Reflections & Representations of Queer Women in TV
I remember the first episode of Will & Grace I ever saw. I was 13, and I think my mom had wanted to watch that week because of who was guest-starring. It was the one where Rosie O’Donnell played the mother of Jack’s son, Elliott — brought unto them by one of Jack’s long-forgotten generous sperm bank donations.
In the episode (4.15, “Dyeing is Easy, Comedy is Hard”), Jack accuses O’Donnell’s Bonnie of wanting to shield their son from Jack’s lifestyle as a gay man. She firmly denies it. They have a rapid-fire back and forth, and Bonnie ends up calling his bluff by coming out as a lesbian. Jack is unmoved.
“Prove it!” he fussily demands. “Say something lesbionic!”
Exasperated, Bonnie shrugs and rattles off, “Home Depot.”
I remember cackling in my living room and wondering if “lesbionic” was actually a word. Regardless, everything about this was witty, wacky, and the best kind of melodramatic.
As far as I can remember, these were the first gay and lesbian characters I’d ever seen on television. So even if I didn’t quite understand the scope of the humor, I knew I was hearing words from a totally new lexicon. I wanted to know more.
As it turns out, Will & Grace helped shape far more than my own sense of humor in my teen years. It primed us all for a heaping spoonful of progress. Not unlike the popularity (and sometimes the commodification) of black culture in America, we saw queer style, lingo, and behavior find their way into mainstream media as the new millennium rolled onward. Pride movements exist in more cities than I can be bothered to count. People used to simply refer to queer people as the “gay and lesbian” population. Now, people are realizing there’s a larger picture they’ve been ignoring: LGBTQ. (If you want to know what the full alphabet soup is, here you go.)
My world didn’t shake. It was and is just one more fact about me, among many…
Alongside everything above, Will & Grace also made me comfortable enough as a 13-year-old that when 20-year-old me realized she was bisexual, I felt more like I’d finally understood a tricky freeform poem than any kind of internal shock. This was the sort of reaction my mom had, too, when I came out to her in April of 2009.
The rest of my family asked a few curious questions — and whether or not they understood how bisexuality worked or whether it changed anything, they all ultimately told me they wanted me to be happy. My college roommates were the definition of Chill about it.
My world didn’t shake. It was and is just one more fact about me, among many: Heavy sleeper. Organizer. Writer. Tenacious. Advice-bearer. YouTube reaction addict. Virgo. Over-thinker. Bisexual.
Would I have been that comfortable if American pop culture had been different? Maybe not. But I’m equally grateful and excited to have seen the rise in representation of queer characters in entertainment over the past couple of decades — especially of queer women.
If pop culture is a mirror — and I think it is; it’s one of the reasons I set forth to write this blog — then it’s important for that mirror to be clear. It’s essential that people are able to recognize themselves in what and who they’re watching.
It’s a delight to identify with people who are the opposites of ourselves, but I consider it a gift to watch a character who looks like me or acts like me or is navigating what could be or has been my life. It’s fiction, but its existence means our culture knows who we are and wants to spend some time with us — wants others to spend some time with us.
So in honor of Pride Month, here are five queer female television characters who occupy space in my own mirror.
Grey’s Anatomy (2005–Present) | Played by Sara Ramirez
Like me, Callie takes a while to think about big decisions. She sometimes spills her guts at inopportune moments, to the wrong person. She’s quick to cut into other people’s bullshit, even her own. I identified with her.
Watching her figure out that she was into girls as well as guys was hilarious (see: “Are you speaking the vagina monologues?”) and exciting and endearing and I loved it. At the time, she was the first bi character I’d ever seen on television.
The L Word (2004–2009) | Played by Jennifer Beals
Listen, Bette is on this list for a lot of reasons. At a time when I was wondering if traditionally “pretty” femme lesbians were even a thing — whether they were just an invention of the porn industrial complex, or try-sexuals masquerading as queer — Bette Porter smacked some sense into me.
Perfect she is not, but she’s the textbook definition of a Power Lesbian. Dean of the School of Arts at her university, stylish in a way that projects intelligence and influence, and willing to play whatever game she has to to achieve her goals. She was one of the first queer female characters I watched who carried a distinct balance of feminine and masculine energy about her. Until then, I hadn’t know what that would look like. (Spoiler: It looks good.)
Will & Grace (1998–Present) | Played by Megan Mullally
Karen never expressly identifies as anything in particular over Will & Grace’s 9 seasons, though she’s certainly had a least a dozen saucy come-ons aimed at other women. Rewatching the series a few years ago, I realized her lack of identification may not have been an oversight, or even a lead-on.
Some people just don’t do labels. They’re into what they’re into, and let themselves go for it. Can’t be mad at that.
American Horror Story (2011–Present) | Played by Sarah Paulson
I almost most called this item Literally Any Character Sarah Paulson Plays on AHS, because she is that wonderful. AHS is a show that’s harrowing and campy at best and messy and self-indulgent at worst — and Paulson’s turn as closeted lesbian Lana in Season 2 (Asylum) remains one of the best performances of the anthology series to date. (For the record, Season 2 is also the strongest and most disturbing of all the AHS stories. Highly recommend it.)
As an ambitious local journalist in 1964, Lana sets out to investigate Briarcliff Manor, an insane asylum run by the Catholic Church with a growing stain on its reputation. She ends up being committed to Briarcliff via blackmail, and all you need to know is that Paulson gets the chance to run the gamut of emotions and it’s fantastic. Her determination and ability to cope are both things I admire.
Orange is the New Black (2013–Present) | Played by Samira Wiley
I’m pretty sure most people know why Poussey’s on this list. Samira Wiley is utterly wonderful in every role she plays, but she’s never been as human to me as when she’s embodied Poussey. She is equal parts spirited and isolated, inspiring and pitiable, hilarious and enlightening. She’s the kind of human most people want in their lives, or at least to look to as a role model.
I know I’m still missing out on a ton of excellent LGBTQ female characters. (Next on my list: Wynonna Earp and The Fall.) I’m also a white woman who passes as straight every single day (I’m fairly feminine in style and behavior) — so it’s far easier for me to find queer female characters in my pop culture mirror.
So my questions to every other non-straight identifying woman are these: Who’s in your mirror? What kinds of queer characters are you not seeing in your favorite shows? And which existing ones would you recommend everyone to take a look at?
P.S. — Happy Pride Month! 🌈 💜 ✨