The Lesbian, Bi and Queer Year in Television 2017: Love, bravery, and found family

2017, if you ask me, has been an absolute toothbrush of a year: cleaning out the toxic plaque, bloodying the gums a little in the process, and hopefully leaving us with a minty fresh start to 2018.

Optimism, in the face of that exhaustion which December almost always dredges up, is a tough sell. Personally, I find it helpful to take a look backward, to find something productive if not inspirational to stand on in the past twelve months — something to arm yourself with, essentially, as the calendar turns over and the seasons begin anew.

Though media remains, by most accounts, leaps and bounds behind where we’d all like it to be in terms of representation, there are some occasions in which the stars align between the creator’s vision and the viewer’s hunger, and characters have an impact larger than could be predicted. The 100’s Clexa, for example, along with Wynonna Earp’s WayHaught, and Supergirl’s Sanvers — all characters and couples subject to their own individual issues and idiosyncrasies, and yet have left lasting marks on the current state of queer women television fandoms, inspiring fans to show up in droves at conventions and signings.

Sanvers, in particular, seems to have left its mark on 2017 as the ship to discuss, even if (like me) you’re a season behind.

 

HONORABLE MENTION:
ALEX DANVERS OF SUPERGIRL

Coming out stories have become a staple for lesbian, bi and queer character introduction, and variation on them is rare — Alex Danvers stands apart, in company with One Day at a Time’s Elena Alvarez in its focus on family. Where Alex Danvers is concerned, we’re given the epitome of the late bloomer that tugs itself away from stereotypes and corrects for them — soft and cautious at first, pulled out of her shell by an unforeseeable, intense connection, exploring a world not just new to her, but finally the right fit after purported years of her character struggling to understand the more intimate relationships in her life (or lack thereof).

Alex, and her subsequent relationship with Maggie, has undoubtedly meant so much to so many. Bold, then, that they should separate — but in a world where the buried gay trope is, ironically, alive and well, a parting centered not on fatality but on future plans is unfortunately refreshing. A little haphazard, a little slapped together in its reasoning, but the decision to have Alex hold strong on something evidently so important to her is respectable. In the way that we watch straight main characters on shows run through seasons of love interests and deal with the aftermath, it’s just as refreshing to have an opportunity to see how Alex grows into herself as the series continues.

 

Looking back on my watchlist from 2017, I can track four distinct characters (and their respective relationships, romantic and otherwise) that struck a real chord with me this year. I’ve tried to focus on characters from brand new shows, with one exception, as the story arc snuck in pretty much under the wire and absolutely blew me away. Tying the year together with a neat knot is impossible, but if I had to pin it down, the discussion of family, when we find our own and when we let them go, seems to sum it up pretty well.

-cue Seasons of Love-

SPRING:
DEVON OF I LOVE DICK

I Love Dick is a show that (at least in my corner of the internet) went largely unnoticed. Its story is a mess of threads, a triangle that’s not really a triangle so much as it is a Venn diagram of desire and insecurity, and Devon is little more than a B story to that plot. But her cool, collected search for artistry in a town that traps her as much as it inspires her, creates the foundation for an amazing character.

We see it in her backstory, in the show’s fifth episode, “A Short History of Weird Girls”, where the three main female characters tell a brief history of their lives and their artistic journey. Devon walks us through her battle for identity, her unwillingness to conform to gender stereotypes, and the college girlfriend who left her heartbroken when she was unwilling to jump wholeheartedly into a relationship. Devon ends up dropping out of school, moving back to her hometown, and getting a job fixing other people’s problems.

It’s when Devon opens up and begins mingling with the artists gathered in Marfa that she begins to let go of her control a little. She may not agree with a person’s methods of self-expression, but defends to the point of arrest their right to do it, as we see when she defends the borderline drifter girl she’s seeing, Toby. Toby, an incredible character in her own right, is an artist who finds artistic, aesthetic beauty in the shapes and colors of hardcore porn. Their scenes together are electric, their relationship intense, full of conflict and the tossing of social and sexual norms — but Devon’s possessive attitudes drive a wedge between them, in a scene that makes the jilted jock stereotype of someone so fervently attempting to reject such banality.

There seems to be a link here between Devon’s sexual and gender fluidity and her journey to letting go of her own rigidity. By the end of the season, she’s leading the cowboy and trucker men of Marfa in a dance, allowing them to open themselves up to expression outside of their prescribed slot in the gender binary. Every breath of her screen time is resistance. Artistic expression. Entirely genuine, combatively unique.

Even when I Love Dick suffers from its more abstract concepts, Devon takes no shit, stands tall, refuses to suffer for who she is. When her brief fling with Toby all but ends, she continues her work, tireless, seeking unity — if not of her hometown, then of herself.

 

SUMMER:
KAT EDISON OF THE BOLD TYPE

Kat Edison takes no prisoners. Her approach to a conversation is a strong fist against a table and an open hand already waving away your ill-formed argument. Armed with a mountain of professional know-how and instinct, her inexperience, it turns out, is more personal, an inability to slow down long enough to re-evaluate aspects of her life, and the people who are important to her.

