Phenomenal Women: Sex, Gender and Sexuality in Lost Girl

valksylgToday we welcome guest author Valksy, who brings us an in-depth look at the phenomenal women of Lost Girl. Thank you, Valksy!


When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It
s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

Cause Im a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That
s me.

[Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman,” From: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, Random House Inc., 1994]

As season 5 of Lost Girl goes before the cameras and season 4 is still being puzzled over, I’ve been thinking about the themes of the show that continue to resonate so powerfully with me.  I believe that the core appeal of Lost Girl – for me and for many in the general viewership – has always been in its portrayal of extraordinary women. The recent loss of Maya Angelou reminded me of her own exceptional talent for depicting womanhood in words that are often unabashedly sensuous in their description of the female body, words that embrace glorious sexuality and speak to the self-confidence, physical strength, will, and purpose of women. At its best, Lost Girl has aspired to offer us such “phenomenal” women and has placed them at the very heart of the show.

Even in this second decade of the 21st century, we see so few women characters on television who own themselves, their bodies, their presence, their own unique stories, and their right to fill space without one single moment of apology to anyone.  The 2013 Women’s Media Center report showed that women continue to be under-represented in all aspects of media, both in front of the camera and behind it — and it shows. Women in television series often play roles that are heavily determined by their relationships with others – typically as wife or mother (or both).  While many of these women are living rich lives within those domestic roles, these aren’t the portrayals of women that I find most engaging or empowering.  The overwhelming popularity of Lost Girl online suggests there are many of us out there willing to go that extra mile or two to find shows with more compelling women characters – women who are strong, independent, sensuous, sexual, self-confident, phenomenal.

I’ll admit I was initially concerned about the central concept of Lost Girl — the tale of a bisexual succubus who uses sex to heal, feed, and kill. I could easily understand why Anna Silk’s first reaction on reading the basic overview was, “Was this written by a frat boy?!” To which I might have added: “And was it written for frat boys?” The depiction of bisexuality on TV is often regarded as a cynical stunt to capture the attention of young men and thereby boost advertising revenues.  “Sweeps week bisexuality” was never intended to be a truthful depiction of a legitimate orientation. I feared that Lost Girl, with its bisexual female lead and TV14-rated scenes of sex, would turn out to be more of the same offensive exploitation of women for male titillation with which television has already been oversaturated. But after watching the first season, I was pleased to be proven wrong.  Bo’s existence as a succubus is a powerful and undeniably positive statement about female sensuality.  The absence of apology, Bo’s defiant sexuality, and her attitude of this-is-me-take-it-or-leave-it captured my imagination and continues to do so to this day.

It should be noted that a number of other female-centric TV series premiered in the same year as Lost Girl.  Rizzoli and Isles, Nikita, Hellcats, Chase and Haven all debuted in 2010 and revolved around female leads. There seemed to be a trend towards offering viewers more shows with women in lead roles that were not driven by family dynamics. Is this why Lost Girl was commissioned to be about a superhero named Bo rather than, say, a “Lost Boy” named Beau? In an early interview, the show’s creator, Michelle Lovretta, made it clear that the show was not designed to be simply female-centric – it was specifically commissioned to be built around a bisexual female superhero. In fact, Lovretta had some initial trepidation that the show could easily devolve into something “mind-numbingly insulting, anti-woman and exploitative” – something she said she would never put her name to. Without further definitive comments from the people who commissioned the show, we may never know what really motivated them to support a bisexual female lead – was it enlightened programming or just another cynical ploy to appeal to the presumed tastes of a key demographic?

The GLAAD report on character diversity for the 2013-14 US network season showed that, of ten bisexual characters announced for broadcast, eight of them were women.  Bisexual women also outnumbered bisexual men significantly on US cable networks. Do these statistics reflect an assumption by television channels that for the demographic of young men – especially those who identify outside the LGBT umbrella — female/female sexuality is more comfortable or acceptable than male/male sexuality?  We may never know. But for a TV series to showcase a mainstream-targeted primetime female superhero who is also bisexual was unprecedented when Lost Girl premiered, and Bo’s sexual confidence and liberation made her truly unique among lead female characters.  This prescription for sexual freedom, fearlessness and the ownership of physical and emotional self was set out in the rules Lovretta established for the show:

  1. Sexual orientation is not discussed, and never an issue;
  2. No slut shaming – Bo is allowed to have sex outside of relationships
  3. Bo’s male and female partners are equally viable;
  4. Bo is capable of monogamy, when desired;
  5. Both genders are to be (adoringly!) objectified — equal opportunity eye candy FTW…

As the show approaches its fifth season, with the details of Bo’s story still unfolding, I find myself questioning how successfully and consistently these original rules have been executed, and whether they are even desirable as a mission statement for the character and for the show as a whole. Certainly, the idea of a world where sexual orientation is never an issue is one that has been embraced by many LGBT viewers.  During one of many online promotional click-poll events in which fans vote for their favorite TV couple, Lost Girl fans from at least 36 different countries cast votes for the primary same-sex relationship between Bo and Lauren, including fans from India, China, Jamaica, South Africa, Russia, Korea, Lebanon and even Nigeria.  There were passionate supporters from countries where Lost Girl doesn’t even air and almost certainly would never be acceptable without significant editing.  A fantasy world where same-sex relationships are lived openly, without comment or condemnation, is evidently a compelling and powerful concept for audiences around the world.

