Patterns. Sometimes we don’t even know to look for them, but when we find them, they reveal interesting and previously unconsidered things about our world. If anyone had looked at adult-themed soap operas (and telenovelas) aired around the world on broadcast television from 2011 to 2015, they would have seen an unexpected pattern: many soap operas not only had lesbian or bisexual female characters, but most of these characters were in same-sex relationships. Looking at the same landscape today, on the other hand, only a fraction of that number of characters are set to continue past 2018, with their love lives in limbo. What does this apparent pattern—explosion followed by retracement—mean and what are its implications for the future?
The Boom Years
It’s no exaggeration to say that the period roughly 2011 to 2015 saw a massive explosion in the number of lesbian and bisexual female soap opera characters globally. Here are just the ones I could find (bolded names are still on air in 2018):
Let’s all agree that denim shirt is super lez-tastic.
Mexico (2): Patricia de Santana and Lucía Salazar de Fuentes (“Las Trampas Del Deseo”).
Argentina (7): Agustina Joglar and Valeria Acosta (“Los Vecinos en Guerra”); Greta Sáenz Valiente, Giovanna “Gigí” Gilardoni and Paloma Riccardi (“El Elegido”); and Brenda Garay and Marisa (“Sos mi Hombre”).
Brazil (4): Marina Meirelles, Clara Fernandes, Vanessa, Flávia Campos (“Em Família”).
Spain (7): Ana Rivas and Teresa Garcia Guerrero (“Amar en Tiempos Revueltos”); Celia Silva and Aurora Alarcón (“Seis Hermanas”); Tilda Vilanova (“La Rierda”); and Isabel Lobo and Cristina (“Tierra de Lobos”).
France (3): Cristal Balester, Lea Leroux, and Céline Frémont (“Plus Bella La Vie”).
Portugal (2): Antónia Vidal and Maria Ana Rodrigues (“Santa Bárbara”).
Ireland (5): Yvonne Gleeson, Laura Halpin and Emily Mahon (“Fair City”); and Róise De Búrca and Tina O’Dowd (“Ros na Rún”).
Germany (14): Anni Behme, Pia Koch, and Jasmin Flemming (“Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten”); Jenny Hartmann and Emma Müller (“Hand aufs Herz”); Tanja Schildknecht-Dresser (“Lindenstraße”); Andrea Süsskind, Billi Vogt, and Annalena Töppers (“Marienhof”); Jasmin Al Sharif and Lily Rüssmann (“Anna und die Liebe”); and Rebecca van Lahnstein, Miriam Pesch, and Marlene von Lahnstein (Verbotene Liebe).
Wales (1): Gwyneth Jones (“Pobol y Cwm”).
England (25): Sophie Webster, Sian Powers, Amber Kalirai, Jenna Kamara, Maddie Heath, Kate Connor, and Caz Hammond (“Coronation Street“); Sonia Fowler, Tina Carter, and Fiona “Tosh” Mackintosh (“EastEnders”): Charity Tate, Debbie Dingle, Ali Spencer, Ruby Haswell, and Vanessa Woodfield (“Emmerdale”); and Fern, Esther Bloom, Tilly Evans, Grace Black, Jen Gilmore, Jodie Wilde, Kim Butterfield, Texas Longford, Zoe Carpenter, and Chloe Chance (“Hollyoaks”).
Finland (3): Heli Sievinen, Eva Tamminen and Monica Mustavaara (“Salatut elämät”).
New Zealand (5): Maia Jeffries, Nicole Miller, Lana Jacobs, Dr. Jennifer Mason, and Harper Whitley (“Shortland Street”).
Australia (4): Charlie Buckton (“Home and Away”); Donna Freedman, Ellen Crabbe, and Victoria Lamb (“Neighbours”).
All of a show’s lesbians should never be in one place, lest there be a freak nuclear weapon strike there. #DesignatedSurvivor
2018: The Bust Year
We’re now only a few months into 2018, and already there’s a visible drop-off in the number of on-screen lesbians and bisexuals on soap operas and telenovelas intended for an adult audience. In the entire Western Hemisphere, as in continental Europe, there are three characters. Only Great Britain is holding the line against the retracement of lesbian and bisexual female characters going into the second half of 2018.
