Although most Quality of Life indicators for LGBTQ people and civilization in general nose-dived this year, one thing got notably better: television for queer women.
Granted, the bar was low.
For decades, we settled for relative invisibility, unsatisfying subtext and brief storylines buried within otherwise deficient programs, but that had started changing, along with the culture at large — and then 2016 happened. In 2015 and 2016, hoards of bisexual and lesbian characters were seemingly invented just to get murdered, like our own private Westworld (but with a lot more queers than actual Westworld), and several queer fan favorites met their untimely deaths. But “Bury Your Gays” was never the problem so much as a symptom of the disease; a virus that evolved from decades of tragic, small, desexualized, evil or sidelined queer characters into a new dawn where finally we were allowed to exist, as long as we didn’t take up too much space or live for too long.
More Shows, More Lesbians and Bisexuals
The most surprising aspect of putting together the list of 193 Dead Lesbian or Bisexual Characters last year wasn’t, actually, the death count. It was being made aware that we weren’t, as we’d thought, aware of every show featuring lesbian/bi characters out there. We didn’t know they’d lived, let alone died!
Peak TV was in full swing, and we were benefiting. There were 455 scripted original shows released in the US in 2016, a steady climb from 182 in 2009. In their 2010/2011 report, GLAAD found 53 LGBT characters on scripted cable shows, and only 34% were women. In 2017/2018, that number had increased to 173 (49% women), plus 70 more on streaming networks (66% women).
The growth of cable, streaming and on-demand technology has eased our ability to access a vast programming roster often more accountable to its audience than advertisers. Whereas in 2010, it was revolutionary for Pretty Little Liars‘ lesbian character to make it through an entire season without returning to heterosexuality, by 2016, we were confident enough to criticize its employment of damaging trans tropes and the diminishing screen time offered to Emily’s romances. Quantity wasn’t enough anymore. We wanted quality, and we wanted it now… and in 2017, we started getting it.
But before we get into that, let’s go back in time a little bit.
The Torrid Herstory of Lesbian & Bisexual Women On TV
While gay men certainly aren’t winning television, they’ve always been more represented than gay women, often accounting for 65%-75% of LGBT characters.
Throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, women-loving-women were rare, precious, elusive creatures: a little Ellen or Nancy here, some gay-but-not-too-gay doctor or lawyer there. From the mid-’00s through the early ’10s, we generally found lesbian and bisexual characters in one of seven places:
1. Secondary or sweeps week storylines on a teen primetime soap (The OC, 90210, Once and Again, Secret Life of the American Teenager, Gossip Girl)
2. Regular or recurring spots on a network ensemble program with minimal screen time devoted to girl-on-girl romance (ER, Bones, House, Rookie Blue, The Good Wife) (The Wire is a rare premium cable drama that fits into this category.)
3. Recurring or guest roles on a prestige drama (Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Heroes, Deadwood, Rome, Boardwalk Empire)
4. Queer-targeted series like The L Word (2004-2009), Lip Service (2010-2012), South of Nowhere (2005-2008), Dante’s Cove (2004-2007), Queer as Folk (2000-2005), Exes and Ohs (2007 & 2011).
5. The latest Degrassi iteration
6. A Ryan Murphy project
7. Diamonds in the mainstream rough, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood or Skins.
When we lost a Category 4 Show — and we lost ’em all by 2012 — the number of lesbian and bisexual characters on TV would come tumbling down. (Faking It is a rare example of a more recent Category 4-ish show, which lasted three short seasons.) Ilene Chaiken told Entertainment Weekly earlier this year that after The L Word went off the air in 2009, “I think a lot of people thought, ‘Okay, the baton is passed now, and there will be lots of shows that portray lesbian life.’ There’s really nothing.”
Things began shifting in the early ’10s following the success of a few stand-out programs with front-and-center lesbians and bisexual women like Glee, Skins, The Fosters, Lost Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Glee, particularly, challenged the commonly accepted practice of tightly curtailing the queers-per-show quota. Sadly, it’s likely that 2010’s stream of press-garnering gay teen suicides played a role, too — we needed our stories in order to live and we needed happy endings to believe that things could really get better, and many media-makers answered that call, some better than others. In 2013 on Grey’s Anatomy, Callie and Arizona did the unthinkable by having multi-season lesbian relationship on network TV.
Groups like One Million Moms, The Parents Television Council and the Florida Family Association, who regularly rallied against LGBTQ inclusion and pressured advertisers to drop support, faded into the political background, drowned out by our increasing Civil Rights and the ever-more-powerful media representation advocacy organization GLAAD. Teen-oriented networks like The CW, ABC Family and MTV learned they could safely produce this content and easily earn massive free buzz from social media platforms, GLAAD, and websites like ours.
How we watch television has also changed how television gets made — whereas an ’80s sitcom scored big if it could entertain an entire family at 8 PM on a Tuesday, shows these days can thrive by attracting significant numbers of solo laptop viewers. Syndication contracts, which provided lengthy profit streams, favored backstory-lite formats like sitcoms and procedurals. Now, shows can earn a solid shot at an afterlife with a plot so compelling you’re likely to Netflix-binge 15 nail-biting episodes at once.