In addition to the same-sex relationships showcased in the foreground of Lost Girl, other same-sex couples appear in more background roles; their sexuality is irrelevant to the story and never mentioned.  In episode 208 (“Death Becomes Him”), Bo searches for a man’s husband. In episode 304 (“Fae-de to Black”), Bo conducts couples counseling for another same sex pair, and in episode 305 (“Faes Wide Shut”), same sex couples mix with heterosexual couples at a swinger’s club.

The only “coming out” sequence in the series to date has been the reversal of a standard trope: it is a heterosexual character (Kenzi) who feels a need to clarify her sexual orientation to Bo.  In episode 101 (“It’s a Fae, Fae, Fae, Fae World”), Kenzi says “Just so were clear about this partnership, you be you and all, but Im only into guys.”  The show would go on to evolve beyond such overt statements in later seasons.  By season four, in episode 402 (“Sleeping Beauty School”) and episode 403 (“Lovers. Apart”), Lauren and Crystal establish their mutual sexual interest through glances and flirtations, without either of them having to stop and identify their orientation.

Despite the show’s sincerely stated intent to commit to a label-free world, when the new character of Tamsin was introduced, there was a specific violation of this cardinal rule.  The reasoning behind announcing Tamsin’s bisexuality in press-releases has never been explained.  The show had already demonstrated that it was eminently capable of creating and depicting an organic relationship between women, so the decision to advertise Tamsin’s orientation felt very much like a return to the context-free titillation tactics of sweeps-week bisexuality.

When considering the four leading female characters in Lost Girl – Bo, Kenzi, Lauren and Tamsin – three out of four of them are shown in an LGBT sexual encounter (all four, if you count Bo’s hallucinated kiss between Kenzi and Lauren). Among the  named women characters who appear in recurring roles of five episodes or more – Evony, Aife, and Nadia – two of the three could be reasonably perceived as LGBT by the viewing audience, even if no one ever proactively identifies as such.  While seventy percent of the significant female characters have had same-sex encounters, none of the major male characters have done so to date.  Sex between Bo and Lauren and between Lauren and her former partner Nadia occur in the context of established relationships and serve a narrative purpose, but the same cannot be said for the transient sexual encounters between Lauren & Evony, Bo & Evony, or Bo & Tamsin, none of which serve as intrinsic story elements.  The fact that only women characters in Lost Girl have bisexual encounters may well reflect a lingering supposition that the show’s target demographic is titillated by female/female eroticism and uncomfortable with male/male sexuality. Actually, there is a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence from online communities that fans who favor the same sex pairings on Lost Girl represent all demographics, not exclusively LGBT viewers.

Mercifully, no character within the show is saddled with the kind of “issue” driven tropes that LGBT characters on TV tend to endure – identity crises related to orientation, experiences of homophobia or queer bashing, and family rejection. Still, orientation surfaces as an “issue” now and then, both in the story and in decisions made at a production level about imagery. In episode 206 (“It’s Better to Burn Out Than Fae Away”), after Bo and Lauren make love on screen, Kenzi bumps into Lauren in the bathroom and – after answering a question about toothpaste in a nonchalant way – pretends to vomit violently as soon as she is out of Lauren’s sight.  Is Kenzi’s reaction meant to convey her disgust about the idea of Bo having sex with another women, or should it be dismissed as nothing more than an expression of her jealousy and need to denigrate this rival for Bo’s attention?  A new or casual viewer with little knowledge of backstory or character could perhaps be forgiven for assuming the former.  What about LGBT viewers watching Kenzi’s visceral revulsion?  What about the viewers who have consistently denied and/or devalued the same sex content of the show?  Is it possible they might perceive Kenzi’s vomiting pantomime as an endorsement or reinforcement of their own attitude?  To show Kenzi flipping the bird instead might have been a less ambiguous gesture than this disturbing juxtaposition of loving sex and violent regurgitation.

In episode 311 (“Adventures in Fae-bysitting”), Bo infiltrates a gated community to solve a murder by pretending to be interested in buying a home.  During a house tour, the agent prompts her by asking: “And would your husband like them?” Bo pauses, then renames and re-genders her lover in her response: “My partner Lau.rence and I are taking a break.”  This represents the first (and so far the only) time in the series that Bo makes any reference to the gender of her lovers.  It is disquieting for LGBT viewers in particular that she does this in a manner that might be interpreted as an act of erasure or worse still, as an expression of embarrassment or shame. If orientation is really not an issue in the show, what were the writers trying to say in this scene?  Was it meant to be an ironic reminder that while orientation is not an issue in the fantasy world of our lead characters, more small-minded human folk in cloistered and gated communities are still subject to heteronormative assumptions? If this was the intent, the message may have been a little too subtle for some viewers. The fact that Bo was merely trying to blend in with a group of “traditional” women to solve a murder case could have been easily missed – particularly since Bo’s act of denial hung there in the air, unacknowledged and unchallenged.