It’s when she’s met with someone so totally opposite, someone who puts the individual under the lens and captures it, that she begins to shift. Kat’s focus is on the social, the community — Adena’s is instead on the expression of the individual. Their initial interactions are rife with misunderstanding and discomfort, but it only pushes Kat further, to explore the draw between them, to a woman as outspoken and independent as herself.

A crush becomes more. A friendship becomes a deeper form of sharing, of educating one another, of support. And even when it becomes physical, their relationship comes back to that point — even when separated, even when protesting from opposite corners of the world, there is a through line of supporting each other in their separate paths, returning to each other when they can, but never damning their respective causes.

Put simply? Ultimate power couple.

 

AUTUMN:
WENDY CARR OF MINDHUNTER

I picked up Mindhunter on almost a whim. Fincher’s style didn’t disappoint, nor did the vast majority of the characters twined in the interrogation, interview, and in-depth analysis of the 1970’s most notorious serial killers.

Anna Torv’s Wendy Carr is more than a pleasant surprise — she’s a vision of strength, a sturdy by-the-book intellectual standing tall in the face of a twenty-something sliding down a slippery slope to doucheville and the grouchy borderline Old West sheriff serving as his mentor. When she flies from Quantico to Boston halfway through the season, shoulders heavy with the choice between her old life and a new one, she goes home to consult with her partner.

Her partner is an older woman, a fellow professor, a fellow intellectual. I’ve written about their one scene together before, but the long and short of it is this: Mindhunter recognizes Wendy as a character whose personal life does not dominate the process of hunting serial killers, and so her personal life does not dominate the structure of the show. There’s a few scant kisses, the stroke of knuckles, but for a pair of women well in their adult years, the focus isn’t on sex — it’s on stability.

And their relationship, while stable, has a toxic edge, one that compels Wendy to leave it behind her and move on, to Quantico, to a new profession. Season Two of Mindhunter may not expand much further on Wendy’s lesbianism — in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it remains a sidelined facet of an already busy show — but for now, her strength to pull away from the only family we’ve seen her have in an effort to protect herself from being steamrolled is a mark of her character, one that will apply to everything she does.

 

WINTER:
ROSA DIAZ OF BROOKLYN NINE-NINE

This is a month where censorship of both the internet and the CDC has been a hot topic. This is a month where we have been trying to wring the truth out of powerful people, to get clear concise language. This is a month where half the cast of Brooklyn 99 said various forms of the term “bisexual” multiple times.

The con has been on for seasons to set up the arc of Rosa’s coming out — multiple episodes where Rosa’s disgust in sharing personal details about herself while dating Marcus, or Pimento, or about her family, even where she lives. Rosa is a private person. Rosa could have a stamp collection, and we’d never know. Why? Because it’s personal. And for Rosa, personal is private, until it isn’t.

Usually, the revelation of details about her life is a total accident, and in this case, it’s no different. It’s bullpen quirkmeister and all-around lovable loudmouth Charles Boyle who’s the first one privy to the info, and his reaction? He understands that coming out is on Rosa’s terms, and does his absolute best to keep quiet (which, given what we’ve seen in past seasons, is incredible in itself). Rosa eventually announces it to the squad, even allowing stereotypical questions for a brief period before moving on to more important matters.

The focus Brooklyn 99 puts on this plotline, for a comedy cop procedural, is stunning. The story spans two episodes, including one which serves as the fall finale of the show, a lingering final note for their audience to reflect on. The casting of Rosa’s parents, which could easily have been thrown away roles, go to Tony Award-nominated actress Olga Merediz and certified stone-cold badass Danny Trejo. The tension of “Game Night” builds through the mistaken assumption that Jake is Rosa’s boyfriend and comes to a head as Rosa, standing in front of a Pictionary-esque drawing board, has to explain to her parents that she’s bisexual, that it isn’t just a phase while she waits for a husband, that it’s something she’s known for a long time. Something true.

It’s a heartbreaking moment when her father states, “There’s no such thing as being bisexual,” and Rosa responds clearly, in that matter-of-fact Rosa Diaz tone we know and love, “I know there is because that’s who I am.” The redemption moment comes a few short scenes later when Rosa’s father turns up at the precinct, promises her that he accepts her for who she is — but the scene turns bittersweet when he asks her to hold off on joining them for game night again. It’s clear that, while he’s willing to work to preserve their relationship, the family dynamic will never be the same — so the squad gets to work, and on Friday night turns up en masse to Rosa’s place for, as Jake puts it, “family game night”.

Rosa’s character, ever the private, distant, steel-plated detective, has made leaps and bounds towards becoming more open. In season one, the squad didn’t even know where she lived, and now not only have her address, but are somewhat welcome there. Even then, they don’t push for information, taking what she offers them in stride and making sure she feels welcome. Captain Holt pulls her aside and gives her a heart to heart, thanking her for her bravery, for helping to make the world “a better and more interesting place.”

 

I hope 2017’s media helped you find your community, or inspire you to create worlds and characters of your own. And offline? A new year is an opportunity to celebrate differences in our community as much as we triumph over unity, to work harder to make the world a better, more interesting place.

Here’s to 2018. Let’s use it wisely.

 

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