Our Favorite Older Examples of Lesbian TV Representation

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We here at AfterEllen often hear members of the lesbian and bisexual community express the opinion that until the last three to five years, there haven’t been particularly good examples of representation on the small and large screen. Shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Wynonna Earp” in particular are held up as standouts in an ostensible wasteland of representation.

While it is absolutely true that we’ve seen an unparalleled explosion in both the quantity and quality of LGBT characters in the last five years, we’d like to argue that there are, nevertheless, some fantastic examples of representation on TV before that time. While the last few years have been a wonderful, rainbow explosion of awesome, let’s give some credit where it’s due: there have been some great characters and storylines before 2010, too, worth watching.

Why don’t some people in our community think of them when enumerating great examples of representation? Two reasons: first, finding good representation pre-2010 sometimes takes a little bit of Googling and a willingness to listen to characters with a different accent. Whereas many Americans are most familiar with characters on American broadcast television, some of the best characters come from cable or else from another country entirely. Second, we are all vulnerable to a “recency illusion”: the belief that something we only recently noticed is, in fact, recent. So with that in mind, AfterEllen suggests the following fantastic examples of TV representation from 2010 and earlier that we think are worth watching today:

Young Adult Lesbians: Naomi and Emily on “Skins” (2009-2010)

2016 may have been a watershed moment in the anti-“Bury Your Gays” movement but the mid to late 2010s, were the real first turning point for representation. Around that time, multiple teenage lesbian love stories hit the airwaves, many of which were extremely popular. These included Brittany and Santana on “Glee” (2009), Emily Fields and Maya St. Germain on “Pretty Little Liars” (2010), and Emma Müller and Jenny Hartmann on “Hand aufs Herz” (2010). These came on the heels of “Sugar Rush” (2005-2006), Alex Nunez and Paige Michalchuk on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” (2005-2007), and Spencer Carlin and Ashley Davies on “South of Nowhere” (2005-2007).

While all of these characters provided desperately needed exposure to young gaylings, the storyline of Naomi Campbell and Emily Fitch—Naomily—on “Skins” stands out for its particular excellence. Even today, Naomily represents one of the best acted and written TV teenage lesbian love stories of all time. Their storyline covered everything from coming out to self-acceptance to relationship troubles and even had a happy ending. In its heartfelt and honest approach to teenage love, it’s absolutely a fantastic exemplar of representation and a must-see.

Relatable Lesbian: Dana in season 1 of “The L Word” (2004)

“The L Word” is nothing if not iconic…and controversial. Even during its run, we watched it with a mixture of love, lust, and cringe, and in subsequent years that feeling hasn’t gone away. Love it or hate it, it’s also primary source material that many straight actresses watch when preparing for a gay role. For all its elements of absurdity and lack of realism, there were also elements of truth that ran through it, and in the early seasons, nothing ran truer than the story of professional tennis player Dana Fairbanks. In season 1, Dana grappled with the belief that she needed to remain closeted in order to keep her professional sponsorships, but closeting cost her relationship with crispay sous-chef Lara Perkins. Among “The L Word”’s eclectic mix of characters, Dana was the most similar to us and the people we knew.

 

Show with Consistent Lesbian Characters: “Bad Girls” (1999-2006)

Before “Wentworth,” before “Orange is the New Black,” “Bad Girls” ruled the late 1990s/early 2000s as the top women in prison genre show. And of course, what’s a prison without a handful of lesbians? Among the highlights, seasons one through three gave us the stellar romance between Wing Governor Helen Stewart and prisoner Nikki Wade, season four gave us the tumultuous and hard-hitting storyline of prisoners Roisin Connor and Cassie Tyler, seasons five and six gave us prison guard Selena Geeson and prisoner Kris Yates, and finally season seven gave the unexpected yet ultimately disappointing pairing of prisoners Pat Kerrigan and Sheena Williams. Not to mention the young love of Denny Blood and Shaz Wiley and the appearance of other lesbian characters like Al Mackenzie. Helen and Nikki’s romance in particular remains an excellent example of developing romantic tension over the course of a season, but all of the lesbian and bisexual characters on the show were interesting. When Piper and Alex get boring, switch over to “Bad Girls” for a watch.

