Lipstick and lament: The lot of a television lesbian

Adding lesbian characters to tired television programmes boosts ratings and publicity, but representations are frankly embarrassing, says Sally Brooks.

Emmerdale, a British soap of some 30 years standing, is hotting up at the moment as Zoe Tate, the show’s resident lesbian, is at risk of losing her child to social services.
Set in the fictitious village of Beckindale - at the heart of Britain's Yorkshire Dales - "Emmerdale Farm" is an unlikely stage for the trials faced by gay women.

But once more, use of the issue to boost flagging ratings serves to strengthen perceived misconceptions about lesbians, who from the 1950s onwards have been portrayed as wretched creatures in literature and television.

What significance does this have to the real world's lesbian community, and are there really any happy lesbians on our screens?

ER’s Dr Carrie Weaver is not exactly the image of gay pride.

Having a relationship with Dr Legaspy proved impossible due to her inability to come out to her colleagues and be open about her relationship.

She is a woman with issues, and has lost relationships because of it.

Even her latest love, fire fighter Lopez, had a battle to make Weaver accept the reality of their union. So Weaver makes for a troubled and emotionally damaged character.

She is a very interesting and believable screen character, but the problem is she is one of the very few lesbians on television and sadly many of them seem to be incapable of being in a stable and happy relationship.

So what happens to happy, well-adjusted lesbians?

Tash from Holby City is the perfect example of someone who is at home with their sexuality, in a secure relationship and "out" at work.

She was a fantastic role model for lesbians, but what happened to her? Her partner has been deceiving her and is really a drug addict who is HIV positive.

She can’t just be happy, there has to be a drama, and not just a small one… a huge life-or-death one!

Finally, the two solve their differences, but by this time Tash’s girlfriend is dying.

So Tash leaves the hospital, and the programme, to spend time left with her. The minute the storyline is resolved, she is gone from the screen. She has served her purpose. Another lesbian mourned by the television audience. The use of the token lesbian is done.

Look at Ellen Morgan of Ellen (played by Ellen DeGeneres), what happened to her?

She settled down into a stable relationship without major sexuality "issues" and the production company pulled the plug on her series. Another one bites the dust!

But not all television lesbians get away so lightly.

One of the oldest British soap lesbians, Zoe Tate of Emmerdale, has murdered her half-brother, had an affair with her brother’s fiancé and is suffering from schizophrenia.

It’s all terribly typical of a sordid lesbian storyline.

Her relationships are always doomed, and she always ends up looking like an obsessive predator – not unlike the old pulp fiction representations of lesbians in the 1950s.

Storylines have to develop and have to keep the viewer interested, but how much longer will gay women be treated as issues as opposed to people?

Their inclusion has become a simple ratings winner, an easy way to attract viewers.

Representations of a gay woman should not be positive by definition, but of the few public representations there are, too many are voyeuristic and sensationalist.

This is not to overlook a major source of lesbian characters in the prison drama series, Bad Girls.

Its appeal has not been lost on the lesbian community, and this is for a very good reason. Bad Girls’ producers were not afraid to show lesbians as simply part of prison life, or even life in general.

It was also notably brave for it to move away from the stereotypical image of the token single "lipstick" lesbian or couple nervously portrayed in Brookside and Emmerdale. A lesbian with short hair on television, crikey!

But why is this a big deal and what influence does television have anyway?

This is an issue that has been debated since television’s inception decades ago.

Television is part of a group of institutions, which ultimately "helps" people to form opinions throughout life, alongside the views of family, school and workmates and social peers.

People need to see more representations, more often and lesbian characters who are genuinely representative of those in real life should become the norm, not a novelty.

Growing up with confusions about my own sexuality, I know that if there had been more representations and more information my path would have been easier.

Yet, 10 years ago when I was beginning to become aware of my sexuality there were virtually no ‘media lesbians’ and no role models and nothing to compare myself to.

Except Zoe Tate… my only source of ‘real’ information.

Schools are still very hesitant to teach about homosexuality in light of the ongoing controversy surrounding section 28, largely relying on the discretion of teachers and policy of the school, so it continues to be a lottery of sorts.

As such, until there is clarity in the real world there remains a gulf to be filled on screen.

Television production companies need to be brave and introduce characters who just happen to be lesbians, whose sexuality does not define them, who aren’t necessarily going to cause a ratings peak.

Why did Bad Girls cause such a stir among the lesbian community? Because it was a rarity.

One day representations such as these may become the norm, but in the meantime let us hope Zoe Tate is at least allowed to keep her baby.