The only possible exception to the all-female list of bisexual characters in Lost Girl is Vex, a mind-controlling Mesmer, does appear to be at least sexually ambiguous, and flirts with all characters of both genders (although his only overt onscreen acts of sexual expression have been in BDSM scenarios).  As the seasons progressed, the character of Vex began to show more interest in flirtation with male characters (particularly Dyson) and – while never reciprocated – his advances for the most part were met either with neutrality or easygoing amusement rather than any kind of “panic.” Nevertheless, I have to admit that I found myself bracing for a more hostile reaction to his flirtations with men, something that I did not find myself anticipating in sexual encounters between the women characters. I don’t know if this is just my personal idiosyncratic response or something that may have been shared by other LGBT viewers, but it may be another reason why male bisexuality seems to have been largely avoided on Lost Girl, i.e. perhaps it evokes uncomfortable reactions in a broader swath of the viewership.  While the show has done nothing overt to reinforce this concern, I find myself hoping that they will continue to exercise caution with the character of Vex.  A rational and honest depiction of BDSM on television is so rare that I cannot think of another example, and an argument could be made that this fits into both the orientation and “no shaming” rules that the show’s creator originally intended.

While I believe Vex’s identification as BDSM/submissive serves a narrative purpose (making it clear that his behavior is freely embraced not coerced), I’m not sure the same can be said about his male-focused pansexuality or the numerous times he appears to reject the gender binary by full or partial cross-dressing. Is there some meaning or purpose to such behavior or is it being exploited — perhaps even to infer a degree of “deviance” (as it might be perceived by a conservative audience)?  When first introduced in episode 108 (“Vexed”) which was the original pilot, Vex engaged in sadistic murders and seemed to be a psychopath.  As his character developed over four seasons, he was re-tuned to be more sympathetic and comical, but in episode 401 (“In Memoriam”), he is again depicted as willing to maim or murder capriciously. It is disturbing to think that Vex’s style of dress and/or sexual behavior might unwittingly be associated in the viewer’s mind with his identification as a villain or might serve as an invitation for viewers to mock or laugh at him (Welsh-born Actor Paul Roger Amos, trained in theatre in the UK, has a distinct air of farce or pantomime to his performance of Vex).  It is to be hoped that the show will treat his character — and what some people within the BDSM community would consider their orientation — with consideration and caution.

These examples suggest that while sexual orientation is not a subject that the characters themselves reference on screen, the show may not be truly as label-free as the creative team thinks. When the production appears to over-emphasize gender-biased same-sex sexuality for no evident purpose beyond titillating exploitation for ratings, or when ambiguous and potentially subversive subtextual messages are conveyed about a BDSM character, there is a sense of dissonance between the show’s noble intentions and what is actually communicated about orientation on screen. The characters may never actually verbalize their orientation, but the subject is often in plain view and not always in ways that are obviously relevant to character or story.

Let’s examine for a moment the show’s guiding premise that being “label-free” is inherently good.  In an appearance at the San Diego Comic Con while she was the showrunner, Emily Andras reiterated that “the show prides itself on not putting labels on sexuality.” But what’s wrong with labels?  The Pride movement within the LGBT community certainly serves as an embrace of our own labels.  The journey of acceptance for LGBT people surely begins with coming out to ourselves and accepting that label, even if there is no rule or duty to act beyond that acceptance.  The LGBT rights movement began with people who could not or would not hide from their label – both in terms of sexual orientation and gender presentation. I’m uneasy hearing that “labels don’t matter” when I remember what the LGBT people who came before me went through in fighting for our rights.

If labelling can serve as a source of unity and connection to others, of comfort or solace in self-acceptance, or as a flag to fly as a rallying point for rights and freedoms – bearing in mind that many international fans come from countries that deny LGBT people both of these things — should it be dismissed as irrelevant by the creators and producers of Lost Girl?  Is there a distinction between labels that LGBT viewers freely embrace and value, and those that are placed upon us?  The single time that the real-world social weight of being LGBT crossed into the show (Bo’s substitution of “Laurence” for Lauren  in episode 311) was prompted by someone else forcing a label on Bo based on their own bias. Pretending that this does not matter seems short-sighted.

My own views about LGBT labelling are by no means universal — indeed it is a common error for mass media to assume that LGBT people possess some sort of hive mind. Still, I hope that the production team recognizes that Bo’s label-free world is not our world. I’m not sure that fulfilling Lovretta’s first rule (“sexual orientation is not discussed, and never an issue”) is possible or even desirable. I’m not suggesting that Bo and Lauren should attend a Pride festival, or in any way change the way that they behave within the parameters of the show.  I am happy enough that orientation is not mentioned and simply is in Lost Girl. But I know that my sense of contentment and approval is based at least in part on the fact that labels and orientation are still very much alive as issues in my world. Bo and Lauren inhabit a world we yearn for but do not presently enjoy.

Lovretta’s third rule — that viability of a potential partner is not related to gender — is a more successful expression of Bo’s sexual orientation being largely irrelevant to the character herself.  While the show plays safe and resorts to stereotypes in having a brooding troubled male hero archetype, and a nurturing caregiver who is female, there is no real reason why these roles/characters could not be reversed.  The genders of Dyson and Lauren play no part in Bo’s attraction to them, are not inherently meaningful to their chances of having a relationship with her — as might be expected for any relationship, behaviour and personality are infinitely more important than just sex.  The fifth rule is also successful in that, within the parameters of PG or 14+ rated television, the camera will linger over equal amounts of skin!

Bo’s sexual orientation — and the intrinsic connection that I have argued it has to her gender — is still deeply significant and inspiring to many viewers.  That Bo’s bisexuality is openly expressed by showing her sexual interactions with partners of either gender is also roundly applauded.  I find it relevant to note that the second rule established by Michelle Lovretta: “No slut shaming – Bo is allowed to have sex outside of relationships” addresses her concern that the potential for slut shaming was so predictable that it was important to immediately ban it as part of either her character development or narrative progression.

