A brief look at the evolution of modern lesbian representation in Film and TV
I’m a Zillennial. On the Millennial and Generation Z cusp, this means I remember when the Jonas Brothers all wore matching purity rings, and when Miley Cyrus’s song “Can’t Be Tamed” was the biggest scandal of her time. I also remember when the only lesbian representation was limited to HBO’s The L Word and when Hillary Duff “ended homophobia” with her 2008 Think Before You Speak PSA, where the Lizzie McGuire star iconically said, “When you say ‘That’s so gay,’ do you realize what you say? Knock it off.”
Because of this, I have witnessed a huge cultural shift toward queer representation in TV and film. Now, LGBTQ+ shows like Heartstopper are making Netflix’s top 10 list, but it was only a few years ago when we had to hunt for queer representation.
Age of Tumblr
I joined the social media app Tumblr in 2013, when I was 15 years old. This small act of downloading a social media app sparked my coming out journey. Sure, before the age of 15, I had a few gay experiences — the most notable was Taylor Swift’s “Story of Us” music video that I watched on repeat — but I never fully understood that I could be gay. And how could I? I looked nothing like Ellen DeGeneres.
The first lesbian content I consumed was a music video from artist Hayley Kiyoko. One of the first songs she released was called “Girls Like Girls,” and shortly after the release, she directed a music video along with it. This song and video spread like wildfire on Tumblr.
The story was about two girls that both shared feelings for each other but can never be alone because of the straight male antagonist. Near the end of the video, one of the girls takes the man down and the girls share a kiss. This video has gained over 150 million views and after its release, fans nicknamed Kiyoko “Lesbian Jesus.”
After the “Girls Like Girls” wave came and went, a web series started to circulate throughout Tumblr. Called Carmilla, The series was a Toronto-based show that was a modern take on the 1871 lesbian vampire novella that inspired Dracula, also titled Carmilla. The web series followed Laura Hollis and her vampire roommate Carmilla as they slowly fell in love. The show ran from 2014 to 2016, lasting for three seasons and a movie. At the show’s height of popularity in 2017, Carmilla had more than 70 million views and reached just under 200 countries.
According to a blog post on Action for Children’s website, “Seeing themselves authentically represented in the media helps LGBTQ+ children and young people validate their experiences.” Seeing healthy LGBTQ+ characters on screen helps queer people of all ages finally realize that they are allowed to find happiness like their heterosexual peers. Because of this, it’s no surprise “Girls Like Girls” and Carmilla became so popular in the women-loving-women (WLW) community.
Bury Your Gays Trope
In 2016 there was a rise in queer women’s representation in mainstream television. Popular shows at the time — like The 100 and Jane the Virgin — finally started to include lesbian representation. But that was short-lived.
In the span of a month, there were four queer women deaths in popular shows, including The 100, Jane the Virgin, The Walking Dead, and The Magicians. The death of lesbian characters, specifically the death of The 100 character Lexi, inspired the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
After Lexi’s death, a website called Autostraddle created a list of every lesbian and bisexual woman who has died on TV. Currently in 2022, their death toll stands at over 225 characters.
Queer representation is at an all-time high in mainstream media, with streaming services like Netflix greenlighting more and more stories about queer lives. In 2022, a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual report cited a 2.8 per cent increase in LGBTQ+ characters in TV from the year prior, but it also reports a downturn in lesbian-specific representation for the fifth consecutive year.
This past year, 30 queer shows have been cancelled or brought off the air, and two-thirds of those shows featured queer women. In other words, 21 of the 30 cancelled shows were about queer women. It’s been a few years since Bury Your Gays, but in 2022, the trope is still being played out. Only now, instead of the lesbian characters being killed, their shows are being cancelled.
One of the most recent examples of this mass cancellation is Netflix’s lesbian Romeo and Juliet-type show, First Kill. The show focuses on a lesbian vampire who falls in love with a vampire hunter. In its first week of streaming, First Kill had over 15 million more streaming hours than Netflix’s Heartstopper, a show focussing on gay men. Even though First Kill was more popular than Heartstopper, it got cancelled less than two months after release, and Heartstopper got renewed for an extra two seasons.
Felicia D. Henderson, First Kill’s showrunner, blames the Netflix marketing team for lack of promotion for the reason why her show was cancelled. But this isn’t the first time that Netflix’s marketing team has failed its lesbian shows. Netflix’s show Warrior Nun, based on a comic book by Ben Dunn, was given $0 for its marketing. Even though the second season became the third most watched series on Netflix, the show ultimately got cancelled a month after release due to lack of completion rate. According to queer news source THEM, this mass cancellation of lesbian shows simply comes down to “misogyny and lesbophobia.”
Now, as a 25 year old Zillennial, I have recognized the shift that has happened since I was a teenager, even though popular streaming services are cancelling WLW shows. Thankfully, now instead of scouring the internet for a hint of queer content, the younger generation has multiple mainstream shows to watch and look up to. Just try not to get too attached to your favourite lesbian characters anytime soon.