Personal Translations of Queerness in Television
by Rosie Beattie
In recent years, the landscape of television has shifted dramatically both in terms of what viewers are watching and how they are watching it. Streaming platforms have allowed for an abundance of content to reach our screens and according to Ava Laure Parsemain, have recognisably been able to ‘push boundaries’ more so than broadcast television which relies on ratings and advertising revenue (Parsemain, 2019: 15). For LGBTQ+ viewers this has led to a noticeable increase in visibility and representation in recent years. Although there is still some way to go in this regard, the power of seeing yourself represented on a medium as tangible as television should not be understated. Some of television’s most recent successes such as Sex Education (2019-) and Killing Eve (2018-) have incorporated queer characters and themes into their narratives in ways far more interesting and nuanced than previous illustrations of queer people.  Queer representation in television is certainly not only increasing but becoming more complex and praiseworthy after decades of limited visibility or problematic portrayals that verge on stereotypes. In her book The Pedagogy of Queer TV Parsemain argues that television is one of the strongest assets for entertainment education i.e. teaching viewers about ‘queer issues, queer cultures and queer people’ (Parsemain, 2019: v). Therefore, it is worthwhile hitting pause on the masses of streaming content to consider some of the most recent (and at times underappreciated) translations of queerness onto our televisions.
Perhaps the most significant shift that has increased the authenticity of queer representation in television is the articulation of personal experiences of queerness precisely by queer writers and creators. While having well developed queer characters across a range of television shows and genres is conducive to diversity, there is a notable emergence of televisual content written, created by, and starring queer women that I would argue is much more progressive than that which has previoulsy transpired. In an essay entitled Difficult Women: Changing Representations of Female Characters in Contemporary Television Series (2019), Svenja Hohenstein and Katharina Thalmann argue that ‘an increasing number of television shows in the 2010s have played with viewer’s expectations of gender representation, adopted an unapologetic and intersectional feminist political agenda, and depicted female characters and expressed queer themes in a nuanced, complex and non-stereotypical manner’ (Hohenstein and Thalmann, 2019: 111). They cite Orange is the New Black (2013-2019) as a primary example of these characteristics. For example, they site the use of flashbacks in OITNB as a central way that the show establishes an intersectional femninist approach, arguing that flashbacks allow the show ‘to give voice to queer and trans women, old and poor women, or women of colour, all of whom are seldom represented on mainstream TV and whose stories are usually marginalized or silenced’ (124).
Despite this notable shift in the 2010s, they do acknowledge however that the majority of leading female characters remained ‘straight, white, young, educated, able-bodied and middle class’ (127). While this is perhaps evident in the wider context of television content, in the short amount of time since Hohenstein and Thalmann’s article was published there has emerged a divergence from the televisual canon of heterosexual white male-centred narratives. Indeed, in the same year Parsemain wrote that ‘in the last decade, television has progressively broadened its representations to create more space for queerness and fluidity, with more and more characters questioning and challenging static identity labels and norms of gender and sexuality’ (Parsemain: 32). As the television content discussed here shall demonstrate, the articulation of queer experiences in television is particularly effective when it is enacted by people who identify in their own lives as ‘queer’ such as Mae Martin, Lena Waithe and Desiree Akhaven. In March this year, comedian Mae Martin’s Channel 4 series Feel Good was released. Despite being cast into the streaming void at the tip of the pandemic, Feel Good was well received by critics and has been nominated for the ‘Best Comedy Drama’ for the ‘C21 International Drama Awards’, the ‘Best New Comedy’ for the ‘I Talk Telly Awards’ and recently won ‘Best Comedy’ at the ‘Edinburgh TV Awards’. Feel Good (a six-part series) is a romantic comedy drama focusing on the relationship between Mae Martin’s protagonist, Mae, who plays herself and her girlfriend George, played by Charlotte Ritchie. A short but well-executed sequence in the first episode glosses over the first three months of their time together after which Mae moves in with George. It is only then that revelations occur that pose significant challenges to their relationship. Mae is a recovering cocaine addict, a fact George learns while on a Skype call to Mae’s mum (played by Lisa Kudrow). Mae’s strained relationship with her mother has nothing to do with her queerness but rather her former addiction or as her mother attempts to use as an explanation, the fact that Mae was born prematurely. George, who hasn’t dated a woman before, is reluctant to tell her family and friends and keeps her relationship with Mae a secret from her long-term Oxford clique. The honeymoon bubble begins to burst, and viewers are given a deeply intimate and comedic look in at their relationship.
