Once upon a time, the Lesbian Kiss Episode was an unfortunate trend on television. In the Lesbian Kiss Episode, a character previously thought to be straight would lock lips with some (usually) random woman who showed up only to then disappear almost immediately after. It happened on Friends, Sex And The City (twice), The O.C., Smallville, Desperate Housewives, Charlie’s Angels (the reboot), Heroes, Dirt, Alley McBeal and on and on. Hell, the LBK still happens to this day: On Awkward, Tamara’s brief and soon forgotten kiss with a girl while visiting colleges seems to fit the bill. Same with Bird and Madison on Finding Carter. And Barbara and Tabitha on Gotham.
Lesbian Kiss Episodes are done entirely for the ratings (many examples coincide directly with Sweeps Week, an antiquated method of Nielsen ratings tracking). These shows aren’t interested in exploring sexuality or even in really including queer characters in their stories. It’s usally a stunt, and the characters who arrived suddenly and identified as queer were only around long enough to initiate the kiss and leave.
Recently, however, television has been moving toward a more inclusive and meaningful portrayal of sexual fluidity. This year, Annalise Keating kissed a woman on How To Get Away With Murder, and it meant something. Clarke kissed Lexa on The 100, and it was just the beginning of a whole world of queer possibilities for the post-apocalyptic drama. This week, New Girl similarly adopted a very casual attitude about sexual fluidity. These shows have all brought more depth and nuance to queerness than the majority of Lesbian Kiss Episodes have ever achieved.
New Girl recently hit its stretch of episodes that won’t feature leading lady Zooey Deschanel, who took maternity leave during production on the show’s fifth season. First, the show filled the Jess-less space with a revolving door of temporary new roommates, thanks to Nick Miller listing Apartment 4D on airBNB. Tonight’s “Reagan” introduces, well, Reagan, a New Girl new girl played by Megan Fox. In her first scene, we learn that Reagan is a smart, tough pharmaceutical rep. In her second, we learn that she is bisexual. Reagan also very casually informs us that she and Cece hooked up at the MTV beach house back in the day.
While Cece’s dating history has been briefly explored on the show, this is the first time New Girl has really dug into it with significant screen time. Reagan and Cece are very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Schmidt, Winston, and Nick are shocked by the news and are predictably gross about it. My guess is Schmidt doesn’t want to know all the details of any of Cece’s past hookups, be they with men or women. But Reagan is quick to call out his reaction as “boring,” directly attacking the heterosexist perspective Schmidt embodies in this instance.
The episode itself avoids falling into “boring” traps with this storyline. Schmidt wants to make a big deal out of the fact that Reagan and Cece hooked up, but Reagan and Cece don’t, and the episode doesn’t either. Instead, it’s presented as an incidental detail about the characters and their relationship to one another. “Reagan” doesn’t fixate on the revelation or present it as some crazy twist. Instead of being about this past hookup, “Reagan” uses the reveal to shed new light on Cece’s romantic history without being self-congratulatory about it.
The only real misstep comes at the end of the episode: The tag milks Cece and Reagan’s history for cheap laughs that appeal to Schmidt’s male gaze. It isn’t perfect, but “Reagan” still immediately struck me as an important episode of New Girl.
I freaked out when Reagan mentioned her past with Cece, for much different reasons than the guys did. Just two weeks ago, I got drinks with my friend Rohin and we started listing off all the queer Desi women on television we could think of (it’s a very short list). Now Cece, an Indian character played by Hannah Simone, who is half-white/half-Indian (like me!), has a sexual history with a woman. And for all we know, there could be other women from Cece’s past! The show leaves it pretty open, and Cece doesn’t downplay what happened between her and Reagan by saying it was a phase or an experiment. And I never got the sense that New Girl was trying to pull off a Lesbian Kiss Episode stunt.
For one, Cece and Reagan don’t even kiss in the episode. They simply talk about their history openly and move on in a way that felt more casual than dismissive. It helps, too, that Reagan is undeniably her own character. She doesn’t just exist in terms of Cece. Her storyline, in fact, touches everyone in the apartment. Reagan is more than her sexuality, and she’s more than her sexual past with Cece.
The reveal reminded me a lot of the second season premiere of How To Get Away With Murder, when Famke Janssen’s Eve was introduced as an ex-girlfriend of Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating. Though that storyline ended up being a little more significant than Reagan and Cece’s reunion, it unfolded in a similar way. We previously knew about some of Annalise’s relationships with men, including her garbage dead ex-husband, but the introduction of Eve was the first time How To Get Away With Murder acknowledged that Annalise has dated a woman. It seems that Reagan and Cece had a much more casual thing going on, but both storylines show just how easy it is to write queer storylines, identities, and experiences into a show: You just do it. Really. It’s that simple.
So many TV characters are assumed to be straight simply because heterosexuality is the default sexuality in the real world. Sure, up until this point, all we’ve known about Cece’s dating history is that she tends to date terrible men, but that doesn’t make it random for the writers to now give her this backstory with Reagan. Cece has never explicitly identified as straight or queer prior to “Reagan,” and she doesn’t explicitly choose any label in the episode, either.
Television writers shouldn’t necessarily limit themselves by always confining characters to fixed identities. Annalise similarly doesn’t make any definitive statements about her sexuality, but the rekindling of her relationship with Eve makes it very clear that she has feelings for her. Characters should, like people, be allowed to exist on spectrums. If one character has only had love interests of the opposite sex, who’s to say they can’t suddenly fall for someone of the same sex? And that doesn’t need to be some sort of twist. It can be as casual and unembellished as the reveals in HTGAWM and New Girl.
The CW’s The 100 pulls off this kind of inclusive storytelling on a much larger scale. The show’s heroine, Clarke, has had romantic, and sexual, storylines with men and women. The 100‘s showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, openly acknowledges the fluid sexualities of his characters. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Rothenberg explained that Clarke likely won’t identify as bisexual because labels don’t really exist in the world he has created for the show. “I get that labels are very, very important in our world, and you should be proud of who you are, and you should be able to state it proudly, and, ‘Fuck you if you don’t agree with the way I live my life,’ but that’s just not the way it is in the show,” Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg isn’t trying to minimize the power that labels can have in the real world, and he admits that The 100 presents an idealized societal attitude toward sexuality. “It’s a little bit idealized, obviously, ’cause it’s not like our world, where there are still battles to be fought on those fronts,” he told Buzzfeed. “But the battle for who you want to sleep with, who you love, is over in my post-apocalypse,” Rothenberg said. “Nobody is giving you a hard time in the world of this show … No one’s parents are upset to find out their son is gay. That’s just not a thing.”
The 100 imagines a world free of homophobia, a world where labels don’t really hold meaning. Rothenberg has essentially suggested that any character on the show could be queer. Ship whoever you want! It’s all on the table! I don’t see the rest of television reaching that point any time soon — especially television that takes place in the real world and not the very queer world of The 100.
But there’s no real reason other shows can’t similarly allow characters to be fluid in the same way so many people in real life are. How To Get Away With Murder takes place in present-day Philadelphia, but the fact that Annalise doesn’t explicitly label her sexuality makes just as much sense as it does on The 100. Television doesn’t necessarily need to draw these lines in every case anymore. Labels used to hold much more significance on television when queer characters were more rare. They were an easy way to achieve visibility. But more subtle storytelling can be just as effective, as well as true to the way many people think about their sexuality in the real world — as long as writers are using it for meaningful character development, and not as a ratings grab or a way to tick the “diversity” check box.