Lesbianism Is More Mainstream Than Ever, but TV Is Moving Backwards

TV Features Representation
Lesbianism Is More Mainstream Than Ever, but TV Is Moving Backwards

As someone who has been paying very close attention to sapphic representation for about a decade, I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that lesbianism has never been more visible in mainstream media than in our current cultural moment. From Reneé Rapp officially coming out as a lesbian on SNL to Chappell Roan’s meteoric rise to the fantastic double feature that was Drive Away Dolls and Love Lies Bleeding, lesbian representation is everywhere at the moment. And while these other industries are catching up by finally embracing specifically sapphic storylines or performers, TV seems to be falling behind. 

Unfortunately, this is not a new realization, but the culmination of belts tightening over the last few years as the streaming landscape has moved further and further away from being the representation haven it once was. From The CW canceling nearly their entire slate of sapphic-including series to the cancelation and deletion of shows like Willow or Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies and the un-renewal of A League of Their Own, lesbianism on screen has gotten more and more difficult to come by for the first time since the post-Lexa reckoning that brought more women-loving-women to our TV screens than ever before. 

The media watch-group GLAAD recently released their Where We Are on TV report, which measured another decline in LGBTQ+ representation on screen following a similar dip in 2022-2023’s report. Last year, there were 596 LGBTQ+ characters across cable, broadcast, and streaming. This year that figure dipped to only 468 characters. And while it’s undeniably concerning that these numbers are plummeting so quickly, the most heartbreaking statistic is the percentage of these characters that are gone for good: 36% of all queer characters counted across TV from June 1, 2023 to May 31, 2024 will not be returning, either due to unexpected cancellation, a planned series finale, or by simply being part of a limited series. The report states that 36 total series featuring LGBTQ+ characters were canceled in that timeframe.

It is harrowing to see just how significantly all representation is being affected by these cancellations, but GLAAD’s study reveals that 53% of the queer characters on these canceled shows were women, cementing what audiences of queer female characters have been feeling for months: sapphics on screen are disappearing at an alarming rate, more frequently than their counterparts. 

Last week, CBS’ most diverse NCIS offering, NCIS: Hawai’i, was unceremoniously axed. The series, which was fighting for renewal against tough competition in an overstuffed CBS slate, was canceled on Lesbian Visibility Day, effectively putting an end to the consistent and delightful representation the series once offered through main characters Lucy (Yasmine Al-Bustami) and Kate (Tori Anderson). This cancellation marks a particular low point in the recent wave of LGBTQ+ cancellations, as the series was a part of CBS’ long-standing, 1000+ episode franchise, but will now go unfinished.

According to Deadline, producers of the series agreed to make major budget cuts and concessions to allow the show an abbreviated final season, but unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to convince CBS to allow the series its closure. In a tough decision, CBS chose to cancel a popular series with sapphic representation and a female lead in favor of more NCIS entries following male characters that have been explored to death or starring costly leading men.

And with the looming departure of Maya (Danielle Savre) and Carina (Stefania Spampinato) from the upcoming series finale of ABC’s Station 19 and the seemingly endless barrage of bad news that always follows series featuring sapphic characters, the future looks bleak for lesbian representation on screen. 

While it’s nice to see hints and inclusions in limited series like Apples Never Fall and Under the Bridge, or to be featured on the sidelines in shows like Heartstopper and The Girls on the Bus, it’s difficult not to miss the days when sapphic-led series were plentiful instead of few and far between. In past years, Netflix has garnered a reputation for being the streamer most known for canceling shows with LGBTQ+—but particularly sapphic—-characters, but now it seems that all networks and streamers are following in their footsteps.

I grew up watching lesbian and bisexual women thrive on screen courtesy of networks like The CW or Freeform, seeing myself through their tales of woe or success in their supernatural, superheroic, or completely normal worlds. It’s been exhausting to watch all that representation suddenly and painfully be ripped away piece by piece, and that same exhaustion is clearly being felt by audiences across the globe. Petitions and billboards are still circling, but successful fan-led renewal campaigns are nearly impossible in our bloated and struggling streaming landscape, leaving these sapphic characters dead and buried, with their stories unfinished. 

And that might be the most painful aspect of this swift tide-turn. For years, networks, studios, and streamers have put together Pride collections filled with shows featuring LGBTQ+ representation, but as we approach Pride month this coming June, it’s difficult to imagine what those sections will look like besides a graveyard of incomplete stories that were never allowed to thrive. As GLAAD noted in their report, shows like The Last of Us, Stranger Things, and many more inclusive hits can and will succeed if given the chance, but releasing shows into the ether with little fanfare and even less support is a sure-fire way to ensure they sink instead of float. And what truly is the worth of a queer character you can throw into a Pride month graphic on social media if their fate is to never return to our screens again? 

So, with all that said, what now? In a way, the path forward is being paved, in part, by the popularity of lesbianism in other mediums. In a world where Chappell Roan soars to 10 million monthly Spotify listeners seemingly overnight from her compulsory heterosexuality anthem and studios miraculously keep making creative and distinctly lesbian movies like Love Lies Bleeding and last year’s hit Bottoms, television’s backpedaling is disheartening, but hopefully not a permanent reversal of all the good progress that has been made. If anything, the success of more queer media will hopefully act as a signal for television to corse-correct back to its previous diversity and inclusion that acted as a beacon of hope for so many.

Queer fans never stopped making noise after Lexa was killed on The 100, ushering in a new, incredible wave of sapphic representation, and the noise isn’t likely to stop now. As “Cancel Your Gays” picks up steam as just the latest harmful trend in LGBTQ+ media, audiences aren’t going to continue to tolerate this downward spiral. As streaming prices continue to soar and audiences become more and more disillusioned by the now-faded luster streaming once held, networks and streamers will be forced to change or be abandoned by audiences ready and willing to spend their hard-earned gay dollars elsewhere—likely at a Reneé Rapp concert. 

Anna Govert is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and her unshakable love of complicated female villains, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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