Why aren’t there lesbian characters in prime time?
There was little question that “The L Word’s” Shane (Katherine Moennig) was a through-and-through lesbian. Shane was also one tough cookie, loving and leaving many a woman with sometimes reckless abandon. Her tough-girl image was super-sexy. Her lesbianism was irresistible for female viewers.
The small screen is filled with tough cookies these days, but most are either unattached (Mariska Hartigay’s sexily androgynous Olivia on “Law & Order: SVU” and Kathryn Morris as the vampirish Lily Rush on “Cold Case”), fling-oriented (Holly Hunter’s promiscuous Grace on “Saving Grace,” Jane Tennyson on “Prime Suspect”) or not-quite-able-to-settle-down (every female member of the “CSI” franchise). A few are bi-curious (Sara Ramirez’s Callie on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Eliza Dushku’s Echo on “Dollhouse,” Olivia Wilde’s Thirteen on “House,” Michaela Conlin’s Angela on “Bones”). None are lesbian.
Complicated, strong women are also unattached women on the tube (with few exceptions — notably Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda on “The Closer,” but it took her a long time to get there).
With most scripted TV shows, complicated, strong women have to be “subdued” by men. Sometimes this is benign, as with Brenda on “The Closer,” or it can be dangerous and violent.
Olivia on “SVU” has been sexually assaulted several times in recent seasons, but never in the 10 years since the show debuted has she had a serious romantic relationship with a man (or a woman). Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes) on “CSI: NY” and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) on “CSI” have only had relationships that have ended in creepy, stalker-ish, sexually deviant (not in a good way) behavior on the part of the men they have become involved with. Bonasera’s one serious boyfriend tried to kill her.
For decades the genre TV execs call WIJ — women in jeopardy — has predominated. Where would crime shows be without the WIJ formula? Has there been a single episode of “Criminal Minds” where the victims haven’t been women? Only “The Shield” — a very male-driven show — seemed to have gender equality in the massive victim lineup, but then the perennial Emmy-nominee was hyper-realistic when it came to crime.
Why can’t current TV writers imagine a woman character who is strong, individuated and capable of relationships that are equal — whether with a man or another woman?
“Cagney and Lacey” debuted in 1982. The cult and critical favorite ran through 1988; both lead actresses won Emmys each year the show ran for their portrayals of female detectives.
In the first season, the role of the single cop, Christine Cagney, was played by Meg Foster. Foster’s black hair and blue eyes gave her a look that was both seductive and menacing. And, apparently, anti-male. CBS execs decided she played Cagney too assertively and that the audience would begin to misperceive her as a lesbian.
The softer and more sexually accessible Sharon Gless replaced Foster. And in the 27 years since, the trend has remained the same: Tough women on the tube have to be accessible to men to grab ratings. They must have the ability to be either tamed — or broken — by heterosexual sex.
Lesbian characters will never do that. Kima didn’t on “The Wire.” Shane didn’t on “The L Word.” Thus, no matter how tough the female TV character, how strong, individuated and powerful in both job and temperament she might be, she can never be a lesbian.
And that is why there are no lesbian characters in prime time. Because tough cookies were made to be broken.