I told you that three of us who are either associated or friendly with UNALIGNED were going to present at the 2014 Film and History conference, where the theme was “Golden Ages.” The prompt for the LGBT track was “Given all of the representation we’re seeing, are we in a Golden Age for LGBT representation on TV?” Well, we did it! I also didn’t really tell you how it came about because I like to cultivate an air of mystery. Here’s the backstory: my blog colleague Doccuficient had found this conference and recruited a group to present, assuring us that she would chair our panel and lend us an air of legitimacy. Then, in a classic bait-and-switch, she decamped halfway around the world with the flimsy excuse of ” groundbreaking research,” “awesome opportunity” and “beats unemployment.” I know, right? Some people. Anyway, we soldiered on without her and we’ll be posting our papers and presentations here on UNALIGNED over the next few weeks. This one is from me (Sally). Hope you enjoy!
While attending DragonCon this year, I had a conversation about TV shows with a gay man and a lesbian who were both in their early 20’s. We compared notes on our favorite series and talked about our favorite characters and relationships. As we ran down the list of shows and characters, they said to me “We judge TV shows by how good the lesbians are.”
To which I replied, “So do we! Doesn’t everyone?”
The GLAAD media reports for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 TV seasons show an increase in the number of regular and recurring LGBT characters on network and cable television, and the figures in those reports that track 5-year trends show an increasing number of LGBT characters, both overall, and broken out by individual network. This is good news for those of us who care about representation on television – the more positive portrayals of LGBT characters that are part of stories that people watch and care about, the better. It’s probably up for debate whether all the portrayals on TV these days are actually positive, but as Lady Bracknell says in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Genre television shows – that is, science fiction, fantasy and other shows that create another world outside of our own – have always told stories about the possible. Often, they imagine the world as it could be, rather than being constrained to show the world as it is. They are vehicles that allow the creators and fans to dream together about possibilities and progress in technology, human capabilities, and society.
For an example, just look at the Star Trek franchise. When the original series aired, aside from space travel and transporters, one of the most remarkable technologies portrayed in the show were the communicators. Imagine being able to speak to someone with a wireless device over a long distance! Since the original series, we’ve seen the advent of cordless phones, and then cellular phones and satellite phones. I recall when I bought my first “flip phone,” thinking how similar it was to Captain Kirk’s communicator, and I wished that I could program it to make the same beeping noise when I opened it. (This was before I had figured out ringtones.)
Star Trek also presaged these technological realities:
- Phasers – the military is already working with directed-energy weapons that are analogous to phasers and disruptors.
- Tricorders – smartphones are ubiquitous these days and can measure our vital signs, translate words, and show us a map of the surrounding terrain, just to name a few of their functions
- PADDs – seen often in The Next Generation and Voyager, these mobile tablets that contained data seemed fantastical at first, but raise your hand if you have an iPad or other similar device in your house. Maybe you’re reading this blog post on a tablet.
Technology aside, genre television has also often imagined the world as it could be in terms of social progress. Again, Star Trek’s original series showed a racially diverse crew, with men and women working alongside one another. It was certainly a product of its time, with most of the leadership positions occupied by men and the women’s uniforms consisting of short skirts, but much of what they sought to portray as normal was controversial. Originally airing in 1966 – at the tail end of the civil rights movement in the USA – the series showed viewers one of the first scripted interracial kisses between a white man and a black woman (Kirk and Uhura).
For all of its firsts, though, Star Trek still has yet to feature an openly gay regular character with a fully recognized romantic life in either the TV shows or the movies. Perhaps this is their final frontier.
Regardless, genre television has continued the trend of imagining the world as it could be, especially around LGBT people, but there is one show that has taken that concept to a whole new level: the Canadian supernatural series Lost Girl. This show originally aired in Canada on the Showcase network in 2010, in the U.K., Ireland and Australia in 2011, and then in the USA on the Syfy network in 2012
The premise of Lost Girl is that there is a race of beings who live hidden among humans. Called the Fae, they are long-lived (if not immortal, though they can be killed), and have supernatural powers. Some of the Fae look like humans and are able to pass in the human world, while some don’t and can’t. Most Fae powers involve some element of feeding from humans, whether their actual flesh or some aspect of their energy, emotions or life force. Essentially, humans are food. There are strict taboos among the Fae about not revealing their existence to the humans, and not fraternizing with them in committed romantic relationships.
The protagonist of Lost Girl is Bo Dennis, who was raised by humans. Bo thought she was human until age 18 when she had sex with her boyfriend who then immediately died, for reasons that were unclear. She was thrown out of her home by her fundamentalist Christian parents and spent ten years on the run, periodically sleeping with people who would end up dead afterward.
