Queer Guy in the Public Eye, No. 3
One of the most bizarre things to me is the way that straight men fetishize lesbians. Maybe not necessarily ‘lesbians’, but most definitely girl-on-girl action. Website Pornhub released the most searched terms on their site organized by state in January of 2018, and “lesbian” was the most searched term in all but eight states in the United States. As much as lesbians are fetishized or interesting on a sexual level, we rarely get to see them do the things that we all do – interact on a platonic level, go grocery shopping with their partner, fight over what to watch on television, etc. Even as we move further-and-further into seeing queer people in the spotlight and more queer characters in film and television, there seem to be a disproportionate amount of gay men as compared to lesbian characters. If you’ve been following this column, you’ll remember that All in the Family brought us our first gay character in 1971 and The Jeffersons had the first transgender character in 1977. There were a few lesbian moments on television in the 70’s and 80’s, but the biggest break came with the short-lived television series Heartbeat, which ran for two seasons from 1988 to 1989 and was the first television series to feature a leading lesbian character.
Heartbeat was a medical drama that centered around a medical center, Women’s Medical Arts, which was founded by three women who weren’t pleased with how women’s health concerns were treated in a field that was dominated by men. It was featured on ABC for only 18 episodes; but even with a limited run on television, it received a great deal of attention for the inclusion of a lesbian couple, Nurse Practitioner Marilyn McGrath and her partner, Patty. The sexuality of Marilyn and Patty was revealed in the fifth episode of the show, when Marilyn’s daughter informed her that Patty would not be invited to her wedding. It was the first time that a primetime television show featured a lesbian character.
People ran an article prior to the debut of the show titled “Is Prime Time Ready for Its First Lesbian? Gail Strickland Hopes So – And She’s About to Find Out” in which they interviewed the show’s creator, Sara Davidson and Gail Strickland, the actress who played Marilyn McGrath. In the interview, Davidson explains her decision to wait until the fifth episode to disclose Marilyn’s sexuality, saying “We wanted people to see her as a terrific person first […] then find out she has a private life that at its core is no different from anyone else’s.” The general public was so afraid of gay women that the creator of the show felt like she had to spend four episodes painting a picture of how good of a person the character was before she could reveal her sexuality.
As far as Gail Strickland’s decision to take the role, shock value wasn’t one of the deciding factors in her decision. “It’s not often actors get to play parts that might make a difference,” she told People, “the fact that somewhere, somehow, someone’s perspective might be softened is important to me.” She went on to say that Marilyn was a loving mother who had been in a solid relationship for four years and that is the kind of character she wanted to play, regardless of their sexuality. Strickland’s only fear was that the network would pull back when they started to see retaliation from viewers. This was, after all, not a singular episode of a television show like I’ve written about before, but instead an entire series in which we would see a lesbian on screen week-after-week. Her reservations proved to be legitimate, as the network did scale back the lesbian moments slowly as the series went on with her partner, Gina, only appearing on screen in five total episodes of the series.
While overall the series was important in showing lesbians in a positive light and helped to change attitudes toward lesbians, there were a couple of major downfalls that ultimately hurt the impact of the series. The biggest downfall was that other than eye contact and an occasional hug, there was no contact between the two characters. I’m not arguing that a full-on sexual encounter should have been broadcast on primetime television, but even the small interactions that couples have – hand holding, cuddling on the couch while watching TV, crying in the arms of your partner when you’re going through a particularly hard time – are all absent from any scene in the series. The two characters live together and talk about being lesbians, but it all but stops there. It would have been unsurprising if the series had featured the women sleeping in parallel twin beds, a la Lucy and Ricky in I Love Lucy. Ultimately, I think that this hurt the attempt to “normalize” lesbians. The other characters in the show have intimate moments with their partners, but the lesbians just look at each other and hug sometimes which ended up leaving more questions than answers.
The wardrobe was also a poor choice for the lesbian characters. While the characters dressed feminine and didn’t dress like along the lines of the stereotypical, lumberjack lesbian, they were never dressed in anything sexy. Obviously there was a huge part of the show that was filmed with the characters in scrubs and lab coats, which aren’t particularly “sexy” pieces of clothing, but all of the clothes that the characters wore while being shown outside of work were very conservative. This isn’t my way of saying that women have to wear clothing that accentuates their sex appeal. But if the straight characters in the show were allowed to dress themselves up a bit, why weren’t the lesbians? Showing the lesbian characters as nearly asexual while the straight characters were allowed to be sexual on screen created a weird image of lesbians..
The personalities of the two lesbian characters were also a little troubling. They were both stereotypes of what gender binary, females – super emotional, always troubled by something, never assertive, and almost always submissive. It’s troubling for any female character to be portrayed this way, but especially when showing a lesbian couple. There were no dynamics to the relationship because they were both based on the same stereotype of what a woman should be rather than exploring the idea that any two women could possibly have different personalities. I imagine if there were to be a scene written where they were deciding what to have for dinner we would just watch 45 minutes of each of them saying “I don’t know, you decide!” to the other. It would have been nice to see a little more depth to the characters here.
Ultimately, poor viewership caused ABC to pull the plug on Heartbeat in the middle of the second season of the series even after a nomination in 1989 for the People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Drama and a tie with L.A. Law (which coincidentally would go on to also feature a lesbian character) for the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Drama. Though it had it’s faults, Heartbeat was definitely a turning point in normalizing lesbians and bringing their stories to the homes of millions of Americans. It was certainly a risk for the creator Sara Davidson to include a lesbian in a storyline that wouldn’t have been affected much if she’d written the character Marilyn as a straight woman and Heartbeat really set television up to continue to feature prominent queer storylines in the 90s.