Are We Having a Lesbian Moment on Television? Top Critics Weigh In!

Ellen DeGeneres and Elisha Cuthbert at last month's TCA panel for 'One Big Happy.' (Getty)

Last month, at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, where the networks bi-annually bring stars and producers from their new and returning shows, Ellen DeGeneres was asked whether she saw a groundbreaking aspect to the new NBC sitcom, “One Big Happy.”

DeGeneres is the executive producer of the new series, along with out writer/creator Liz Feldman, and answered the question by saying, “if it happens to be groundbreaking, I really honestly don’t think about things like that. I don’t. I don’t wake up in the morning and think (stretching) ‘I’m a lesbian,’ you know, and have some coffee.”

And while DeGeneres, who already holds an important part in LGBT representation on television from the, yes, groundbreaking coming out episode of her sitcom “Ellen,” may not be seeking out ways to make anything groundbreaking, it’s important to note that we’re at a time when what was groundbreaking 15-20 years ago barely gets a ruffle of controversy today.

Think about how people protested Billy Crystal’s gay character when “Soap” premiered on ABC in 1977. Or how Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode” on her sitcom (also on ABC) created a flurry of controversy and attention twenty years later in 1997. Now, in the 21st century, LGBT characters are everywhere on television and there’s nary a bit of controversy about them. Look to teen series like “Gleeand MTV’s “Faking It,” family series like Modern Family and The Fosters,” comic book-based shows like Arrow and The Flash,” legal and medical procedurals like The Good Wife and Grey’s Anatomy and we’ve even seen LGBT characters in horror series like The Walking Dead and The Originals.” Even a show like Netflix’sOrange Is The New Black” has helped make a star out of Laverne Cox, who is transgender in life as well as on the show.

So, does the fact that “One Big Happy” features a lesbian character (played by Elisha Cuthbert) in the primary role mean nothing in 2015? Or does it still mean something?

Having a lesbian character at the center of a series is still a rare thing in television with ABC Family’s “The Fosters” being the only other series that has a lesbian character (two, to be precise) as its primary core. (To be fair, Shay Mitchell’s Emily on ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars is one of five main leads and SyFy’s “Lost Girl is centered around Anna Silk’s bisexual Bo).

All that said, “One Big Happy” alerted me to the fact that whether in lead roles or part of an ensemble, there are a slew of lesbian characters currently on the air and prompted me to ask, Are we having a lesbian moment in television?

To see if I was correct in my thinking (I am gay but also a gay male), I went to three lesbian critics who spend their days covering the LGBT side of television to find out if they agree with me and, if so, which shows are doing it right in terms of presenting lesbians and, on the flipside, which shows are missing the mark.

This roundtable is comprised of: Trish Bendix  (Editor-In-Chief, AfterEllen.com), June Thomas (Culture Critic & Editor of Outward, Slate.com’s LGBTQ section) and Heather Hogan (Senior Editor, Autostraddle.com).

'Grey's Anatomy' is an example of a show that knows how to use their lesbian characters. (l-r, Sara Ramirez and Jessica Capshaw) (ABC)

While we're seeing so many more LGBT characters across the board, I feel like "One Big Happy" having a lesbian lead character is still a big deal. Do you think we're having a lesbian moment in terms of TV?

Trish Bendix: It is still a big deal because lesbian characters are still relegated to being recurring characters or part of a greater ensemble. Even those that have major storylines/relationships (like Emily on “Pretty Little Liars” or Callie/Arizona on “Grey’s Anatomy”) are not the major focus of their respective shows. To have a sitcom where the central character is a lesbian—especially on network television—is revolutionary. Even when Ellen had her own show, her coming out came after she had a certain amount of success. Since then, there have been a few failed pilots, but none that have actually been picked up, so the fact that “One Big Happy” is being put on air with a central lesbian character whose being gay is mentioned frequently and figures prominently into the show is definitely a new kind of moment.

June Thomas: Yep, recently there have been evenings—plural—when I’ve got up from an evening of television and realized that every single show I watched had at least one lesbian character. They’re not all ideal or inspirational, but they’re there, and that feels significant.

Heather Hogan: We’re absolutely having a queer women revolution on TV. Ten years ago, it was basically “The L Word” or nothing at all, and now we’re clocking in at over 120 lesbian/bi/queer women on television, spread evenly across genres and networks and age demographics. It’s so heartening!

Which show(s) are doing it right in terms of featuring lesbian characters?