Although high-concept television has flourished in this new era, it rarely featured queer women. Prestige TV has always privileged male-centric shows generally, and male antiheros specifically (e.g., The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men). On this track, the shift began in 2013. That’s when Orange is the New Black, a series with a racially diverse cast that showcased more queer love stories than straight ones and centered a bisexual protagonist, topped every “Best Of” list and demolished expectations on social media. Just as The L Word’s rise was enabled by the growth of online communities like fansites and AfterEllen, OITNB hit the market just as wealthy companies like HuffPo and Buzzfeed launched LGBTQ verticals, which quickly filled with OITNB-adjacent content. Transparent, in 2014, sealed the deal OITNB started — a trans woman lead presiding over an entirely queer ensemble put Amazon Prime on the map, racked up Emmys, and challenged previous conceptions of what was considered “too niche” to get made.
But in 2016, GLAAD’s annual report revealed that lesbian representation had gone down for the first time since 2004, and “while bisexual women are getting a small boost in visibility, it’s often coming at the cost of damaging cliche.” Our Senior Editor Heather Hogan called 2016 “the most frustrating year ever for queer women who love television,” even compared to years when we had “hardly any TV representation at all.” Every year for the last ten, we’d seen more and better portrayals of queer women on television, but “Lexa’s death, and the landslide of lesbian/bi deaths that came after it, were crushing because they shook the hope out of us.”
What Got Better For Lesbian and Bisexual TV Characters in 2017
I’ve spent the year building a database of every lesbian, gay and bisexual teevee character ever on English-language programming accessible on U.S platforms, and the past two months looking at 2017 specifically, finding 116 total shows with LBQ regular/recurring characters, compared to 80 in 2016. (From here on, I’ll abbreviate “Regular or Recurring Characters” as “R/Rs.”) 39 new shows in 2017 had lesbian and bisexual R/Rs, and five returning shows that previously lacked lesbian and bisexual R/Rs, added them; compared to 16 new shows and five returning in 2016.
Those 116 shows accounted for 105 lesbian and 99 non-monosexual R/R characters. These shows also featured 10 trans women (straight or queer) and non-binary R/Rs. (Four shows that included non-binary characters or straight trans characters but no lesbian/bisexual cis or trans female characters were not part of the database count, but they are discussed in the trans section later in this post.)
I personally watched 51 of these shows, and other team members bring the “Autostraddle saw this show” count to 83. For the rest, I relied on recaps and reviews from other sites, YouTube clips, wikipedia, show-specific wikis, and databases (specifically this one and this one).
Then, we made you this infographic:
The movement that started when Lexa died put LGBTQ women in the spotlight. So far this year, we’ve lost less than a dozen R/Rs to stray bullets and wayward stabbings, and of those, only two were potential 2018 regulars, as the majority occurred on anthology series. In 2016, LGBTQ viewers pointed out a persistent unconscious bias and also made it known that queer fandom is absolutely nuts about our teevee, we’re tired of being exploited and we’re happy to give praise where praise is due. Did showrunners choose to let queer characters live? Maybe shitty shows stopped inventing new queers just to kill them. Maybe good shows began negotiating potential lesbian/bisexual deaths with the same careful consideration they do straight ones. Whatever the reason, it feels like we’re finally getting somewhere.
Because moreso than a lack of death, 2017 gave us a tiny burst of life — myriad disappointments, to be sure, but small steps in the right direction too.
Also, everyone is gay and so every television show should be about us, the end.
Lesbian and Bisexual TV In 2017: Highlights
2017 opened with the charming, surprisingly captivating multi-cam sitcom remake of Norman Lear’s 1975 feminist show One Day at a Time, re-packaged as a story of a Latinx family with 14-year-old Elena struggling to come out to herself and her family (who tried brushing up on lesbian lingo by checking out Autostraddle.com). The LGBT history mini-series, When We Rise, debuted in February, and although its mediocrity excludes it from “Golden Age” territory, it’s very existence was an important milestone.
The second season of UK TV series Humans hit the states in February, opening its first episode with the beginnings of a lesbian love story between a synth, Niska, and a German lesbian, Astrid, that wove its tender way through the show’s action-packed narrative. One of the year’s most buzzy and critically acclaimed series, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, debuted in late April, with lesbian characters played by Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel. Two artsy, high-brow dramas with all-female production teams — Hulu’s Harlots and OWN’s Queen Sugar — also showcased queer women’s stories in revolutionary ways.
Although Denise’s screen time was mininmal in Master of None‘s second season, the “Thanksgiving” episode, which followed Denise through several generations of Thanksgiving as she came into her own as a Black lesbian, made up for all that in a perfect hour of television that made Waithe the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Comedy Writing.
Mid-summer, Jill Soloway’s esoteric performance-art-inspired I Love Dick came to Amazon Prime with a Latinx butch heartthrob, Devon, played by Roberta Colindrez, set at an artist’s retreat in the hazy Texas desert. The second season of Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi is perhaps one of lesbian television’s most impeccable works of art, as it deftly navigated rough topics like sexual abuse with delightfully dark humor and a truly beating heart. Transparent’s fourth season bounced back from a lackluster third, with Sarah and her ex-husband entering a poly relationship and Ali beginning to come into her own as non-binary.
Freeform found a summer sleeper hit with The Bold Type, a refreshing dramedy centered on three best friends working at the same magazine, including Kat, a Black social media director who realizes she might like ladies when she falls for Muslim photographer Adena. Kat and Adena were one of only four R/R QTPOC couples featured this year.
We closed out the year with several unexpected gifts on network television: Sara Ramirez landing a regular role on mainstream cable as a dapper butch government advisor on Madam Secretary, Stephanie Beatriz’s Rosa Diaz coming out as bisexual on Brooklyn 99, Chris Alonso coming out bisexual on S.W.A.T., Luisa returning to regular appearances on Jane the Virgin, bisexual Toni Topaz joining Riverdale, Simone Davis getting gayer by the minute on Star, Nicole coming out as a lesbian on Fresh Off The Boat and, after several lifetimes of brutal queerbaiting, two women finally kissing with tongue on Once Upon a Time.