The show then explores gender and sexuality in such a way that its radicality may be missed on initial viewing. Moments of uncertainty, questioning and feelings of displacement about gender and sexual identity are weaved into everyday moments and interactions. They are almost fleeting. From a waitress misgendering Mae in a café to a brief exchange in bed about whether George would date men or women if they ever broke up, Feel Good conveys the everydayness of uncertainty when one does not fit into society’s ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (Rich, 1980: 1). The characters and the programme resists both fixed identity definitions and the labelling of their sexual identities. In this context it is useful to reflect on Samuel Allen Chambers observations that ‘queer theory starts from an impulse to question, problematise, or even disclaim the very idea of a fixed, abiding notion of identity’ (Chambers, 2009: 13). Indeed, Mae, when asked (by a straight man) about her sexuality, explains that she doesn’t label herself and George, much to Mae’s anxiety, says that she would probably date boys again, telling Mae ‘you’re the only girl I like’ (Episode 5). Mae and George only attempt to define themselves when asked to by others. George’s friends eventually find out after a drunken fall results in a trip A+E. Mae rushes to be with her and under the influence of prescription painkillers George declares her love for Mae in front of her friends. The next morning, she wakes up to a string of messages including “YOU’RE GAY???!!!!” and “Are you gay now???” (Episode 4). Although these interactions are rendered as comedic moments George’s friends are a reminder of the heteronormative impulse to categorize and contain ‘abnormal’ gendered and sexual identities, particularly her friend Binky (Ophelia Lovibond) who often makes throwaway homophobic remarks. She epitomises compulsory heterosexuality to a comical extent. When George is asked by a sex expert if she takes passive role during sex , Binky interjects saying ‘what do you mean passive? That’s what sex is’ (episode 3).
The sex scenes in Feel Good are a welcome addition to the shift in the way women’s sexuality and desire are being handled in television. This is another landscape which has been evolving drastically over recent years in television with examples of programmes depicting sex in complex, in-depth ways from this year alone being Normal People, Sex Education and I May Destroy You. The input of an intimacy co-ordinator on set while filming intimate scenes is becoming more commonplace and the Clit Test (founded by Frances Raynor) – a test similar to the Bechdel test which ‘celebrates sex scenes that reflect that the clitoris is a central part of sexual pleasure for most people with vulvas’ – has somewhat entered the discourse around the portrayal of women’s sexual pleasure onscreen. While Mae Martin expressed the personal difficulty she had with shooting sex scenes (she noted the tendency for her ears to turn so red that they had to be neutralised in post-production) the depiction of sex between two women in Feel Good is a milestone for queer representation in the wider context of changing attitudes towards women’s sexuality and desire. The dialogue around sex in the programme is colloquial which brings an overtness to the portrayal of sex between women, something that is often omitted in favour of a more eroticised exploration of same-sex desire in film. In one scene, we see Mae put on a strap-on and lubricate it to have sex with George. This is directly juxtaposed with George’s dialogue in this scene about Binky’s baby shower and her accidental pregnancy with her fiancé, contrasting the heteronormative with a normalisation of queer sex.
Feel Good has, significantly, come at a time where there is a discourse about women writers/creators and their relationship to autobiographical or personal content. For example, Phoebe Waller-Bridge resisted and criticised autobiographical readings of Fleabag (2016-2019) pointing out that the autobiographical elements were often presumed because of her gender. While it shouldn’t be presumed that a text is autobiographical, Feel Good is an example of a series that is certainly richer for its autobiographical elements and personal expressions of queerness in relation to gender and sexual identity.
