What Is the Future of Lesbian and Bi Women Representation in TV and Film?



AfterEllen has tracked the evolution of Hollywood’s depiction of lesbian and bisexual characters for almost a decade and a half. When the site started, the handful of lesbian characters on TV tended to be bit parts, or characters with brief story arcs. They were not widely found in movies, and when they were, it was in independent films. Then as bi and some lesbian characters began to appear more frequently, they tended to be given male fantasy roles or negative roles: she was the sexy femme fatale cat burglar or the crazy bisexual out for revenge.

When a TV show wanted to add a lesbian couple, they were often given the storyline that they were trying to have a baby. In movies, lesbians tended to be “quirky.” Hollywood then became interested in depictions of teenagers grappling with their sexuality: young adult-oriented shows often depicted a main cast member experiencing a same-sex attraction. As a result of these historical “theme” trends, it has only been in the last seven or so years that TV has finally given gay women a true diversity of roles, from succubi to witches to police officers, and not one but two shows with all lesbian and bi characters.

Lesbian and bisexual characters have been the subject of several major studio movies in the last 15 years (Disobedience (in theaters April 27), Monster, The Kids Are All Right, and Carol), too. From villains to heroes, mothers to goddesses, gay women characters have been found in every role that straight female characters have (with the exception of Disney princess).

Photo: Focus Features

Photo: Focus Features

Per GLAAD’s 2017/2018 Where Are We on TV report: Lesbian representation is up to 24% (21) of regular and recurring LGBTQ characters. This is a seven percentage point increase from the previous year, but still drastically down from two years ago when lesbians were 33% of that year’s lineup of regular and recurring LGBTQ characters. • After a significant rise last year, bisexual representation has dropped by four percentage points to 26% of regular and recurring LGBTQ characters. There are 16 bisexual women and six bisexual men.

This sets up a bit of a representation problem: should TV add more gay female characters…with the possible consequence that viewers overestimate the percentage of the female population that’s gay or bi? (Americans when surveyed by Gallup in 2015 estimated that 23% of the population is gay or lesbian–which is one reason it is hypothesized that many Americans think gay rights are no longer a problem).

Or does TV keep the present numbers to be most true to statistics? To add to the representation dilemma, 7-20% of women report having same-sex attractions. How should this be handled? For movies, GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index reported that 17.5% of major studio releases had gay or bi characters, of which 23% were women, meaning that about 4% of all characters were gay or bi women. Again, the same Goldilocks question applies: is this too little, too much, or just right?

Netflix gave us one season of “Everything Sucks” with a lesbian character they at least did not kill off.

For many lesbian and bisexual women, this is an absurd question. Obviously, the more the better and if every female character was gay and/or bi, that would be just fine. I feel similarly, but I acknowledge how unrealistic that scenario is. Perhaps a better way to approach the question is to look at quality over quantity. What percent of characters pass the Vito Russo Test?

The Vito Russo Test is a rubric GLAAD created for evaluating the quality of gay characters. It can be summarized as: are the characters there for more than just their sexual orientation (depth) and does their presence further the plot (impact)? Although GLAAD assessed that movie studios fared worse on the Vito Russo test in 2016 than in any previous year the Studio Responsibility Index was published, it is worth further exploring whether the female characters on TV and in movies did better than male characters. This is an important difference because at least anecdotally,bi women seem to be doing fantastically on TV and in movies.

With a glaring caveat, of course, which is the 1 in 3 mortality rate of gay women on TV. So is that the last frontier then? If Bury Your Gays is finally, ahem, buried, then have we reached the pinnacle of representation? Probably not. The Vito Russo test is a minimum baseline for quality. An additional relationship and character rubric should be created and used in the future. For example, does the lesbian character get as many significant others as her peers? Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars has had an impressively rotating rack of paramours, but historically most lesbian/bi female characters have gotten just one girlfriend. Are the relationships of  lesbian characters treated as all OTPs, or are the characters allowed to have one-night stands or affairs like their straight peers? Do the characters look like they stepped off the cover of Vogue, or are they allowed to be non-gender normative?

Photo: Freeform

Photo: Freeform

Realistically, the future of lesbian and bi representation hinges on the decision-making of almost uniformly heterosexuals. This is not a heterophobic comment but rather a practical one: it may not occur to straight people to add gay characters, flesh out existing gay characters, or study the history of LGBT representation to avoid falling into common tropes.

Although sexual orientation does not automatically make someone better or worse at adding or writing gay characters,  it has an undeniable influence. It’s hard to rely on the goodwill of a few key allies to carry all the water for the lesbian community. For now, the future looks a lot like the present: one or two highly popular lesbian pairings a season, an unacceptably high lesbian body count, and a bunch of middling characters that register barely a blip on the collective gay radar because they are either one-dimensional or are poorly written. How do we change that? I’ll let you know when I’ve figured that out myself.

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