Over on Hulu, Marvel’s Runaways brought us lesbian Karolina coming to grips with her superpowers and feelings for her friend Nico. On premium cable, Audience Network debuted lesbian and bisexual characters in two new shows, Loudermilk and Mr. Mercedes. On Showtime, Shameless brought on a new lesbian of color.
Meanwhile, Danger & Eggs, Steven Universe, Big Mouth and Loud House produced important all-ages content with queer protagonists.
Lesbian and bisexual characters had guest or R/R roles on many programs dominating year-end “Best Of” lists, including American Gods, Halt & Catch Fire, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Deuce, Better Things, Veep, Mindhunter, Mr. Mercedes, One Day at a Time and The Handmaid’s Tale. We also got an Asian lesbian on the obnoxiously problematic teen sensation 13 Reasons Why, which was terrible but also a prime example of the year’s most buzzed-about programs seeming to come up lesbians this year.
There was also some intense lesbianism/etc on entertaining programs that may not attract wild critical acclaim but are wildly endearing nonetheless: Supergirl (although Maggie Sawyer’s departure was one of the year’s toughest storms to weather), Wynonna Earp, Younger, Degrassi: Next Class, Grey’s Anatomy, Into the Badlands, Killjoys, Saving Hope, The Fosters and The Shannara Chronicles.
“At first, I thought I had imagined them, or maybe even willed them into existence,” wrote Caroline Framke at Vox. “In 2017, the year after I came out as ‘not straight,’ television suddenly seemed to be teeming with compassionate, realistically messy coming-out stories — many of them anchored by women.” A lot of this is owed to women behind the camera, too: One Day At a Time and Fresh Off the Boat have queer women of color in the writing room, and actress Stephanie Beatriz worked with Brooklyn 99 writers to tell her coming out story authentically.
What Didn’t Get Better For Lesbian & Bisexual TV Characters in 2017
Despite centering their seasons on lesbian relationships, neither American Horror Story: Cult or Season Two of The Girlfriend Experience delivered solid stories. We were also unimpressed with lesbian and bisexual representation on shows including Top of the Lake, Famous In Love, Orange is the New Black, Claws, Dark Matter, She’s Gotta Have It and Dear White People. Because Autostraddle has already devoted countless hours to criticizing various elements of queer-inclusive television shows this year and this article is already quite long, I won’t rehash all of it here.
Instead, I’d like to talk about an area of unacceptable persistent failure and the primary problem currently facing queer TV: a severe lack of diversity.
The sidelining of gender non-conforming lesbian and bisexual characters gets more absurd every damn year.
Butches are most likely to appear in prison or somehow involved in crime or criminal justice. Lucy is a convicted rapist. Franky, Silent Ann and Big Boo are all convicted criminals. Jukebox is a (now-killed) corrupt cop. Mary Agnes and Stef are both gun-toting law enforcers, albeit in very different scenarios. Ally kills humans with knives and Lena works for a Hollywood “fixer” who’s often helping criminals get away with it.
This year’s biggest gains for masculine-of-center representation were a black masculine-of-center lesbian winning an Emmy for a black lesbian story, Kat Sandoval and her pocket square on Madam Secretary (remarkable for reasons including how rarely we see a not-skinny butch in a suit on any kind of screen), Devon in I Love Dick (my favorite character of 2017) and Tig Notaro’s One Missisisippi, starring and written by a masculine-of-center lesbian. Those were four incredible portrayals, but 16 masculine-of-center R/R characters (two of whom died, and some of whom are really only television-butch) out of 204 is ridiculous.
Furthermore, Seeso’s shuttering this year has left hilarious wives Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher’s second season of “Take My Wife” in limbo, which says a lot about where television’s comfort with gender non-conformity begins and ends.
Transgender Representation: Better Still Isn’t Good
A few steps forward and a few steps back: this year offered three non-binary characters (up from zero in 2016), including thoughtful season-long gender journeys for Yael on Degrassi and Ali on Transparent. The animated program Steven Universe also has a non-binary character, Stevonnie.
Trans representation gets a little better every year, but the bar is so low there that it’s practically an underground tunnel, and we’re still lacking lesbian, bisexual and queer trans women. Moira Pfefferman began dating men in Transparent‘s Season Four, but does seem to still identify as queer. We’re hoping they’ll recast Moira with a trans actress for Season Five, now that Jeffrey Tambor has been outed as a sexual predator, rather than kill her off or exile her geographically.
Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset, who had a diminished role in the past two seasons of Orange is the New Black, is queer, but her sexuality is rarely addressed. Nomi Marks, the transgender hacker from Sense8 played by Jamie Clayton, has a girlfriend and an inspirational arc — but Sense8 was cancelled this summer. “In some instances,” GLAAD wrote of trans characters in their 2017-2018 report, “it appears that the show’s creators haven’t given much thought to the fact that trans people also have sexual orientations.”
Straight trans women aren’t exactly thriving either. Four shows with trans characters — Doubt, Daytime Divas, Gypsy and Lopez — were cancelled. Maxine may not return to Wentworth. Although sources strongly suggest Cotton is returning to Star, they did leave possibly-murdered in the season finale. On the upside, the always-incredible Davina from Transparent broke ground this year with a full-frontal.