Home for the Holidays: Lesbian Existence in ‘Thanksgiving’
Perhaps one of the most ground-breaking television moments in recent years which established a demand for the televisual representation of personal queer stories was the Lena Waithe’s 2017 ‘Thanksgiving’ episode (S2 Ep 8) of Master of None (2015-) – a series which explores multiple contemporary socio-political subjects such as immigration, racism and sexism. Waithe, already a recurring character in the series as Denise, a good friend of the protagonist Dev (played by the show’s creator Aziz Ansari) co-wrote ‘Thanksgiving’ and stars in the episode which shifts the series’ perspective from Dev to Denise. It is a standout episode which could be watched in isolation from the rest of the series. The episode centres around Denise’s experiences with her lesbian identity in relation to coming out to her matriarchal family – her mother, Catherine (Angela Bassett), grandmother (Venida Evans) and Aunt Joyce (Kim Whitley). The episode uses the Thanksgiving holiday to frame the family’s interactions and to show the viewers consecutive vignettes of that holiday between the years 1995 and 2017. The choice of using a holiday not only gives the episode a temporal neatness but LGBTQ+ audiences will also be familiar with the additional stress and complexity that being around family members and/or being in the childhood home/hometown that national holidays can bring. Beginning with Denise and Dev as children, the episode jumps forward in time through moments pivotal to Denise’s journey with her sexual identity. Similarly to Mae Martin, Waithe’s writing contains some autobiographical elements to tell the story.
In 1995, a twelve-year-old Denise excitedly gazes at women in music videos and rebels against her mother’s wishes for her to wear a white dress, sitting herself down at the dinner table wearing baggy trousers, a striped shirt and baseball cap, telling her mum that the dress ‘didn’t fit right’. In 1999, as teenagers, Denise came out to Dev, half-jokingly saying ‘I’m Lebanese’, hesitant and uncomfortable with using the word lesbian. Seven years later in 2006, Denise came out to her mother. In this later scene the setting has notably shifted from the domestic interior of the family home to a roadside diner, destabilising the heteronormative expectations of both space and sexuality. Her mother struggles with the news, viewing sexual orientation as a choice and questioning why Denise would add to the existing hardships she faced as a Black woman in a white-privilege and patriarchal society. Indeed, ‘Thanksgiving’ sheds light on these intersections. The setting of the dinner table allows topical conversation to flow throughout the years, from discussing the trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995 to racist police brutality in 2016 which they accompanied with an after dinner viewing of Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). By doing so, the episode highlights the specific intersections of being Black and queer and a woman. A sequence of dialogue between teenaged Denise and Dev exemplifies how the episode articulates these intersections in a way which reflects Parsemain’s idea that television is a pedagogical tool for articulating queer issues and identities. Denise has just told Dev that she is gay:
Dev: Are you gonna tell your mom?
Denise: Being gay isn’t something Black people love to talk about.
Denise: Some Black people think being gay is a choice. And when they find out that their kid is gay they try to figure out what they did wrong.
Dev: Gay Martin is white, and his parents did the same thing.
Denise: Yeah, but it’s more intense for Black folks. Everything is a contest for us. And your kids are like trophies. Me being gay is like tarnishing your trophy.
In this short dialogue exchange, Denise explains to viewers as well as Dev how race and sexuality intersect and interact.
For such a short amount of time that the episode is granted (35 minutes) it achieves the articulation of queerness in a complex and contemporary way. For her writing efforts, Waithe was awarded the ‘Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series’ at the Primetime Emmy Awards, being the first Black woman to do so. In their book The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice (2019), Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman pinpoint ‘Thanksgiving’ as ‘a noteworthy cultural moment’ (Chattoo and Feldman, 2019: 16), noting that ‘the story itself […] was not a typical TV portrait seen in years past’ (16).
