Part 2 – Sexual Power on Lost Girl: Gateway to a Golden Age?

This week we have Part 2 of Laura LaVertu’s paper from the 2014 Film and History Conference. Part 1 is here. Hope you enjoy the rest!

lost-girl

Lovretta was not expecting the pick up. She thought genre work came in waves, and the timing was wrong. She actually credited another supernatural series, True Blood, with renewing interest in them. True Blood had earlier been picked up by the prestigious HBO channel for the 2008-2009 season, and it was proving to be a critical and ratings hit for them. It also caused a concrete shift in the creative thinking behind Lost Girl. After the pilot, which was conspicuously darker than the rest of the series, they deliberately lightened Lost Girl in both tone and content, wanting to offer something different; something fun and campy and humorous, with a heart.[62][63]

Of course, having successfully overcome the hurdles of getting a bisexual superhero to pilot, now they just had to repeat it. By the time principal photography on the first season commenced, on April 6, 2010, it would have been 8 months since the pick up announcement; a year and change since the pilot wrapped; two and a half years since the original pilot commission.

The Canadian Television Fund had been dissolved five days earlier. Canwest had been suspended from trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and was currently in court struggling to prevent a hostile takeover. And Showcase had been not included as one of the subsidiaries in the filing for creditor protection, so it was open season on them.[64]

The success of the pilot had hinged on a unique social, political, financial and entertainment collaboration which was now dissolving. The success of the series would need to hinge on something else. Without quite figuring out how – Lovretta would repeatedly deny doing anything new in interviews –  something had been accomplished with the pilot that was unprecedented. Not only did it subvert the historical figure of the succubus, but it ignored every other media approach to LGBTQ sexuality that had ever aired. Aware of the pitfalls, she was worried about how the show would be handled. Her name was on it now. So she invented a set of rules, and moved her family up to Canada to run the show with Peter Mohan, and make sure they were followed.

  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.[65]

These show rules are the defining characteristic of the series. Using them to guide the narrative is the basis of how a viable heroine was created, without falling into the traps Lovretta was so worried about. And without realizing it, they also made Lost Girl into “the most sexually progressive show on TV.”[66] The rules, one reviewer stated, should be “tacked up in a lot of writers’ rooms.”[67]

Lovretta admitted they could not always adhere to all of the rules in the “thick of production,” but they always “tried.” The rules dealt with how the sexuality in the show was handled, but both she and Firestone said other forces drove their plots. Firestone emphasized social responsibility, as well the importance of women’s issues. “We try and match a mythological character to a social issue. If we can find the two, we have an episode.”[68][69][70]

For Lovretta, it was about the relationships, and “a fun way to explore a very female existence in this world.” Although “the succubus [was] a novel entry in examining sex and females today,”[72] she was not fond of anything “too prurient,” and was even “ambivalent” about the comparisons to Buffy.[72] And although she said she wrote with no specific themes in mind, she did have a desire to “defend the bisexual community” against what she perceived as negative stereotypes. For this reason, the character of Kenzi was allowed to state she was straight in the first episode. This was to “represent female friendships that [were] not sexualized”, as well as to counter the “gay panic cliché that bisexual people sexualize everyone.”[73]

boandkenzi
BFF

Other negative stereotypes Lovretta might have been referencing include ideas that: bisexuality does not exist, that the person is just confused, or in a phase before figuring out their real sexual identity; that bisexual people cannot be monogamous and they carry more diseases because they are promiscuous; that they are bisexual because it is easier and they are more likely to be accepted in society; that they are not a part of the queer community at all; etc.[74][75]

These stereotypes have consequences. Research has shown that biphobia, monosexism, and erasure and Confused-e1383840222495marginalization are major stressors for bisexuals.[76] The Bisexual Resource Centers states bisexuals “have higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, compared to heterosexuals, lesbians and gays.”[77] In 2011, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission released a report about bisexuals, and this is what they said:

Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible by both the heterosexual world and the lesbian and gay communities. Often, the entire sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral, or irrelevant. Despite years of activism and the largest population within the LGBT community, the needs of bisexuals still go unaddressed and their very existence is still called into question.[78]

As a character, Bo is intimately connected to these stereotypes, and to their consequences. She was written to help counter them. How well does she do it?

