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Lesbian TV characters RIP
DIVA Magazine

Lesbian TV characters RIP

Posted July 27, 2015   |   9397 views   |   Women's Interest   |   Comments (0) As another lesbian character is killed off, this time on ITV's Coronation Street, Jacquie Lawrence asks why British TV executives are so quick to wipe us from view.

I have recently returned from LA, where I went to progress talks to turn my lesbian novel Different for Girls into a drama series. Given that it is set in West London, why I have I opted to take it to West Hollywood? There’s a simple answer. They asked me to.  

Over the space of a few days I had a slew of meetings. One producer wanted to develop it into a soap opera. An agent thought to fashion it as an edgy post-watershed drama. An actress fancied it as a vehicle for a comic / dramatic television movie.

However it might end up, this proactive leaning towards drama with a specifically lesbian-focused content, is as strong as the Californian sun, and is currently forcing UK broadcasters into the shade. 

Recently GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) extended the number of nominees in its media awards television categories from five to 10, “in recognition of the sheer number of well-crafted LGBT characters we now see in regular and recurring roles.” 
Conversely, British television is killing off its lesbians or, in a story line that parodies a scene from The Killing of Sister George, knocking them off their bikes and leaving them for dead. If you factor in the death of Cat, a major character in Lip Service, then that’s three BBC lesbian road accidents in as many years. 

Over on ITV, Coronation Street's recent dramatic twist left two characters dead, one of whom was a lesbian. Pundits refer to this as the ‘lesbian death clich?’. I prefer to call it ‘lesbian road kill’. 
 
Meanwhile lesbian drama in the US is alive and kicking. According to US television critic Heather Hogan, this wave of lesbian-themed television means, “over 120 lesbian/bi/queer women on television are spread evenly across genres, networks and age demographics.” 

Compare that to the diminishing number of lesbians in current British dramas and soaps, and you’ll be ordering US box sets in bulk.  My own personal audit indicates a steady decline in lesbian drama in the UK since the axing of Lip Service in 2010, with (in my estimation) only nine shows featuring a lesbian storyline. The BBC, despite its proclivity for sending lesbians to Accident and Emergency, has shown seven of these.

 On the other hand, after The L Word finished, in 2009, American networks have shown a proliferation of such dramas. Even allowing for the more fragmented market and multitude of American television channels, there appears to be a staggering 56 shows featuring lesbian storylines, most of them commissioned in the wake of The L Word. 
It is as if US television has embraced lesbians since its first lesbian specific drama, whilst British TV has well and truly dumped us since ours. Why is this?
My LA-based producing partner, Hazel Steward, thinks that American lesbian talent is crucial to the rise of American lesbian television. Leading show runners are out lesbians, like Ilene Chaiken (The L Word and Empire), Ali Adler (SuperGirl, Bad Judge), Liz Brixius (Nurse Jackie), Liz Feldman (One Big Happy) and producer Lauren Morelli (Orange is the New Black). As Hazel explains, “These women are at the helm of big shows, and so it will come natural for them to write lesbian characters and scenarios.” 

She also points to onscreen lesbian talent, who can command ‘first look’ agreements with networks, whereby the network will allow them to develop personal projects, either for themselves or other actresses. Lesbian themed projects are a natural for these women, for instance One Big Happy, executively produced by Ellen DeGeneres herself.

Actress Heather Peace, who has appeared in both lesbian specific shows and more mainstream dramas, explains, “We need more visible lesbian producers and writers in the UK, working from the inside out, to weave lesbian narratives into our British drama. Because it can work, for instance, when the women behind Shed Media seamlessly introduced lesbian characters into mainstream British drama like Footballers Wives, Bad Girls and, of course, Waterloo Road.
Hazel Steward also thinks that the reason that lesbian-specific dramas work in the US, is due to the amount of time given for the shows to embed and connect with the audience. I believe she has a point. The L Word ran for six seasons (70 episodes) whilst Lip Service ran for just two seasons, and just 12 episodes! 
It is not hard to understand that longevity is crucial to the development of characters and plot lines; and why it is frustrating for a lesbian drama like Lip Service to be cancelled just as it was finding its feet.
 
I asked Michelle Abbot, co-creator of The L Word, how easy it was to get the series commissioned in the first place. Showtime was the first and only place we went. They said ‘yes’ straight away. They had done 'Queer as Folk' and queer drama was in the Zeitgeist. Lesbians weren’t scary any more”. 
 