Danger & Eggs was created by a trans woman with multiple side trans characters and trans actresses — but its future is unclear. (Take My Wife‘s second season, also in limbo, promised trans-inclusiveness.)
Trans men remain woefully underrepresented in media. Elliot Fletcher plays a gay trans guy on Shameless and a straight trans guy on The Fosters, and apparently The Orville has a regular trans male alien character. There is speculation about Frankie, Sam’s daughter, on Better Things, as well as the child in the now-cancelled Gypsy. “I didn’t know they existed,” trans male actor Ian Harvie told Screencrush this year about trans men, “and I didn’t know I existed as a result of it.”
As Carmen Phillips wrote in our Favorite / Least Favorite Characters of 2017 roundtable, “representation for queer women of color was plentiful this year, but uneven in execution.”
It felt like a big year, between The Bold Type and the “Thanksgiving” Emmy win and Queen Sugar and The Handmaid’s Tale and Rosa Diaz — but the big picture isn’t great.
GLAAD reported that broadcast scripted programming for the 2017-2018 season is “finally making serious strides towards more racially diverse representations” but “GLAAD would like to see that racial diversity also represented in the increased inclusion of LGBTQ characters who are also people of color.” They found the number of QTPOC characters decreasing on broadcast, to 36%, and increasing on cable, to 35%, with streaming lagging behind at 23%. GLAAD was looking at a different data set than us — all characters (not just women), only U.S. primetime shows, and the 2017/2018 season rather than all shows that aired in 2017. But our numbers were similar: 70% of the R/R characters we counted were white.
Comparing the population to its accordant representation isn’t a great standard — I’d argue when it comes to sexual as well racial minorities, we need extra representation, not just proportional representation. Still, it’s worth noting the extreme discrepancy for Latinx people — 18% of the population, yet only 4.8% of LGBT female characters! The small, sliver of a silver lining is that those nine Latinx characters were some of the year’s best characters, period.
GLAAD reported a sharp dip in API LGBT characters, from 13% in 2016-2017 to “a meager 4% this year.” Our number was slightly higher, but still dismal. There’s a quality/quantity issue and the only API character on network television, bisexual CeCe from New Girl, had zero lesbian romantic arcs. Other interesting numbers: of 12 shows with API characters, 33% were Canadian and 42% were sci-fi/supernatural. Just two of the 12 identified as lesbians, and none of the 12 had a present or past relationship with an API female. In fact, from a cursory look at the data, no API character in our database of 303 shows has ever dated another API woman. (I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming piece on race in lesbian TV relationships.)
19% of this year’s characters were Black, which is fine but not great — especially when you take a closer look.
Although Nova and Annalise remain beloved bisexual characters, and don’t need to date women to prove their bisexuality, it’s still worth noting that neither had a romantic storyline with a woman in 2017. Nor did Empire‘s Tiana, on a show which previously imprisoned one Black butch lesbian and killed a Black bisexual woman. Nor did Suzanne or Sophia on Orange is the New Black, which killed a Black lesbian last year and has tortured the aforementioned for many moons now. Cancellations buried Survivor’s Remorse‘s M-Chuck (before she ever got a big romantic storyline), Rosewood‘s Tara, Sense8‘s Amanita, APB’s Tasha, Dark Matter‘s Ayisha and Doubt’s Cameron Worth. We were immediately drawn to Moira (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Kat (The Bold Type), but both shows fell into the trap of having characters of color in very race-relevant environments where their race was somehow never mentioned. Two shows that addressed race directly with majority-black casts, Dear White People and She’s Gotta Have It, endorsed problematic tropes about queer women (click those links for more on how).
Another interesting phenomenon: Fresh Off The Boat, American Horror Story: Cult and Transparent all included Black guest characters as love interests for white regular/recurring characters, but zero Black recurring/regular queer characters.
I’ll conclude with this quote from Brittani Nichols (a gender-nonconforming Black lesbian actress and writer who was part of that Take My Wife Season Two I keep bringing up) from her piece I Demand To Be Sexualized: “I rarely see anyone that looks like me in movies/web series/TV. To the point that the most glaring examples of people that look like me ARE ACTUALLY ME .”
The Future of Lesbian & Bisexual Characters on TV
If we’re able to stave off nuclear war, there’s a lot to look forward to. Thirteen new shows for 2017 have promised LGBTQ female characters, including the hotly-anticipated Black Lightning, with a Black lesbian regular and a bisexual Asian-Amazon recurring character.
Starz is vying for Best Network of 2018: they’re developing P-Town, a drama about the opoid crisis with a “hard-partying” Federal Fishery Service Agent lesbian lead character as well as Vida, focusing on two Mexican-American sisters in Los Angeles and promising representation of “all genders and sexualities,” including at least one queer female lead. Sweetbitter has cast its lesbian bartender, American Gods will add Native American bisexual character Sam Black Crow in Season Two, and The Counterpart debuts its masculine-of-center lesbian later this month.
Ryan Murphy’s Pose, which promises 50+ LGBT characters and is centered on four trans woman of color, begins filming this month.
The Heathers reboot, on the Paramount Network, will introduce an amab genderqueer character and a black lesbian.
The Dime, centered on a lesbian cop, has been given a script commitment from Fox. Marvel’s New Warriors, with “confidently out lesbian” character, is being shopped around after Freeform’s pass.
Of course the biggest news of the year is that Showtime is developing, bless our collective souls, an L Word reboot. Autostraddle’s roots are in L Word fandom, and although this isn’t a great time to be alive, it is a great time to be a living television writer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer women.
