2008 Year in Review: Television

Last year in our annual overview of the Year in Television,
Malinda Lo wrote, “Though there is still plenty of room for improvement —
particularly on broadcast TV — the low points of 2007 do not contradict the
fact that lesbian/bi representation on TV this past year has increased and
improved significantly.”

Clearly, a lot can change in a year.

Though 2008 comes to a close with word of possible new queer
female characters on the horizon in the coming year, the prospects for lesbians
and bisexual women on television over the last twelve months have been somewhat

This has been particularly true for lesbians, whose numbers
on scripted network television have now dwindled to zero.

While portrayals of lesbian characters on Grey’s Anatomy and Cashmere Mafia (both on ABC) showed initial promise, it wasn’t long before their storylines
turned sour and came to a screeching halt, due to either the end of a storyline
(Grey’s Anatomy) or the cancellation
of the show itself (Cashmere Mafia).
Cable television programs such as The L
, South of Nowhere, and a
handful of reality programs have become the last bastion for lesbians on the
small screen.

As a result, those wanting to see lesbians on television
have needed to trade in their love of fiction for the real lives of openly
lesbian actors (Lily Tomlin, Jane Lynch), talk show hosts (Ellen DeGeneres),
and news commentators (Rachel Maddow).

In 2008, however, bisexual characters, whose representations
in popular culture have historically faced their own unique set of problems,
rose to a level of some prominence in the bleak arena of television with storylines
on House, M.D. and Bones (both on Fox).

Unfortunately, as AfterEllen.com Editor-in-Chief Sarah Warn recently reported in her Visibility Matters column “The Disappearing Lesbian on Primetime Broadcast TV”,
“…it appears that improved visibility for bisexual women has come at the
expense of visibility for lesbians, and this trade-off is only going to happen
more frequently moving forward.”

there is any one trend that sums up the year in television for lesbian and
bisexual women in 2008, it is that of the replacement of lesbian characters
with bisexual characters in scripted television.

Why? As Warn observed in her “Visibility Matters” column:

In a television environment in which lesbian and
bisexual women are still primarily confined to token or supporting characters,
and there’s only room for one leading queer woman (if any), writers on
mainstream TV shows will choose a bisexual character over a lesbian every time…because
[bisexual characters] allow for maximum titillation (which translates to
ratings) and storytelling options (since they can be paired with a man or a
woman), and minimal potential for alienating a majority of their audience
(straight men).

Scripted Television

In terms of lesbian representation on television in 2008,
the story of the year was that of the firing of actress Brooke Smith (aka Dr. Erica Hahn) and the ending of the lesbian romance between her
character and series regular Callie Torres (played by Sara Ramirez) on Grey’s Anatomy.

Dr. Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith), left, and Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez)

The storyline and the affair itself were short-lived, but
because they came to pass on one of the most popular (and acclaimed) shows on
television, their impact was undeniable. At the time, theirs was the only
lesbian/bisexual relationship on primetime American broadcast television, and
the first significant gay relationship portrayed on Grey’s Anatomy.

In May of 2008, the possibility of a Hahn-Callie affair was
hinted at on the show, and in July of 2008 Brooke Smith told AfterEllen.com that she was excited to explore her character’s sexuality on the show and was
certain that the lesbian relationship would not be played for ratings alone.