The praise that many fans, myself included, levelled at the show for this decision – to allow a woman to be as sexually liberated as she wishes without question – has a thematic link to Bo’s orientation and gender, in that it speaks to a compelling sense of freedom and a relief from social condemnation, as succinctly summarized in Bo’s inspiring hallmark title monologue:  “I will live the life I choose.”

Despite the prima facie appearance of sexual agency, and the enthusiasm with which this was received, there is a profound argument that closer scrutiny shows that this interpretation of Bo’s sexuality is misleading.  Can Bo truly be portrayed as unconditionally sexually liberated if her sexual expression is determined by her own biological imperative?  There is surely a distinct difference between Bo having sex because she wants to, and Bo having sex because she has to, and how many times have we actually seen Bo experiencing genuine free will with a lover of her own choosing?

In episode 101 “It’s a Fae, Fae, Fae, Fae World” Bo explains to Kenzi that she cannot control her hunger and later, to Lauren, clarifies that she “has a habit of waking up next to dead lovers.”  Both of these remarks are suggestive of a near fugue state when in the thrall of the hunger that she sates through sex.  Bo, as we first meet her, is subject to an irresistible need for sex and — while not exactly a slut shame in that there is no overt condemnation or negative language usage — is not a true image of sexual liberation.

It must also be noted that those who had sex with Bo at this point in her life were dying as a consequence.  Although the gender and quantity of those killed is never clarified, nor is any selection process that Bo might have used or clarification of whether she was referring to them as “lovers” , there is a reasonable concern of a subtextual “shaming” inference in suggesting that indiscriminate or promiscuous sex leads to death (even if it is not Bo herself dying).

In order to keep Bo a sympathetic character, when she kills on-screen it tends to be in a context of self-defence (of herself or others) and targeted at other Fae characters.  During the first four seasons the show only focuses explicitly on Bo killing identifiable humans on two occasions.  Bo’s first kill (shown in flashback during 210 “Raging Fae”), as her powers manifested in her teenage years, is clearly expressed as a horrifying accident that she could not have pre-empted or been aware of.  In episode 101 “It’s a Fae, Fae, Fae, Fae World” Bo kills a would-be rapist, but does so without sexual contact.  Arguments of the morality of retributive justice and immediacy of threat aside, we are shown that Bo does not need to have sex in order to feed, an event that seems to confound her later remark about “waking up with dead lovers.”  We are given information that sex is dangerous, but not actually shown it when Bo is making a kill that some viewers may perceive is worthy in some way.

Bo’s quest for redemption and her commitment to not do harm despite her biology allow her to fulfill a heroic archetype, but how do we reconcile the concept of Bo having “lovers” she wakes up beside after they have died at her hand?  Are these targets that she chooses on purpose in the knowledge that they will be killed, or is Bo careless or foolish enough to attempt relationship in the knowledge of there being inevitable risk of death?  The third alternative is one of Bo losing all control of herself and her senses and becoming a relentless apex predator who targets anyone willing to have sex with her.  Of these options, only the first — that Bo used an unknown criteria to pre-select her victims — when reinforced with the first kill in the first episode (although this man could hardly be called a lover) frames Bo as our morally acceptable lead heroic character.  While none of these explanations is framed in the language of a “slut shame”, the options for Bo killing her lovers is either a woman who cannot control her sexuality and is its slave, or is careless and does not consider the consequences of sex, or is predatory in nature.  All of these are both historic and contemporary accusations that are targeted at women who seek to control their own sexuality.

It is also important to consider that Bo’s persuasion/seduction touch, shown as a red glow during skin contact, leads to the person she uses it on experiencing sexual arousal as well as romantic/emotional attachment (in episode 216 “School’s Out” a rogue teacher touched by Bo anxiously calls out “I love you” as Bo leaves).  This serves as another blatant example of using sex as bait to achieve desired ends — there may not be any actual shaming behaviour involved, but the subtextual communication could not be more blatant.

It should be noted that overt shaming actions and language did feature heavily in the first season episode “The Mourning After” (episode 110).  The story features a Fae male Albaster called Bertram who feeds on women by provoking them into sexual shame after encountering them at a speed dating event.  Both of Bertram’s human victims commit suicide after writing phrases like “Dirty Whore” and “Slut” on their walls and, on meeting Bo and explaining that “none of those bitches were innocent, every single one of them gave into desires of the flesh at one point in time”, Bertram goes on to goad Bo with the line “What a dirty worthless slattern you areyou dont deserve to live”.  These brutal and venomous scenes make for uncomfortable viewing, and whatever chance there might have been for comment on Bo’s experiences was lost.

The writers handled the concept of shaming by making the the penalty for Bertram’s acts dying at the hands of Aife/Saskia.  It is also very strongly implied that there would be no social censure for what he had done — this is part of understanding of the Fae world that is being communicated to watchers, in that feeding on humans is entirely acceptable, as is killing so long as nothing is done that would expose the Fae’s sub rosa existence.  The denouement is less to do with a response to the shaming, that is largely incidental to events other than as outbursts of Bertram’s misogyny, and more about a need to maintain the status quo.  I am not sure that there is any particular lesson learned by the characters, or commentary to the audience, beyond a demonstration of bile.