There is also a certain significance to the episode’s ending. Catherine has struggled to understand her daughter which has caused a visible strain in their relationship. When she thinks she has wrapped her head around Denise’s sexuality she squirms and lashes out when Denise brings her girlfriend, Michelle (Ebony Obsidian), over one year for Thanksgiving dinner. By 2017, however, a tender moment between Catherine and Denise in the kitchen gives audiences a hopeful stopping point. After having a light-hearted conversation with Michelle, Catherine quietly states that she thinks it will be a lovely Thanksgiving. She takes Denise’s hand and says, ‘I’m happy for you’. The episode ends with an overhead shot of the family around the table. They laugh over memories of Denise and Dev as teenagers attempting to hide their weed and they join hands to say grace. The episode is strengthened by the poignant note it ends on and the comedic approach to the storytelling. As Chattoo and Feldman argue, ‘comedy is both a product of and contributor to a changing information and entertainment environment – and a cultural moment characterised by social justice upheaval’ (Chattoo and Feldman, 2019: 18). ’Thanksgiving’ succeeds in being both comedic entertainment and a pedagogical text of social justice.
‘Does anyone know an actual bisexual?’ : The Bisexual
Just as Feel Good and ‘Thanksgiving’ use comedy to explore significant themes and issues around queerness, The Bisexual (2018) takes a similar approach. Desiree Akhaven – known more broadly for directing Appropriate Behaviour (2014) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)- wrote, directed, and starred in the series. Like Feel Good, it has six episodes in thirty minute instalments and currently has one season with no current evidence that it will be renewed for a second season (although due to the critical acclaim this is looking more likely for Feel Good). In The Bisexual, Akhaven plays Leila, an Iranian-American woman living in London who ends a ten year relationship with her partner Sadie (Maxine Peake) when she proposes to her. The London setting was adopted into the programme after the script had been pitched by Akhaven to major U.S networks, ‘all of whom passed, offering excuses that they already had a gay series, or a series starring a brown woman, or Transparent…although “nobody had a Middle Eastern show”’ (Filippo, 2019: 1003). The rejection of the script is a potent reminder that although there is increasing representation of queer people and stories in television, there are still major barriers to the limited amount of space those stories are being allowed to occupy and resistance by those in positions of power to allow intersectional storytelling i.e. by suggesting that a series revolves around someone who is queer or a person of colour.
As the name suggests, he Bisexual (2018) is an exploration of bisexuality which is often overlooked, or exoticized and attributed to a side and/or guest character, or “discovered” well into the series (such as in Brooklyn 99 and Jane the Virgin). Subverting the narrative of a woman discovering her bisexuality after assuming herself to be heterosexual, Leila admits after years of identifying as a lesbian that she is attracted to both men and women. She moves in with a new housemate, Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a heterosexual white male (notably a minority in this series) who after publishing a novel entitled Test-icular years previously is struggling to find romantic and professional fulfilment. Gabe is representative of well-intentioned but outdated patriarchal ideals of chivalry. He is an archetypal ‘nice guy’ and much to Leila’s dismay uses terms such as ‘leading lady’ when describing his romantic endeavours. Many of their conversations include Leila questioning or challenging Gabe’s attitudes , reflecting society’s general shift away from his outdated perception of relationships, sex, and gender.
However, The Bisexual also challenges outdated prejudices from within the LGBTQ+ community itself. In the first episode, Leila’s group of friends who all identify as lesbian, ask themselves if they have ever actually met a bisexual person and conclude amongst themselves that bisexuality is ‘sex tourism’ (episode 1). Consequently, Leila struggles to come out (again) as bisexual and hides the fact that she is sleeping with a man from her close friends. Francisca (Michelle Guillot), a student who Gabe is sleeping with, questions this, articulating perhaps a generational disparity in attitudes towards sexual identity and fixed labels. While Leila, in her early thirties, has had an attachment to her lesbian identity and tries to grapple with her bisexual one, Francisca, in her early twenties fails to understand the need to use fixed terms and labels. The ways in which time has shifted queer culture for some is exemplified in a dialogue sequence between the two characters;
Leila: Everyone under the age of twenty-five thinks they’re queer.
Francisca: and you think they’re wrong?
