Who actually makes the perfect lesbian character?
Anyone with anything to sell is obsessed with the quest for better customer data. Would viewers prefer James Bond to be blond and English or dark-haired and Scottish? Will toothpaste sell better if the person in the ad is wearing a blue shirt or a red shirt? What buzzwords and pictures will sway undecided voters toward one party or another?
In a perfect marketing world, with enough data, much of life could be boiled down to the exact inputs necessary to produce exactly the desired customer response. However, accurate, complete data for most things is impossible—too many factors are unpredictable or variable—but that doesn’t prevent the illusion of one day finding the magical formula for success.
Focus groups are often used to determine drivers of popularity in marketing before a product is released and after the product is released consumers provide additional feedback in the form of actual consumption patterns. This feedback loop is one of many components of the entertainment industry, and the cumulative data of viewership trends provide a treasure trove of information about what viewers like and don’t like.
Obviously, a better understanding of the audience of a movie or TV show will enable producers to make tweaks that will maintain and expand viewership in among the target demographic. Put plainly: give the people what they want and they’ll keep coming back for more.
So what do lesbian audiences want?
Or rather, who do they want? I have sometimes wondered: if a full analysis were done of every highly popular lesbian character on the big and small screens, would a picture of an “ideal” lesbian character emerge? Are there cross-cutting traits among these characters that if combined into a single character would predict the certain and fantastic success of that character?
In an amateur effort to find out whether, using some easily available data, it would be possible to even begin reaching preliminary conclusions about the drivers of a character’s popularity, I did my own informal analysis. Using our Top 50 Lesbian and Bisexual Characters survey in 2010 (of which I looked at the top 25), a Best Lesbian and Bisexual Character poll in 2013 and a Best Actress in a Queer Role poll in 2016 that probably can be viewed as a proxy for character popularity (I took the top 16 of each of the latter two).
Together, these three reader polls represent six years and 57 lesbian and bi fan favorites.
The lists don’t represent the ultimate, authoritative fan favorites of the global lesbian community, but they probably do in general represent popularity trends in the community.
Of these 57 characters, 17 appeared on at least two of the three lists. Only two appeared on all three lists. The characters and their nomination years are:
Dr. Arizona Robbins (Grey’s Anatomy) (2010, 2013, 2016)
Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (2010, 2013, 2016)
Bo Dennis (Lost Girl) (2013, 2016)
Dr. Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy) (2010, 2016)
Luce (Imagine Me & You) (2010, 2016)
Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess) (2010, 2016)
Shane McCutcheon (The L Word) (2010, 2016)
Alice Pieszecki (The L Word) (2010, 2013)
Bette Porter (The L Word) (2010, 2013)
Dana Fairbanks (The L Word) (2010, 2013)
Carmen de la Pica Morales (The L Word) (2010, 2013)
Naomi Campbell (Skins) (2010, 2013)
Emily Fitch (Skins) (2010, 2013)
Spencer Carlin (South of Nowhere) (2010, 2013)
Lucy Diamond (D.E.B.S.) (2010, 2013)
Ellen Morgan (Ellen) (2010, 2013)
Leyla (I Can’t Think Straight) (2010, 2013)
Contrary to my expectations, very few conclusions seem to be drawable from this list. In fact, there are really only three common themes that stand out to me:
1. Lesbian TV characters are more popular than movie characters. This is probably because viewers have prolonged exposure to TV characters while movie characters are “one and done.” 14 of the 17 characters on the list were TV characters, while only four were movie characters. Viewers also prefer TV characters who lasted multiple seasons. None of the TV characters were on a show for fewer than two seasons. Again, this is probably because viewers want more time to get to know the character and develop an emotional attachment.
2. Gay women prefer adult characters, but have a soft spot for teens. 14 of the 17 characters were adults; Naomi, Emily, and Spencer were the only teens. Teenage characters are consistently found among fan favorite lists, probably reflecting both the votes of young lesbian and queer women and the nostalgia and vicarious viewing habits of women out of their teens. Specific teen characters tend not to last across multiple years, however, and are replaced by new teenage characters.