As the series develops, we are shown that Bo has been learning — with the assistance of an authoritative and trusted voice — how to have safer sex.  Whether intended or not there is an obvious parable in play here; that indiscriminate sex is dangerous and, with appropriate education and consideration, much of the risk can be removed.  Despite the allegorical nature of sex and death together, especially when within parameters of quasi-reckless biological compulsion, the Fae appear to not practice safer sex (although in episode 211 “Can’t See the Fae-Rest a human male is shown with condoms).  It should be noted that, in episode 204 “Mirror, Mirror” a female water nymph mocks Dyson — who does not remember her at all at first, let alone a sexual encounter — by telling Bo: “You dodged a bullet there, honey, or something that requires ointment.”  While this could be a genuine protest over some sort of Fae sexually transmitted infection/ailment, it is also possible that it is a sarcastic response which comes perilously close to Dyson being “shamed” for what was presumably fully consensual casual sexual activity during a New Year’s Eve party.

While overt acts of shaming Bo do not occur, reasonably fulfilling the second rule (although her very nature seems to make the rule moot, as blaming her for being who she is would be manifestly unjust), Dyson’s experience with the nymph is one example of negative consequences of sex that ancillary characters are subjected to which could be taken as subtextual shaming, or at least a subversive criticism of sexual liberation.

In episode 104 “Faetal Attraction” Bo chooses, and enjoys, a bisexual threesome with a Fae couple.  This scene may well be cited as a woman who appears to be in command of her sexual agency (is she though?), and also expressing sexual freedom in terms of unabashed pleasure without any anxiety or self-doubt.  It is quite clear that this is also something Bo is engaging in in order to feed; her eyes glow blue to remind us all of her nature and the Fae woman, Olivia, that Bo has had sex with would go on to explain during their next meeting: “You left me quite depleted, I could barely walk to the car”.  Olivia then defines her relationship with her husband as open to occasional third parties by agreement, but that her husband is breaking the rules with a human woman and that Olivia wants the human woman killed as a consequence.  It is revealed that Olivia had sex with Bo as a test, rather than out of desire or just for pleasure or fun and, while Bo makes a point of saving the human, as the plot unfolds the male Fae is decapitated and it turns out the human was a serial killer after all!  Everyone involved in the sexual pairs/group but Bo ends up dead.  Is there actual empowerment here, or a motif of censure or punishment for “illicit” acts of sex, and if there is ambiguity does the promise of no-strings, “slut”-free sex in the show lack fulfillment?

Other examples of sex having dire or negative consequences would include:  Bo’s first boyfriend Kyle dying as Bo loses her virginity in episode 105 “Dead Lucky”.  Hale Santiago verbally condemning Dyson for having consensual sex with Val Santiago in 217 “The Girl Who Fae’d With Fire.”  Swinging couples in 112 “(Dis)members Only” portrayed as callously benefiting from human sacrifice.  Bo experiences a hallucination of Lauren kissing Kenzi in 106 “ArachnoFaebia” because the venom of the Djieiene spider is creating paranoia, persecution and aggression via sexual rivalry (often misinterpreted as a sexual fantasy).  Kenzi curses Dyson in episode 204 “Mirror, Mirror” as punishment for his sexual interest in women other than Bo, perhaps reversing the “no slut-shaming” rule.  Episode 207 “Fae Gone Wild” revolves around exploited Selkie women coerced into sex work.  Promiscuous sex is again shown as having a fatal consequence in 305 “Faes Wide Shut”, as humans who frequent a sex club are liquified after they engage in “dangerous” sexual practices with an Underfae and also in 305 a woman Bo selects as a sexual surrogate to feed on also ends up dead.

This trend throughout the show could be explained by Bo’s nature as a sexual creature, it does not seem unreasonable that stories would at least reference sex/sexuality in some way, but the portrayal of expressions of sexuality is typically a negative one.  While not explicitly shaming acts, the negativity appearing to be more subversive in being covert or even unconscious, these scenes seem far removed from any claimed progressive pedigree about sex and sexuality.  Risk or danger are correlated to sex and, while no one hears the word “slut”, there is a profound sense of received penalty or karmic censure for daring to be sexually intimate.

The most egregious, and never referenced again, example of this phenomenon occurs in 112 “(Dis)members Only”, in which Dyson is raped by Aife — as either lesson or punishment to Bo (and perhaps an instruction to us, as viewers, on what Bo could be like if she chose another path, or was raised by a Dark Fae parent).  Aife degrades Dyson with lines like: “say my name, bitch and then gloats to Bo that he “didnt put up much of a fight”.  There is never any justice for this act and I have to wonder if the production went on to realise the seriousness of the line that they had crossed.   The Lost Girl team did not return to this event again and I wonder if, in hindsight, the same scene would have been made the same way.

The concept of consent might seem an obvious subject for a show with a very strong focus on sex.  The only time the issue was overtly raised was in 110 “The Mourning After” during a conversation between Lauren and Bo.  After Lauren gives Bo her observations about a deceased human, she adds: “Also she had sex, about an hour prior to her death.  It appears consensual.”  Bo responds to this with the line “Not so sure I trust your judgement on sexual matters” and then condemns Lauren for the choice that she made in 108 “Vexed”.  Lauren’s defence for her actions is to point out that they both knew that they were on a path to a sexual encounter, although this statement does not correctly reflect what actually happened as seen by the viewer, and the episode author’s unwillingness to ever address the truth helped mischaracterise Lauren’s actions and make her subject to a great deal of viewer judgement.  While Bo, quite rightly, felt that her power to choose when (or if) to consent was over-ridden by Lauren’s apparent dishonesty, the fact that Lauren is enslaved and may not have the power to decline her owner’s orders is never referenced.  I felt that the chance to address both story-relevant details, and the subject of consent itself, was tragically missed.

