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How the Portrayal of Lesbian Women on American Television has Changed Since the 1980's and the Continuing Issues of Representation

Essay written in January 2022 as part of my degree

For over twenty-five years, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has published Where We Are on TV, an annual report that analyses the number of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) characters on American Television. For the most recent television season, 2021-2022, the report concluded that the number of lesbian women portrayed accounted for forty percent of all LGBTQ characters represented, an increase of twenty-two characters from season before (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation [GLAAD], 2022, p.4, 11).

Buffy the Vampire Slayers - Sr6 Ep7: 'Once More with Feeling'

This is the highest representation of lesbian women in fictional programming in the US to date, but until the last decade of the 20th Century the presence of gay and bi-sexual women had been extremely limited. In the 1950's and ‘60's, while television was in its early days, the Hollywood Studios were restricted to the guidelines imposed by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (The Hays Code) and these guidelines prohibited the representation or implication of homosexuality, referring to the “impure love” which “society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law” (The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code), n.d.). After almost forty years, the Motion Picture Association fought to gain artistic freedom away from the Hays Code (Motion Picture Association, n.d.) and in 1968 it was replaced with a new ratings system which informs the audience the nature of the content they are about to view on an individual basis (The Classification and Ratings Administration [CARA], n.d.).

As the restrictions of the Hays Code were lifted and the United States gradually began to relinquish laws pertaining to homosexuality (Illinois was the first State, in 1961 to decriminalise homosexuality (CNN Editorial Research, 2021)), fictional gay characters slowly began to appear on screen. More than five decades later, in 2022, American television (network, broadcast and streaming platforms) featured 637 regular or recurring LGBTQ characters, the highest number to date (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation [GLAAD], 2022, p.4). While the representation of lesbian women has significantly grown, it has not always been seen positively and as recently as 2016, there has been widespread condemnation relating to the substantial number of lesbian characters being “killed off” in episodic television. In the 2016-2017 television season alone, twenty-five characters died on screen and in response, numerous viewers began voicing their anger and dissatisfaction over the repetitive use of the “Bury Your Gays” trope (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation [GLAAD], 2017, p.3).

This essay will analyse famous key moments in lesbian television history and review how progressive they were. I will conclude with investigating the recurring “Bury Your Gays” theme within recent television content and whether the backlash from audience members via social media, combined with the emergence of multiple streaming platforms are contributing to a positive change in lesbian representation.

Representation at the end of the 20th Century

At the start of the 1980’s, there was significant caution by the studios to portray homosexuality. Four shows featuring gay themes which ABC and CBS had planned did not make it to air (Moritz, 2004/2008, p.108). Even implied representation was met with apprehension. In 1982, American Network CBS aired the first season of Cagney and Lacey (Rosenweig, 1981-1988) in which Meg Foster had played the role of Christine Cagney. Before the second season went into production, the executive producers were advised by the network that the role of Christine Cagney required change. In her essay “The Case of Cagney and Lacey'', Julie D’Acci refers to a statement made to TV Guide by CBS network executive Harvey Shephard in which he commented that the two female leads were “too tough, too hard, not feminine…and people perceived them as ‘dykes’.” D’Acci refers to CBS’s reluctance to associate their characters with “the ‘masculine woman’ and with lesbianism.” She also later comments on the irony of the network’s reluctance in lesbian portrayal after actress Sharon Gless, who replaced Meg Foster in the role of Christine Cagney, later became a firm fan favourite within the lesbian community (D’Acci, 1987, p.212-213).

Cagney and Lacey

The television season of 1986-1987 began to see lesbian characters beginning to emerge as plot-lines in episodes of established shows. In a 1986 episode of Hunter, ‘From San Francisco With Love’, the audience is introduced to a female police colleague of Hunter, Sergeant Valerie Foster, who joins him in investigating the murder of a millionaire and his son. As the case progresses, she sleeps with Hunter, but at the end of the episode it transpires that she was having an affair with the wife of the millionaire and they were planning to run away together, claiming the inheritance from the deceased husband (Garman, et al. & Picerni, 1986). After the episode aired, the Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Artists (AGLA) an association who were aiming to change and improve the image of homosexuality on television, petitioned the network and were subsequently invited to advise on future scripts to make them more acceptable (Moritz, 2004/2008, p.109-110).