As a counter to erasure and marginalization, her role pulls massive weight, punching far above many long standing media representations. Bisexuality has a history of being ignored on television, something that GLAAD[79], an LGBT media monitoring group, provides evidence of in their annual reports. They track “sexual orientation, gender identity and race/ethnicity” in television.[80]

Lost Girl was first recognized in their annual 2012-2013 report. They named Bo Dennis and Lost Girl as “one of the most significant additions,” being a female character, who is a lead character, who is an LGBT character, who is bisexual.[81]

At that time, there were 9 bisexual female characters on cable television, and 7 of them on broadcast networks, which was 15% and 14% respectively of LGBT characters on television. Their 2014-2015 report, also counting Lost Girl, showed bisexual characters outnumbered lesbian characters for the first time ever on cable television (but not broadcast television). But there were still fewer bisexual women characters (21) than lesbian characters (26), and fewer bisexual male characters (10) than gay characters (47).[82]

Some of the early notable examples of erasure come from Sex and the City and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shows which were actually early pioneers in presenting sex and LGBTQ storylines for women. SatC had an episode about bisexuality that suggested it did not exist.[83] BtVS had Willow Rosenberg, a main character who was one of the first LGBT representations on television.  The show avoided the “bisexual” label completely for her, but used the “gay” label, despite the fact she had significant relationships with both sexes. The reasoning basically boiled down to the fact that after killing off Willow’s female lover, Tara, the outrage from the LGBT fanbase was so great the producers felt they could not let Willow have another relationship with a man. So they kept her gay.[84]

I could find only two other lead characters with canon bisexuality on television: Helen Magnus and Piper Chapman.

Helen Magnus was the lead character on Sanctuary, another Canadian sci-fi drama, which ended in 2010. [85] Her primary romantic relationship was with a man. But her bisexuality was acknowledged. She had one kiss, with one woman, in one episode.[86]

Piper Chapman leads the ensemble on the Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black, which debuted in 2013. Piper has also had two major relationships, one with a man and one with a woman. The show has thrown around the labels “gay” and “straight” and “former lesbian” to describe Piper. But they have not used the word “bisexual,” despite the fact she clearly is. It’s almost as if the word doesn’t exist. The whole debate became moot when her female lover was written off in the second season, which only contributed to the erasure.[88]

While the lack of a label on these shows may contribute to bisexual erasure, this same don-t-label-me-woman-tee_designquality is lauded as “progress,”[89] and one of the most positive aspects of Lost Girl. Lost Girl does not just balk at certain labels. It refuses to talk about all of them, at all.[90] In the examples I used, labels were used. They just weren’t the right ones. Anna Silk said this was not just a planned omission because it is one of the rules. It is actually a part of the culture of making the show. Only the media provides the labels, she says.[91]

A side effect of never referencing sexual orientation seems to be that gender orientation is also never brought up. The two lovers from the pilot episode are also main cast characters, and have remained with Bo as her primary romantic attachments. They have been spiteful and jealous with each other. But they never make it about gender, even if they are being insulting. It demonstrates some commitment to keeping out not just a queer phobic narrative, but a sexist one as well.

To compare, a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, an American genre series[92], has a team around it renowned for embracing strong female and LGBTQ characters. They still had a male character hurl a sexist insult at one of the female characters, because it served their purpose.[93] It is a reminder that even in progressive representations, gender can still be the trump card.

All of the lack of labeling may serve to normalize LGBTQ sexuality in ways labeling cannot. It can be a treat for the audience as well. But it does not reflect reality, and the show cannot escape the real world considerations of having LGBTQ characters, and how they are portrayed. The existence of a character like Bo Dennis is a triumph for bisexual women, even if you do not name it. Likewise, the lack of  LGBTQ representation for male characters is an issue, even if you do not label it. The GLAAD reports confirm that women are more likely to be represented onscreen, particularly bisexual women, in contrast to bisexual men; and lesbians in contrast to gay men. Lost Girl is a perfect case study.

There is a distinct gender divide when it comes to LGBT sexuality on the show. There are 4 regular male characters and 5 regular female characters. Since the show hates labels, with the exception of Kenzi, sexual orientation must be inferred from the narrative. All of the male characters have only ever been shown, or talked about, being with women.