USA (1): Mariah Copeland (“The Young and the Restless”) with a potential love interest later in the year.
Argentina: Florencia Estrella, Jazmín del Río, and Elena just ended their run on “Las Estrellas.”
Chile (2): Mercedes and Barbara (“Perdona Nuestros Pecados”).
France (1): Céline Frémont (“Plus Bella La Vie”).
Germany (2): Anni Behme (“Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten) and Tanja Schildknecht-Dresser (“Lindenstraße”).
Wales (1): Gwyneth Jones (“Pobol y Cwm”).
England (15): Sophie Webster, Kate Connor, and Rana Habib (“Coronation Street”); Sonia Fowler, Irene Mills and Tina Carter (“EastEnders”); Charity Tate, Debbie Dingle, and Vanessa Woodfield (“Emmerdale”); Laura Halpin and Sash Bishop (“Fair City”); and Esther Bloom, Grace Black, Farrah Maalik, and Kim Butterfield (“Hollyoaks”).
Finland (2): Eva Tamminen and Monica Mustavaara (“Salatut elämät”).
New Zealand (2): Nicole Miller and Harper Whitley (“Shortland Street”).
Australia (1): Stephanie Scully (“Neighbours”).
For anyone counting, that’s 86 characters on adult-themed, broadcast soap operas in the five years between 2011 and 2015 and only 27 going forward in 2018. And of course, most of the characters are bisexuals who probably will end up with male partners. Naturally, comparing five years to one isn’t fair (and again, I am likely missing some characters), but it does contribute to the idea of loss in recent years. In addition to losing specific characters themselves, we also appear to have lost representation completely in five of the 14 countries with lesbian and bisexual female characters: Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, with the potential to lose Argentina as well if Flozmin isn’t replaced. Only one new country, Chile, was added in 2018.
How do we understand the cause of the boom years? In part by looking at when these countries legalized gay marriage. Portugal, Argentina (2010), Brazil, France, New Zealand (2013), England and Wales (2014), the United States, and Ireland (2015), or nine of the fourteen countries with lesbian and bisexual soap opera characters from 2011-2015, legalized gay marriage approximately during the period in which they had these characters, suggesting a possible correlation: because there was discussion in their respective societies about LGBT rights, they reflected these conversations on their soap operas by introducing lesbian or bisexual characters. Notably, all five countries that no longer have lesbian and bisexual female characters in 2018 allow gay marriage, possibly suggesting they felt no further discourse was necessary.
Meeting about what to do with your last bisexual character.
And what is driving the sudden drop in the number of characters in 2018? From the outside, it’s impossible to know. In the case of the United States, many lesbian viewers have speculated that producers believe that their audience is socially conservative older viewers who reject lesbian storylines (hence the slow-rolling of what was supposed to have been “Teriah” on “The Young and the Restless” and also, perhaps, a contributing factor to the complete loss of “Pristina” on “General Hospital”)—an exclusivist narrative that requires the assumption that a viewer base is monolithic (it’s not) and also doesn’t seem to be borne out by either ratings or academic studies. If not the theory of responding to socially conservative viewers, however, then there’s no other working theory for the global decline in same-sex relationships on soap operas around the world. Writing fatigue?
The issue of lesbian and bisexual representation on soap operas is both interesting and complex, meaning there’s lots of fodder for study, but for now the most obvious point is this: England, Germany, and—unexpectedly—Argentina lead the pack for representation. On the other hand, when Finland has more lesbian and bil characters than the US, Canada (zero in either time period), France, or Spain, this should be a representation red flag.
After our second date, we decided to move in together and move to Definitely Not On This Show Anymore, Oregon.
As a final but important note, the argument that lesbian storylines are so poorly received by “conservative” Western audiences that they must be excluded from an entire soap opera is flat out wrong. Over the last decade and a half, AfterEllen has covered many of these storylines and I can say with confidence that not only do they contribute to the strength of the show, but in some cases the same-sex pairing becomes the most popular on the show.
An even stronger argument for the inclusion of same-sex storylines is the continued strong presence of lesbian and bisexual characters on soap operas in the UK, which indicates that soap opera viewers are happy to accept them. In sum, viewers in countries with no or low representation have cause to demand more visibility and should demand it, and hopefully, by highlighting this downward trend of representation, it won’t continue into the 2020s.