Hunter - Sr3 Ep6 'From San Francisco with Love'

In the ’86-’87 TV season, the detective comedy-drama Moonlighting was the ninth most watched television show in the United States (AP News, 1987). In February of 1987, the episode ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’ aired David reveals to Maddie that he had previously been married, and that the marriage ended due to his wife’s infidelity. David leads Maddie to believe that his wife’s lover was another man, but Maddie tracks her down where she is told:

“Another man? Is that, of course that’s what he told you. Well, I have to hand it to him, at least he was in the neighbourhood of the truth. Well, 'Honest Dave' left out a minor detail. It’s true. He walked in on me and someone else. But it wasn’t another man.”

Caron & Hall, 1987, 41.06

Moonlighting - Sr3 Ep6 'Big Man on Mulberry Street'

The scene cuts to a drunken David pouring his heart out to a reluctant taxi driver, telling him “I didn’t tell her the whole truth. I told her the most important part. Let’s face it, a person in bed with your wife is a person in bed with your wife, gender is not the main issue.” (Caron & Hall, 1987, 43:15). From this perspective, the infidelity is treated as equally as if his wife had been unfaithful with another man, but this mentality does not carry through to the denouement where David lies to Maddie telling her that he had attended the wake and his ex-wife was planning to marry the ‘man’ she had been unfaithful with. Maddie knowing differently, lets him tell his tale and does not correct him. (Caron & Hall, 1987, 45:01). Given the popularity of Moonlighting at the time this episode aired, this story-line could have been significant in the progress of gay representation, especially as the reveal is a large part of David Addison’s history. Instead, the information is revealed in a very brief, matter of fact manner and at the very end of the episode. Tess is never in any scene with David and her lover is not seen at all. The fact that David had previously been married is not mentioned again in the remaining episodes. When David lies to Maddie in the final scene, the audience knows that it is not because he does not trust her, this had already been proven earlier in the episode when he shares the story of Tess’s pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage (Caron & Hall, 1987, 29:03). David hiding his discomfort over what happened and how he has not come to terms with it himself. This is also evident by his absence from his ex-brother-in-law’s wake and when he tells the taxi driver that he does not want to talk or think about it. In his book, Moonlighting: An Oral History, Scott Ryan describes David Addison as “the prototypical manly man for his time” and that:

The idea that a woman had left him for another man was, for viewers, already a shocking blow to the character’s ego. But for her to have left him for another woman turns all the sexist and chauvinist comments he had made over the previous two years upside down.

Ryan, 2002, p.133

The Golden Girls, another top ten show from the ’86-’87 season (AP News, 1987), also featured a lesbian character, portraying her in a more compassionate and positive portrayal than the previous examples. In the episode ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ Dorothy’s college friend Jean, comes to Miami to stay for a week and falls in love with Rose. By the end of the episode the four main character of the series have been made aware of Jean’s sexual orientation. Sophia, admitted to Dorothy at the beginning of the episode that she has always known (Harris, Dutiel & Hughes, T., 1986, 03:12), and Blanche, is not perturbed by the revelation at all and only shows disgust when she is told that Jean has fallen for Rose, and not her (Harris, Dutiel & Hughes, T., 1986, 14:24). At the end of the episodes, when Jean tells Rose she is “fond of her” while Rose lays in bed, Rose looks surprised and pretends to be asleep to avoid further discussion (Harris, Dutiel & Hughes, T., 1986, 21:58). However, the following morning, they talk about Jean’s declaration:

“Well, I have to admit, I don’t understand these kinds of feelings.

But if I did understand and if I were, you know, like you, I think I’d be very flattered and very proud that you thought of me that way…well I guess that’s all I had to say. Except, you don’t have to go unless you think our friendship alone isn’t enough.”