June Thomas: I really like the lesbian characters on “Marry Me” (partly because Kay “fits” with the other people on the show—you know why she’s part of their circle; she’s sexual and funny and she has just as many hang-ups as her straight friends, but her hang-ups are specific to her), “Jane the Virgin” (the character of Rafael’s sister Luisa is flawed in all kinds of ways, but no one acts like her lesbianism is a problem, and I love being surprised by plot twists—and Luisa’s relationship with her father’s wife surprised me), “Faking It” (I was wary of that show at the outset, but I think the way it’s presenting Amy’s coming out is really innovative). That’s just off the top of my head—there are lots of good lesbians on TV right now.

Married couple Lena (Sherri Saum, l) and Stef (Teri Polo, r) parent adopted son Jude (Hayden Byerly) on 'The Fosters.' (ABC Family)

Heather Hogan: “Pretty Little Liars” continues to do an amazing job with its lesbian/bi characters. There hasn’t been a single episode of the show that hasn’t featured a queer female character, and there have been very few episodes when Emily didn’t have a love interest. The show also features characters at different stages of discovery, and characters who identify their “othered” sexuality with different labels or no labels at all.

I think “Grey’s Anatomy” is also doing a fantastic job with Callie and Arizona. It’s heartbreaking but it’s true to life. Sort of the opposite of “The Fosters,” but deeply organic. “Faking It,” also. “Chasing Life.” And, of course, “Orange Is the New Black” is doing lesbian stuff better than everybody; maybe better than everyone ever has done.

Trish Bendix: I’m an unabashed fan of Shameless,” which I think has some of the best character-driven work on television. While there is no central lesbian character, there have been at least seven different queer female characters on the show, ranging from bartenders to Monica Gallagher and love interests to Fiona’s friend (Amy Smart) to Mickey’s prostitute wife, Svetlana. I think that show is one of the best in terms of showing how people of any orientation, race, class or religion are just as complex, complicated and crazy as anyone else.

But as far as shows that have regular characters, I think “Orange is the New Black,” “Transparent” and “Orphan Black have strong queer women whose sexuality strongly factors into their lives and relationships but is not their sole purpose for being written onto the show. Not only that, but both shows have several women that fall into this category as opposed to one and her recurring love interest. Most of the other shows that come to mind are doing well with their characters but, dammit, I want more of them: Jane the Virgin,” “Marry Me,” “Gotham” and “Empire.” 

"The Fosters" is also really superb at being a show about a family who have two moms while not being "THE SHOW WITH TWO MOMS!!!!" I think anyone who watches that show for anything other than it being a loving family drama is sorely disappointed. It's not sensationalized at all, which is fantastic.

'Glee' hasn't been perfect with Brittany (Heather Morris) and Santana (Naya Rivera) but an end-of-series wedding could make up for a lot. (Fox)

What are some not-so-great examples you’ve currently seen on television?

Heather Hogan: The things those shows have in common is the treat their queer characters like they treat their straight characters. TV writers have often seemed so befuddled by gay women, like, “Uh, okay, she came out and we got the ratings from having her kiss another woman … now what?” But those shows I mentioned earlier, the characters’ sexuality isn’t their defining attribute. Yeah, they’re gay and, yeah, that is a huge part of their lives but they are all fleshed out, three-dimensional characters with different goals and dreams and motivations, and their sexual identities are just one part of who they are…any show that kills a lesbian/bi/queer/questioning female character to advance the plot of other characters — stuffing them in a refrigerator, if you will — gets absolutely no love from me.

Trish Bendix: Shows that are killing off their lesbian characters to help create plotlines for other (straighter) characters are really doing themselves a disservice. “Chicago Fire” had one of my favorite lesbian characters on TV until they killed Lesley Shay (Lauren German). Dick Wolf finally gets a lesbian on one of his shows and he murders her. Brilliant.

Similarly, “Last Tango in Halifax” killed Kate for no good reason at all and then Sally Wainwright patronized us by saying it’s “a myth” that lesbian characters are always killed off. That case is even more unfortunate because the Kate/Caroline relationship is one of the few (maybe even only) same-sex partnerships on TV between two just past middle-age women

“Glee” has been flawed for a long time, and I think they have too much bad work to undo, but they will probably end on a higher note with Brittany and Santana then they could have. Basically I’m giving them a pre-emptive vote of confidence. I was on set while they shot the wedding ceremony and it was very sweet, and a lesbian moment in its own way.

June Thomas: Sadly, “One Big Happy” didn’t impress me. Elisha Cuthbert’s character doesn’t really have any distinguishing characteristics other than being a lesbian. That’s not enough anymore.