In contrast, 3 of the 5 female characters have been shown with both men and women, and one has only been shown with women. Kenzi is the single stated heterosexual female character. Interestingly, one of the other female characters, Tamsin, was explicitly stated to be bisexual, but not within the narrative. Her character biography on the Lost Girl website for Showcase, when she was introduced in the third season, stated it (and still states it).[94]

One of the bigger questions posed by the series is whether the character of Bo has avoided the myth of the insatiable bisexual, or added to it. Bo is hypersexual, and can also be promiscuous, by design. Besides being a negative stereotype for bisexuals, these are also seen as negative qualities for women in general. Research supports the idea that promiscuous women are judged more harshly than chaste women.[95] This is a form of slut-shaming, a way to make a person feeling guilty for having sexual thoughts and desires society does not support.[96] It is the same idea behind the historical and modern media usage of succubi as evil.

ax9mmb_ciaajabr-jpg-large

On television, bisexuality often links up with this idea too. Although bisexuality may or may not be acknowledged, it is often associated with promiscuous characters; and media characterizations often made them into antagonists as well. The character of Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been called a “subversive bisexual.”[97] Like Willow, Faith was never called bisexual on the show. She had canon heterosexual relationships, but sexual subtext with Buffy herself.[98] This character was also portrayed as promiscuous, and as a major antagonist in early seasons.

b-and-f

The characters of Stahma and Datak Tarr, who play a married couple on Defiance, have not been called bisexual either. But like Lost Girl, they have been portrayed as such in the narrative. Both characters have been promiscuous, and are main antagonists in the ensemble. They stand in contrast to the lead characters in the series, Amanda Rosewater and Joshua Nolan, who are portrayed as a heterosexual couple. Incidentally, the only other canon bisexual character on that series, Kenya Rosewater, was killed in the second season.[99]

In the case of Lost Girl, the idea that promiscuity and/or hypersexuality is negative runs right up against the fact that Bo is the heroic lead character. She was designed to be a moral figure, someone who can serve as a role model.[100] For her, being a good person is linked with her being a succubus and a bisexual and a woman; and all of that is linked to her being promiscuous and hypersexual.

In fact, being a succubus encourages those qualities. Her power is sex. Any attempt to limit that power means limiting her sexual activities, which is a perfect metaphor for how societies often seek to limit the sexual power of women, and LGBT individuals, through various forms of slut shaming. In some cultures, it can extend as far as mutilation or death. I think it is very important to recognize that Bo can be considered the literal personification of slut shaming. Within the narrative, she must have sex or she will weaken and die.

Yet despite presenting Bo as a blatant challenge to the entire concept of slut shaming, the show does also use it against her. Lovretta maintained the “sex is power” dynamic is tricky, dangerous and inconvenient.[101] Bo has expressed feelings of intense shame and guilt about her power, which is what slut shaming seeks to achieve. Sometimes, it causes her to limit her power, usually by letting herself be weakened or injured out of self hate, or to appease a romantic partner.

For instance, the desire for monogamy has caused major problems for Bo in both of her primary romantic relationships, despite its inclusion in the rules. In each case, it has produced some of the classic symptoms: anxiety, diminished power, shame/guilt. She had to defend herself to her partners, either for wanting sex with someone else, or for having it. In the first case, she was trying to do her job. In the second case, she was actually trying to save her own life. The latter example is a chilling parallel, and a reminder that, while the show serves a metaphor, it is illustrative of real world consequences.

***********************************************************************************

Lost Girl did obtain its funding, via the Canada Media Fund, through the Performance Envelope Program.[102] It was part of the new Convergent Stream of funding, named after the idea of converging television and digital content.[103] Showcase went ahead and set up the website for the show to qualify, and even released an interactive motion comic to go with it.[104]

Lost Girl premiered on September 12, 2010. It was the highest rated scripted premiere they ever had.[105]

After a protracted legal battle, which included a bidding war and 3 court-ordered mediations, Canwest would fail. The company was broken up, and all of its broadcasting rights were sold to Shaw Communications, on October 22, 2010.[106] The broadcasting arm, reorganized into Shaw Media, now has official ownership of Showcase.[107]

Despite the chaos, Lost Girl seemed to emerge unscathed. Shaw Media apparently decided not to interfere with it, and along with Showcase and the Canada Media Fund, allowed the show to continue with their backing. Michelle Lovretta later commented on how pleased she was with the support they received from Showcase, especially considering it was a genre show.

When the final episode closes the series, it will have been near to a decade since the concept was first proposed; at least seven years since it was given life under Michelle Lovretta’s pen; and spanning five years on the air. No other television series has attempted to approach sexual power or women or LGBTQ characters in the same way. It took Lost Girl seven years to appear as a successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It might take seven more years or more after Lost Girl ends for someone else to try it again.

The presence of Bo as a lead bisexual women remains an anomaly; one of only two currently airing; one of only three I could even find. Likewise, the presentation of a heroic lead character in a canon same-sex relationship on mainstream television remains unique. A single look at the controversy surrounding the adaptation of Constantine, whose bisexuality has been erased from his television adaptation, speaks to how far down the road you might have to look to see it again.