(Harris, Dutiel & Hughes, T., 1986, 22:12)

The Golden Girls - Sr2 Ep5 'Isn't it Romantic'

There is no shame in this episode and all four women accept Jean for who she is. Jean herself at the start of the episode, when discussing whether to tell Rose and Blanche Jean is gay, says to Dorothy “I’m not embarrassed of ashamed of who I am. You know your friends better than I do. You think they’re the kind of people that can handle it, I prefer to tell them.” (Harris, Dutiel & Hughes, T., 04:20)

Over the next few years, two different ABC shows became significant for lesbian portrayal. Between 1988 and 1989, ABC aired eighteen episodes of a series called Heartbeat, which was the first programme to feature a lesbian couple as recurring characters in a ‘normal’ environment and not as characters established as a plot device (Moritz, 2004/2008, p.111). It was also awarded GLAAD’s first Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1990 (Salam, 2019) and in 1997, one of the most famous moments in lesbian television history occurred when Ellen DeGeneres came out as her fictional character in the sitcom, Ellen (DeGeneres, et al. & Junger, 1997), but also publicly revealed her sexuality in real life. In the subsequent episodes of her sitcom, the character comes out to her parents, starts dating another woman and discusses with her that fact that (in 1997) they could never be married (Skerski, 2007, p.373).

Ellen - Sr4 Ep2 'The Puppy Episode'

The Lesbian Kiss

On 7th February 1991, another key moment occurred. The NBC network aired an episode of L.A. Law entitled ‘He’s a Crowd’ (Bochco, et al. & Keene, E., 1991) which featured a kiss between the characters of C.J. Lamb and Abby Perkins (played by Amanda Donohoe and Michele Greene, respectively).

L.A. Law - Sr5 Ep12 'He's a Crowd'

When this episode of L.A. Law aired, a spokesperson for NBC, the network which aired the episode, stated that “some advertisers yanked their commercials, but the audience response was “really mild”” (Hastings, 1991). While some advertisers pulled their advertising, GLAAD praised the kiss, as it featured the first bi-sexual female on television at that time. This kiss has frequently been referenced as a pivotal moment in lesbian television history, however, when analysing the relationship of these two characters within the show, it is not as revolutionary. Following this kiss, the two characters discuss what happened and decide to be friends. At the end of that season, Abby leaves the series and C.J. departs the following season after becoming romantically involved with a man (Kennedy, R., 2012, p.318). In 2003,, a website which discusses lesbian issues and popular culture, interviewed Michele Green about this kiss in which she stated, “In L.A. Law they never intended to explore the relationship between the two women; it was about ratings during sweeps, so I always found it a bit cynical.” (Warn, 2003)

Women kissing on screen was still being shown with caution, if at all, through to the end of the 1990s. The NBC series Friends has various moments relating to this subject. In the second season, Ross’ ex-wife marries her girlfriend, Susan in ‘The One with the Lesbian Wedding’. This was a significant episode as it depicted the first time a lesbian couple had married on screen and was only the second gay wedding ever to be shown (The ABC comedy Roseanne (Werner, et al., 1988-2018) aired a wedding between two male characters only five weeks prior (Damshenas, n.d.)). However, five years after the kiss in L.A. Law, there was no kiss between the two characters at this TV wedding (Abrams & Schlamme, 1996, 19:44). Two years later, Monica and Rachel lose their apartment to Chandler and Joey after losing a bet to them. In ‘The One with All the Haste,’ to try and gain their apartment back Monica and Rachel offer to kiss for one minute. The scene immediately cuts to the men declaring “totally worth it” and “that was one good minute” before retiring to their respective bedrooms (Silveri, Calhoun & Bright, 1998, 19:27). The kiss is not shown on screen and in this portrayal would have been gratuitous and not progress the lesbian representation. In 2000, however, Friends aired an episode in which Rachel kissed her old college roommate, Melissa, played by Wynona Ryder. The episode revolved around the story that Rachel once kissed her friend in college, but Phoebe does not believe it happened as it is something Melissa adamantly denies in Phoebe’s presence. As they all leave the restaurant, Rachel kisses Melissa to prove a point, trying to get her to admit it happened. Melissa, misinterprets the kiss as a show of love from Rachel and in turn, admits the original kiss in college had occurred and that she was in love with Rachel. Rachel tries to let Melissa down gently and Melissa denies she meant any of what she said before dashing off in a taxi (Goldberg-Sheehan, Silveri & Halvorson, 19:00). The episode was entitled “The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss” and it aired during sweeps week (Salam, 2019), which can reinforce the comment Michele Green made about L.A. Law in that these episodes were primarily to draw in the ratings and never intended to be sympathetic towards the bisexual character or lesbian representation.

