Where Are All the Sitcom Lesbians?

News broke last week that Portia de Rossi will star in a sitcom produced by her wife, Ellen DeGeneres. NBC has signed on for a “put pilot”, which means they’ve committed to screening the first episode (and thus, hopefully the whole first season).

So far, all we know is that the show is about two sisters with a difficult relationship, and Portia will play one of them. Speculation has begun about who else might be cast, but for me the big question is: Will Portia be allowed to be out?

TV today has an overall dearth of gay characters, as we learned today from the latest GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” survey. The 2011-12 season offers only 19 gay characters out of nearly 650 roles, down a percentage point from the year before.

But gay leads are an especially rare breed. There’s only ever been one lesbian lead character on a sitcom, Ellen herself, and her eponymous show was canceled shortly after she came out on air. Gay men aren’t often sitcom leads, and their characters can be problematically stereotypical, but since Will & Grace premiered in 1998, they have become increasingly mainstream. Two of this season’s returning comedies, Modern Family and Happy Endings, give gay male characters prominent screen time. Lesbians should be so lucky.

Not that we haven’t seen gay women on TV, most memorably in The L Word, which prior to becoming a melodramatic (and perennially unsolved) murder mystery in its fifth season, was actually a groundbreaking show about a group of lesbian friends. Currently, teen thriller Pretty Little Liars portrays gay teenager Emily without, thankfully, recourse to lesbian clichés or storylines that revolve around her sexuality. Meanwhile, The Good Wife features a bisexual woman, although she’s hardly a role model. And, paean to a more retrograde era though it may be, at least The Playboy Club has a lesbian “bunny”.

But when it comes to sitcoms, women who love women are sidelined, if they’re shown at all. Sure, Rosie O’Donnell made brief appearances on Will & Grace and Friends had Carol and Susan, but those characters were peripheral and their portrayal stereotypical. In ‘90s episodes of shows like The Golden Girls and Designing Women, lesbian characters had one-episode arcs intended to teach the main, straight characters (and the audience) about tolerance. No one seemed to realize that what might really promote tolerance was to have an existing character come out and for it to be no big deal.

Since sitcoms aim to reflect reality, the omission of a group which is already marginalized reflects badly on both television and society. There are some signs of hope, however. While Carol Leifer’s 2009 script about a pregnant lesbian didn’t pan out and, earlier this year, I Hate That I Love You, a pilot about a lesbian couple, wasn’t picked up as a series, there is one sitcom in the works that clearly has a gay female lead: My Best Friend is a Lesbo. Let’s just hope it changes the title and reins in the othering.

In 2009, Liz Feldman, who won four Emmys while writing for Ellen’s talk show, spoke about her long struggle to get a Sapphic sitcom on the air. But she remained hopeful, saying: “It might take a really long time but I promise you that there will be a sitcom or a half-hour single-camera with a lesbian lead character.”

Portia, we’re looking at you.

Photo of Portia de Rossi from Flickr user Pulicciano under Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. My co-workers and I were just discussing this today. I was saying that I’d like to see the two female leads of 2 Broke Girls on CBS be made into a couple eventually. The actresses have great chemistry. This was met with resounding nooooos and why would you even think that. Sad thing is, I don’t think people want to watch lesbians on tv in real relationships.

    • Oh, they are great together (though I think the show is less great) but I’m not sure it’s as much that people don’t want to see lesbian couples on TV as seeing two apparently straight women “turn” gay might be odd, and perhaps soapy/sensationalist, depending on how it’s done.

      I think it’s one of those things that studios etc. think people care about more than they do, the same way people were really against the idea of gay men kissing on network TV, then Will and Jack did it on W&G and no-one got that worked up.

  2. Why does Portia have to play a gay character? As a talented actress in her own right, surely she is entitled to the same range of acting opportunities as straight actors. The point of this post is not lost on me, but it’s not necessary to confine gay actors to gay roles anymore than it is necessary to confine straight actors to straight roles.

    • Oh, I realize that. I’m certainly not trying to suggest she should only ever play gay characters. But most straight actors play straight characters, and she’s never played a gay one to my knowledge, certainly not in any of the three main roles she’s known for. So I’m hardly suggesting she be pigeonholed.

      And if such an openly feminist out actor with the opportunity to make the role her own isn’t prepared to help develop a lesbian character where her sexuality isn’t just some teachable moment from a very special episode, I have to wonder who will be.

  3. Don’t forget Roseanne’s inclusion of lesbian characters! She did a lot to have regular characters whose sexuality (after the initial coming out story lines) wasn’t their primary focus.

    • You’re totally right! I should have given Roseanne some props. Although the gay characters in the show never had lead roles, it did attempt to reduce stigma with several characters, and even a male gay wedding (although it was shown late at night for some reason). Pretty boundary-pushing stuff for the time, but you’d think sitcoms would have moved on a bit more than they actually have since then.

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