We all have that moment when watching a television series when we connect with a character; an unspoken force driving us together so we’re both on the same wavelength. We can easily anticipate their next move and why they are going to do it, because we are them. We have the same wants, desires and ideals. Simply put, we identify with him or her.
That influence that they have on us is the exact thing that keeps an audience connected to a television show. The energetic collision between two people, one on screen and one off, is why we are still so drawn to scripted television. However, there’s also seems to be some undeclared rule that these people need to be similar to the general population, which many believe is still heterosexual, including networks.
We watch these shows all the time. Do networks ever take into consideration that I’m a lesbian and maybe I don’t want to see Ross and Rachel kissing all the time? Do they really think that in my homosexual life where I like to kiss ladies means that I don’t want to see Jack and Kate (Lost) get together? No, they don’t. Because I do want to see Jack and Kate together. I do want to see Ross and Rachel get married. I want to see this because sexuality has nothing to do with what an audience wants to see out of a well-written character.
Television has many great queer women—they are just hidden away in ensemble casts. They are everywhere—from Younger to Orange is the New Black, Jane the Virgin to Grey’s Anatomy, and The 100 to The Fosters—the list goes on and on, thankfully. We’re being represented across many networks and streaming services alike. It’s progressive. It’s life-changing. It’s incredible.
What’s not so incredible is the moment we get a queer leading lady on any series things immediately go into question. When we think of protagonists, we think of those characters that can lead and carry a series for many seasons to come. That one character is the main focus of a show, following them and the people that come and go in their lives. Yet, time and again it seems to be that these characters are all heterosexual.
But what about a show like The Fosters? That has not only one, but two queer ladies leading the ensemble. A groundbreaking series like The Fosters is everything I wanted it to be and more. I see my future in this show (minus the teenage drama that I hope I can do without). Not only do I want to see what I wish for my future to be, but I want America to see that it’s possible for queer women to have this future. The Fosters is possibly the most inclusive show on the air.
However, instead of it being a show about Stef and Lena, it’s a show about Stef, Lena, their five kids, Stef’s ex-husband, Lena’s boss, the twin’s birth mom, etc. That’s OK. It’s an ensemble piece, which means we will get these multiple focal points throughout the story. This doesn’t take away from what The Fosters is single-handedly doing. Yet, because it’s another ensemble piece that just happens to feature two queer characters, this is why it’s allowed to exist. If the series were just about two women living together, then that would be another story we probably wouldn’t be seeing on television.
The 100—another great show—follows the same format. It’s progressive, but as an ensemble piece nonetheless. This series has broken down barriers in terms of how one show can represent sexuality, and proved that a series can take a character through a storyline of being attracted to another woman without it being explained to the audience first. Clarke and Lexa were able to kiss without any build up for the audience to follow—because an audience should be able to follow a kiss between two women without having to be prompted for it. Yet, here we are again. Clarke and Lexa are part of a bigger cast. We took a step forward with the representation of these two women, but only in the security blanket of an ensemble cast.
Even when drawing on one of television’s most popular examples, Orange is the New Black, it does the same. This show has brought light to many different sexualities and identifications. Burset, Piper, Alex, Crazy Eyes, Lorna, Nicky—almost everyone on this series has something to bring to the representation table. The success of the show solely lies on the incredible camaraderie of the ensemble cast.
Yet, one can argue that the reason why this show could bring so much to light for the watching public is because of the multiple characters it can rest on. It’s easy to bring in a few characters whose identities and sexualities people might disagree with when you have others to ease the blow. Of course mainstream acceptance is not a reality yet. We can’t pretend that every single person on this planet loves Orange is the New Black. Some will find it uncomfortable, but why not bring in some characters they will feel comfortable with in order to balance out how much protagonist-time each of them get?
With all of this to stand on, we still have a show that featured a strong, queer protagonist. Lost Girl—although could arguably still be an ensemble—piecehad Bo running the show. She was a bisexual succubus who (*spoiler alert*) ended up with a woman. Throughout the show’s five seasons we saw Bo’s life and her friends’ lives from her point of view. Furthermore, Lost Girl went even one step further by having both the leading character and a supporting character as queer women. Lauren and Bo were both separately represented in this series. Although they were a couple, they were two queer female characters in this show from beginning to end.
All of these series, ensembles or not, are incredible for finally being on the air. A decade ago this amount of representation on television was unheard of. It’s life changing to see how many different versions of queer women are on TV. However, we’re not done since almost every queer woman is in an ensemble. On Chasing Life, she was the sister to the protagonist. On Glee, they are part of a bigger cast. Grandfathered? A supporting character. Younger? Another supporting character. Jane the Virgin? Yet another supporting character. Even on Grey’s Anatomy, Calzona is once again part of another big cast.
Why is it that networks think that audiences can relate to the “gay best friend” or the “lesbian aunt,” but not the bisexual main character? When will the queer woman be allowed to be the leading character? I’ve had to sit and watch “straight” shows my entire life and yet, I still chose to go to school to study television because I loved the medium so much. Those heterosexual couples didn’t take away from the incredible talent that some shows were emitting. When One Big Happy was not the success that we were all hoping for, it was like networks suddenly decided that it was okay to go back to shoving queer women out of the direct spotlight. Queer women can’t be supporting characters forever. It’s slowly working in film, so why not try it out on television? The world can handle it.
As we go into 2016, here is my plea: let’s get some leading lesbian ladies on TV. Trust me networks, if you get a great group of writers, producers, actors, and directors you will get an audience to go along with them. A straight protagonist does not a great series make. It is not sexual identity that makes a show an overnight rating success, it’s the way a show connects with viewers. It’s the way that people desire for a week to pass just so they can see the next episode of a show. That main female character could be sleeping with dudes, or she could be sleeping with women, or both, and it would not make a difference if you’re making an incredible show.
As we enter this new year, and this new pilot season, it doesn’t seem like we will be getting our wish of a leading queer character. We had Ellen, and we had One Big Happy, and even though they were two decades apart, the networks believe that we can be satisfied with those two. It’s not okay. Not only is it important for people around the world to see themselves represented on screen, but it’s important for those who may not know any queer women in their lives to see these women as well. They might not understand what it means to be queer, but to see it through a character they can connect with on their television screens can change that. Once a character resonates with an audience, so can their storylines.