Friends - Sr7 Ep20 The One with Rachel's Big Kiss

A further example of the ‘lesbian’ kiss being used as a sweeps tactic was in Ally McBeal (Kelley & Damski, 1999), where the title character and fellow lawyer, Ling Woo, share the first inter-racial lesbian kiss after Ally admits to having erotic dreams about Ling in the season three episode “Buried Pleasures” (The Free Library, n.d.).

Ally McBeal - Sr3 Ep2 'Buried Pleasures'

Bury Your Gays

By the turn of the century, American television was beginning to become bolder in gay representation and in 2000, there were 23 gay characters in American TV Shows (Damshenas, n.d.). One television programme was praised for the first positive representations of a long-term lesbian couple on television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Whedon, et al. 1997-2003). Looking back at the series twenty years later, there still appears to be a hesitation in the portrayal of romantic moments. In Season 4, Willow meets Tara at university, and they gradually become close and, in the episode, “Who Are You” Tara tells Willow that she is hers (Petrie & Whedon, 2001, 07:13) Three episodes later in “New Moon Rising”, Oz returns to Sunnydale, but Willow turns down the opportunity to get back together with him, choosing to remain with Tara, “the one that she really loves.” (Whedon, et al. & Contner, 43.45). Almost an entire season of episodes pass with Willow and Tara as a couple, but it is not until the episode “The Body” in which we see them kiss for the first time. The kiss is not romantic, it is not lustful, it is a compassionate kiss by Tara to calm Willow down, as she is distraught after having just discovered Buffy’s mother had suddenly died (Whedon, 2002, 21:33). The lack of romantic displays of affection on screen for these characters could be seen as being reflective of their personalities as they are both, initially, quiet and reserved. In contrast to the other depictions however, it does feel lacking. There has frequently been displays of intimacy with the other, heterosexual, characters where they are often shown in passionate clinches or waking up in bed together.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Sr5 Ep16 'The Body'

The end of season six draws the Willow and Tara story arc to a close, with some significant moments. At the end of “Entropy,” Tara and Willow share a passionate kiss after having reconciled following their break-up over Willow’s misuse of magic. (Whedon, Et al. & Contner, 2003, 42:31). At the start of the next episode, “Seeing Red,” Willow and Tara wake up, naked, in bed together, something still rarely seen at this time. The end of the episode however, marks one of the earlier examples of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, when Tara is shot and killed by a stray bullet meant for Buffy (Whedon, et al & Gershman, 2003, 42.07).

In March 2022, the website Autostraddle, a site dedicated to lesbian and queer culture and issues, published an article which listed 225 lesbian characters which had died on screen in shows from around the world, not just the US; more than 150 of were in episodes which aired in the last ten years. When analysing cause of death for these characters, almost 100 were murdered, mainly by being shot or stabbed and 19 of them committed suicide (Riese, 2022). In current television shows, the term ‘queerbaiting’ is used to imply a romantic connection between two characters and refers to the “suggestion or actual occurrence of queerness” that entices fans to engage and respond to “the powerful lure of queer representation” (Bridges, 2018, p119-120). In season two of The 100 (Rothenberg, et al, 2014-2020) the character of Lexa was introduced and the chemistry between her and the character of Clark soon became the focus of numerous fans. In season three, the couple consummate their relationship, but in the next scene Lexa is killed by a bullet meant for Clark (Rothenberg, et al, & White, 2016), resulting in a significant backlash from the programme’s audience. Fans were let down by the violent end to another gay female character and the representation of a lesbian relationship denied to them. The fans reacted on social media with hashtags such as # Cancelthe100 and # LGBTFansDeserve better (Waggoner, 2018, p.1884). The showrunner later responded to the reaction stating that he was unaware of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope and apologised for the distress caused and that the reason the character had been written out of the show was due to the actress leaving for a role in Fear the Walking Dead (Hulan, 2017, p.24). The fans continued their protest against this storyline and came together to organise their own convention for LGBQT women entitle ClexaCon, the purpose of which was to celebrate “queer female character and stories,’ as well as presenting talks from various actors from various LGBQT roles (PR Newswire, 2017). In addition to this, they showed their support for The Trevor Project an American charity, a hotline for LGBT+ youth who are feeling suicidal. In 18 days of the episode featuring Lexa’s death airing, the fans had raised nearly $60,000 for the charity (Waggoner, 2018, p. 1884)