Leila: No, I think it’s different. When you have to fight for it, you think being gay can become the biggest part of you and that you’re gay or you’re straight and one comes with an entirely different lifestyle than the other, like different clothes and different friends and you can’t do both […]. I don’t know what it’s like growing up with the internet. I just get the sense that it’s changing your relationship to gender and to sexuality – in a really good way, but in a way that I can’t relate to.
Francisca: I think you’re making a problem where there isn’t one. (Episode 3).
While Francisca is satisfied adopting the more fluid term queer, Leila struggles because she does not fit into the binary of gay/straight. In discussing Akhaven’s body of work, Maria San Filippo argues that The Bisexual is ‘Akhaven’s most sustained exploration yet of the complexities of bisexual identity and the misperceptions it provokes’ (Filippo, 2019: 1004). Despite this, it received mixed reviews, including a scathing dismissal from The Guardian and as a result has been somewhat overlooked in discussions about recent queer television.
The programmes outlined are the natural progression from shows that laid the groundwork for the representation of queer women such as The L Word (2004-2009) which honours a mention as the butt of a joke in Feel Good and several times in The Bisexual. Clearly, we are currently seeing multiple evolutions in the television landscape from the technology we use to consume it to representation of complex social identities and sexualities. Recent articulations of queerness, particularly when executed from the personal and nuanced experiences of the writer/creator, present a development of queer characters which transcends beyond a binary positive/negative representation. This is not to say that the work is done. If anything, the examples outlined leave much more to be desired. Waithe’s “Thanksgiving” is only one episode out of a series which centralises the experiences of a heterosexual man. Likewise, both Feel Good and The Bisexual are currently limited to one season. Nonetheless, these examples indicate how rich the experiences of queerness can be presented tangibly on television and with hope, they are just the first drop in a potential wealth of personal and creative queer storytelling in television. By having television content that centres on the lives and experiences of queer people which have been drawn from the personal experiences of queer creatives, we are witnessing the shift from representations which have previously been limited or have completely failed the LGBTQ+ community to ones which are far richer due to their nuance and complexity.
 Parsemain notes that the representation of LGBTQ+ in television was ‘virtually denied’ before the 1990s or limited to the negative stereotypes of villain/victim or ‘dyke/sissy’. While there was progress with shows such as Will and Grace (1998-2020), The L Word (2004-2009) and Modern Family (2009-2020), representation was restricted by the hegemony of white, middle class characters and queerness was ‘sanitised’ in order to appeal to mainstream heterosexual audiences (Parsemain 2019: 25-29). For an insight into the history of trans representation in cinema see Sam Feder’s documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020) that contains various discussions of transgender filmmakers and cast members.
Chambers, Samuel Allen. 2009. The Queer Politics of Television. London: I.B Tauris.
Chatoo, Caty Borum and Feldman, Lauren. 2019. ‘Why Comedy, and Why Now?’. In A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice (Volume 1), pp. 16-21. Oakland: University of California Press.
Filippo, Maria San, 2019,. ‘Breaking Upwards: The Creative Uncoupling of Desiree Akhaven and Ingrid Jungermann’ in Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 19, No.7. pp. 991-1008.
Hohenstein, Svenja and Thalmann, Katharina. 2019, ‘Difficult Women: Changing Representations of Female Characters in Contemporary Television Series’. In Zeitschrift Fur Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, Vol. 67, No, 2. pp. 109-129.
Holden, Steve, July 2020, ‘I May Destroy You: How modern TV’s most talked-about sex scenes were filmed’ BBC News <https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-53350245> [Accessed 23/11/2020].
Parsemain, Ava Laure, 2019, The Pedagogy of Queer TV. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rich, Adrienne, 1980, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, Women: Sex and Sexuality, 5(4), pp.631-660.
Rosie Beattie received her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Film & Television Studies in 2019 and recently graduated with a Masters in Film Curation at the University of Glasgow. She is an emerging film and culture writer with an interest in Film History, Queer Studies and Feminism. Find her on twitter @rosiebeattie9