2007 Year in Review: Television

Real Live Lesbians

This year marked a turning point in the degree to which lesbian/bi actors and hosts were able to be out in their workplace — in front of the camera. This new openness is due in no small part to Rosie O’Donnell’s controversial, headline-grabbing nine months on ABC’s The View, during which ratings for the talk show skyrocketed.

Although O’Donnell angered both LGBT and straight people alike at times due to her outspokenness and often unfortunate comments about race and politics, she also consistently spoke up about gay issues and personalized them through talking about her own life. In the wake of her departure, O’Donnell has been courted by a number of television networks, but she has limited herself to blogging on her website and reprising the role of Dawn Budge on Nip/Tuck. Whatever O’Donnell chooses to do, it’s clear that her blunt style and openness about being gay have not limited her future career options.

Ellen DeGeneres also became much more outspoken about gay issues this year, and when she received her third straight Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host in June, she acknowledged O’Donnell’s work on The View: “I liked what [Rosie] did. This was the year she should have won. I wanted to acknowledge Rosie because she has done a lot.”

DeGeneres also did a lot in 2007, starting off strong by hosting the Academy Awards, possibly the preeminent gig for a comedian in Hollywood. Over the course of the year, DeGeneres became increasingly vocal about gay issues on her talk show. On the 10th anniversary of her own coming out, DeGeneres celebrated the event on her talk show by reminiscing with Laura Dern, who played DeGeneres’ love interest on Ellen in 1997.

After Grey’s Anatomy actor T.R. Knight came out following homophobic comments from Isaiah Washington, he visited DeGeneres’ talk show and thanked her for leading the way. She also spoke with Neil Patrick Harris after he came out and quizzed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about gay marriage, telling her: “It’s important for me to be able to commit to someone that I love and have the same benefits, the same rights. If something should happen to me, Portia’s taken care of. People who are gay care about that.”

Out lesbian actors and hosts also did their part to spread awareness on television this year simply by being themselves. HGTV featured out lesbian Jackie Taylor, host of Grounds for Improvement. Out chef Cat Cora continued as part of Food Network’s Iron Chef, as well as being photographed in People with her partner.

Openly lesbian/bi actors Sarah Paulson, Sara Gilbert and Saffron Burrows played straight on several shows this year, while openly bisexual actor Kristanna Loken took the title role in Sci Fi’s Painkiller Jane as well as appearing in Season 4 of The L Word. Kirsten Vangsness came out in a low-key post on her blog, while more out actresses than ever before — Leisha Hailey, Daniela Sea, Jane Lynch, Jill Bennett, Michelle Wolff and Jenny Shimizu — took on queer roles.

Most significantly, Portia de Rossi returned to television with a provocative lesbian role on Nip/Tuck. Her decision to play a lesbian, in light of her very public relationship with Ellen DeGeneres, is a clear challenge to the status quo in which A-list lesbian actresses rarely play gay for fear of damaging their careers.

The Year Ahead

While 2007 was a positive year in terms of the numbers of lesbians and bisexual women on television in general, one significant problem remains: After Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) departed ER in early January, there were zero regular or recurring lesbian/bi characters on prime-time network television.

This may not seem to be a problem given the vast number of digital and premium cable channels available today, but the fact remains that the majority of American television viewers do not have access to these digital and premium channels. The advent of online streaming and iTunes downloads means that shows such as Exes & Ohs and The L Word are increasingly available to those who do not have Logo or Showtime, but most of the media buzz on TV still focuses on network shows such as Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and the like.

This year NBC’s hit show Heroes was supposed to debut a lesbian character played by Lyndsy Fonseca, but when the actress was hired on another show, Heroes‘ producers cut the character entirely rather than re-cast her. Following on their de-gaying of the character of Zach in 2006, this was an unfortunate choice. In addition, Lost teased viewers for months with the possibility that a gay character would be revealed, but the ABC drama still has an entirely heterosexual cast.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many top-rated and critically acclaimed television shows are headed by out gay men; unfortunately, that does not mean they are any more likely to include lesbians in their programs (Ryan Murphy excepted). When Brothers & Sisters, which is known for its complex, multi-dimensional gay male characters and is executive produced by out producers Jon Robin Baitz and Greg Berlanti, finally included a lesbian character in an April 2007 episode, she wound up being a humorless, militant lesbian cloaked in stereotype.

In 2008, lesbian/bi characters will finally return to network television with ABC’s Cashmere Mafia, written by Kevin Wade, a straight man who told AfterEllen.com that he consulted with a female friend who told him that if he were to write a show about powerful career women in New York, one of them had to be a lesbian. That lesbian will be Bonnie Somerville’s character, Caitlin Dowd, who becomes involved with Lourdes Benedicto’s Alicia. The series debuts on Jan. 3, 2008.

Reality television in 2008 will also continue to have lesbian/bi characters, as we can expect the return of Work Out to Bravo, another season of A Shot at Love on MTV, and a new reality series on Logo called Gimme Sugar, about lesbians in Los Angeles. The last bastion for lesbians on reality TV continues to be American Idol, the ratings juggernaut that has yet to include a single out LGBT contestant in its six seasons to date.

Given the continuing dominance of reality TV — especially in light of the ongoing WGA strike — American Idol is the next hurdle to overcome, just as it was this year. Though it may seem an unlikely thing to expect, only one year ago the idea of a lesbian dating show seemed too far-fetched to be true. Stay tuned for more details.