The television industry has a major opportunity right now. Scores of cis white men are getting fired for abusing power and (surprise!) also women. It’s time to promote, hire, and elevate women, queer people, trans people and people of color. It’s time to tell new stories, and getting LGBTQ folks behind the camera is a great way to get more in front of it, too. Time’s up. We’re ready, and we’ve got so much left to talk about.
I loved reading every word of this and would absolutely sit through an entire college course you taught on it.
Thank you thank you thank you for all this work! This was amazing to read, especially given the amount of actual numbers and different facets of representation it encompassed. Especially the attention given the gender non-conformity is really appreciated. I’ll be forever impressed by how exhaustive this article is, thank you.
First of all, love this and echo Heather’s sentiments.
The results simultaneously make me frustrated and give me hope, especially looking ahead to what existing shows that have had tentative steps forward/wins will do.
Case in point: Shameless is really into setting us up to knock us down this season w/r/t its queer women. I’ve been a huge fan of the show and had high hopes for this season, especially with the addition of Nessa, but it’s been pretty disappointing (to say nothing of the death of problematic bisexual Monica at the end of last season).
They’re doing some aggravating shit with Vee in which she figures out that she’s not attracted to Svetlana because she’s a woman, but because Svetlana dominates her. So far, it hasn’t been explicitly stated that she’s no longer sleeping with Svetlana, but it seems an awful lot like this “realization” is a device to eventually oust Svetlana from the throuple situation and let Vee’s queerness fade quietly into the background.
As for Nessa and her girlfriend: as of this week’s episode, we’ve now got not one but two pregnant lesbians, one of whom “drew the short straw” and slept with a man to accomplish this. NEAT. (Btw, I watched this episode with my parents on New Year’s Eve after having done some damage to an entire bottle of prosecco, and their faces when I yelled “OH FOR FUCKSAKE” were things of beauty.)
All this is to say…my cautious optimism is heavy on the “cautious” bit, though I know I can rely on queer fandom to demand accountability.
shameless has a pretty crappy track record with queer female characters (thus my unfinished post “i wish shameless liked lesbians as much as this lesbian likes shameless”), even though it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. it’s had a lot of throwaway and predatory les/bi female characters… but also everybody in that show is so deeply flawed so it’s hard to decide what i should actually spend time being upset about.
i’m in deep denial about the sventlana/vee situation. like even though she’s decided it’s about her being dominated, i don’t buy it! i refuse to consider it a total rejection of her bisexuality until the arc finishes up.
Yup, yup to all of that. It’s thoroughly weird to consider it one of my favorite shows when it treats its queer women like shit, but the infuriating-and-complex-show-loving heart wants what it wants, I guess.
Denial’s probably the way to go there, and I don’t know that I necessarily buy it either, but the fact that they pulled this stunt in the first place doesn’t really bode well enough for me to place any faith in the outcome.
Wow, that thing with Nessa sounds like they were playing lesbian bad-trope bingo. I’m surprised they didn’t end the scene with her getting shot with a stray bullet.
Thank you for the great analysis here. It would be interesting to see how many of the characters here who are lgbtq were actually played by someone lgbtq. Also, do we count lgbtq people who played straight or unknown sexuality? Like Asia Dillion played a white power in OITNB, which is problematic in it’s own way, or trans person playing cis. Does GLAAD and others count that as representation or does that count as something else?
what are you referring to when you ask “Does GLAAD and others count that as representation or does that count as something else?” GLAAD and us and other databases count characters, not actors, so if it’s a gay person playing a straight character, that character isn’t part of their count or ours. laverne cox played a theater professor in Faking It who seemed to be presented as cis, so we didn’t count her as a trans character when we talked about that show.
Thank you for the clarification.
Riese, I keep coming back to this in small sections throughout my work day. I hope to have more concrete opinions to share later, but for now: THIS IS SO, SO GOOD.
I am awe-inspired.
Just another reason to proud and happy to be on Team Autostraddle! What a great way to start off the new year :)
This entire post was a dream and I’m so happy/grateful you do this every year, Riese. Also I have a million thoughts:
1) On teen dramas in the 00s – I was obsessed with The OC as a young teen and recently have been rewatching it. It’s really not the same but I still felt weak watching Marissa and Alex’s romance play out and remembering how I felt watching it at 14 years old, completely unaware of my sexuality. Also, I don’t remember any queer female characters on Gossip Girl?
2) I couldn’t get into I Love Dick but I loved Devon so I’m thinking I should just skip through to all her scenes.
3) Your findings on masculine-of-center women are eye-opening. Though I was aware MoC characters are few and far between on television, I hadn’t picked up on any patterns in terms of the way they’re presented, so it’s interesting (but also very concerning) to know. I really hope this is something that changes soon in wlw rep (both in terms of having more MoC characters and more variation in those characters).
4) Is CeCe actually bisexual? I haven’t watched the most recent season of New Girl. I know that in the past she slept with Reagan, who is bi, but it seemed like she brushed it off as experimentation?
5) Would it be possible for you to post a list of the full 204 characters? I would love to see!
Plus my fav lonely lesbian Dominique DiPierro
1) Gossip Girl had a brief arc with a guest character played by Hillary Duff (I think I linked to it.) It’s the kind of sweeps week obnoxiousness that was so typical for so long! I was 24 when I watched Marissa & Alex and it blew my mind. I couldn’t breathe.
2) Yeah just skip to the Devon scenes. “a brief history of weird girls” i think it’s called is a great episode, and also the last episode devon has an incredible scene.