 

Bisexual Representation Exemplar: Callie from “Grey’s Anatomy” (starting in 2008-2016)

Dr. Callie Torres was American TV’s longest running bisexual character, appearing in 239 episodes over 11 seasons. A strong Latina character, she came out, married (and divorced) Dr. Arizona Robbins, and had daughter Sofia. Although it’s easy to recognize Callie’s positive, pervasive influence throughout the 2010s, Callie actually began coming to terms with her sexuality and dating a woman, Dr. Erica Hahn, in 2008. Given the popularity of “Grey’s Anatomy,” this positive bisexual representation—which avoided all the usual negative bisexual tropes—reached into millions of homes on (free) broadcast television and was a major landmark for bisexual representation. Bonus points for actress Sara Ramirez coming out as bisexual herself in 2016 and bringing a soft butch bisexual vibe to Kat Sandoval on “Madame Secretary” in 2017.

 

Character with Mass Public Influence: Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”(starting in 1999-2003)

Lesbian and bisexual female characters are a common staple of the supernatural genre nowadays, but before “Lost Girl,” “Carmilla,” “True Blood,” The Vampire Diaries” and its spin-offs, “Supernatural,” etc., the lesbian and bisexual community had Willow Rosenberg. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was a pop culture darling with massive public exposure, and when Willow started dating Tara Maclay, it represented a landmark event in TV history. Willow and Tara dated for multiple seasons, kissed more than just for Sweeps Week, and even showed up in bed together (until Tara was gunned down by a white guy later in the episode). In 2003, Willow had the first lesbian sex scene on broadcast TV (with Kennedy), too. While Willow was hardly the first bisexual or lesbian character to appear on TV, she may have been the first main character to be in a high-profile, multi-season lesbian relationship.

 

Lesbian Woman of Color: Kima (and Snoop) from “The Wire” (2002-2008)

Set in Baltimore, “The Wire” was full of people of color. And a few lesbians, too. Badass lesbian detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs was in all five seasons of the series as a major character and had multiple personal storylines. In addition, the character of Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, a stud, appeared for two seasons and was deemed by Stephen King to be “perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series.” The two characters were a perfect addition to an already acclaimed drama series.

 

Coming Out Later in Life: Kerry Weaver in “ER” (starting in 2001-2007)

Dr. Kerry Weaver wasn’t always the most likeable character, but her storyline on “ER” covered many important milestones in an adult lesbian’s life: in the middle of season seven, she fell in love with a co-worker, psychiatrist Kim Legaspi, and then had to deal with internalized homophobia that cost her the relationship. In season eight, she was outed at work by her partner, firefighter Lt. Sandy Lopez, and by season nine, Dr. Weaver and Lopez were planning a family. In season ten, Lopez gave birth to baby Henry, but she was later killed and Sandy’s homophobic parents tried to take custody of Henry away from Dr. Weaver. In season 11, Dr. Weaver discovered that her biological mother was a homophobic conservative Christian. Altogether, Dr. Weaver’s storyline traced the arc of a gay woman in the early 2000s struggling in a homophobic society. Dr. Weaver was no teenager or recent college grad: she was a working professional with half a lifetime behind her, proving that not all TV stories are about the youngsters.

 

 

Gender non-Conforming: Shane from “The L Word” (2004-2009)

If there’s one thing Hollywood does terribly, it’s casting a female character who isn’t thin, pretty, and prone to wearing heels and a dress. That’s why Shane McCutcheon was so unique: she was a jeans and tank top wearing, IDGAF character intended for the female (lesbian, bisexual and straight) gaze, not the male gaze. And boy did she ever make the ladies swoon. Androgynous rather than butch, she showed the power of representing lesbians as we are, not as men in Hollywood fantasize us to be. “Lip Service” (2010-2012) tried to reproduce Shane in the form of Frankie Alan, but there can only be one Shane.

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