Where are the Black Lesbian Protagonists on Screen?

Black lesbian representation is improving.

Our lives are being depicted with a degree of nuance and care that was missing when the L Word drew to a close a decade ago. Slowly but surely, change is happening. Ground-breaking shows like Dear White People and Black Lightning depict Black women loving, desiring, and caring for other Black women.

This in itself is a revelation. Too often, the mainstream media position white women as the gateway to lesbian sexuality. Whiteness is the default setting in classic lesbian worlds like L World or Lip Service. The price of belonging is building our social lives and sex lives around white women. Black women are so few and far between as to feel like guests, framed as interlopers in a community that in reality could never have existed without us.

TV has historically sent a message: there is the Black world, where straight Black people live, and the lesbian world, where all the dykes are white. The latest series of Dear White People helped break down that barrier in representation. Kelsey, after coming out in the previous season, is shown to pursue relationships with other women. She is a charming femme lesbian whose emotional intelligence is often the glue that holds her friends together.

But in series three we get to witness a story centred around Kelsey – one that’s all too familiar for many lesbians. After convincing Kelsey that it’s more than just a hook up, bicurious Brooke uses Kelsey to satisfy her thirst and moves on. Kelsey is crushed. Reeling from the loss of her dog, and struggling to connect with other lesbians on campus, she is cast adrift. The structuring of Dear White People gives us reason to hope that we will see more of Kelsey’s inner life in series four.

Yet the LGBT world shown in Dear White People is very male-centric. The sex parties, drag balls, and even the iconic parody of Queer Eye are all ultimately about men. When Lionel starts to play an active role in Winchester’s LGBT community, there is a token nod to the lesbians (the only ones who can work the BBQ) and nothing more. And while Lionel’s character arc has been a joy to witness – there are still too few Black gay men on screen, claiming their race and sexuality with pride – it’s hard to imagine the inner-life of a Black lesbian character being treated as central to this story.

Black lesbians are more visible than ever before on TV. But we are more likely to be shown as best friends or supporting characters than to have our own stories told. Yes, we have our first Black lesbian superhero: Thunder. And she is amazing. But there is still a long way to go.

Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW — © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

In many ways, indie films are light years ahead of mainstream media when it comes to Black lesbian representation. Night Comes On, an underrated movie, explores dimensions of Black lesbian life through an extraordinary story of revenge and redemption. But indie films don’t have the same budget. Without the backing of big studios, they are unlikely to reach as broad an audience as mainstream films.

The main drawback of big-budget films is that they tend to show Black lesbian lives with a white, male audience in mind. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple is a notorious example. He all but erases the romance between Celie and Shrug, which is the main source of joy and self-discovery for Celie in Alice Walker’s masterpiece. This is the unfortunate truth: the more resources are channeled into a production, the less likely it is that a story will be told by and for Black lesbians.

Still, subscription services have shaken up the industry. Netflix in particular is telling more and more stories about Black women – including lesbians. Netflix gave us Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington, a Black lesbian with a generous spirit and an irresistible smile. Although Poussey’s story ended in tears, there is much laughter and joy to be found in Wanda Sykes’ comedy special. With Black Lightning Netflix brought our first Black lesbian superhero to the screen. In every episode, Thunder kicks ass and steals hearts.

There is reason to be hopeful. And with an L Word reboot on the horizon, we can expect to see more Black lesbian lives showcased. As the media landscape shifts, reviving old stories and creating new ones, Black lesbians are ever more present in the fictional worlds we inhabit. With time and change, studios might come to understand that our stories can be every bit as universal as the stories of white or straight characters. And with a bit of luck, more fleshed out and three-dimensional Black lesbian characters will grace our screens soon.