In the new Wild West of queer visibility on TV, what makes a show worth watching?
Teen scifi show The 100 was a queer, feminist, worthwhile show even before Clarke and Lexa’s brief kiss. And recent dialogues around The 100 and One Big Happy have gotten me thinking about the state of LGBTQ+ representation on TV. It’s not enough these days to be “a lesbian show” or have a queer character. Just like making feminist TV isn’t just about putting in “strong female characters,” making good queer TV is not just about watching women whom we are told are gay.
That explicit representation is important, of course. It’s the first step. It’s absolutely right that the lesbian subtext of nineties TV has made way for actual text. That’s one way a queer kid in middle America might recognize what they are and maybe feel a little less alone (poor kid in middle America, we are always talking about you). That’s how they might open a dialogue with their parents.
But that’s just the starting line. If we want queer TV to really fulfil its mission — if we want it to be a conduit, a rallying point, a magic mirror, something that will truly be a force for good — we have to go far beyond the simple appearance of an LGBT protagonist. We must raise the bar.
So what does that look like?
It’s about seeing women on our TVs who are flawed, nuanced, real, characters, women who are complete human beings, women who are given space for their stories to breathe and grow and for their characters to evolve over time.
And yes, it’s super fun when they’re also gay or bi or just open people who do their best to live authentically, but at this point in tv history, that’s the least important part of the equation.
So exactly what does that equation look like? In my opinion, real queer feminist TV — TV worth watching — does the following things:
1. Presents us with whole characters, and does justice to their stories.
This is a new millennium. It’s not enough anymore to have a lesbian or a “strong female character.” Instead, we need to see actual human people. Their motivations must be as complex as those of their male counterparts, and their story arcs must be given the scope they deserve. In successful shows, in the shows I want to watch, these characters’ narratives will touch on, but not revolve around, their sexual or gender identities.
2. Passes the Bechdel test.
As you’ll recall, the Bechdel test requires that two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man. Surprisingly, the pilot episode of One Big Happy nearly failed that test — most of the plot evolved around their tug-of-war for Lizzy’s best friend/Prudence’s husband, Luke. Surprising, for a show created by Liz Feldman and backed by Ellen…
3. Limits gratuitous objectification of the ladies on the show.
This is one of my problems with Game of Thrones. The show has (among other problems) an objectification problem. Emilia Clarke, who plays the Khaleesi, had so many nude scenes in seasons 1-3 of the show that she finally, famously, had to end it. There is female nudity in nearly every episode, with almost no nudity required of the men. I like boobs, sure. But when are we going to start questioning this double standard that forces many young actresses to disrobe if they want Hollywood success?
4. Subverts gender stereotypes.
The 100 is great for this. All of the strongest leaders are female. This doesn’t mean that all of the women are good — they are complex and very flawed, making split-second decisions that are often rash and sometimes even genocidal. On balance, they do better than when the guys are in charge, but that could just be because they’re all teenagers, and women mature a little bit earlier.
5. Includes characters who identify (or behave) somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
This brings us back to where we started. Our world is not binary, and neither are our relationships. The ways in which we present ourselves and connect with one another are as varied as can be, and that must start to be reflected on our televisions.
It’s not so important to me that a character identify in a certain way — but it is important that they behave in ways that are true to themselves (or, if they are blocked from doing so, that plotline is done in a way that reflects the barriers we face in real life). In The 100, it’s not important that Clarke identify as bisexual, only that her possible romance with Lexa is given authenticity and life. (BUT: in shows that are set in our present day world, I really do wish that bi characters would start identifying as bi or queer. If I hear one more white American lady character say she “used to be straight,” I will shoot my TV. A topic for another day.)