3) it’s truly bizarre, and i think sometimes isn’t as obvious as it should be because we have that sinewy moc heartbreaker character in pretty much all queer-popular media (shane in tlw, stella in oitnb, franky on wentworth, frankie in lip service) but never in mainstream. Idk wheeee to start on this topic actually I could talk about it forever and like what kinda of women men are comfortable with when they create characters
4) i haven’t watched new girl ever, so i was just judging from what i read on other websites. there were a lot of people described as bisexual by various lgbt databases that i decided after my own research that they didn’t count, this one i waffled on for a while but eventually went with it, what i read was that Reagan was her ex-girlfriend, which seemed legit? (the other ones i weren’t sure of who i ended up including were two characters on Slasher that a reader told me was queer but even after doing a scroll-through of the episodes and reading recaps wasn’t really sure why) (i usually privilege first-hand accounts of show fans over anything i read online)
Thanks for your reply!
1) Ohh yeah I remember that threesome with Hillary Duff’s character and Vanessa. Me too! I remember wondering why I was so affected by/attached to Marissa and Alex’s relationship.
2) I definitely will!
3) Yes, it would be so interesting to look into it further. One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that I notice a lot in shows with multiple female leads, the lesbian character is often one of the most conventionally feminine characters/more conventionally feminine than her straight and bi counterparts (not to lump straight and bi women together), or if the show includes bi and straight characters, the bi one is sometimes more feminine. For example: in Orphan Black, Cosima (who is gay) is generally more feminine-presenting than Sarah (who is bi) or Helena (who is straight); in Wynonna Earp, Waverley (who is gay/bi) is much more traditionally feminine than the straight Wynonna; in Marvel’s Runaways, lesbian Karolina is by far the most conventionally feminine out of all the female leads. Those are three off the top of my head but I’ve noticed it more often than that. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with these portrayals, and as a very traditionally feminine person myself who has often been around straight women who are less so, it’s something I can connect to – but when it’s a trend, I think there’s something a little sinister to it. I can’t help suspecting that this happens as much as it does because writers are scared to stray too far from what they see as palatable in representations of women – if a female character is gay and therefore has no romantic or sexual interest in men, they want her to at least still fit into the conventional ideal of what men supposedly find attractive; if a female character is into men they feel more able to have her be more ‘tomboyish’ in dress/presentation, because it’s seen as just ~edgy and cool~ enough without being threatening. I’d have to look into it a little more to see how prevalent this trend really is – I suspect it may be less than I imagine, but even so, when you couple this with the fact that there are far less masculine-of-center gay/bi women on TV than feminine ones, which doesn’t accurately reflect women IRL, it doesn’t paint a great picture.
4. I’m pretty sure Reagan isn’t Cece’s ex but someone she slept with once. It is really difficult to find accurate information online about shows sometimes – I was trying to come up with a list of all WLW characters at one point and if you haven’t seen the show it’s impossible sometimes!
wow, riese, this is so impressive and incredible! thank you for all your hard work, this is the kind of reporting and analysis that no one else on the internet does
Beautiful graphs as always, thanks for all the hard work you’ve put into this.
“Also, everyone is gay and so every television show should be about us, the end.”
TV is my favourite story telling media, but it wasn’t until reading this article that I realized how much 2015/2016 messed me up and made me avoid TV. Until I have a confirmation that the queer character will be ok, I tend to stay away, and looking at the numbers here, it makes me sad for a lot of what I have missed.
I’m going to make an effort to fix that this year!
I forgot to say that all the words in the article were amazing! Thank you for writing them!
Feeling nervous and worried I’m maybe off topic but is there room for queer female antiheroes in tv or any kind of media y’all would willingly consume? Because while my brain isn’t bursting to the brim with them I sometimes feel a bit like if queer characters aren’t nice normal people in peaceful nice normal settings my brain is Doing A Bad that no one appreciates and I’m tainting the sanctity of queerness or something, getting my sooty grime on the nice bright rainbow.
But yes queer female anti-heroes, any takers?
I am a taker!! That’s also what Heather liked about Gypsy — and I liked that part of it too, but just… so many other aspects of the plotting and writing and BASIC PREMISE and development were terrible. But I was glued to the screen.
I also should admit a high tolerance for Piper from OITNB. I had a high tolerance for Mimi in Empire, too, who many others hated for seeming predatory, but also like, DRAMA!
I think shows with multiple queer characters are able to pull it off better. And I dunno if we’re ready for that from certain underserved demographics within the LGBTQ women’s demographic broadly.
But if we’re always safe and boring and nice, then nobody will watch the shows, and they will be boring and then they will get cancelled.
I think a lot of the queer female characters who are often “shipped” are female villains, actually.
[ETA I meant to say straight female villains who queer watchers wish were gAy!]
I think also in this climate… it’s just so important to have queer women writing the stories. Showrunners might fear creating an evil lesbian but I think a lesbian writer would be able to do so with confidence.
But yeah I think there are enough shows now, at least enough shows about white femme lesbian and bisexual women, that we can afford quite a few anti-heroes. We want good drama too!
I 100% get what you’re saying. When villains have been queercoded for years it is very difficult for me, from a “thinking” point of view, to feel good about queer villains or antiheroes. Honestly, though, I eat that shit up. I think the protagonist in G*psy was an antihero and I enjoyed parts of that show quite a bit. (My critiques were unrelated to her antihero-ness.) I really hope that as we get more nuanced portrayals of women on TV that that will extend to queer women as well. I feel your reservations, though – my instinct is to worry that the far right would use any such portrayal against us. Such is life, though!
