Gay Films and Lesbian TV
LGBT media faces demographic shifts as lesbian television is canceled at an alarming rate
Written by Campbell Pratt
This piece was written prior to the conclusion of the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike. There is discussion of the strike itself and the lasting impact on LGBT media. At this point, no concrete data is available on the correlation between LGBT representation and cancellations in retaliation towards the striking parties.
Gay film is thriving in 2023.
“Mutt,” an emotionally turbulent day in the life of a transgender man, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “Fanfic” is a romantic comedy wrapped nicely into a young transgender man’s coming of age. “Red, White, and Royal Blue” earned a staggering 93% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. “Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets at the End of the World” is meaningful representation for gay Mexican youth. The breathtaking “Rustin” details the life of the late civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. “All of Us Strangers,” a romantic drama starring Andrew Scott of “Fleabag,” is scheduled to release at the end of the year. Honorable mentions go to “Strange Way of Life,” “Passages,” “Rotting in the Sun,” “Norwegian Dreams” and “Big Boys.”
Shifting towards recent and upcoming sapphic films, the only movie I can think of off the top of my head is “Bottoms,” a fun and gritty “Fight Club” for teenage girls. “Barbie” might make the cut if we count the queercoding of Weird Barbie and the casting of multiple openly queer actresses. If lesbians aren’t in the movies, where are they?
Bisexual and lesbian women dominate in GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV” (2022-2023), a statistical analysis of LGBT characters in media. Women make up more than half of the same-sex romances on broadcast television, cable and streaming services.
Netflix’s “First Kill” can be described as a Shakespearean drama with teenage lovers and vampire hunting. Disney’s “Willow” is a high fantasy with a butch leading woman. Hulu’s “High Fidelity” retells the novel of the same name, recasting Zoe Kravitz as the protagonist. HBO’s historical drama, “Gentleman Jack,” dramatizes the romance between Anne Lister and Ann Walker. Hits from the 2000s such as “Gossip Girl,” “The L Word: Generation Q” and “Queer as Folk” have hit the streaming services with new casts. Speaking of reboots, the workplace comedy “Reboot” takes place in a bisexual writer’s room of a rebooted classic comedy.
What do these shows have in common beyond lesbian and bisexual representation?
They were all canceled.
Some of these shows have gone out gracefully, while others have layers of controversy. Netflix’s “Warrior Nun,” which left off at a heart-wrenching cliffhanger, is supposedly getting a film deal following the outrage of its cancellation. This is an exception to the cancellation controversy. Many of these shows are staying in the graveyard of lesbian and bisexual media that didn’t make it past the first or second season. Paramount’s “Grease: The Rise of the Pink Ladies” was scrubbed from the streaming service completely. While it is available through Amazon now, it doesn’t erase the fear that future work could be eradicated with a simple delete button. Amazon’s “A League of Their Own” was promised a second season — albeit a shortened one. That’s no longer the case, with Amazon citing the “on-going length of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes” to Deadline as the reason behind the well-received series’s cancellation.
According to GLAAD’s annual report, 54 shows with an LGBT character were canceled from June 2022 to May 2023. From these 54 shows — a shocking 24% of LGBT television overall — 52% percent of those characters were women in same-sex relationships. LGBT magazine Them reports at least 20 LGBT shows have been postponed, but as of this writing, no data is available on the expected cancellations with LGBT representation in relation to its straight counterparts, or the further breakdown of gendered and racial dynamics in cancellations.
Lesbian and bisexual women experience a continuous cycle of disappointment. Dedicate your time to a story. Watch the characters dance around each other. Conflict arises. Ensue dramatic love confession. Things get better, then they get worse. How can you be renewed without leaving an obvious conflict for the next season? Leave off on a cliffhanger. There is a one in four chance you’ll be canceled. If there’s two women kissing, that’s almost the nail in the coffin. Lesbian and bisexual women may see themselves on television, but they’re also consistently told their stories aren’t worth finishing.
"If there's two women kissing, that's almost the nail in the coffin."
Gay films have a distinct advantage over lesbian television: they are able to end on their own terms. As a storytelling medium, films have a beginning, a middle and an end. Broadly speaking, they’re made to be consumed in one sitting. The viewer can have their slowburn with love confessions in the rain or a whirlwind of ocean, sand and skin. Romances don’t have to have happy endings. Tragedies can leave the room with misty eyes and warm feelings. Whether the couple rides into the sunset or leaves each other with biting words, the viewer knows the end has come.
We don’t need to stop making movies about men falling in love. Filmmakers are entitled to their art and gay men are entitled to their representation. But there’s something we can learn from the rise of gay cinema and the fall of lesbian television. Shifting the mode in which our stories are being told could be vital to reviving lesbian and bisexual representation. Contracts and negotiations didn’t get those shows renewed, but you can’t cancel a movie once it's been made. Stop trusting streaming services and corporations to do art right.
Women who love women are desperate for content that lets them have an ending. Let them make it themselves. Support lesbian filmmakers, bisexual writers, transgender crew and gay artists.