Beverly Greene

December 1997

Lesbian and Bisexual Stereotypes on TV

In the recent years lesbians have been in the mainstream media more and more. It is becoming much more acceptable to deal with issues such as lesbianism on television and in movies, but how far have we really come? Are lesbians being represented fairly or is the idea of lesbianism being exploited for the sex appeal it has to heterosexual men? Are we really in the midst of a cultural revolution that will lead to lesbian and bisexual characters being included in our favorite TV shows, or is this simply another way to encourage negative stereotypes about lesbianism and bisexuality while appealing more to the heterosexual male audience?

For me, the answer to those questions is simple. The recent surge of lesbian characters is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but it is just that, a small step. While we are seeing more lesbian and bisexual characters on TV, they always seem to fit into one of two possible stereotypes. Never in a mainstream show, with the notable exception of <b>Ellen</b> and possible <b>Friends</b>, have I seen a lesbian character who was not an obsessive man-hating dyke or a sex-crazed, unemotional, manipulative model look-a-like who uses her "hetero" looks to secretly seduce as many married straight women as possible. The same is true for bisexual characters, who actually don't even exist in name's sake because they are always referred to as lesbians in order to play up on the sex appeal of the term. (Think about it. How many bisexual characters can you name that were actually called bisexual?) These bisexual characters in disguise are either manipulative women who use men for money, sex, and power in order to allow them to continue their secret affairs with other women or dim-witted sluts who engage in sex acts with other women in order to please the man in their lives. These kinds of lesbian and bisexual characters not only demean lesbians and bisexual women, but they also contribute to continuance common stereotypes.

For examples of these stereotypes one only has to take a quick look at the shows which have included lesbian characters. One such example is the short lived lesbian character on <b>Beverly Hills 90210</b>. Kelly, one of the main characters, got caught in a fire with another woman, who happened to be a lesbian. Of course, the lesbian character fell head over heels for Kelly (and how many 90210 characters haven't?) She eventually became obsessed with Kelly despite the fact that Kelly made it very clear that she was straight and not interested. For whatever reason (and I really hope it was because of a lesbian out-pouring of anger at this representation of lesbians), this story line was quickly dropped and the lesbian character was never heard from again.

Another good example is the lesbian and bisexual characters on <b>Roseanne</b>. Sandra Bernhardt's character was originally married to Arnie, played by Roseanne's then real life husband Tom Arnold, but when Roseanne divorced Tom in real life, Sandra's character left Arnie for another woman and proclaimed herself to be a lesbian. However, Sandra's character dates men in several later episodes, usually because they have lots of money or because she is secretly using them to have a baby. (Sandra's character is often portrayed as being slutty and strange.) In order to make sense of her dating men, the character demands that no one "label" her (despite how she had labeled herself in past episodes) while continuing to accuse the other characters of being homophobic.

During one episode, Sandra's character finally has a girlfriend that we actually see. Sandra's character asks Roseanne and Jackie, Roseanne's sister, to go out to a lesbian bar with her and her girlfriend. At the bar, the girlfriend kisses Roseanne despite the fact that she knows that Roseanne is straight and married. Sandra's character was not even upset when Roseanne told her about the kiss. In fact, she just laughed it off and accused Roseanne of being homophobic. In another episode, Roseanne's mother comes out and eventually gets a girlfriend, who we rarely see, except for the night they spent with the resident gay couple singing show tunes. In the last episode, Roseanne reveals that the whole series has been nothing more than a novel that she was writing and that she had changed the things that she wanted to in order to make things "better". It was also revealed that Roseanne's mother and the gay couple were actually straight. It is as if a person's sexuality is a second thought or something that can be easily changed or toyed with. It is also worth noting Roseanne had written her sister, who she loved dearly, as being straight when she was in fact a lesbian and her mother, who she held so much animosity against, as a lesbian when she was in fact heterosexual.

For another example of how the media treats women loving women's relationships, look at the show <b>Xena: Warrior Princess</b>. The writers have done their best to play up on the lesbian following that the show has received by inferring a romantic relationship between the two main characters, Xena and Gabby, while at the same time constantly making them fall in love with men. (Gabby is even prepared to leave Xena in one episode in order to be with the man that she had just met and married, until her husband is murdered by Xena's revival, Callisto.) This seems to infer that if Xena and Gabby do in fact have a romantic relationship, it only exists in the absence of men (you know, all of those lonely nights in the woods together) or that it is still secondary to a "real" relationship (i.e. with a man). <font size=2>(Mythological Note: I believe that the character Xena is based loosely on the stories of Artemis. Interestingly enough, Callisto was one of Her lovers. However, Artemis, unlike Xena, did not have any male lovers. For more information, see <a href="artemis.htm">Artemis</a> and <a href="callisto.htm"Callisto</a> in my <a href="gods.html">In Search of Gay Gods and Goddesses</a> project.)</font><p>

Other shows have tried to cash in on the lesbian character craze as well, including <b>ER</b>. Late last season, they added a lesbian intern to the cast. Unlike the other characters, she was never given a love interest and only had one ex-girlfriend that we know of. (A small reference was made to her at a shooting range where the lesbian character and another intern, Carter, were practicing.) After rebuffing Carter's interest in her, she all but disappeared from the show. (However, I am happy to report that she is back this season on rare occasions and hopefully will get to play a larger role in future story lines.) Other shows which have added (usually rarely seen) lesbian or bisexual characters include <b>Friends</b>, <b>Mad About You</b>, <b>NYPD Blue</b>, <b>Married With Children</b>, and the Australian-made drama <b>Fire</b>.<p>

Most of us watched the coming out episode of <b>Ellen</b>, even if we never watched the show before. Most people that I have talked to thought that the show had dealt with her coming out in a humorous and informative manner, making the Emmy that Ellen DeGeneres won for writing that episode well deserved. I have to admit, it was much better than I expected. I, like many people, worried that it was simply a last ditch attempt to up the ratings on a quickly failing show and that they would only revive the lesbianism of the main character when the ratings needed a boost. Despite wondering why the show had to do a back step into the closet door in the season premiere, I was glad to hear that the show is fighting to have an on screen lesbian kiss this season. Unfortunately, the whole idea that they have to fight to have a lesbian kiss proves just how biased our society still is against valid representations of lesbians in the media. <font>(<b>Interesting Side Note:</b> All of the TV stations which had originally refused to air <b>Ellen</b>'s coming out episode have agreed to air them in reruns.)</font><p>

So, what does all of this mean? It means that it's time that we start demanding our right to see real lesbian and bisexual characters on television. It is time to stop accepting only inferred romantic relationships, such as <b>Xena: Warrior Princess</b> and secondary lesbian characters, such as those seen on <b>Friends</b>. We must start demanding to see more accurate lesbian and bisexual characters who have real same sex relationships and who deal with real lesbian and bisexual problems. We owe it to the lesbian and bisexuals teens who are watching their TV wondering "Why isn't there anyone like me on TV? Is something wrong with me?" By showing what lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons are really like, what we are really about, and what we really go through, we can start to change the stereotypes that people hold and hopefully change the way that our society views our community, as well as how we view ourselves.

Beverly poetica@intouch.bc.ca

Personal Homepage: http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/1769/

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