In the opening scene of the series, we see a bartending Bo save a human woman from being roofied. She kills the would-be rapist by inhaling what looks like blue smoke from his mouth until he dies. Then Bo takes the woman, named Kenzi, back to her house to recover. Bo tries to leave town, but learns that Kenzi has recorded the incident on her smartphone, so they end up talking and Bo confides in Kenzi that she periodically feels hunger and then has sex with people who died afterward. A fast friendship springs up between the women.
Fae law enforcement catches wind of the corpse and notes that it’s a Fae kill. They track down Bo and take her to a Fae compound for interrogation. This is where Bo first meets
the two characters that will become her primary love interests – Dyson, a wolf shifter who holds a job in the human police force as a detective, and Lauren Lewis, a human doctor who works for the Fae. This also introduces the love triangle between Bo, Dyson and Lauren, which continues through three seasons until it’s mostly resolved, or at least ameliorated, in Season 4. Lauren examines Bo in a charged fan-favorite scene, remarking “My god, you’re beautiful” and declares that Bo is a succubus – a supernatural creature that feeds on sexual energy (chi) to survive. She also offers to help Bo learn to control her hunger so she doesn’t have to kill her sexual partners.
The creators of the show originally did not intend for the character of Lauren to have as big a part in the show as she ended up having, and hadn’t fully fleshed out either her backstory or where her storyline was going. Zoie Palmer, the actress who portrays Lauren, has stated that she also didn’t have much information about whether the character of Lauren was supposed to be good, bad, or morally ambiguous, and so her early portrayals of Lauren were carefully acted in order not to commit the character firmly to either path. However, initial fan reaction to the character of Lauren and to the chemistry between Bo and Lauren was so strong that the writers of the show ended up giving Lauren more storyline in the first season.
The relationship Bo and Lauren have over the course of these two seasons is a smoldering slow burn, and it’s clear that both characters have strong feelings for each other. However, they aren’t able to be with each other for more than one sexual encounter each season. Bo is also involved with Dyson during the first season, who insists that he won’t share Bo with anyone, and in the second season, Lauren’s girlfriend returns to consciousness from a 5-year coma.
But in the first episode of the third season, “Caged Fae,” after a harrowing undercover operation to infiltrate a Fae women’s prison to expose corruption and abuse, in the final minutes we witness this conversation between Bo and Lauren:
“I want to give this a real shot. Be together. Life is too short.”
This exchange ends in a passionate, lingering kiss, and the camera pans back to reveal Dyson watching, having arrived a few minutes too late to help.
As the GLAAD media reports show, same-sex relationships on television were certainly nothing new by 2013, when this episode originally aired. There was a record number of same-sex relationships in 2013 and 2014, in fact. So why is Lost Girl different and special? To answer that, let’s take a closer look at the show and its approach to sexuality, sexual orientation and how Bo and Lauren’s story is told.
“Caged Fae” marks the transition for Bo and Lauren into a committed, monogamous relationship. The monogamous relationship lasts for four episodes, until Bo’s health is at risk from not feeding enough despite near-constant sex with Lauren that leaves them both exhausted and frustrated. Then Bo and Lauren agree on an arrangement where Bo can feed (i.e. have sex with) other people in order to remain strong and healthy. Their relationship continues until episode 10 of season 3, “Delinquents,” when Lauren states that she needs a break.
For fans of the Bo and Lauren relationship, it wasn’t and never will be enough. But for a show about a succubus who needs sex to survive and that had thrived on making hay out of the love triangle that was at the center of the romantic tension, ten episodes of a committed relationship is a lifetime.
It’s also important to note that Bo is the protagonist of the show. In many of the other television shows the LGBT characters are either supporting or recurring characters. But Lost Girl not only has their main character in a committed same-sex relationship for a period of time, it also ended the fourth season with strong hints that Bo and Lauren’s relationship will emerge as the dominant relationship during the fifth season, and set the stage for Bo and Lauren to be able to end up together when the series is over.
(This is genre television, though, so don’t bet the farm on it.)
Part of the world that Lost Girl has built around the Fae contains the rule that Fae must not enter into committed, lasting romantic relationships with humans. In Season 1, we encounter a Fae who violated this rule and tried to leave the Fae behind in order to marry her human lover, have a family, and live as a human. She was tracked down, forced by a Mesmer to murder her husband and children, and then left for the human justice system to sentence her to death.
Though the analogy is not overt or heavy-handed, the forbidden nature of the relationship between Bo and Lauren – between a Fae and a human – can be interpreted as an allegory for the taboo nature of same-sex relationships in current society. While remarkable shifts have been made in recent years in public opinion about same-sex relationships, and a majority of people in the USA now support marriage equality, there’s still plenty of progress to be made before LGBT people enjoy full legal equality, and before the general public regards same-sex relationships and LGBT people as nothing to write home about. As well, there is progress to be made in the area of television around the portrayal of same-sex relationships.
