When I was in high school, I used to close my eyes whenever Emily and Paige kissed on Pretty Little Liars. I knew to be afraid of how I would feel if I saw two women kiss. Pretty Little Liars and other queer TV shows taught me the futility of looking away and the relish of being understood.
This December, the L Word: Generation Q premieres, marking the return of the groundbreaking show, which started in 2004. The return of the show marks the completion of a cycle, a revolution around the broadcast sun that sapphic, queer television has traversed. Since then, and even before, let’s take a look back on the ways we’ve been seen and seen ourselves.
This is a snapshot; there’s so much to discuss about the way queer people have been represented on the silver screen and the ways in which it reflects their lives beyond the episode.
TV has a profound role in shaping our world views, our cognitive schema, and how we view each other. Research by Gomillion and Giuliano has found that queer individuals with access to queer media role models would have higher self-esteem through the process of identification. Demand queer representation so queer youth can imagine and see their futures where they can thrive and celebrate their queerness instead of being punished for it.
Thirty three years before The L Word, the first gay character on primetime TV appeared on the show All in the Family. According to Pink News, Steve was only in one episode. From there, important milestones also include the original run of Queer Eye, then called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Xena: Warrior Princess started airing in 1995, and while it didn’t have any explicit queer characters, it became a cult classic after heavy subtext. In 1997, Ellen came out in the controversial “The Puppy Episode” of her TV show. After some friction with ABC, the show was canceled after another season. Will & Grace was also a landmark show, with a gay man as a lead character. Two years later, Queer As Folk started airing, which included the character Ben Bruckner, an HIV-positive college professor.
When The L Word premiered in 2004, queer representation was still fairly sparse, especially for queer women. The L Word opened a new world for sapphic women where they were able to see themselves at the forefront. Queer women were shown fully, with complex desires and relationships, during stressful, dramatic, and steamy moments. The L Word also gained attention for openly showing queer sexuality. It didn’t just openly show it; it reveled in it.
The show introduced pulpy and campy goodness into the queer canon of TV, an aesthetic that’s become popular in queer TV, film, and even webseries (cough cough Carmilla). Alison Glock said in 2005, The L Word was “akin to ending a drought with a monsoon … there was no tentative audience courtship. Instead, there was sex, raw and unbridled in that my-goodness way that only cable allows.”
The show is iconic and still stands as one of the most important pieces of sapphic media. The first season was incredibly popular and was even hailed by critics, whom acknowledged its importance for lesbian visibility.
Though the show had impacts on sapphic visibility, it had major blindspots. The show had issues around race, biphobia, and transphobia. The main ensemble was white, lesbian, cis, and skinny. In even a casual rewatch, there’s material that would give audiences today heavy pause.
The show creator and writer Ilene Chaiken said in 2005, “I do want to move people on some deep level. But, I won’t take on the mantle of social responsibility.”
Chaiken’s comment revealed a legitimate misunderstanding and shrugging of responsibilities on media creators. Unfortunately, that’s still common today. Many showrunners queerbait audiences and imply queerness, but never affirm or validate audience hopes. Or even when it’s shown, the characters are then punished.
Recently, Chaiken amended her position and said “I know things now that I didn’t know then, and I’m glad to know them. I recognize the sensitivities.” The reboot made an effort to cast more diverse characters, but we will have to wait until December to see any improvements in writing.
It’s especially easy to see the influence of The L Word on shows like Orange is the New Black, another ensemble show with an emphasis on queer women. Though OITNB fell victim to another instance of a bi woman “resisting labels,” it included a diverse cast of queer women in a well-written, complex show.
Modern Family continues the tradition of Will & Grace, as a sitcom that shows gay men as a part of the mainstream, normative world. In the show, a gay white couple adopt a child and quarrel over the usual; Cam is a football coach and PE teacher.
These days, we don’t have to pick and choose individual shows. The number of queer characters on television is even increasing on a yearly basis. According to GLAAD, 8.8 percent of regular characters were queer in 2018, up from 6.4 percent in 2017.
Additionally, certain networks have consistently included more queer representation in their shows. In terms of streaming, Netflix has the highest number of queer characters, and FX has the highest on cable. The network airs Pose, the two-time Golden Globe-nominated show about NYC’s ballroom culture in the early 90s. The show has been praised for its representation of Black and brown queer people, showcasing ballroom culture and Janet Mock’s position as producer.
Networks like ABC Family and CW are also known for including queer characters, to the point where straight people are getting upset, a sign that they should keep going. On the public question-and-answer site Quora, people ask pointed questions about LGBTQ representation. Some examples include, “Has anyone noticed how homosexuality is being promoted in television series?” “I get that people should support gay people, but why does every new TV show have to have at least a gay guy or girl?” “Is the LGBT overrepresented in movies and TV shows?” and “Is there something wrong with being homophobic?”
I hope The L Word reboot can continue the tradition of bothering straight people, and as a community, we can get more more meaningful, intersectional, and diverse representation on- and off- screen. Not only do I want more queer characters, I want more queer people behind the camera. I want more Black, trans femme directors, I want more intersex writers, and I want more bisexual showrunners. In one way or another, I want us to all know we are worthy.