The character of Lauren is subjected to the negative consequences of sex on three occasions, each with an overarching theme of betrayal.  Lauren’s own capacity to give positive consent was compromised by being owned as a slave, an event interpreted by Bo (and many viewers in error) as a betrayal, it was also a betrayal of her own bodily autonomy by the Ash.  Lauren’s relationship with her comatose lover, Nadia, is re-ignited, only to find that Nadia has been inhabited by the Garuda, who may have been using her to spy and certainly seemed to present a physical menace to Lauren.  The third betrayal is in episode 403 “Lovers. Apart” in which Lauren has a sexual encounter with a colleague, who then goes on to accept a bounty for surrendering Lauren’s location and places both of the women in peril.

Bo’s innate biological nature make the rule against shaming cited by Michelle Lovretta unworkable, but the depiction of Lauren’s sexuality — despite these transient or casual “betrayal” experiences — is a closer portrayal of the positive female sexuality as originally intended.  Although she is later victimized by Crystal in 403 “Lovers. Apart” Lauren makes a good faith decision to have sex with her without any angst or self-doubt.  The sex shown on screen is a passionate and urgent expression of bona fide need or hunger.  Lauren’s comfort with sexual need is also expressed in episode 220 “Lachlan’s Gambit”, as she comes to Bo after the loss of Nadia in the full understanding that she is experiencing grief:  “I know that Im merely acting out of a transference of grief onto you.  Wanting to have sex is a very common response to grief.”  Lauren is frank and unapologetic about her need and, although she changes her mind, the two women negotiate positive consent with full understanding of expectation.  The shift in the tone of the scene, from sex as a relief from grief to comforting non-sexual contact, is a clear demonstration of the intimacy that the characters have developed as their relationship has been evolving.

It is within relationship parameters that we see Lauren coming closer than Bo ever could to Lovretta’s original concept of a sexually-liberated confident woman.  It is vital to know that, without needing to be excused by biological urge or non-human nature, Lauren is capable of desiring sex as much as a succubus.  Lauren can and does initiate sex with Bo and is sexually versatile, both giving and receiving sexual pleasure.  As a human character, Lauren is easier for the audience to identify with and her attitude towards sex is more successful and meaningful than Bo’s.

Within the boundaries of PG/14+ rated television, Bo and Lauren’s sex scenes show a fluid power dynamic between them with tribadism, nipple stimulation, masturbation and inferred oral sex rather than the singular emphasis shown in heterosexual scenes for penetrative sex only (with some variety in dominant positioning).  In episode 108 “Vexed” Dyson does drop into a crouch to peel down Bo’s panties, but immediately stands up again.  Perhaps because this was a “feed” there is an absence of any emphasis on pleasure — as he winces with what seems to be pain and she becomes a creature of biological function — but is there also a lack of dynamic female sexuality by focusing on penetrative sex only?  Or is this scene more a case of offering a juxtaposition to the awkward, romantic, pleasure-based sex that Lauren and Bo will experience later in the episode?  While tempting to conclude the former, Bo and Dyson have only had – and will continue to only ever have — penetrative sex, with no evidence of any deviation from the heteronormative.

While the subjective quality of the sex scenes may well be determined by the personal tastes of the viewers (keeping in mind that not only LGBT women will appreciate Bo and Lauren together) I would argue that there is a significant motivational difference between the two pairings.  With Dyson, Bo is having the sex that she needs, largely shown by being basic and functional with little variety.  Bo comments in 103 “Oh Kappa, my Kappa” that being with Dyson is the first time that she wakes up with someone who has survived the night with her.  There is novelty to her, and a sense of relief at being able to avoid dread and death.  It is also possible if — as I suggested earlier — that she was obliged to select a victim knowing their doom, or slipped into a fugue while in the throes of hunger, then the sex she was having may not have been at all fulfilling.  If Bo is finally able to have satisfying sex, might this again be novelty?  Having sex because she needs to, or because it is an experience she thinks that she can only have with a Fae (until later instructed otherwise) then it hardly compares to having sex because she chooses to with Lauren.

Although often forgotten (or conveniently overlooked) by many viewers, the rules on whether or not Bo can be physically monogamous are set in the first season.  There is never any evidence within the frame by frame show itself that Bo considers one or other gender superior, but in order for both Lauren and Dyson to be valid partners it was necessary to also establish that species was also a moot point.  In episode 105 “Dead Lucky”, Hale points out that Dyson is on his third energy drink and still looks rough, and knows that it is because he has been with Bo.  Later, in the same episode, after Bo feeds on Dyson again Kenzi chimes in with:  “Dude, your junk could cure cancer, though you look kind of green.”  The people who know him know that being with Bo is taking a toll, even he is not strong enough to sustain her indefinitely.  As a counterpoint, we are shown in 304 “Fae-de to Black” that Lauren will inevitably become exhausted.