Yes definitely! I understand where you’re coming from, but I think the issue lies in all/a majority of characters of a certain minority being depicted in the same way. The evil/dysfunctional/manipulative lesbian/bi woman is certainly a negative trope, but I think an antihero written by a queer woman is a different thing altogether – you’re coming from a place of knowledge and experience that those who generally write those characters aren’t, and I think if you’re mindful to make sure your characters are three-dimensional and don’t embody *too* many negative stereotypes, you’re all good. Whilst it’s important not to contribute to homophobic/biphobic stereotypes when writing fiction, it’s also important that there is a diversity of LGBT characters out there, and it doesn’t make sense for all of them to be completely ~morally good~ or whatever.
Also a good idea might be to look at existing examples of queer female antiheroes (eg Piper Chapman, OITNB, or the lead character in Gypsy – forgotten her name, sorry) and consider what about their characters you think is problematic and what isn’t.
I gave up on OitNB in the beginning of season 2 because of how irritating I find Piper. Like just muting her scenes wasn’t enough, that’s how irritating I find her.
I think my idea of an antihero is something more brutal than well a gnat.
Also a taker, all the freaking way…
And if I can make a suggestion, anybody knows Ali Vali’s Cain Casey series? It may need a little work around the edges but I think it would work perfectly.
Just googled it and gosh for once an author not Anne Rice wrote about New Orleans and actually has lived here more than a month, reading list addition yass.
Call me shallow but low cut waistcoat I need to know this character.
HG Wells from “Warehouse 13”.
Oh thank you.
you might try lmposters on bravo! i don’t want to give too much away except to say that there’s a bisexual woman lead who’s a con artist and a lesbian lead who’s… also up to no good, but you’ll have to see how
Will take a look, thank you.
Aneela and Delle Seyah are more complicated/more villainous characters on Killjoys. Delle Seyah is less of an antihero and more of a villain who might do good things in her own self interest. I am still far too charmed by her, though (even though she killed Pawter). Aneela was the big bad most of last season, though she and Dutch have joined forces.
Ooh I just got back my access to this show yay, thanks.
This article was super impressive!! So much research, so much analysis, so many statistics, so many infographics! Before I read this I was thinking, ugh I guess I’ll just sit around and watch Netflix tonight because it’s too cold to do anything else. Now, I’m thinking, I’M SO EXCITED TO WATCH TV TONIGHT LOOK AT ALL THESE AMAZING CHARACTERS AND SHOWS I COULD BE WATCHING.
Riese, thank you so much for writing all of this! It is lovely to see it all put together – and I am excited to read several of the pieces you linked to as well!
A couple of thoughts:
First, did Susie on Mrs. Maisel actually come out? I remember one throwaway line about paying a broad to take care of her in her old age, but (and I’m only on episode 7, so pardon my ignorance of the finale!) I don’t think I’ve heard her actually express her being gay. I mean, her coding is obvious, but I would’ve liked to see more explicit recognition, for a show set partially in Greenwich Village at least. Sigh.
Secondly, thanks for the info graphic specifically showing the numbers of LGB characters per genre. I now know that I am not off base in thinking there is a disproportionate number in sci-fi and not nearly enough in comedy!
Finally, and this is rather tangential, but I was reminded of this when you mentioned One Million Moms et al. I remember before I found this site that the queer news sources I read would write frequent articles about conservative anger and boycotts. I didn’t realise just how disheartening I found that until I realized that Autostraddle just…doesn’t do that. I really appreciate all that you all do to make this our space, especially the relegation of straight bullshit to link roundups. I think it does a lot to the psyche to read about how much one’s group is hated, even when the author is on your side. So thank you for focusing on queer voices and stories – it means a lot to me. I only started reading Autostraddle in the past couple of years, but I’m so glad I did, and I’m thrilled to keep reading in 2018!
“I really appreciate all that you all do to make this our space, especially the relegation of straight bullshit to link roundups.”
Same here ! Even when there’s some bad news we must know about, you handle it so differently and so well.
I just have to ask, Riese, did Ruby (Lucy Lawless) on “Ash vs Evil Dead” make it? My love for the VERY rare comedy-horror shows makes me hope that this one didn’t fall through the cracks.
she’s in the larger database but not part of this post because ash vs. evil dead didn’t air a season this year, season three was in 2016, unless the INTERNET IS LYING TO ME
The 2nd season was in Dec 2016 and the 3rd season starts in Feb 2018. So you are correct, it didn’t air in 2017.
I must say that I just loooooveeeeeee when Riese decides to slap me with numbers. YOU’RE A GODDESS!!!!
“I must say that I just loooooveeeeeee when Riese decides to slap me with numbers”
LOL! Hard same. It’s my most favorite thing.
Yes! Amen. Talk data to me. It’s so great.
This is AMAZING! It’s this sort of care & work that keeps me coming back to Autostraddle.
It definitely has felt like a good year for queer women on TV, and I think part of that is a sense that we are starting to slowly move beyond the old tropes – Kat Sandoval, Rosa Diaz and Adena in particular stood out to me as fresh ways of portraying queerness.
One nitpick – why is Nico Minoru included on the graphic for QWOC? There’s been no indication that she’s queer – Karolina’s crush has been portrayed as entirely one-sided.
I stand corrected and I’m v happy about it!!
Riese this is fantastic. I’m so happy and grateful you do this work year over year.
Big omission for trans actresses: Shakina Nayfack’s tremendous work on Hulu’s now-cancelled Difficult People.
She’s in the infographic….