Did 'Faking It' have a misstep by having possible-lesbian Amy sleep with Liam? (l-r, Gregg Sulkin as Liam, Katie Stevens as Karma, Rita Volk as Amy & Michael Willett as Shane) (MTV)

Do you think straight showrunners/writers can capture the lesbian experience (or LGBT experience for that sake)??

Trish Bendix: There are some non-LGBT identified writers/showrunners that are entrenched within the community enough that they can tap into “the lesbian experience,” HOWEVER I think they can only truly pull it off if they have actual LGBT writers in the room with them. I think Jill Soloway, Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes are seeking to tell stories about all kinds of people, and that tapestry includes queer people, people of color, trans people—people who have been othered and excluded from mainstream TV, film, pop culture and society for way too long. They have a proven track record of being inclusive allies and (bonus!) creative, talented, smart inspiring women.

June Thomas: It seems so. Some of my favorite TV lezzies—“Marry Me’s” Kay, “Survivor’s Remorse’s” M-Chuck, and “Last Tango in Halifax’s” Caroline and Kate—are all created/written by heterosexuals.

Heather Hogan: I do, yes. Look at “Grey’s Anatomy,” at “Orange Is the New Black.” I think the key for straight showrunners is that they have to listen to their queer audience, and they have to be willing to apologize and regroup when they, say, play into a damaging cultural trope or misrepresent queer experiences in a harmful way. “Transparent’s” creative team did a good job with this in season one. They made some missteps, but they humbly acknowledged them, they apologized, they asked to be educated, and they hired even more trans people to help them get stuff right.

Was Joss (Jes Macallan) falling for a woman just a phase on 'Mistresses?' (ABC)

Let’s talk what I like to call ‘the backslide’ when a female character sleeps with women, may go so far as to come out but then another season rolls around and that ‘phase’ is over. (“Mistresses” comes to mind…).  

June Thomas: I’m seeing that less and less these days—and usually in the context of bisexual characters rather than lesbians who suddenly develop an interest in men—though it hasn’t disappeared altogether. I am seeing a new version of the backslide, though, where shows—recent examples being Kate and Caroline in Season 2 of “Last Tango” or Gail Peck and her girlfriend in “Rookie Blue”—set up a lesbian couple, and then throw obstacles in their path until the season finale when they reunite in a big smooch. I mean, I like the big kiss but I could do without the breakup drama.

Heather Hogan: I’m done with this trope. It’s 2015. It’s time to put this one to bed. There are so many gay women on TV right now that it’s not like it can be a successful ratings stunt anymore. And it’s harmful and trite and really inexcusable at this point.

Trish Bendix: Ugh, “Mistresses.” We all saw that coming, right?

Here's the thing: If a female character sleeps with a woman (or women) and then later sleeps or has a relationship with a man, I have no problem with that. That is bisexuality, sexual fluidity, queerness. HOWEVER, if that part of that female character's sexuality is never again mentioned or worse-acknowledged as a phase-then that's problematic. It's made to seem that women's sexuality is fluid up to a point-and that point is "Been there, done that-found out I'm straight!" (A la "Mistresses.") There's a continuity issue for me when a female character has a relationship with a woman and then breaks it off and forever ignores that part of her. That can be a woman's story, certainly. But when it's always the story for women on TV, it becomes a stereotype-a severely negative one, at that.

It comes to a point where viewers wonder, is so and so STILL bisexual? That kind of thinking is harmful to real life bisexual women and lesbians, as there are people who think both identities are misguided and/or phases, which we know there are not. Ten years ago, the women who kissed other women on TV were oftentimes used as fodder for getting sweeps weeks sensational views and then the women were back with men for the rest of their TV lives. Like on "Faking It," if Amy had slept with Liam and never again pondered her sexuality or interest in women, that would be insane, but that's frequently the case!

Kalinda on “The Good Wife” has relationships with men and women, equally. She’s presented, accurately, as someone who may not be so into monogamy but, nonetheless, interested in people for who they are and not what sex organs they are set up with. But then characters like Angela on “Bones” and Adrianna on the “90210” reboot who had a same-sex romance but ultimately left their partners to settle down with guys, those kinds of portrayals make it seem like dalliances with ladies were something to take less seriously. It really depends on how the relationships are written, too. If a female character’s relationship with men are season-long epic romances with ups and downs and sad songs and loving make-ups while the same-sex pairing is quick and sexy and majorly focused on the Sapphic sexuality, it’s lazy writing that shows how little the show cares about queer women’s identities and relationships.

Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) defies sexuality labels on 'The Good Wife.' (CBS)

Is not labeling a potentially-LGBT character a cop out? Or is it okay to keep from labeling a character's sexuality?

