An Ode to the Morally Ambiguous Queer Female Character

When Viola Davis first kissed Famke Janssen on How to Get Away with Murder, I jumped up and did a lap of the room, out of pure joy. I’m sure many of you had similar reactions. There were many reasons to celebrate. For one thing, we were seeing a queer woman of color as the main character on a network TV show. Also, watching those two gorgeous Slytherins kiss each other right on the mouth was just a treat for our queer eyeballs. But my favorite thing about it was that Annalise Keating had officially joined the ranks of fabulous, morally ambiguous queer women on television.


The Evil Lesbians trope is an unfortunate occupational hazard of seeking out lesbian content on television. It is my second-least-favorite queer trope, right after my very least favorite, the Dead Lesbians trope. Seeing queer women portrayed as evil, crazy predators is exhausting and dehumanizing. But recently, I’ve been seeing another, far more exciting trend in queer representation on TV: the morally ambiguous queer woman. The woman who is deeply flawed, and as capable as anyone else of love, selfishness, generosity, pettiness, mistakes and courage as anyone else in this terrifying, beautiful, messed-up world. And who just happens to love other women.

For the first time, we seem to be reaching a critical mass of queer female characters who are portrayed in a truly three-dimensional way that is deeply humanizing and validating. For too long, human flaws and moral ambiguity were strictly the territory of straight white men. But there are now at least a few shows willing to explore the full humanity of queer women by portraying us as flawed in a way that urges us toward empathy. Here is an (incomplete) list of fabulous, morally ambiguous queer women who give me hope for the future of queer lady representation on television.

Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder)tumblr_ncw2zpq9561u06ukzo1_500

The brainchild of our lord and savior Shonda Rhimes and her out gay protege Peter Nowalk, Annalise Keating is one of the most satisfyingly and maddeningly complex characters on TV. I have done all sorts of mental gymnastics trying to figure out whether she is wrong or right in every single episode, and never really come up with a satisfactory answer. But it is basically impossible not to root for her. Her clothes are amazing, her dialogue is better, and she is complicit in multiple murders. (Her evil husband kind of had it coming, though.)

She also has an on-and-off romance with her law school girlfriend Eve. And Annalise’s romance with Eve urges us toward empathy and understanding for her character. Eve represents a simpler, happier time in Annalise’s life and Annalise seems to love Eve from the deepest and most tender part of her heart.

Santana Lopez (Glee)MeSANTANA

It’s always hard to talk about Glee, but bear with me here. At its best, it made my heart sing, and at its worst, it made me howl with displeasure. A lot of the time, it was frustrating and disappointing. But whatever else is true, it will always be the show that gave us Santana Lopez. The high school mean girl, who also happened to be a vulnerable, frightened queer girl who was deeply in love with her best friend. I’m pretty sure that had never been done before. And she was never reduced to just one thing. She never quite lost her sharp edges even as her journey and character growth made us fall more and more in love with her.

Of course, this is Glee we’re talking about, so her character growth sort of zigzagged all over the place, but it ended in a good place, with Santana and Brittany living happily ever after. Never underestimate the power of the Lesbian Blogging Community. (I am glad that Santana and Brittany ended up together, but honestly, for my money, one of the best things that ever happened on Glee was when Santana and Quinn had sex that one time. The joy and the laughter and the mutual understanding of two former high school Queen Bees was awesome and empowering and basically everything sex should be in fiction and real life.)

Clarke Griffin (The 100)tumblr_nik6shohJP1rt5ctno2_500

If Santana’s journey was one of allowing herself to become more vulnerable and open, Clarke’s is…kind of the opposite. The 100 never makes it easy, for its characters or its audience, and Clarke’s journey from idealistic girl to tough, pragmatic leader has been heart-wrenching in the best way possible. She started out kind and hopeful but then she got dropped into the irradiated chaos of post-apocalyptic Virginia, where she had to murder people in order to avert even more murder, including that one time when she stabbed Finn, her original love interest, in the heart. (I could not stand Finn, but I did feel for Clarke).