Riese, I really need to ask. Why, in the name of Jebus, this always happens?
I WISH I KNEW!!!
Like everyone else, I really loved this post and I’m grateful for the work that you’ve put into this, Riese. One thing I especially love about it is that you’ve highlighted the LGBT characters who are relatively minor and/or didn’t have love interests on their respective shows.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how GLAAD highlights media–I’m thinking particularly of daytime dramas but I’m sure it’s applicable for categories as well–that features LGBT characters but really doesn’t make a distinction about the quality of the storyline…and so you end up with The Bold and the Beautiful getting a GLAAD Award for their trans character, Maya Avant, when, in reality, that character’s been MIA for most of the year. Those awards have become participation trophies, almost. But here, I think, you’re starting to lay the groundwork for how groups like GLAAD can establish some non-subjective metrics around considering what qualifies as legitimate representation. It’s so very necessary.
I was thinking about a similar GLAAD comparison yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more! Also, I think GLAAD is still somewhat male focused, or at least built out of a gay framework that they have tried to adjust/ broaden over the years (but don’t always make the mark).
Which is to say, it’s refreshing to have the same level of analysis from a feminist perspective.
Wish I could upvote this comment five times, Natalie!
You kick so much ass Riese! Like everyone else I’m super grateful as always for all your hard work! <3
I have really been thinking about this for over a day now. It’s such an invaluable resource. Thank you, Riese!
I just started a new 9-5 job so I’m seriously lacking the energy of long comments these days, but I just had to say that I LOVE ALL OF THIS. And I would also totally take a course all about queer representation on television.
And now we lost The Fosters too, dammit
Infographics and data and solid analysis… Everything I want in this kind of article. Thanks, Riese.
You have outdone yourself!!! This was incredible. I will be referencing this so much. This is Autostraddle gold. Go Riese
It’s so satisfying to see that warm feeling I felt when watching so many TV shows as escapism this year quantified through real data and awesome graphics. Thank you, Riese.
I’m really hoping that Brown Girls makes it past development and onto HBO’s roster this year b/c it is so needed.
I love this article! It’s such a beautiful compilation! But when we’re talking CW, DC representation, Legends of Tomorrow is so much better than Supergirl. Alex is wonderful, but she’s been pushed to the side this season. On Legends, Sara is essentially the main character, ever since becoming the captain of the ship. I know Supergirl is more popular, but in terms of positive representation, Sara is given a much better role than Alex.
Hi! First of all – I loved this. I wish all TV writing was as in-depth and insightful as Autostraddle. I do have a query – does GLAAD cover D/deaf and Disability representation? I know there is probably little to none to talk about (I think there is a queer disabled woman in Coronation Street in the UK but that’s it) but it would be good to have it mentioned. I realise it might just be not counted in GLAAD statistics, but I thought it was worth asking your thoughts.
Yes, GLAAD does cover characters with disabilities.
Coronation Street wasn’t covered by their numbers though or by mine (since I only counted shows from overseas that are also distributed in the US). As far as lesbian/bi characters, they mentioned Tabitha on Gotham and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, who are both amputees. They also count anybody with a mental health diagnosis in their numbers, which was surprising to me. They also counted Tig Notaro on One Mississippi and Maxine on Wentworth for both having double mastectomies, Maura on Transparent for having heart problems, and Davina on Transparent for being HIV positive.
“We wanted quality, and we wanted it now… and in 2017, we started getting it.”
Not in Pretty Little Liars though. In PLL we got:
+ Paige returning
– Emily already with some expendable love interest leading Paige on
– Alison queerbaiting Emily AGAIN
– Emily almost falling for the queerbaiting that’s an obvious desperate attempt to distract her from Paige
– Emily wasting her time catering to Alison and ignoring Paige, sending poor Paige mixed messages
+ Emily finally making a move on Paige
– After Paige received a job offer in Iowa though, forcing her to choose between the bread and the bae
– Alison trying to cockblock Emily some more
– A seriously annoying amount of Alison trying to cockblock Emily because she hates Paige
+ Paige picking Emily in a romantic race for Paige’s heart type scene where Paige admits she wants Emily too and they make out and it’s glorious
– Emily being told Alison is pregnant with her baby. Alison asking her what to do with it and
– Emily being forced to choose whether Alison has the baby
– Emily loses Paige by trying to do what she deems to be the right thing and offering to support Alison, and pushing her to have the demon baby
– Alison confirms what we’ve known all along: she isn’t in love with Emily, she just likes how Emily makes her feel.
– Emily is desperate enough to resort to dating Alison. Decides to throw in the towel and just say ‘ef it’ and settle for the only person available, Alison.
– Alison is desperate, resorts to dating Emily, who’s the only person available.
– the babies come out looking exactly like Alison. They’re identical twins, just like Alison’s mother, aunty, cousins, etc and it’s painfully obvious that either Alison or A lied and the babies were not created using Emily’s eggs and that she just threw away Paige like a used condom for nothing.
– Alison and Emily are the worst gay couple I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Absolutely no chemistry and everytime I see them together I want to throw up.
– Alison is a shitty parent and a horrible teacher. Never actually identifies as anything other than straight. And regurgitates some rubbish pre-rehearsed speech to both Emily AND Paige when asked about her nonexistent feelings for Emily. She even uses that regurgitated speech in her proposal. “Emily, you are gullible and I love that about you. You let me get away with everything and if you promise to take all the responsibility for our relationship I will let you marry me” is basically how that speech went, if you’re wondering..
This is hardly quality. Apart from the Paily bits.