Both of these examples appear to confound Michelle Lovretta’s rule 4 about monogamy, as well as clarifying that Bo is not as free to choose when to have sex, or who with, as a sexually liberated woman.  The obvious answer is that monogamy cannot be simply understood for Bo in terms of who she has sex with, and that emotional monogamy is a true expression of Bo’s decision-making.  This argument is supported by Bo’s yearning in 108 “Vexed” in which she lays out her dream of her future:  “What chance do I have of living a life of my own, and who would want to live it with me?”  Bo may be promoted as a woman who is free to express her sexuality in whatever way she chooses, at any time, but this one line demonstrates her true desire — connection with another person, being more than just her own biology and sharing her life with a mate.

Sex and sexuality are key features of the show, as defined by Bo’s very nature.  I praise the show for having a mainstream female heroic lead, while also conceding that the character only works because she is female (rather than in spite of that fact).  Sexual freedom is a valid choice that can be consciously made by anyone of their own free will, and we may well praise Bo’s sexual agency — despite it being better expressed and far more valid via Lauren — but don’t Doccubus fans feel the same longing that Bo expressed in seeing her paired up with someone that she loves?

About unaligned

Unaligned Unicorns Uncover Lost Girl's Universe: A collaborative blog about the Canadian television series, Lost Girl.

4 thoughts on “Phenomenal Women: Sex, Gender and Sexuality in Lost Girl

  1. Thank you Valksy for this most thoughtful post. I especially liked that you discussed many elements seldom addressed, like for example Dyson’s rape.

    Assuming that Lost Girl was in development around 2008-2009, I tried to recall what where the strong female leads on TV at that time, for the sake of comparison, but my TV memory of this period is blur. Maybe someone can confirm that a bisexual female lead was a huge step at the time. We can only speculate, but I believe that the biological compulsion that is part of Bo’s nature was probably the decisive factor that enable a show with a bisexual female lead to get produced at the time.

    I have 2 questions:

    1. What are your thoughts on the threesome’s scene with Ryan?

    2. Regarding the no slut shaming rule, what do you make of the «sleazy way» remark from Dyson in (Dis)Members Only?

  2. Valksy, YOU & your mind are pretty phenomenal. Your brilliant discussion here focuses on how the show succeeds and sometimes falters in achieving Lovretta’s original mandate. I wanted to add two observations:
    1) I think you’re right, of course, that many viewers are drawn to this show because (for the most part) it offers a powerful and positive statement about female sensuality/sexuality in a (mostly) label-free way. But what I love most are the *relationships* between some of these phenomenal women – the relationship between Bo and Lauren, of course, but also between Bo and Kenzi, and even (forgive me) between the little Tamsin of season 4 and Kenzi. Through these relationships, we experience all the glorious and complicated dimensions of love between two women. Despite the show’s occasional lapses in adhering to the original mandates, its stumbles in character development, and other failings that have been talked to death, through all these ups & downs, we hang on because of these relationships, especially because of Doccubus, or the promise of Doccubus, or what we hope Doccubus will become. But Doccubus wouldn’t have its draw without that special real-life chemistry between Anna and Zoie. It would be interesting to get views — particularly from the actors themselves — about what goes into this “chemistry.” When I compare the “chemistry” between these two actors to the lack thereof in other relationships between women on TV — say, between the two lead women/partners in The Fosters” — I really appreciate just how special Lost Girl is.
    2) We love the label-free world of Lost Girl, and yet it seems deeply significant to many viewers (maybe I’m just speaking for myself?) that a lesbian actress is playing the lesbian character. I’ve always believed that in addition to all of her wonderful qualities as an actor and as a person (the little we know!) and everything we admire in the character she plays, at least part of Zoie’s *huge* popularity has to do with the fact that she is lesbian. Her shout-out to her partner during an awards show was such a powerful affirmation for many in the Lost Girl fandom. In that little snippet of an interview with her — the snippet cut from the Season 4 DVD — Zoie is asked about the popularity of the show, and if I’m not mistaken, in talking about the characters, she said “I’m a lesbian.” Was she talking about her character or herself? There is something glorious in that ambiguity.

  3. Thanks for the questions, folks. And sorry for the delay, to think about an answer to nic_qc’s first, I had to go back and re-visit the episode “Midnight Lamp” (214) in which we first meet Ryan to remind myself of why I found the character so … frankly … revolting (and I’m fairly sure this isn’t an episode many doccubus fans bother with).

    From the moment we meet him Ryan comes onto Bo with all the subtlety of a bull in heat. He tries various lines, from the cheesy to the inappropriate – remarking on Bo’s body for example, reminding her that she is wearing his gift (her birthday bracelet) as if she owes him something for accepting it, wanting to sweep her away in a private jet as if money will get him what he wants, enquiries about her sexual arousal state, that sort of intrusive and pushy behaviour. He is persistent, with a strong aura of sleaze. Indeed, he delivers the line: “Oh come on, every woman, no matter how independent, secretly wants to be taken care of, right?” and how Bo is playing “hard to get” and includes – in this carnival of puke-making pushy male bullshit – asking her about her masturbatory habits… (Bo corrects him, saying they have not known each other well enough for that conversation, her persists anyway. This is the antithesis of the kind of positive consent that I would hope the show nurtured with regards to sexuality)

    I’m not sure how receptive women viewers were supposed to be to this tedious swaggering machismo crap. I suppose some might simper over such attention but, to me, the character of Bo felt consistently degraded and damselled in her own show in order to facilitate a author-avatar (MarySue) character that – fortunately – ended up disappearing (may he never be seen again).