Surprisingly some of those who had less faith were lesbians in the industry.  Michelle laughs: “We had one lesbian actress come to the casting – she brought us dental dams – and said: “Good luck with that but I could never audition cause I’d never work again if I did a lesbian show.” Thankfully she was proven wrong, but hey thanks for the dental dams!”

How easy was is it to get lesbian drama commissioned by UK broadcasters? Harriet Braun, creator of Lip Service, tells me that BBC were actively looking for a lesbian show, so this was why Lip Service wasn’t exposed to an agonising pitching process. 

Johnny Capps, who produced Channel Four’s Sugar Rush, says it was his, “fastest and easiest commission. It was an absolute joy.” So why is it harder to sell lesbian drama to British broadcasters? Do UK television executives feel they have fulfilled their diversity remit with one or two series? I remember developing a lesbian drama in 2003, only for it to be cancelled when The L Word hit our screens because, so the thinking went, the British audience could only ‘deal’ with one lesbian drama at a time.
 Interestingly, however, the same British audience is able to consume multiple police and medical dramas at the same time. There is, on average, a five-year-gap between lesbian-specific dramas on British TV, so executives clearly think a UK audience needs to have some respite before they can commission another one.  Harriet Braun explains, “I don’t think there will ever be a large number of shows that exclusively focus on lesbian characters. Drama budgets in this country are getting smaller and channels have to cater to, and represent, a wide audience. I also think, for the same reason, that ensemble casts are unlikely to have a multitude of lesbian characters.”

Johnny Capps says the days of pure lesbian world relationship dramas, are gone. He wants to see dramas “that feature flawed lesbian characters in strong positions of power, in the same way that gay men have been assimilated into mainstream drama; or been given complex mid-life crises the way Russell T Davies did with Cucumber.” 

Changes in marriage, family and fertility laws should be generating a richer lesbian narrative. No one is saying that lesbian dramas should be sex-lite, but perhaps they should move beyond the drug and drink-laden hedonism that has provided much of the content in the past. 

Hazel Steward calls this ‘relatable drama’ and believes it sits at the hub of why lesbian characters are less transient in American television. The lesbian characters are “less fuelled by sex and sexuality and more normative. They are the nurse in Grey’s Anatomy, or the young Afro-American singer in Empire, or the lesbian mum in The Fosters.” 

Harriet Braun, thinks that this is the way forward for lesbian characters in British dramas: “I would like to see more lesbian characters in drama, like Kima the cop in The Wire, where their sexuality is visible but is not necessarily the focus of their story lines. In exactly the same way that a straight female cop will be seen fighting crime on screen and you will also have stories about their relationships. I think this is reflective of many gay women’s lives today.” 
That can work for dramas that have some form of conceit, like procedural crime dramas or medical dramas, but the problem with lesbians in say, soap operas, is that they are so normalised that they become dull. It is as if the writers are scared of creating complex lesbian characters, thus resorting to badly drawn lesbian parts; and we’re not talking about an Unclassified in GCSE Life Drawing.

There has to be room for dramas featuring less normalised characters, like those in Jill Solloway’s brilliant Transparent and Piper Kerman’s sublime OITNB. Not every lesbian has been an imprisoned drug mule or has a transgendered parent, but until there is a story that is as groundbreaking and as irresistible as these, it will be harder to grab the British broadcasters’ attention. 

According to Michele Abbott, “Netflix and Amazon were smart to pick up on these. They are both sexually provocative with some of the other characters stories too so that coupled with the transgender elements, would have made it a greater leap for the traditional broadcasters. But they are such huge hits, my guess is that the traditional networks will be on the lookout for equally breakthrough stories.”

This seems to have energised Johnny Capps: “Lesbian drama is constantly changing and there is now a huge appetite here and in the US for risk-taking. It is up to us programme makers to move the debate forward. Lesbian dramas these days have to have a noise behind them, like a book or a personality. With Sugar Rush, the book’s writer, Julie Burchill, was that noise.”

Harriet Braun gives equally sage advice: “I think the answer is probably to get writing. I do think there will only ever be a small percentage of scripts commissioned that exclusively feature lesbi

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DIVA is Europe’s best-selling and most influential lifestyle magazine for lesbian, bisexual and queer women. Our aim is simple – to bring you the latest trends and talent at the cutting edge of popular lesbian and bisexual culture. With so much going on, it’s no surprise that DIVA magazine is THE trusted source of information for lesbian and bisexual women the world over.

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