At the end of Season 2, I was genuinely shocked when Lexa leaned right over and kissed her and she kissed Lexa back. It never occurred to me that this show might let its main character be queer. And apparently there are more sweet lady kisses in Clarke’s future. In Season 3, a shell-shocked, hardened Clarke will dye her hair red and have some sex with a beautiful grounder lady who works at a trading post.

Lexa (The 100)tumblr_inline_nli5b4MrF91shgp0v-1438192586

The only thing better than one morally ambiguous queer lady is two morally ambiguous queer ladies who are highly shippable with one another. Lexa is the badass Commander of the grounders. When she revealed herself to be a member of Team Gay, I was less surprised but no less delighted, than when it was revealed that Clarke is also batting for our team. Lexa is a brave, dedicated leader, with awesome hair and too much eyeliner. She is also ruthlessly pragmatic, and sometimes just ruthless. (Was anyone else super attracted to her when she was refusing to grant clemency to Finn? No? Just me?)

While I have hopes for her future with Clarke, she also kind of hung Clarke and the rest of the Sky People out to dry at the end of last season. Which may be why Clarke is holding a knife to her throat in the Season 3 trailer. Ah, young love.

Sara Lance (Arr0w)arrow-sara-soul-1446664143

We are first introduced to Sara Lance while she is on a romantic getaway with her sister’s boyfriend. But she’s come a long way since then, developing into a costumed bisexual assassin so badass that death itself cannot stop her. After drowning twice and spending some time on a godforsaken island, she was picked up by the League of Assassins, where she became the Black Canary and fell in love with Ras Al Ghul’s beautiful, queer daughter Nyssa. And then, at the beginning of season three, she was stuffed into the fridge, continuing the unfortunate tradition of women and queer characters being killed to advance the hetero white male’s story. Honestly, I was so bummed that I stopped watching Arrow for an entire season. But now, like a phoenix, she has risen to become a Legend of Tomorrow. Unfortunately, being brought back via the Lazarus Pit also left her very bloodthirsty, which she will undoubtedly struggle with on Legends of Tomorrow. And seriously, if they kill her off again, I will just not believe that she is really dead. Our girl has died three times, and she is still kicking.

I was kind of afraid that her queerness might never be addressed again, but apparently she is going to have a time-travelling romance with ’50s-era Ali Liebert. I am here for everything you have to offer Legends of Tomorrow. Just please do not kill any more queer ladies. (As a side note, I am always going to wonder whether the writers of Arrow were planning to bring Sara back all along or whether our righteous queer lady outrage caused them to rethink their decision to kill her. I tend to think it was the latter. As I said before: never underestimate the power of the lesbian blogging community.)

Nyssa Al Ghul (Arrow)nyssa_and_ras2

When we were first introduced to Nyssa, I was afraid that Arrow was going down the psycho/evil lesbians road. After all, Nyssa Al Ghul works for the shadowy League of Assassins. She travels all around the world murdering all sorts of people for her dad. In her very first scene, she wrapped an airport stanchion around some poor, unsuspecting TSA agent’s neck.

But in spite of all this, we learn quickly that what she had with Sara was a relationship based on mutual love and respect, and that she loves Sara still.  In fact, she loves Sara so goddamn much that she cannot bring herself to obey the order to kill her, and, in the name of Ras al Ghul, she releases her. She’s been around since then, snapping necks and taking names. Sometimes she works with Team Arrow and sometimes she works against them. She also threatened to kill everyone in Nanda Parbat before letting them subject her beloved Sara to the torment of the Lazarus Pit. (While I know her heart was in the right place, I am glad that Nyssa failed at foiling the plan to bring Sara back.) And I will freely admit that I melted a little bit when Sara, freshly out of the Lazarus Pit looks Nyssa in the eyes and knows, somehow, that she does not want to hurt her.

I am pleased to say that this list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to refreshingly complex, morally ambiguous queer female characters on the small screen today. Of course, we still have a long way to go in terms of queer representation on the small screen. But nonetheless, every time I turn on the TV and see a deeply flawed queer female character who is doing her best in an unfair world, it gives me something that feels a lot like hope.