Bo herself remains a minority of a minority of a minority. Most broadcast media outlets are still struggling with basic representation in gender, sexual and ethnic groups. Lost Girl may be the vanguard. But until these basic flaws are fixed, a Golden Age in queer film and television cannot be reached.

Both Jay Firestone and Michelle Lovretta maintained all along that it was not about the sex.

*Special thanks to all of the creators, and contributors to the Lost Girl Wiki. It was invaluable in guiding my research.

Endnotes

[62]Drsquid. “Nine Questions with Lost Girl Creator and Writer Michelle Lovretta.” RGB Filter. Valis Inc. 30 Sept. 2010. Web. Oct. 2014.

[63] Lovretta, Michelle. “An Interview with Michelle Lovretta.” Water Cooler Journal. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[64]Canwest had already dumped the E! Television Network and all of its Australian media holdings

[65] Lovretta, Michelle. “An Interview with Michelle Lovretta.” Water Cooler Journal. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[66]Landau, Emily. “The Erotic Education of Anna Silk: the Lost Girl star on playing a bisexual succubus.” Toronto Life. Toronto Life Publishing Company Limited. 01 Feb. 2013. Web. Oct. 2014.

[67]Rosenberg, Alyssa.“ ‘Lost Girl’ Creator Michelle Lovretta On Rules for Sex-Positive TV.” ThinkProgress. Center for American Progress Action Fund. 30 May 2012. Web. Oct. 2012.

[68] Firestone, Jay. “Syfy Lost Girl Producer Jay Firestone Discusses New Season and Show Origins.”com.  GamerLiveTV. 23 July 2012. Web. Oct. 2014.

[69]Firestone, Jay. “Cast Interviews” Lost Girl Season One. 23 Oct. 2012. Blu-ray. Oct. 2014

[70] Lovretta, Michelle. “An Interview with Michelle Lovretta.” Water Cooler Journal.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[71] Lovretta, Michelle. “Cast Interviews:About the Series.” Lost Girl Season One. 23 Oct. 2012. Blu-ray. Oct. 2014

[72]“Showcase Gets Lost.” Playback. Brunico Communications Ltd. 13 Aug. 2009. Web. Oct. 2014.

[73] Lovretta, Michelle. “An Interview with Michelle Lovretta.” Water Cooler Journal. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[74]“What Is Bisexuality?” The Bisexual Index. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[75]“Common Myths of Bisexuality.” Bi’s and Allies — a caucus of Pride @ UIC. The University of Illinois at Chicago. n.d.Web. Oct. 2014.

[76]“This is Our Community: Bisexual Anti-stigma Poster Campaign.” Re:searching for LGBTQ Health. Center for Addiction and Mental Health. University of Toronto. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[77]“Bisexuals Face Severe Health Disparities.” Bisexual Resource Center. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[78]Goode, Morgan. “San Francisco Human Rights Commission Approves Groundbreaking Report: ‘Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations.’” GLAAD. 10 Mar. 2011. Web. Oct. 2014.

[79]“GLAAD.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[80]“Where We Are On TV.” GLAAD. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[81]“Where We Are On TV Report 2013.” GLAAD. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[82]“GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV Report 2014.” GLAAD. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[83]Cristene, Chelsea. “Why Are We So Threatened By Bisexuals?” Role Reboot: Life, Off Script. 27 Apr. 2014. Web. Nov. 2014.

[84]Willow Rosenberg. Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[85]“Sanctuary.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[86]“[Sanctuary] Monsoon 007 Movie Trailer” Youtube.com. Gossipgirrlxoxo. 23. Nov. 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

[87]“Orange Is the New Black.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[88]InQueery. “Orange is the New Black’s Piper: What Are We Missing?” Pacific Center for Human Growth. 4 Jun. 2014. Web. Oct. 2014.

[89]Rosenberg, Alyssa. “‘Lost Girl’ Isn’t ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’—And That’s Okay.” ThinkProgress. Center for American Progress Action Fund. 3 Apr. 2012. Web. Oct. 2014.

[90]There is one other example of a show that does not use labels, Defiance, which is a scripted American sci-fi drama. Defiance and Lost Girl have several things in common. They are both genre shows that film in Canada, air on the Syfy network in the U.S. and have LGBTQ characters in their main cast ensembles. And neither one of them talks about it.