Heather Hogan: Three years ago, I would have said it was a copout and a way for shows to keep from committing to telling queer stories properly, but I think we’re at a place, both culturally and pop culturally, where people are growing more comfortable with different kinds of labels, or no labels at all. I think “lesbian,” as a political identity, feels less important to teenagers these days. Restricting almost. So I think it’s natural to see that represented on TV. But I also think it’s important to continue to see these stories — and I want more of them! — where women are very firm in their identities and lesbian or bisexual women.

Trish Bendix: I mentioned Kalinda above—she doesn’t subscribe to labels, much like so many people in modern day life don’t. It’s a very personal choice, obviously, so if a character is written to be elusive, it’s a little easier to assume they are queer because if people are straight, they are very much STRAIGHT. They don’t play coy or act like there’s a chance of them swinging the other way, unless they are some kind of sociopath using sex for control and power. I am totally fine with people IRL (in real life) and characters on TV not wanting a label.

Interestingly, when “Orphan Black” first came on, descriptions of Cosima referred to her as bisexual. But on the show so far, she’s only had a relationship with a woman, and never made mention of any kind of interest in dating men (or anyone else, really). Labeling is probably more for our own interests (and ease, as an editor who is trying to write about a person or a topic), but they do serve an important purpose that is creating a dialogue around sexuality, which is something we still desperately need (in some parts of the country more than others)…some shows that do a really great job of skirting the sexuality defining but have great queer female characters: “Black Sails,” “OITNB,” “Transparent,” “Chasing Life.”

June Thomas: I confess, I don’t mind an ambiguously gay character. I’m so used to decoding queer characters that I always spot them weeks before the show breaks the big news!

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What was the first lesbian representation you saw on TV and how did it impact you personally?

Trish Bendix: One of the first storylines I remember being really into was on “Once and Again.” I watched the show with my mom, who is a huge Sela Ward fan, and despite not having recognized my own queerness quite yet, was very drawn to the Jessie/Katie storyline. Evan Rachel Wood and Mischa Barton were young (preteen!) best friends who discovered they had romantic feelings for one another. I hadn’t seen anything like this at the time—a fleshed out relationship between girls, one that had never before been normalized on television, and with actresses who were around my age. It’s been so cool to see them both continue to play queer roles in their careers, and to be able to talk to Evan about her own burgeoning queerness as she grew up and found it in herself as I eventually did.

June Thomas: It can’t have been the first—but I have a very clear memory of seeing CJ kiss Abby on “L.A. Law” or Mariel Hemingway kissing Roseanne onRoseanne.” (Roseanne, baby, let me show you how that’s done, because you really messed up what could have been a great kiss—you obviously didn’t see Personal Best.) It was thrilling. I also remember feeling hurt and humiliated when the newspapers made a fuss about The Killing of Sister George being shown on television—even though I was just a child at the time.

Heather Hogan: I actually remember watching Ellen come out in real-time in “The Puppy Episode,” and while I remember very clearly how well her friends and parents took the news (some of them right away, some of them after a few episodes), the thing that I remember most at the time was the intense and hateful backlash she got from religious and conservative political folks. I was a young teenager living in rural Georgia at the time, and with the exception of my own sister, I didn’t hear a single person around me say a positive thing about Ellen coming out (on the show or in real life). It scared me, actually, and kept me from exploring my feelings about my own sexuality for a long time.

What’s the biggest misconception writers have over representing lesbians in television?

June Thomas: I don’t know if it’s a misconception so much as a lack of imagination. Yes, lesbians take a U-Haul on the second date and they hang out with their exes. But we need some new stereotypes, because I’m sick of those tired tropes. The other big problem is a lack of butch lesbians—they’re in the world, but they’re not on television. In fact, there are more butch straight women on television than butch lesbians—and outside of a hockey game, I don’t think that’s very realistic.

Heather Hogan: That we’re all white. We need more lesbians of color on TV, in a major way.

Trish Bendix: TV writers think that the only kind of drama you can give lesbians are: coming out stories, getting them pregnant, killing them [and] making them sleep with guys. Then it’s like they have no idea what to do with us! Like we don’t have lives outside of our vaginal canals. If TV writers created storylines for lesbians like they do for other people (you know, like not thinking about their sexuality first and their other personality quirks or characteristics a far second), we’d have much richer storylines. I challenge TV writers to take a storyline they’d give to a straight character and give it to a lesbian character without considering “WHAT WOULD A LESBIAN DO?!” We might have different perspectives or ethics or ways of doing things, but that’s the fun of it. I promise you there are so many stories not being told because people think lesbians are relegated to doing the same stuff over and over again, and it’s all related to our every waking moment thinking I AM A LESBIAN.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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