On screen: the representation of queer women on Australian TV

Once upon a high school day in 2001, my best friend asked me in hushed tones whether I’d seen Home and Away the night before. It was a dark time before Netflix, when we had to settle for the likes of the Bay and Ramsey Street and their rag-tag casts of straight, white and attractively middle-class folks. Here’s what had gone down: Gypsy Nash had revealed her crush on Shelley Sutherland. It was exciting, it felt revolutionary to my fifteen-year-old heart, and it was over in about five minutes. Gypsy was rebuffed, realized she wasn’t really a lesbian and went on to get married and have babies.

The story was important for my best friend. She enjoyed Home and Away, with its beaches and tanned bodies. Until that moment she had struggled to reconcile the growing slipperiness of her own sexuality with an upbringing that stood firmly in the sand of a white, working class Aussie identity. Gypsy allowed her the possibility of herself and she was cranky when that possibility was yanked away again. That same year, across the ocean, Willow and Tara shared their first kiss on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I felt something crack open in my guts as I watched myself reflected on screen for the first time. The witches were allowed three seasons of messy, complicated, queer love and Gypsy’s potential was quashed in a single storyline.

Television has always played an important role in the exploration of identity and sexuality. If popular culture is the new arena for public life then television has become home to the mundane, day-to-day moments – it’s where we learn which of our behaviours and relationships are valued. If Home & Away has taught me anything, it’s that queer women don’t belong in Australian stories.

The disappointment of Gypsy was made all the more so, considering that Australia was the first country in the world to screen a girl-on-girl kiss on television. In 1974, fictional and bisexual reporter Vicki Stafford kissed fifteen-year-old Felicity on an episode of sensationalist soap The Box. The Channel 10 show was known for nudity and controversy and amongst its superfluous drama, the lesbian trope was born.

Even though homosexuality was never illegal for women in Australia, the 70s were an important moment for us as sodomy laws were repealed and Mardi Gras protests and pride marches took their place. In 1979, in the crux of that moment, Prisoner began and with Franky Doyle it heralded the beginning of the masculine lesbian that refused to constrain herself within dominant paradigms of femininity. Franky was a murderous butch and she was given an incredible 20 episodes of airtime.

Given the political climate and the already strong discursive link between homosexuality and criminality, it is significant that lesbianism was rendered dangerous on the set of Prisoner. These women, perhaps Franky in particular, were supposed to be terrifying because lesbians were terrifying.  Although Frankie and her criminal crew were allowed an unprecedented amount of freedom to explore sexuality and gender, those explorations were rendered threatening and ultimately contained within a literal prison. When Frankie finally manages to break out of her heteronormative gaol cell, she is shot and killed. Prisoner was arguably a response to the increasing visibility of homosexuality in Australian life – it understood the mix of intrigue and fear that surrounded queer women and sought to quash our desirability and contain our threat.

In the 80s and 90s, as the Australian LGBT community began dealing with the AIDS crisis, our televisions forgot about us for a while. Then in 2004, Lana landed on Neighbours. She arrived from Canada – which is where they make lesbians – fresh from the trauma of bullying at school. She made friends with quirky girl Sky, they kissed, everyone found out and started bullying her again. Eventually Sky became the hero by standing up for the friend that she wasn’t really interested in kissing and with the storyline wrapped up, Lana disappeared.

Lana’s story was about tolerance, which seems admirable but still sits somewhat behind acceptance and even further behind desirability. In producing queer characters that are overtly accepted by heterosexual co-stars, or by emphasizing storylines that revolve around heterosexual characters overcoming homophobia, television runs the risk of reproducing ideas of heterosexuality as already acceptable in contrast to queerness, which can only gain authenticity through approval from the mainstream.

This wasn’t really Lana’s story and as queer women, we weren’t really the intended audience. Even as Neighbours tried to be progressive and tolerant, it produced a representation of queerness that squashed us into victims such that there was no room for us to become complex, interesting people. The focus, as it often is with mainstream media, was on heterosexual reactions to homosexuality as it asserted homophobia as a natural starting point for presumed heterosexual viewers. Imagine instead if the resilience Lana had developed from dealing with homophobic bullying had allowed her to offer meaningful support to a heterosexual character that was being bullied. In my experience, our young people don’t tend to hang around waiting for their hetero counterparts to save them from the awfulness of the world. Instead, they build safe schools coalitions.

There have also been minor storylines for queer women in shows like Raw FM, Pacific Drive, All Saints and The Secret Life of Us. In each of these examples, lesbianism appears as a resolvable, and ultimately short, event. With all the transient, episodic queers that traipsed across our screens over the last 40 years, very few have been anything other than translucently white. Critiquing the whiteness of Australian television could fill many articles over but the lack of people of colour in queer characters is particularly significant because it suggests that women who deviate from social prescriptions of whiteness, middle-classness and attractiveness are harder to sell as sympathetic and tolerable. If my pasty teenage bestie found it difficult to see herself reflected on the screens of Australian television, then my Eurasian girlfriend would find it impossible. Queer characters need to reflect the diverse reality of the contemporary Australian population in order to be truly authentic and meaningful.

The queer characters that are kicking around our airwaves these days are perhaps more aware of a potentially queer audience. Witty, intelligent and likeable women have superseded the terrifying queer characters of yesteryear. However, some stubborn tropes remain. Please Like Me is a wonderfully radical show about queerness, youth and mental health but for all its good points, Hannah Gadsby’s lesbian character subjects herself (and us) to a large dose of violence and despair. Dr Mac from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is the most dapper and stylish woman on television, and even she has to grieve the murder of her lover without the reprieve of another love affair later in the show. Janet King (from Janet King) manages to cheekily invert the trope of the criminal lesbian by having a Sapphic lawyer as its titular character and yet she still suffers the death of her wife as punishment for deviant sexuality. It seems as though Australian lesbians and bisexual women just cannot win.

Obviously, it would have been impossible to list all of the queer women on Australian television without reducing this piece to, well, a list. The point is that when it comes to mainstream TV queer ladies, the pickings are slim. I want to say that things are much better now and in some ways maybe they are. Franky Doyle’s reincarnation on Wentworth (the Prisoner reboot) has managed to stay alive and thriving much longer than her predecessor. Perhaps this is because we’re finally being recognized as part of the Australian audience and population or maybe it’s because she presents as a sexier, slightly more femme and consumable queer in a commercially driven market. Either way, when American screens are populated with everything from lesbian weddings (Grey’s Anatomy and Glee), to trans women of colour (Orange is the New Black) and interracial queer couples (The Fosters and Sens8), it’s hard to get too excited about Janet King’s potential new love interest.

Image: Pawel Kadysz

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IMG_8437_1Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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