Down Under: Lesbian representation over the years on “Shortland Street”

Ruth Callander is a New Zealander living and writing in Melbourne. She hopes to cover stories from both sides of the ditch. Tweet tips about the things you want to hear about to @RuthCallander.

“You’ll never guess what’s been happening in triage. Apparently everyone’s a lesbian!” — Shortland Street Receptionist, 2011

There’s this thing that happens at my house on week nights when my housemate Sarah comes home from work.

Sarah: Oh it’s 6:30, Neighbours is on!

Me: Ergh, Neighbours. Back in New Zealand, where everything is awesome, Shortland Street is way cooler and better in every way than Neighbours.

Sarah: Shh, it’s starting!

[Silence for approximately 45 seconds.]

Me:  Pfft, you call that drama? This one time, on Shortland Street, Donna and Rangi continued to have an affair even after they found out they were half-brother and sister; it was amazing! Oh, or this other time, a truck crashed into the hospital reception and killed approximately half the cast in one go. It was such a magical Christmas special.  
Sarah:  Why don’t you back to your own soap opera, where you belong?

Trans-Tasman relations aside, I genuinely miss the seven o’clock ritual viewing of my birth nation’s soap. It’s not just the melodrama, ridiculous chain car-crashes and violent serial murders that occur each and every time the actors’ contracts come up for renewal. What really warms the cockles of my heart is the fact that every night at 7 p.m. on weeknights, households up and down the country settle in to watch long-running, central gay characters live out the exact same storylines as everybody else. Whether it’s falling in love, having sex, giving birth, dealing with family problems, being cheated on, or getting murdered and left in the freezer of your local family restaurant, gay characters and straight characters on Shortland Street are treated in exactly the same way.

2011 Cast of Shortland Street

The show is set in the fictional Auckland suburb of Ferndale and is based around the lives of the staff and patients at Shortland Street Hospital. The soap first aired on New Zealand television screens in 1992, making it the country’s longest running drama and currently one of its highest rated. The significance of the show to New Zealand culture could probably be summed up by the fact that previous guest stars have included not one, but two Prime Ministers of the country (Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark). The show also screens in the UK, Ireland and Australia. In 1993, during the second season of the show the first gay male characters were introduced, and in series three (1994), Shortland Street had its first lesbian storyline including the first of many onscreen lesbian kisses. But that’s not all.  

Here are just a few of the things I’ve seen on Shortland Street over the years:

— Six different combinations of lesbian couples kissing
— A gay man going down on another man in bed
— Five entirely separate ‘coming out to your family’ stories
— One lesbian civil union
— An out asexual character
— At least two bisexual main characters (one male, one female) whose relationships with men and women have been treated equally by the writers
— Actors who generally fairly accurately reflect the cultural and ethnic background of the New Zealand population, including numerous main characters who were of Maori, Pacific Island and Asian descent.
— Te Reo Maori regularly spoken between characters, without subtitles.
— Seventeen-million ridiculous over-the-top deaths, every possible combination of hospital storeroom hook-ups and enough rare medical disorders to put House to shame.

All of these are reasons why no matter how ridiculous the writing, how wooden the acting and how recycled the storylines are, I will always love Shortland Street, completely without shame for the rest of my days (and why Sarah will always hate me every day at Neighbours o’clock).  The soap opera I grew up watching portrayed frank storylines provoking national discussion about abortion, rape, alcoholism, prostitution, mental illness, addiction and incest, and on the other hand positively celebrated people from a wide range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as a full variety of sexual orientations; I wouldn’t have swapped it for the white-washed world of Neighbours for anything.

Um, I’m only here for the lesbians? Get to it please.

Picture yourself in 1994. Oh right, fine, you were busy being toilet-trained, learning to eat solids, or getting yourself born back then to pay much attention to television, so picture me in 1994 instead. I’m thirteen years old, my teeth are a little too big for my face, and we’re right in the middle of third form art class when someone says, “Oh my god, did you see Shortland Street last night? There were lesbians kissing on it!” and my little pre-gay self awoke, whispering insistently to me, “Imagine if they invented this thing called the Internet and then someone else created another thing called YouTube. I’d be all over that business with the fan vids right now.” 

Only, the Internet wasn’t invented yet and so I had to run back to the television and wait with bated breath for a little bit more local lesbian action. I remember that day with incredible clarity. Still Life of Pumpkin lay forgotten and my art career was over, but at least now I knew that lesbians existed and some of them even lived in New Zealand!  

This is what I missed out on:

Annie Flynn (Rebecca Hobbs) is a hot nurse that the long-running character Chris Warner (he’s still there today, in fact) has a crush on, but it turns out she’s immune to his charms because she’s a great big lesbian homosexual!  Instead she falls for Dr. Warner’s other love interest, Meredith Flemming (Stephanie Wilkin), and goes on to kiss her on-screen before the two of them run away together to that hotbed of lesbian sin, Dunedin.

Meredith Flemming (played by Stephanie Wilkin)

While this story arc was relatively brief and played out in a way that if you were cynical (like me) you’d suspect was all about the viewer titillation, the next storyline was a lot more emotionally invested.  During the 1999 lead-up to her wedding to boyfriend Al Dubrovsky, popular character Nurse Caroline Buxton (Tandi Wright) became increasingly drawn to her new friend, Dr. Laura Hall (Larissa Matheson).

While Laura was initially planned to be Caroline’s bridesmaid, Al was eventually left at the altar as the two women fell for each other instead. Caroline and Laura’s relationship was portrayed as highly romantic and included passionate onscreen kisses as well as a post-coital scene of the two cuddling in bed, wearing nothing but sheets. The story alas, did not end well, with Caroline eventually falling pregnant to her (totally lame) bad boy ex-boyfriend Greg Feeney and making the decision to move away with him.  And Laura? Yeah, she died.  

Caroline Buxton (played by Tandi Wright)

I won’t lie to you: I spat tacks about that decision. I threw my toys and vowed never to put my trust in Shortland Street writers ever again. Killing off the lesbians or returning them to men was one thing, but when you also know that at any given moment they could just up and send your favourite gay characters to Dunedin of all places, the trust just dies. (Sorry Dunedin! I’m sure you’re perfectly lovely, but my sister lives there and she once met one of her girlfriends because that was the girl her current girlfriend had cheated on her with, which pretty much describes how small the scene is there. Am I right?)