3. There’s something about The L Word…The persistent popularity of characters from The L Word is notable, particularly given the general ambivalence about the show itself. One could understand if characters from The L Word scored highly while the show was still on the air or shortly thereafter (it ended in 2009), but Alice, Bette, Dana, and Carmen managed to make fan favorite lists even four years later, and Shane suddenly reappeared on the list in seven years later. Although there are probably several reasons for this trend, the main point is that they were very popular characters.
It is the almost complete lack of shared traits rather than the few evident trends that is the most interesting part of this list.
The characters are, to cite my previous article about “spoonality,” all types of spoons: big, little, and versatile, meaning they have all sorts of personality types, from dominating presences like Xena to shyer, more awkward types like Willow. They span multiple genres: medical, fantasy, drama, comedy. They are racially diverse, and if none of them are super butch, that’s more of a reflection on Hollywood’s discomfort with anything that’s not gender normative and casting than anything else.
There’s even some age diversity. Most had romantic relationships with happy endings, but not all of them, suggesting that—at least in the past—there is a weak causal link between a fan favorite couple and support for the individual characters in that couple.
So why these 17 then? What links them together if not common characteristics?
One hypothesis is sentimentality. It’s common to hear American Baby Boomers recall where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was shot. American Millenials and Gen Xers might one day have the same memories about the moments when the Twin Towers were taken down by terrorists flying hijacked airplanes.
When it comes to the lesbian community, most of us have a TV show or a movie that we remember as being pivotal to the moment we realized we were gay or bi, or that we were part of a wider community that was represented on screen. And what were those shows? Ellen, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, South of Nowhere, Skins, The L Word, etc. These shows were all groundbreaking in their own way, and the lesbian community has continued to remember the characters in them fondly.
The sentimentality hypothesis can’t account for everything, however.
For example, why Spencer but not Ashley? Leyla but not Tala? Luce but not Rachel? If fans are responding to specific shows or movies based on sentimentality, how do they choose the specific character? A second hypothesis is that fans either saw the characters as proxies for themselves or saw the characters as representing what they would want to be/date. In this hypothesis, a Willow, Layla, or a Spencer would be a proxy, while a Luce, Xena, or Bo would be an object of attraction or admiration.
Undoubtedly there are more hypotheses for why these characters are all so different from each other, but the broader point is simply that there is no magic equation to produce the perfect fictional lesbian. For studios, this is both good and bad.
On the plus side, it means that studios have lots of creative licenses to create whatever personality and persona they want for their characters. From queer pseudo-pirates to bisexual hackers to “bee persons,” each is as likely to be popular with gay and bi female fans as any other character. Based on the above preliminary analysis, it’s hard (if not impossible) for a studio to consciously engineer a character that will continue to be popular in the long-term because her popularity will largely hinge on external, intangible factors such as audience members coming of age or “first ever” portrayals on screen.
All hope is not lost.
Studios may not be able to ensure the popularity of a lesbian character in the long run, but in the short term, two variables almost certainly are controllable that affect the immediate popularity of a character: the storyline and the number of seasons the character is on the show.
The lesbian community likes characters with a good storyline and will reward characters who have been given a good storyline over ones with a bad storyline. This may explain why Lexa of The 100 caught on but not Sara Lance on Legends of Tomorrow, both of whom are female fighters on a sci-fi/fantasy genre show. It’s also significantly easier to empathize with and become invested in characters that undergo character development over the course of several years than characters who are on for only one season.
Of course, it goes without saying that none of this matters if studios don’t care about wooing a lesbian audience. If a gay or bi female character is thrown in to meet a diversity quota, or to seem hip and modern, then producers will have little incentive to implement best practices. Hollywood—or maybe just some TV shows—seems to be moving toward embracing lesbian viewers, however, and hopefully will begin consistently providing well-written storylines for lesbian characters over multiple seasons if not by design, then by coincidence.
In either case, the outcome is the same, and a boon for the lesbian and bi community.