22 Years Since Ellen’s Famous Coming Out Episode; How Has The Depiction Of Lesbians In The Media Changed?

It was a groundbreaking moment of television — the first main character of a television show to come out at a lesbian.

Ellen was by no means the first gay person on TV, however she was the first main character to openly come out, and proudly. Ellen herself came out to the world a few weeks previously to the episode airing, the two milestone moments were met with a huge amount of respect, praise, and trepidation. Was the world ready for a proud lesbian on mainstream television? Perhaps, perhaps not. Looking at how this impacted on television in the two decades since it aired; how much has really changed.

The Good:

The L Word (US TV Show)

I think it would be a crime to lesbians everywhere if I didn’t start with the mid-2000s lesbian classic. This show put lesbians out there, it normalised our community, showing the every day ups and down of same sex relationships as well as a range of issues that life threw at our Ladies.

As a teenager coming to terms with her sexuality in the mid-2000s, this show was everything to me. It showed me the life I could have and gave a normality to the lesbian community that I hadn’t seen before.

To this day, The L Word is close to my heart and I believe it will truly go down in history as one of the first groundbreaking LGBT TV shows.

Sugar Rush (UK TV Show)

Sugar Rush is another show close to my heart, and again was released in the mid-2000s. This was even more poignant to me, as it was centered around a teenage girl exploring her sexuality, and was based in the UK.

As with any of the other TV shows I mention here, it also involved a fair share of drama unrelated to lesbianism, and boy did it deliver. I recently re-watched this with my partner, and it was awesome as I remember it.

It was in equal measures realistic, gritty and heart warming. I think it is a shame that teenagers in 2019 don’t have something similar to this on their TV screens to relate to in the way that I did.

Orange Is The New Black (Netflix Original Show)

Another which I may be crucified for if I did not mention, OITNB is a firm favourite with lesbians worldwide. While perhaps not as relatable to most of us, as we generally don’t find ourselves part of the prison population, the relationships in this show are real and meaningful. The lesbians here aren’t portrayed as “just another storyline”.

Grey’s Anatomy (US TV Show)

Grey’s Anatomy is one of my absolute favourites, and while the lesbian characters aren’t the central focus of the show, they are main characters and are as respected as their straight co-characters. Sadly, as of the most recent season (2018–2019), the lesbian characters are missing. They are off doing their doctor-y stuff in other fictional hospitals. However the relationships that have formed over the years between female characters have been some of my favourite of all TV (namely Arizona and Callie!).

UK Soap Operas

Soap Operas are watched my thousands, in all countries. They are relatable, to a point, and depict a semi-normal life while simultaneously bring to light issues which members of the general public may face. One of these issues has to be sexuality. Throughout my life I have watched most of the UK soaps, and still to this day watch a couple of them. Seeing lesbians in these shows, in a normal household, can take away the “fear of the unknown" that some may have towards same sex relationships.

The soaps here in the UK have definitely gotten better over the years, of depicting lesbian relationships in a realistic way, and more of them, without feeling the need to shout about it from the roof tops. This is important, as it shows are relationships are as valid and real as heterosexual relationships. Something that some people need to realise.

The Bad:

The L Word (US TV Show)

I may have mentioned The L Word on my “good” list above, but there is one major flaw to this idyllic lesbian world. It is not realistic. It seems everybody and their mother is a lesbian (or very occasionally bisexual) in this world. It’s rare to see a straight person, and any straight characters are minor.

As much as I’m sure the lesbian community would love for this to be the real world, it isn’t. And that needs to be noted. We are still a minority, and are still treated as such in many ways. Normalising lesbian relationships, particularly to this level, is all well and good, but the issues and prejudices we as lesbians still face in 2019 need to be addressed in the media, and not brushed under the carpet.

The overall portrayal of lesbians

Ask any lesbian how they feel our community is portrayed in TV, radio and even movies. I have no doubt that they will all make one point…

Lesbians. Always. Die.

Seriously, this is an issue in the media, they always die. And if they somehow don’t die, they don’t have a happy ending anyway. Why is this?

Because the media is still massively influenced by the straight white male. Lesbians aren’t attainable to these men. We are a novelty, a storyline, but nothing more.

Also, TV producers want to generally portray what is relatable to their audience, their audience is no doubt predominantly straight — a statistical fact — therefore lesbians aren’t relatable. Just get rid of them after the gay storyline is boring, next!

A review by ofcom.org.uk also showed that lesbians feel the portrayal of our community tends to fall into one of two categories….

Lesbian women told us that they were portrayed too often as either extremely masculine or in an overly sexualised way. Some people felt that representation of LGB people on TV overall focused more on gay men than on women.

Again, not really a realistic showing. What about the normal, every day lesbian? We aren’t all shaved heads or super sexy. Get with the times!

Since Ellen’s breakthrough coming out, things have certainly changed. I can only speak for my viewing experience in the UK, but growing up as a teenager and seeing out and proud lesbians on TV really helped my confidence in myself and my sexual identity. Things aren’t perfect though, but will they ever be, in this heteronormtive world? I don’t know.

What I can say for sure though, is Ellen has definitely paved the way for many lesbian characters, actresses and women in the spot light.

📝 Read this story later in Journal.

A part time writer, studying for my BA (Hons) Degree Creative Writing. My interests include mental health, politics, LGBT rights, fiction, poetry and many more!

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