Keeping up with queer tv used to be as simple as watching Buffy once a week and renting Queer as Folk from the video store on weekends. Now it’s a full time job.
Willow Rosenberg went gay my freshman year of high school. I didn’t even watch Buffy regularly yet, but I happened to catch the episode when Tara tells Willow “I am, you know — yours,” and Willow blows out a candle. (THIS IS WHAT WE USED TO GET ON TV INSTEAD OF ACTUAL QUEER LOVE SCENES). The next day, my friends in P.E. were all abuzz about it. “Tell me exactly what happened,” gushed the girl whose locker sat next to mine. I told her, then went back to trying to change into my PE t-shirt without revealing the three bras I wore to shrink my bust.
It was 1999. Ellen’s Puppy Episode had aired just two years earlier, and she still wasn’t getting any work. Not that any of that was on my radar. I was too busy trying to figure out why my closest friendships felt so intense, and why Matt So-and-So didn’t want to go to the dance with me.
Hey, if teen TV couldn’t even show a lesbian couple without reverting to metaphor (those were some damn sweaty spells Tara and Willow were casting), what chance did I have of figuring it out?
When I finally started to catch up to myself, I embarked on a kind of unofficial queer studies major, with novels, tv, and movies as my study materials. There wasn’t much out there in TV land, though. I binged watched Buffy and Queer as Folk (the show was deeply flawed but on HBO, at least, nothing was left to the imagination). I found L Word viewing parties on Craigslist, parties which I never attended, and rented the DVDs as soon as each season was released. And that was pretty much it.
Those were the days when AfterEllen had a single article each week with a roundup of all the lesbian pop culture news. We waited for recaps of The L Word like it was 1880 and they were letters from loved ones across the Atlantic. Visibility matters, the AE tagline reminded us. But where were we on TV?
Sometimes I go back to AfterEllen, just to marvel at the number of shows they’re now covering. There are queer women everywhere on TV these days — so many that the other day I made a list of stuff I should be watching that I haven’t gotten to; then promptly abandoned it because two minutes into Gotham, it just felt like too much work. I have a job. I don’t have time for all of that!
And unlike the HBO ghetto of the old days, queer characters today are on shows with everyone else; their characters are motivated by factors other than their queerness, and while they still die or disappear far too often, they are often nuanced, full-fledged characters who get just as much romantic action as their straight counterparts. Emily Fields doesn’t have to blow out any stupid candles. Emily Fields gets to have sex, just like all the other teenagers in Rosewood.
I wonder what my teens and early twenties would’ve been like if I’d grown up watching today’s TV instead.