Lost Girl has raised the bar head and shoulders above how other shows have depicted a relationship between two women. Next, we’ll examine how the show treats the issue of sexual orientation, how the relationship between Bo and Lauren is presented, and compare that to some other genre (and non-genre) TV shows that featured lesbian or bisexual women characters.
So first, how does Lost Girl talk about sexual orientation? Simple, they don’t. Lost Girl’s approach to sexual orientation is remarkable for its nonremarkability. The creator of Lost Girl, Michelle Lovretta, created a “show bible” that outlined the tenets of Lost Girl, one of which was: “Sexual orientation is not an issue, and is never discussed.”
Bo has sexual and romantic relationships with many different men and women during the course of the four seasons of the show so far. She is often described in the media as a “bisexual succubus,” although she is never referred to as such on the show itself. Words like “gay,” “bisexual” and “lesbian” are never used, in fact. Lauren likewise is not labeled as a lesbian, but also has not shown any sexual or romantic interest in men.
As the show progresses, we learn that sexual orientation seems like it’s a non-issue in the Fae world only. None of the Fae characters ever acts like Bo’s sexual and romantic interest in both men and women is anything unusual or uncommon.
Sexual orientation still seems to retain its potentially controversial status in the human world. In episode 11 of Season 3, “Adventures in Fae-bysitting,” Bo and Kenzi go undercover in a gated suburban community to discover who or what has been killing some of the residents. When Bo is telling the residents of the community why she is purportedly looking for a house to buy, she mentions that she and her partner “Laur…ence” are on a break – deliberately altering Lauren’s name to give the impression that she’s on a break with her boyfriend.
How is Bo and Lauren’s relationship presented, overall? Simply put – just like every other relationship on the show. It’s shown as equally valid, and never denigrated by anyone because they’re both women. Dyson views Lauren as an equal rival for Bo’s affection and doesn’t count her out because of her gender. Big deal, right?
Well, yes. Bo and Lauren’s relationship isn’t presented as Bo taking a walk on the wild side, or as something to titillate viewers. As well, neither of the women has a coming out story arc, and the plot points around their relationship are about navigating the relationship itself, not about the difficulties of being a lesbian or a bisexual woman.
To further see why this is remarkable, let’s take a quick look back at some selected shows, both genre and non-genre, and the relationships they showed between women.
Xena, Warrior Princess originally aired in 1995 and is an example of a show where the creators didn’t intend to write the main characters as a couple, but overwhelming fan response to the chemistry between Xena and Gabrielle caused the writers and producers to take notice. Acknowledging that this passionate fanbase made up a core component of the show’s audience, the writers inserted cheeky double entendres, puns, and other humorous additions that alluded to the possibility of a sexual and romantic relationship. This subtext, as it was called, was first deliberately written into the 19th episode of the first season, “Altared States.” Xena went as far as the show’s producers thought it could considering the network standards and the day and age, which was pretty far by the end of the series. However, their relationship was never explicitly stated as a romantic or sexual one.
Subtext has been employed often in various shows, notably in the currently airing police and medical drama, Rizzoli & Isles. The two women at the heart of the show are best friends, and subtext is sprinkled liberally and humorously throughout the show – though not, as on Xena, to actually imply that there’s a relationship between Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles. (Which raises the question in this day and age – why is it there at all?)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) was notable for its portrayal of Willow and Tara, one of the longest relationships on the series that lasted through the course of three seasons – and incidentally, one of the first portrayals of a mainstream lesbian relationship on TV at the time. There was no subtext in this relationship – Willow had a coming out arc and then the two were officially acknowledged “gay-type girlfriends.” Of course, it wasn’t perfect – Tara fell victim to that disease that afflicts so many TV women-loving-women, “Dead Lesbian Syndrome,” when she was shot in the sixth season during the episode “Seeing Red.”
The Fosters began airing on ABC Family in 2012 and shows a rich, full portrayal of family life between two women who are raising three children and take in two foster children. The Fosters is not a genre show and tackles most of the issues of our time that face same-sex couples and parents – discrimination, societal attitudes, legal challenges – but it’s notable in being one of the first shows of its kind to present this type of relationship as the center of the story. While Lost Girl probably did not directly affect the creation of The Fosters, it certainly served a bellwether for the commercial viability of showcasing a same-sex relationship as the central one on the show.
Warehouse 13 is a genre show and many fans noted a lot of chemistry between the characters Myka and Helena (HG) Wells. The actresses have said that they played their characters as if they were in love. Despite strong support and pleas from the fandom, the show didn’t ever allow Myka and Helena to have a romantic storyline. As well, the final episode evoked confusion and anger from some parts of the fandom since it paired Myka and Pete – partners who had, at most, a sibling relationship, but who had never exhibited sexual or romantic chemistry with each other.
