opens the door for more varied perspectives on class; hopefully, more writers will start addressing it.