[91]Dumitru, Anca. “A journey inside ‘Lost Girl’ with Anna Silk.” Digital Journal. 18 Mar. 2012. Web. Oct. 2014.

[92]“Agents of SHIELD.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[93]Rashaka. “this scene was perfect, intentional, and very telling.” Tumblr. 5 May. 2014. Web. Nov. 2014.

[94]“Tamsin (Rachel Skarsten).” Showcase: Lost Girl. Shaw Media, Inc. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[95]Boscia, Ted. “Study: Women reject promiscuous female peers as friends.” Cornell Chronicle. 30 May 2013. Web. Oct. 2014.

[96]“Slut-shaming.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[97]Christina. “Buffy And Bisexuality: Faith As A Subversive Bisexual Character And Willow As ‘Gay Now.’” Girls in Capes: Women, Men & Minorities In Geek Culture & Pop Culture. 24 Oct. 2013. Web. Nov. 2014.

[98]Dibdin, Emma. “TV Feature: 27 things you never knew about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Digital Spy. 18 Aug. 2014. Web. Nov. 2014.

[99]“Defiance.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Nov. 2014

[100]Firestone, Jay. “Cast Interviews:About Bo.” Lost Girl Season One. Funimation. 23 Oct. 2012. Blu-Ray. Oct. 2014.

[101]Drsquid. “Nine Questions with Lost Girl Creator and Writer Michelle Lovretta.” RGB Filter. Valis Inc. 30 Sept. 2010. Web. Oct. 2014.

[102]. “Lost Girl.” Canada On Screen: Television. Canada Media Fund. n.d. Web. Oct 2014.

[103] “Overview:Convergent Stream.” Canada Media Fund. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[104] “Development and Production.” Lost Girl Wiki. n.d. Wikia.com. Oct. 2014.

[105] “Development and Production.” Lost Girl Wiki. n.d. Wikia.com. Oct. 2014.

[106] “Canwest.” Wikipedia. A Wikimedia Project. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014

[107] “Development and Production.” Lost Girl Wiki. n.d. Wikia.com. Oct. 2014.

[108] Lovretta, Michelle. “An Interview with Michelle Lovretta.” Water Cooler Journal. n.d. Web. Oct. 2014.

[109] Roncero-Menendez, Sara. “ NBC Says Title Character Of ‘Constantine’ Is Straight. Fans Disagree.” The Huffington Post. 7 Jun. 2014. Web. Nov. 2014.

About unaligned

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

13 thoughts on “Part 2 – Sexual Power on Lost Girl: Gateway to a Golden Age?

  1. This is wonderful, Laura — informative, meticulously researched, lucidly written. And so sad:
    “It took Lost Girl seven years to appear as a successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It might take seven more years or more after Lost Girl ends for someone else to try it again.

    The presence of Bo as a lead bisexual women remains an anomaly; one of only two currently airing; one of only three I could even find. Likewise, the presentation of a heroic lead character in a canon same-sex relationship on mainstream television remains unique.”

    Oldersters like me have waited a loooong time for a show like this and I share your pessimism about seeing anything like it on TV anytime soon.
    Which leads to my question: what’s your best guess about why the show is ending? I realize you don’t have insider information (though your careful background research makes you seem like one), but I’d still be curious to hear your best guess.

  2. Im a huge LG fan. However, Lost Girl fails to show ANYTHING but straight male characters among thier regular casts. It seems ok for the girls to be sexually fluid, but not the males.

  3. As a bisexual woman I appreciate how you show that LG’s approach to Bo as their bisexual heroine is a double-edged sword. That said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about (thx Oscar Wilde!) and I am thankful for Bo’s character as a vehicle for having discussions such as yours on sexuality, gender, and power.

    Do you feel that the show has held to Lovretta’s original rules once she left the show?

    Also I find Dyson & Lauren’s responses to Bo’s sexuality rather different. In 1×12 Dyson basically shames Bo for using her powers to get information for a case, whereas Lauren has always been supportive of Bo’s succubus nature. Yes, Bo’s health was at risk in 3×04 and perhaps Lauren should have known, but Bo withheld info about her condition and was the one pushing to be monogamous. Once Lauren knew the truth, she supported Bo’s need to feed with others (except Dyson, which seems reasonable). Bo was visibly relieved, leading me to believe that she needs to be honest with herself and her romantic partners that she desires sex outside of their relationship. They can either accept those terms or not. Bo may want the choice to have the white picket fence but her biology may require a nontraditional poly relationship as the means.

    Thank you!!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s