Present Day

In 2022, there was more fan reaction against this recurring theme when the character of Villanelle was shot and killed in the final episode of Killing Eve shortly after she and Eve kissed and revealed their feelings for each other (Neal, et al, 2022). It can be perceived, in this instance, that for a character such as Villanelle, there is no redemption for her other than death. She had been in prison before and both times was freed, she tried to convert to the Christian faith so she could be worthy of Eve, but this also failed, so for a character with so much blood on her hands, her death could be seen as the only conclusion. However, the author of the books, Luke Jennings believes this perspective was “bowing to convention” and wrote his disappointment over how the series ended and that “A truly subversive storyline would have defied the trope which sees same-sex lovers in TV drama permitted only the most fleeting of relationships before one of them is killed off.”

A Gallup Poll in 2022 reported that in the US, a record number of people, 7.1% of the population, categorised themselves as an orientation other than heterosexual and in the group aged between 18 and 25, 20% of people considered themselves a part of the LGBTQ community (Jones, 2022). With such a significant increase in numbers, positive portrayals are vitally important, Waggoner notes, “When the repeated tropes are used within an already marginalized community, LGBTQ fans and their identities also become marginalized, causing a misrepresentation for understanding themselves and others” (Waggoner, 2018, p.1879). With such an increase within the community, especially with the younger generation, representation needs to be positive. As stated at the start of this essay, 2022 has the highest number of LGBQT characters on screen. With the recent weddings of lesbian characters in Station 19 (Rhimes, et al, 2018-Present), Wynonna Earp (Andras, E. et al, 2016-2021) and Supergirl (Berlanti, et al., 2015-2021), the portrayal of long-term gay relationships is no longer a taboo area. With the number of streaming platforms available, the number of television shows is also much greater than what we would have seen in the 1980’s and 90’s. With positive lesbian relationships also featuring in series such as Sense8 (Wachowski, et al, 2015-2018) and Sex Education (Nunn, et al (2019 to present) and numerous other shows representation appears to be changing for the better.

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Whedon, J., Kuzui, F. R., Kuzui, K., Berman, G., Gallin, S.., Greenwalt, D., Noxon, M., Espenson, J. (Executive Producers). (1997-2003). Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [TV Series] Mutant Enemy Productions; Kuzui Enterprises; Sandollar Television; 20th Century Fox Television.

Whedon, J., Noxon, M., Petrie, D. (Writers) Contner, J. A. (Director) (2001, March 22). New Moon Rising (Season 4, Episode 19). [TV Series Episode: Disney+]. Whedon, J., Kuzui, F. R., Kuzui, K., Berman, G., Gallin, S.., Greenwalt, D., Noxon, M., Espenson, J. (Executive Producers). (1997-2003). Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [TV Series] Mutant Enemy Productions; Kuzui Enterprises; Sandollar Television; 20th Century Fox Television.

Whedon, J., Petrie, D. (Writers). Whedon, J. (Director). (2001, February 14). Who Are You? (Season 4, Episode 16). [TV Series Episode: Disney+]. Whedon, J., Kuzui, F. R., Kuzui, K., Berman, G., Gallin, S.., Greenwalt, D., Noxon, M., Espenson, J. (Executive Producers). (1997-2003). Buffy the Vampire Slayer. [TV Series] Mutant Enemy Productions; Kuzui Enterprises; Sandollar Television; 20 th Century Fox Television

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