What Actual Lesbians Want to See from TV Lesbians
"I would cast myself in the reboot of 'The L Word.'"
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
"I will sit through anything, however bad it is, if it's got lesbians in it," admits Alice, 29, a London-based web designer. She's far from alone; my friends and I have also been doing the "endurtainment" thing for years. Why? Because five years on from the UK's last lesbian-centric TV series (RIP, Lip Service), we're still perpetually desperate for credible primetime portrayals of ourselves on the small screen.
This is despite living in a period in which queer female characters are more visible than ever—in soaps (Eastenders, Coronations Street), sci-fi (Dr. Who), tea-time dramas (Call the Midwife), and popular imports (Wentworth, The Good Wife). But it's quality not quantity that matters—something Jacquie Lawrence, the BAFTA Award–winning producer wants to get across on her new series, Different for Girls. "I've always said: You don't have to be a policeman to write The Bill, but it helps—enormously. LGBT writers know their world, and the lack of these writers in mainstream TV really shows."
Right now, we're kind of here, and kind of queer, but rarely for long enough or in any meaningful capacity. I spoke to other gay women about how they felt about LGBTQ characters on TV. "We're fed crumbs," says Bettie, 34, a mental health nurse from Sheffield. "We get rubbish stereotypes, or seasons of queer-baiting [all subtext, no pay-off]. And we get to see our faves killed off, over and over again."
It's true. Execs are still, inexcusably, burying our gays: Kate in Last Tango in Halifax, Lexa in The 100, Dr. Denise in The Walking Dead, Wendy in Jessica Jones, Poussey in Orange Is the New Black. Autostraddle crunched the numbers last year, and the results were un-fucking-forgivable. It doesn't just suck for viewers, points out Jacquie—it endangers the most vulnerable of us. "Disposing of lesbian characters so regularly has an acute effect on young lesbians and their self-esteem, particularly if they're struggling with their sexuality." It's a correlation the Trevor Project, a US suicide-prevention helpline for LBGTQ teens, has been vocal about in recent months.
Programming doesn't have to be this tragic. Ask queer women what (and who) they want on TV, and they'll tell you, in precise and loquacious detail.
The US Is Ahead of the UK by a Mile
UK programming is notoriously hit (Sugar Rush, Bad Girls, Skins) and miss (Candy Bar Girls)—especially when compared to our American counterparts. That's partly down to funding, says Sophie, 38, a feminist film critic from London. "There's more money in US television. In the UK, there are fewer pipelines for creators and a narrower range of commissioning channels." Little wonder, then, that so many of us still cleave to boxset staples of lesbian yesteryear: The L Word; Xena, Princess Warrior; Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy reruns are a constant," says Sophie, "not just for lesbian and queer fandom, but for basic survival."
Streaming Sites Are Killing It
The queer lady next door in straight-centric soaps and dramas may be increasingly common, but it's streaming sites—Netflix, Amazon—that are putting us center stage, en masse, in flagship originals where we're myriad (Jessica Jones), diverse (Orange Is the New Black; Sense8), and playing the protagonist (Transparent) rather than the wing woman. "Streaming shows have been a major driver of change—which is a problem, because they're expensive to access," notes Sophie. "Teenage me definitely wouldn't have been able to afford the subscription fees," agrees Alice. "It's so important to have positive LGBTQ representation easily accessible to young people, without needing their parents approval or credit card."
We Struggle on Primetime
However applause-worthy streaming shows are, terrestrial remains key. "You can't beat the power of [offline] TV's reach when it comes to straight audiences," says Dana, a London-via-Trinidad-based musician and activist. "We have to come to them, so to speak, in order to challenge their preconceived and often ignorant notions of who queer women are and how we live." Tara, 28, a film curator, agrees. Taking up space in conservative broadcast media is essential, she says. "I want to hit society right in the mainstream—especially for viewers who see lesbiqueer content as a niche thing; but also for people who would never seek it out online, for folks who would never otherwise realize they need to be seeing it."
Not All Lesbians Look like They Do on 'The L Word'
Young, thin, white, and able-bodied remains the default portrayal of queer womanhood. "I want to see more lesbiqueers of color," says Tara. "I want trans characters played by trans actors, disabled characters played by disabled actors. I want a landing place for queer TV. I want stories that feature multifaceted characters telling interesting stories." And when it comes to class, we're as hungry for reality as we are escapism," says Alice. "The bougie LA wealth of The L Word is fun to watch, but it's nothing like most people's real lives."
Orange Is the New Black, Jenji Kohan's landmark prison drama, proved what we've been saying for years: Queer women want diversity. We're hungry for the conspicuously absent woman: the older, fat, non-binary, disabled, migrant, and polyamorous characters that straight TV has either studiously ignored or actively othered. When these characters are cast well, and given worthy arcs, dialogue, and sets, we'll pay a monthly fee to keep them in our lives.
We're Done with Coming-Out Stories
As Dana points out, those narratives tend to serve straight voyeurism over the queer gaze. "I want to see more women who know who the fuck they are and are beyond struggling with self-acceptance. It's one of the reasons I love (L Word favorite) Bette Porter so damn hard." Shows like The Fosters are great for depicting the bittersweet daily grind of family life in gay suburbia, but it's important to note that we're not all chasing that assimilationist dream, says Betty, 30, a London-based editor. "Can we say it's OK that not all of us want children?"
We Want Less Drama, More Ingenuity
Romance is nice but needn't define us, points out Sophie. "I'd like to see more queer women presented through their professional expertise, like Annalise Keating on How to Catch a Murderer, or queer women getting shit done in other ways, via politics and science, like Cosima and Delphine in Orphan Black." That said, we also want more sex. Lots of it. And we want those scenes written and directed by women with lived experience of queer sex. Don't think we can't tell the difference, Cosmo.
Crowdfunding Helps, but It's Not a Cure-All
Different for Girls—which promises not to skimp on NSFW scenes of the aforementioned kind—raised nearly 25 percent of its budget via IndieGogo. Is that route the best way forward when it comes to sharing our stories? Or should mainstream studios work harder to fold us into corporate programming? "In a perfect world, it would be both," says Jacquie.
On that note, what would our readers commission if they had their own TV network to command? Dana would reboot The L Word, starting with a rewrite of the final season—a season so trash that even Lucy Lawless couldn't save it. Dana would play herself ("an out, gay musician") and cast Priyanka Chopra as her love interest. "We're meant to be together, but she can't/won't come out to her conservative Indian parents—her dad is a prominent Republican in Trump's administration, caping for family values—and I'm forced back into the closet. We have intense chemistry that rivals Sharmen/Tibette, and everyone is rooting for us, but will it work out?"
Tara's hankering for an Afro-futurist space saga. "As a lover of ridiculous action movies and sci-fi, I dream of a feminist-style Firefly with QTIPOC characters of all backgrounds and abilities. The script would require lots of banter and kicking white men in the face."
Sophie doesn't have to dream; her ideal show is already in the works. "Kirsten Johnson announced last year that she's working on a pilot with the Soloway sisters. I have no idea what it will be about, but the meeting point of Cameraperson (Kirsten's 2016 documentary) and Transparent is everywhere I want to be."
Lead image: The L Word/Showtime
Different for Girls premieres this month at BFI Flare. It will be on YouTube on Saturday, March 18.
Follow Charlotte Richardson Andrews on Twitter.