The Very (Very) Slow Rise of Lesbianism on TV


Picture it: American living rooms, 1986. A TV juggernaut with a devoted weekly audience of 15-20 million viewers introduces a lesbian story line, and it is both hilarious and eye-opening — and not so much a “very special episode” as just a great episode.

In Season 2 of “Golden Girls,” Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and the girls receive a visit from her childhood friend Jean (Lois Nettleton) at their Miami abode. Jean quickly catches feelings for the kindhearted, albeit naïve, Rose (Betty White). “I didn’t even know if you’d know what a lesbian was,” Dorothy says to Rose at one point. “I could have looked it up!” Rose replies.

In a tender moment — well, mostly tender — Dorothy asks her mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty), how she would react if one of her kids were gay.

“I wouldn’t love him one bit less; I would wish him every happiness,” Sophia replies. “Now keep your fat mouth shut so I can get some sleep.”

The word “lesbian” is used about 12 times in that episode. The word “gay,” around eight. But while the show was one of the first to portray a lesbian character in a positive light on mainstream television, it wasn’t the only one — not even that year: “Hill Street Blues” wrote in the first lesbian recurring character on a major network, Kate McBride, a police officer played by Lindsay Crouse.

For the next couple of decades, the number of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters on scripted television ticked slowly upward, very slowly. The number of lesbians and bisexual women, specifically, rose more slowly still, surging only in the past several years — well after “Ellen,” and even after “The L Word,” which returns to Showtime on Dec. 8.

But a lot of significant sexual and romantic TV moments between women happened along the way, some of them blatant ratings ploys, others more nuanced and complex. Here’s a look back.

Just a couple of years after Jean and Officer McBride, ABC introduced the first recurring lesbian couple on prime-time on the short-lived medical drama “HeartBeat” (1988-1989), about a women’s clinic opened as an alternative to the male-run medical establishment.

“HeartBeat” got low ratings and was quickly canceled, but it earned GLAAD’s first Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1990, which it shared with “L.A. Law.”

“L.A. Law” went on to win more GLAAD awards, airing in 1991 what the organization called a “historic smooch” between the lawyers C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) and Abby Perkins (Michele Greene). That kiss is widely regarded as the first between two women on a major network.

Greene later told AfterEllen, a lesbian pop culture website, that the kiss had been included for ratings and that there had never been a plan to explore their relationship.

Thus began a decade of “lesbian kiss episodes,” which included kisses between teenage girls on “Picket Fences” (1993); host bodies on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” (1995); a college student and professor on “Party of Five” (1999); and Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu on “Ally McBeal” (1999).

In 1994, Rosanne Barr and Mariel Hemingway kissed on “Roseanne,” one of the first shows to introduce a recurring bisexual character, Nancy Bartlett (Sandra Bernhard). ABC didn’t want to air the episode, but Barr threatened to take her sitcom to another network. So ABC aired it — with a parental advisory added. Thirty million viewers tuned in.

In 2005, the Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan called some of these same-sex kisses “perfect sweeps stunts.”

“They offer something for everyone,” she wrote, “from advocacy groups looking for role models to indignation-seeking conservatives, from goggle-eyed male viewers to progressive female ones.”

Cutting through these fly-by-night plot points was “Friends,” which included the couple Carol and Susan (Jane Sibbett and Jessica Hecht) for its entire 10-season run (1994-2004). The two were integral to the show, and in 1996, “Friends” aired their wedding — but they did not kiss in the episode.

The highly publicized roller coaster led to a drought of such roles, but some notable characters did eventually break through.

In the new millennium, gimmicky kisses started to fade, giving way to better-written lesbian and bisexual characters with more expansive arcs.

Shows aimed at teenagers like “Degrassi, The Next Generation” (2001-2015) helped lead the way, a trend that continues today.

And in 2003, in its sixth season, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” finally showed longtime girlfriends Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara Maclay (Amber Benson) in bed together — a scene considered the first of its kind for a broadcast network series. However, the show quickly played into a long-running TV convention of killing off uncloseted lesbians; Tara was murdered that very episode. “Buffy” broke more ground when it aired a lesbian sex scene a few months later, in its final season, between Willow and her new love interest, Kennedy (Iyari Limon).

In 2002, adult viewers got Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a central character on HBO’s “The Wire” (2002-2008). Greggs is both gay and black — a cross-section that, as Sohn noted in a 2015 interview with UpRoxx, had been glaringly underrepresented on TV.

Today, many networks have shows with queer female characters. According to a report published this month by GLAAD — which has been tracking lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender representation in the media since the 1996-97 season — the number of L.G.B.T.Q. characters on TV hit a record high in the 2019-20 season, making up 10.2 percent of all series regulars. As has long been the case, most of those characters are gay men. But lesbians accounted for 33 percent of all regular and recurring L.G.B.T.Q. characters this season, up 8 points from last year.

When Showtime’s “The L Word” introduced television’s first ensemble cast of lesbian characters in 2004, it was groundbreaking, even though many story lines were utterly conventional. And it wasn’t until after it went off the air in 2009 that more concrete progress and compelling representations started to flourish — including among characters of color. Such women became integral on highly popular shows like “House” (2004-2012), “Grey’s Anatomy” (2005-present), “Glee” (2009-2015), “Pretty Little Liars” (2010-2017) and “How to Get Away With Murder” (2014-present).

In 2017, “Master of None” dedicated its Thanksgiving episode entirely to the coming out story of Denise, played by Lena Waithe, a lesbian in real life. Waithe won an Emmy for co-writing the episode, making her the first African-American woman ever to do so and catapulting her career.

Successful and often award-winning shows expressly about queer women began to take hold during this decade in particular shows likeOrange Is the New Black” (2013-2019); “The Fosters” (2013-2018); “Killing Eve” (2018-present); and HBO’s historical drama “Gentleman Jack” (2019-present), starring Suranne Jones as Anne Lister.

“Jack” is based on the real Lister, a 19th century English lesbian who detailed her feelings in voluminous diaries — often in code, which was later cracked. In a line used verbatim in the show, she once wrote: “I love, and only love, the fairer sex.”


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