    Keeping in mind how he behaved in this episode, I’m not surprised that there is a pretty common sense of unease and displeasure with the threesome scene that Bo had with him in 215 “Table for Fae”. Were viewers perceiving him as a misogynistic creep? I know I was, and it is most noted that Bo’s first 3 way in 104 “Faetal Attraction” was her choice and something that she both initiated and negotiated (with the couple in question quite clearly used to introducing a triad for fun within their relationship parameter – as described in a conversation Olivia has with Bo). Comparing this to 215, the threesome takes place without that same prior negotiation and is initiated by Ryan with the line “I wanted to get you a present” – the singular act of gifting a woman is far too objectifying and seedy.

    So, viewers had a problem with the scene and I’m neither surprised, nor inclined to disagree. It had an unpleasant air of titillation, as well as playing into the damned irritating fantasy of LGBT women starting off together and then inviting the male partner in (“Me? I thought you’d never ask” – Ryan).

    That said, even though I thought the scene toxic, and very much made as a cheapshot, I recognise that it needs to be considered on two levels. Mine – and how I found it loathsome. And Bo’s. To assume that Bo was powerless at any time is to question her competence and capacity to choose. Was her ability to make a conscious decision to have the threesome compromised? No. Then surely any instinct to dislike it and protest is to doubt the very agency that we praise in her. If Bo is not empowered to decline at this point, then is she more profoundly in a state of victimhood?

    In short – I hated it and thought the show let itself down somewhat, but concede that I cannot legitimately feel an urge to ride to Bo’s “rescue” and actually protest how she expresses herself sexually as a character. She isn’t always sexually liberated, her biology does not allow that, but we must see her in terms of being able to make her own choice on whether or not to participate.

    With regard to your second question, Nic_qc, the sleazy line in 112 “(Dis)Members Only”- Checking it, he doesn’t directly call her sleazy, instead passive-aggressively re-directing that remark onto her methods (it’s not a direct slur, but I get why there is a perception he outright calls her sleazy) then follows with the line: “I don’t want to share you, Bo. I don’t want anyone else’s hands on your body, I don’t want anyone else’s mouth on yours. … I know this is the last thing you want to hear right now, because you’re a succubus, Bo, it’s not in your nature to be monogamous.” His behaviour is possessive in the extreme, and he reduces his protest regarding monogamy to terms that are purely physical in nature (hands, mouth rather than any emotional connection).

    As well as angry at him for the sleaze inference – if not outright accusation – throwing her nature in her face was puerile and infantile (it was hardly a secret, nor did they ever establish rules beyond a “..with benefits” type relationship) and – as anyone who ever had their innate and immutable nature used as a weapon against them might know – it is a deeply hurtful thing to do. That Bo explains that she is trying to change who she is works well as a contrast to the “kitchen scene” of episode 304 “Fae-de to Black” in which Lauren displays both an understanding and tolerance of Bo’s nature, and proposes a method to try and find a mutual solution.

    There could not be two scene which, when measured against one another, show a broader difference in the nature of the relationships in play in the show. One is a “with benefits” feed arrangement (and never really develops beyond this), the other shows maturity and depth.

    So, while the scene may well make for unpleasant viewing (I felt again that Bo was degraded by his behaviour) it has a purpose – that he is a very poor match for her.

    Carolynrodham, I agree, positive relationships between women are pretty rare – cattiness, rivalry and competition, typically over a love interest, are pervasive in comparison. Bo and Kenzi describe themselves in familial terms a number of times and their relationship has been described as sororal in nature. I’m not sure how I feel about this – is the capacity for women to be deep and committed friends different from a feeling of sisterhood? I’m not sure.

    The chemistry between the two character, so excellently performed, was always at the heart of the show. As far as I am concerned, it is complete serendipity, as genuine powerful chemistry is a rare beast. If it was easy to do, if it was just a matter of talent, then it would be far more common than it actually is – indeed if chemistry was easy then every show would have it, and I don’t think for a moment that anyone could even dream of claiming it was so. True chemistry is in a look, a touch, those moments of connection that need not be grandiose, gushing or effusive. The doccubus phenomenon has been described as lightening in a bottle and, while there is still quality in performance, I think that is a fair description.

    Zoie Palmer’s personal life was something that I think a lot of LGBT viewers recognise – those who cared enough to know, knew. Those who were only in casual orbit did not. Since there was no overt assertion of labels – although not a secret by any means – the subject stayed largely off limits. And this is something I’ve been familiar with over the years – we protect and care about our own – and often naturally gravitate towards those we identify with. For now, the feelings of safety and security in numbers, the recognition and the comfort it can still bring people (given that not all live in Toronto or LA or London, sense of isolation remain common) still matters.

    Although Canada has well-evolved employment rights legislation for LGBT people, there’s no denying that proving discrimination in such a discretion-based profession as acting would make it hard to invoke. Rightly or wrongly (impossible for any of us to answer) – and possibly very much a projection of fans from different countries with different jurisdictions and different rules – she is perceived as showing courage in her choice to be understated, but open, in her own always charming way.

    Not to discount Anna Silk’s good-natured embracing of this aspect of the show, or her graciousness as friend and ally. Her commitment to Bo being as authentic as possible has a great deal of meaning to many and I do believe that she understands why it matters as much as it does. While Zoie is embraced with enthusiasm, Anna’s place as champion should always be met with warmth and gratitude.

    Hope these answers help. And apologies for my egregious lack of proper proof-reading!

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