“You never see lesbians”: Reading ‘lesbian’ through Channel 4 TV’s Brookside
Paper presented at Women’s Studies Network (UK) Conference, University of Portsmouth 8-10 July 1994
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What happened next: an introductory aside
This paper was subsequently revised & published as: Nicki Hastie, “It all comes out in the wash: Lesbians in soaps” Trouble & Strife No.29/30 (Winter 1994/1995): 33-38
The following year I was invited to Channel 4 studios in London to take part in a documentary Three Kisses and a Funeral, broadcast as part of the Dyke TV series in September 1995. I wore my “Free Beth Jordache” t-shirt. Three Kisses and a Funeral can be viewed in four parts on Youtube thanks to girlsngear. My contributions appear in Part 1 (from 6:22), and in Part 3 (from 0:00, and from 2:20).
It’s hard to find much written about Dyke TV itself, but here’s a brief mention in a 2009 issue of the Journal of e-Media Studies (see second paragraph of the article). See also this entry on the “Compliance and Controversies” page of Channel 4’s 25 year anniversary brochure:
1995 Dyke TV. Described as “15 solid hours of sex pervert TV” by The Daily Mail, but as “an interesting treatment of lesbian issues and culture” by the Mothers’ Union.
All part of the supposed growth of queer TV in the mid-1990s.
Where are we now? Here’s a timeline of lesbian characters appearing in drama series on UK TV. Perhaps it’s time I wrote another article …
It is a credit to the soap and its production team that I have had to alter my perspective for this paper as Brookside‘s lesbian storyline has expanded and accelerated in new directions throughout the last nine months. The unfortunate side to this is that I haven’t space here to say as much as I would wish. I have had to choose a limited focus, but at the end I shall suggest some further areas for exploration which I am hoping to develop into a series of papers on i>Brookside. I want now to begin with some general comments which explain elements of the title of this paper as well as the varied approaches it might suggest. These offer ideas around reading and lesbian visibility in the media.
In the last two years it has become possible to read “lesbian” in seemingly more places than ever before. Apparently lesbians are now “fashionable” and “lesbian chic” is debated throughout a range of popular texts, from the August 1993 Vanity Fair front cover featuring Cindy Crawford and k d lang to Joanna Briscoe’s recent article in the Sunday Times (“Lipstick on her collar” 5 June 1994). To read “lesbian” here is to read a story of our popularity, but it is also to become involved in an orchestrated spectacle. According to recent articles in the mainstream press you can see lesbians, or at least lesbian iconography, everywhere, and it no longer “takes one to know one”. Yet articles directed towards a less predominantly straight audience remain suspicious and sceptical. Cherry Smyth in Everywoman (April 1994) asks: “How do you tell a lesbian these days, now that androgyny is common and straight girls are impersonating dykes?” (p.18).
For Smyth, “lesbian chic” is a media-manipulated designer package, far removed from the homophobic condemnation of Hackney school head, Jane Brown, which has been the media’s other high-profile “lesbian” story for 1994. [See also the range of comments quoted in Diva (April 1994, p.10-11).] There are two levels to the public consumption of lesbians. The spectacle of “lesbian chic” is a masquerade, a case of what you see is definitely not what you get when your life/style is deemed unsuitable for the glamour pages. An extract from Quim magazine in Diva‘s selection of quotes on “lesbian chic” makes a pertinent point: “Being seen is not the same as being heard, visibility is sometimes but not always power” (p.11).
If there is currently a tension between the representation of lesbians as “fashionable” by the mainstream media and irritation at this in the lesbian press then it is worth examining how knowledge of lesbian culture is expressed in these different arenas. Which images of lesbians prevail in the mainstream? And which are supported by the lesbian and gay press? How is “lesbian” representable on TV? There is material in this for many papers. One approach might be to consider the meanings of “lesbian chic” for Britain as compared with America.
In fact a distinction here is where some of my discussion begins. In the Guardian, almost exactly a year ago to the day (8 July 1993), Katharine Viner and Justine Hankins were bemoaning “the absence of home-grown lesbian images” in Britain compared with America’s glossy and glamorous media coverage of well-known “lesbian” celebrities. What I find interesting about Viner and Hankins’ article is that they look to “challenging soaps such as EastEnders and Brookside” to produce these “home-grown lesbian images” for the British public. One year on, they have their wish, but the distinction between Britain and America remains.
Where US culture supports the “lesbian chic” phenomenon through exported images of the stylishly famous, the British press turns a sensationalised lens on activities within British TV soaps; although still, it seems, with an emphasis on glamour. So David Plusfeder comments in the Times that ITV’s soap Emmerdale “has recently made its prettiest character into a lesbian” (19 June 1993), and newspapers reproduce time and again the photograph of “the kiss” (or “lipstick snog” as it is sometimes called) between Brookside characters Beth and Margaret. Most recently (June 1994), BBC1’s EastEnders has introduced a lesbian storyline, but rumours about character, Della, in the Summer 1994 edition of lesbian magazine LiP imply that what is most significant for EastEnders‘ producers is how to construct her fashion consciousness and status as a consumer: “given the budget that’s been handed over for her new wardrobe, she’s going to be a designer dyke with a vengeance” (Olivia Suchard).