A side note on LGBT representation – many of the shows that are able to say they feature an LGBT character also don’t have that LGBT character in any type of relationship. Mulan on Once Upon A Time is acknowledged to be bisexual, but her love for Princess Aurora is unrequited. Much of the Once Upon A Time fandom had been clamoring for “Swan Queen” in response to the crackling chemistry they perceived between Regina and Emma, a relationship the show’s creators said was not going to happen. Whether the presentation of Mulan as bisexual was in response to the perceived desire for the fandom to have an LGBT character to identify with or not, to date she hasn’t been given a storyline that shows her in a relationship with someone of the same sex. Instead, she lives in her own well of loneliness.
An even further digression – on Law and Order when Serena Southerlyn was fired from the District Attorney’s office, she says “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” This came as a surprise to viewers, who thought there hadn’t been much if any evidence in the course of the show that Serena was a lesbian. Granted, the franchise focuses on procedure and not characters, but…come ON. Does this mean that GLAAD would need to go back to its reports from 2001-2005 to note that Law and Order had a regular character who was a lesbian? I would say not – representation on TV is not just stating an identity. Representation is about telling and showing the story of that character’s life.
In the context of this handful of examples (and I have barely scratched the surface, there are many, many more), Lost Girl is very special indeed. Lost Girl helps us to imagine a post-gay world – that is, a world where LGBT people aren’t defined by their sexual orientation. It also helps us to imagine a post-gay television world, where LGBT characters don’t always have to have a coming out storyline or have their stories center around their sexual orientation as an issue or a problem.
As Cosima Niehaus says on Orphan Black, another Canadian genre show that came after Lost Girl (and was co-created by John Fawcett, one of the original directors of several Lost Girl episodes, by the way, along with Graeme Manson): “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.”
The sheer normalcy of Bo and Lauren on Lost Girl has been both refreshing and validating. It has changed the way that I expect to see queer characters portrayed on TV. I think the expectations of people like my young friends at DragonCon are higher too, not because they’ve witnessed this gradual, incremental change over the years from the love that dare not speak its name or appear in prime time to what we see on TV today, but because they started out watching more equal portrayals of same-sex relationships from the get-go and grew up in a society where attitudes were already well on their way toward changing. People who make TV shows: I hope you’re paying attention.
Finally, let’s take a look at the phrase “It’s time.” In the story, this line of dialogue means what Bo says – it’s time for her and Lauren to give having an actual relationship a try. But if we view this phrase through a wider lens against the backdrop of the historical portrayal of same-sex relationships on television, with winky-winky subtext and dead lesbians littering the landscape like a trail of breadcrumbs from Hansel and Gretel’s cottage in the woods, we can also interpret it to mean “It’s time for a relationship like this to be on TV – a committed and loving relationship between two people of the same sex that tells a story about their love and their life together, rather than the drama of a coming out story, or as titillation, or something shocking intended to boost ratings for sweeps week.”
I should note that the hosts of the Lost Girl podcast Drinks at the Dal asked the writer of this episode, Emily Andras, if she intended the phrase “It’s time” to indicate a broader message like this, and she said no – that it was a lovely idea, but that wasn’t her intention. Fair enough, I believe her – but then again, who’s to say what might have been lurking in Emily Andras’s subconscious during a late-night writing session? Regardless, the sentiment is spot on – it really is time.
For LGBT characters on television, how will we know when we’ve arrived at a Golden Age? Maybe when shows can do what Lost Girl did – when they can recognize chemistry and go with it even if it’s not where they had originally intended the storyline to go, and irrespective of whether the unexpected chemistry is happening between members of the same sex.
Lost Girl isn’t perfect by the way. There are times the show has missed the mark with missteps, confusing storylines, and tropes and stereotypes that don’t strike the right chord. We’ll hear more about that from the other presenters when they post their papers here on UNALIGNED. I also think that what the show has accomplished by portraying the fact of Bo and Lauren both being women as such a non-issue, it makes it easy to forget how truly remarkable such representation is – and makes it easy to wish the show did everything else as perfectly and effortlessly. In the final analysis, what this beautiful, quirky, deeply moving show has managed to accomplish is something truly special.
It can be difficult to observe the effects of a phenomenon when you’re in the middle of it. Ten or twenty years from now, I think we’ll have a much better sense of how TV changed and the role that Lost Girl played in changing it. Though the last season is upon us, I think that people will continue to discover the show and to be wowed by what they find, and the fandom may change, but will continue to grow and thrive. Truly great stories never die.
In a couple of decades when we’re all enjoying robust and equal representation of LGBT people in life, society and on television, we can all look back fondly on Lost Girl and remember how back in 2013 we first heard that prescient phrase: