On TV, The Lesbians Are All Right... As Long As They're Pregnant
This week, NBC announced it was working with ex-“Will & Grace” executive producer Jhoni Marchinko on a new half-hour sitcom called “I Hate That I Love You.“ The premise shares something in common with the TV writer’s previous show, in that it seems to pair comedy with default commentary on social issues. “I Hate That I Love You” features two couples: one male/female, one female/female. The part that is likely to bring about the comedy: The “instant attraction and pregnancy” that develops between the two lesbians once they meet (as set up by their straight couple friends.)
It’s been 13 years since “Will & Grace” debuted on NBC, so it sure has taken a while for them to see that the inclusion of a major gay character (two if you include Jack) can see success in a highly-coveted timeslot (paired with genius writing, of course). Perhaps the millions of dollars made and mounting awards won by The Kids Are All Right has reminded the network that the utilization of gay does pay, but only if the lesbians are a little less “threatening” -- and less threatening often equals pregnant.
A brief history of lesbians as major characters on television shows: Most of them were flirting with bisexuality more than coming into their own as lesbians (“Six Feet Under,” “The O.C.,” “Rescue Me”), most were on cable (“The L Word”), and the majority of those who didn’t fit into these two categories (read: were able to exist as lesbians and on network TV shows) ended up strongly concerned with finding a sperm donor. Certainly there are some exceptions (mostly of the teen variety, at least until we start seeing Teen Mom: Lesbians on MTV), but the pregnant lesbian is one of the most redundant storylines on television, and when your community is rarely represented on television, you’re likely to remember every single infraction.
It’s not that lesbian moms are an infraction on their own - of course not. We need to see lesbian mothers on television just as we need to see single lesbian women, lesbians of color or lesbian couples who live together without feeling the need to procreate with some help from a male friend. But when it becomes the only way television writers know how to play out a storyline between two women, it becomes not only tired but insulting. It’s as if they see us strictly as titillation (usually during Sweeps) up until a certain point where all is well between two women in love, and something has to happen for the actresses to remain on the pay roll. And since they are women, what else could cause problems like a pregnancy?
As Sarah Warn wrote in a 2003 piece “TV’s Lesbian Baby Boom:”
The first is the notion that "woman" is synonymous with "mother." The endurance of this stereotype has resulted in a persistent double-standard in television roles for men and women — male roles only sometimes revolve around parenting issues, while roles for women overwhelmingly do.
And that seems to be the problem with today’s TV writers as well. It’s eight years later and we’re still falling into the same lack of creativity issues that were plaguing “E.R.”’s Dr. Kerry Weaver, “Queer as Folk”’s resident lesbian couple and “NYPD Blue”’s Abby Sullivan. Besides the yet-to-be cast new NBC pilot, the latest show to have fallen for this predictable problem is “Grey’s Anatomy.” Callie and Arizona have had one of the longest running, most realistic and likable lesbian partnerships on television. The couple has its own moniker (Calzona) and a strong fanbase that watches the show for the two women rather than the McSteamys/McDreamys of the bunch. When Callie and Arizona have their bumps in the road, their characters are important enough that executive producer Shonda Rhimes tweets that everything will work out for them. Calzona is meant to be! But in a recent story arc, this comes at a price, for Callie wants a baby. Bad. She feels her biological clock ticking and it’s pregnancy time, only Arizona isn’t interested. Instead, she is trying to focus on her career, and departs for Africa on a grant she’s received. While she’s gone (and, for all intents and purposes, Calzona is broken up), Callie sleeps with McSteamy and guess what? She’s knocked up! Arizona returns and now she knows. So what will they do? It’s currently a cliffhanger, but I’m pretty sure adoption and abortion are off the table.
Most lesbians, like most women, have the ability to reproduce, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they’re good for. (In fact, there are several people that will tell you lesbians shouldn’t be doing it at all.) Giving television writers the benefit of the doubt, let's presume they actually are creative enough to come up with some viable storylines between or surrounding gay women that don’t have to do with bearing children. It’s hard not to assume that the major reason TV lesbians continue to repopulate is that it makes them somehow more acceptable. Openly gay women pose a threat to straight women (because they are interested in converting them), straight men (because they are attempting to assume their masculinity and take their women) and children (because they are pedophiles and corrupters). It might sound silly in 2011, but these very ideas lie in the basis of homophobia, besides the basic uninformed opinion that “the Bible says it’s wrong.”
The reason this happens less with gay men is because they are less threatening to straight women. They are a straight gal’s best friend, therefore, they are manageable and manage to exist without a uterus. Still, they are plagued with their own issues (being cheaters or killers or typically unable to handle long-term relationships because then they become too “normal”). But there are still more gay male characters on television than lesbians, and shows that include both tend to favor the gay males as the “real” gay characters than their female counterparts (“Glee,” “90210,” “Desperate Housewives”). Still, the shows with major gay male characters have them in less-threatening roles: as teenagers or parents (like on “Modern Family”). Right now, there are only seven out major or recurring lesbian characters on network television. (Nine if you count the bisexual/questionable Brittany and Santana from “Glee.”) Callie and Arizona are the only major network television lesbians, with the exception of Sara Rue, who has the recurring role of Brenda on “Rules of Engagement.” Her storyline? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: She’s playing the surrogate mother for Jeff and Audrey. This means she’s trying to get pregnant. It has taken until 2011 for NBC to become the first network to greenlight a pilot based on a major lesbian coupling. How much longer will it take for networks to realize adult lesbians don’t need to be knocked up for them to comfortably exist on hit television shows? Perhaps it’s time for Lisa Cholodenko to start working on a new film: The Lesbians Are All Right (Without a Sperm Donor or Tireless Search for One).