I was about 5 when I had already realised that I was never going to marry a man, and wanted a wife instead. This was the mid-80s. There was nothing on television that adequately reflected how I saw my future. Then in 1984, when I was 7, along came a tv show called Kate & Allie, it featured two College friends who had drifted apart and re-connected after their divorces. They lived together with their three children in a New York City apartment. Kate was the free spirited ex-hippie type, whilst Allie was the more straitlaced pearls and proper decorum type. Together they made an opposites attract kind of couple.
It was the only show at the time that even vaguely reflected the life I wanted. It was no surprise that the show built up a lesbian following, a sit-com with two attractive, competent, hilarious female leads, bringing up three children together.
I was devoted.
Until they seemed to get wind of how this was coming across to the audience, what followed was one of the most condescending 25 minutes of television I have ever watched.
They “addressed” the issue of any implied lesbianism by airing an episode that featured the protagonist’s landlady, a lesbian, saying that they would have to pay more rent as they were two families living in a one family apartment, unless they were actually one family, i.e. Kate & Allie were lesbians. What followed was a convoluted and patronising episode that concluded with the pair schooling their lesbian landlady on what constituted a family.
I never watched another episode. Even at that age I understood the message they were sending me.
Cagney & Lacey was another favourite amongst lesbians, two badass women, who could hold their own in a macho environment that is the epitome of old school boy’s club. They were intelligent, tough, and still empathetic. They were the kind of women I wanted to see around me.
But yet again, as the show carried on, it was deeply imparted to the audience how much Christine Cagney loved sex with men, and hardly an episode went by where there wasn’t a scene of Mary Beth and Harv kissing and more.
It was to remind us, these women might be playing in a man’s world, but they are still all about the dick.
Lucy Lawless, the incredible Xena: Warrior Princess, was very aware of the huge lesbian fanbase that the show had, in part due to the extensive volumes of fanfiction written about Xena and her bard sidekick Gabrielle. Lucy and co-star Renee O’Connor were deeply respectful of their fans, and giving them as much as they could with their on-screen interactions within the framework of the scripts. It was only as the show was ending that they were told that the characters were each other’s true loves. A point they addressed by saying that had they known earlier, they would have played the parts more explicitly loving, and would have made sure it had been more explicit to fans earlier in the show’s six year run. Their disappointment at not having known sooner was palpable and displayed a deep respect that they had for their LGBT audience.
Fast forward a few years, and in the post Beth Jordache era, we had Bad Girls, a UK women’s prison drama that featured straight Prison Governor, Helen Stewart, fall in love with one of her prisoners, Nikki Wade, it was a sweet story, and one of the few with a relatively decent ending. The actresses displayed grace and empathy when dealing with their fans, even appearing at a London pub after a Leicester Square movie premiere to sign autographs for a pub full of lesbian fans. I saw that it was possible for fans to be embraced and treasured, which to me made me feel like we had turned a corner from being scorned, ridiculed and patronised. We even had our own tv show, The L Word, which as flawed as it is, seemed like a massive step to media acceptance.
Post L Word, it is almost like we are being punished, almost every lesbian character on tv seems to either die or have an affair with a man(wtf?).
The past few years, scrolling through my tumblr feed is like a journey in joy and heartbreak. Watching the younger generations get excited over wlw characters, only to have to mourn the loss of them a short time later.
I never watch a tv series when it comes out now. I wait.
I wait to see where the arc is going. I wait to see how we are going to be treated by the cast and studio who make it. I have been burned a few too many times in the past, and only a couple of those many times have been recounted here.
These shows taught me from a very young age to pick and choose carefully what I watched, and that I could not rely on the mainstream media to cater to my needs. This is where fanfiction, fanart and fantasy come in. We learned how to take the characters and make our own stories with them, the myriad websites dedicated to fanfiction/art are a testament to that, and to our resourcefulness as viewers. After all, amazing fanfiction is still being written about Seven of Nine and Captain Janeway, and Olivia Benson and Alex Cabot (to name just two ships), characters who haven’t shared screen time in many, many years. Our love for these characters and their chemistry is enduring.
What we deserve though, are fully realised relationships between characters on screen, not scraps, not looking for every nuance in interaction. We can still do it, we are very good at it, we have had decades of practice after all. It is probably something we will always do, it is almost as though it is in our genes to be able to see the unspoken tensions and subtleties.
But it is so nice to have shows where this isn’t necessary, where you can just relax and watch the relationship unfold, without having to work to find those precious moments.
This was why I have loved watching the gifs and screencaps of shows like Carmilla, Wynonna Earp, Grey’s Anatomy and Supergirl cross my dash.
Knowing that there are generations younger than me who haven’t had to be so patronised and condescended to by the media, but who are actually being catered to.
To see Chyler Leigh be so enthusiastic in her representation of Alex Danvers, and her deeply moving responses to stories of the fans. It made my heart soar to see this. So I thought I would be safe with Supergirl, I watched the first season and was drawn in, I was waiting eagerly to buy the second season on DVD when I saw the footage from SDCC 2017.
To some, I know it is easy to brush aside, to wait for it all to blow over. They don’t have the history of being invalidated and condescended to.
To me, what I was watching, was deliberate, and unnecessary and cruel. It reminded me of the popular kids at school bullying those who are already society’s outcasts and unwanted.
To say you are an ally and trot out your ally credentials, is meaningless if your behaviour speaks otherwise. To mention when you are apologising for your bad behaviour, how badly you are being treated and how unfair it is, is ridiculous. Take responsibility.
To me, the whole spectacle was sad and left me hurting for the younger viewers who were experiencing the same things I experienced so long ago, knowing that even if you find somewhere you think you belong, there will always be those who don’t want you there, who will make that space unsafe for you. There is a reason why the concept of safe spaces is so large in the LGBT community, it is because we don’t have many.
What I won’t do is put my time and money into a show that devalues me, or who employs people who do. (To be clear, I am not insisting that others do not watch the show, you do you, boo boo).
I was heartened by the reactions displayed by Katie McGrath and Odette Annable at SDCC, who along with Chyler Leigh and Floriana Lima have been amazing ambassadors for their characters (Odette excepting as we have not seen her screen time, but her displays of solidarity with Katie were invaluable as an LGBT viewer), and make me long for a spin off with these four cast members.
The show has been tainted for me, and I won’t watch it, not when there are other shows that are not treating their LGBT characters and viewers poorly, so Wynonna Earp and The Bold Type, here I come, please don’t let me down.