Lesbians on TV: UK vs. USA

The successes and failures of fictional representations of lesbians from across the pond.

Channel-hopping last week, I happened upon the finale of Call The Midwife and was thrilled to find a lesbian couple at the heart of the narrative. However, half-way through my little happy dance one girl was promptly knocked off her bicycle and – cutting a long story short – suffered amnesia and forgot who her girlfriend was. The story-line was met with some heavy disappointment from lesbian viewers here in the U.K. Discussing the episode, Ellie Walker-Arnott for the Radio Times was quoted to have said ‘In TV land, lesbian couples are rarely allowed to complete their stories,’ and it’s sad but true.

As it happens, it seems as though the struggle to successfully, diversely and regularly represent lesbians (without killing them off) is still a large problem:

* Hugely successful Last Tango in Halifax cruelly ended one of the best representations of a lesbian relationship I have seen on the small or large screen, by tragically killing Kate in a car accident and leaving her wife, Caroline with their baby girl. Sob.

* Lip Service, our attempt at The L Word, set in Scotland, ran for two series to positive acclaim…before being axed in 2013 without explanation.

* Sugar Rush – arguably the only story that tackled what it’s like for lesbian youth – from sex to sexuality, family acceptance to growing up – was aired all the way back in 2005. We’re still waiting for more.

While the U.K.’s portrayal of lesbians is not limited to these four examples, it does appear that aside from the odd character in British soaps/dramas, and our almost guaranteed BBC adaptions of Sarah Waters novels (Tipping The Velvet), lesbianism in mainstream TV is a little thin on the ground.

However, hop across the pond to the U.S.A, and there is a slightly different story to tell. In fact, so much greater was their representation of lesbian and bisexual characters in fictional television, that AfterEllen was able to compose a Top 25 list in 2013. Among those featured were Callie and Arizona of Greys Anatomy fame, Crazy Eyes and Piper from OITNB, H.G. Wells from Warehouse 13, Gail Peck from Rookie Blue, Cosima from Orphan Black and Santana from Glee. That’s not even touching upon the overwhelming success of OITNB and – all together now! – The L Word.

Lesbians certainly aren’t dominating the screens, and I am not saying we should be, but it seems that America are head and shoulders above the U.K. in character, content and representation. We’ve a long way to go until we can scrape together a Top 25 list of our own, so until then, perhaps I’ll just hope for another Sarah Waters adaptation!







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