Although aspects of the British and American press represent “lesbian” through high-level visibility, style and glamour, it is still more usual in the lesbian and gay press to find the accusation that “you never see lesbians” in the media, at least not represented “positively”. Hence, the exclamations of astonishment or celebration in publications such as LiP, Diva and the Pink Paper when lesbians do take to the TV screen. I’ll admit that I had been waiting for years specifically for the appearance of a lesbian character in a main role in a British soap. I’ll attempt to explain why I consider the genre of soap opera so important for lesbian representation as I go on. It is my sense that because of the scarcity of lesbian representation on television, lesbian themes are often viewed by lesbian audiences with a mixture of celebration and trepidation. As Megan Radclyffe comments in her Time Out review of Brookside‘s lesbian storyline: “Far more rests on this than meets the eye” (9 Feb. 1994).
I am focusing on Brookside here not because I consider myself a “fan” (although I do, and for the last three years have felt unable to miss a single episode), but because out of the recent media representations it is Brookside which has provided the most explorative and challenging storyline around a lesbian theme. Brookside has consistenly caught the imagination of both straight and lesbian/gay audiences, whereas other TV soaps and dramas have either sparked momentary interest or the lesbian content of the programmes themselves has been shortlived.
One of the positive aspects I have noted throughout Brookside‘s lesbian story is that it has never represented lesbian themes solely for recuperation by, or for the benefit of a straight audience. As Mal Young, the soap’s producer, told me, “Brookside‘s not about making people feel comfortable.” Compare this with Emmerdale‘s character, Zoe, who discovered her “lesbianism” in Summer 1993. After a couple of coming out scenes and a visit to a gay club in Leeds, the scriptwriters seemed unable to decide what to do with her, especially amidst the devastation caused by a Lockerbie-style plane crash and an armed siege. I fear she has now sublimated her sexuality by establishing a new veterinary practice, although I’m prepared to be proved wrong. It remains to be seen how the EastEnders plot will develop, but this is significant already in challenging the all white representation of current TV lesbians.
It was October 1993 when I realised my desires for a lesbian character were about to be rewarded by Brookside. I was then, and am currently engaged in research about lesbians as readers, particularly as readers of lesbian fiction, but also, more generally, as consumers of “lesbian signs” in the media. Here again I want to stress the connections between reading and visibility. In an episode of Brookside screened on 25 October 1993 my pleasures as a reader of lesbian fiction and as a viewer of TV soap came together through a character’s on-screen discussion of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. This paper became possible for me at that point. I shall be discussing this episode in more detail.
Since October, there have been many developments in Brookside‘s lesbian theme, both on- and off-screen. One of the most significant of these for the notion of reading “lesbian” was the publication of The Journals of Beth Jordache on 25 April this year. It is around the character of Beth Jordache that the lesbian theme has been focused. The publication of the Journals invites the interesting question: what can be seen of Beth through her diary writings which isn’t available from the TV screen? And vice versa: what is shown of Beth on the TV screen which cannot be represented in diary form?
My discussion, then, embraces questions about the ways in which different audiences construct readings of the lesbian storyline – who sees lesbians? when? and how? – as well as how Brookside might address or construct a “lesbian reader”.
The quotation in my title – “You never see lesbians” – has a precise source. This sentence appears in The Journals of Beth Jordache. Interestingly, Beth’s comment refers specifically to the visibility of lesbians on television, and suggests that television is considered an important cultural resource when wishing to develop one’s understanding of a range of subjects, including issues of sexuality. As Larry Gross has commented: “in the case of lesbian women and gay men we might reasonably expect that the media play a major role in shaping images held by society, including in many cases by gay people ourselves” (p.144). This is the context of Beth’s sentence:
You’d have thought it would be easy to find out about it these days. I’ve always been sort of aware of it, but I don’t really know what being gay means. The only thing you see on the telly is a lot of camp idiots poncing around playing hairdressers. It’s one of the rules. If a man’s a hairdresser, then he’s gay and so limp wristed you wonder how he can hold the scissors. Either that, or he’s incredibly sensitive and dying of AIDS. You never see lesbians. (p.80-81)
Comparing this passage with comments made in 1987 by American David Thursdale, a member of the Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Artists’ Media Watch Committee, points to the difficulty of representing lesbian storylines on TV and suggests that a story would have to promise high dramatic potential if it is to warrant media attention:
There’s just not much that’s lesbian-related that makes the headlines . . . [fictional portrayals are] less provocative [than those of gay men] and therefore less likely to get the attention of network executives. Coming out stories are always male. And gay men are either funny as in La Cage aux Folles or tragic as in AIDS stories. It’s hard to equal that in lesbian stories (cited in Moritz 1989).
There are a number of issues which deserve to be commented on in these extracts. For now, though, I have time only to examine the implications of the statement “You never see lesbians.” That this comment forms part of Beth’s diary entry for 28 November 1993 has everything to do with issues of lesbian visibility in Brookside because at this point in the TV series there were few on-screen signifiers.
When, and through which signifiers, does a lesbian storyline become visible? Specifying dates has become vital for me in terms of timing my involvement as a lesbian reader of Brookside and comparing this with responses in the press. For the tabloid press, the lesbian storyline really began in the week leading up to Christmas 1993 and seemed to receive confirmation only after the 14 January 1994 episode. In the Christmas Eve transmission Beth tells her friend, Margaret, that she loves her and attempts to kiss her, providing the first “lesbian kiss” scenes. Mal Young, producer of Brookside, told me:
We were very lucky to have sat on that [storyline]. There were rumblings and people heard things, but we actually kept it out of the press. We just denied everything. We didn’t let them have any pictures, so they had nothing to go on, until that final week [Christmas week] when it was broadcast.
What does it take for the mainstream press to see lesbians on TV? The second kiss screened on 14 January 1994, reciprocated this time by Margaret, apparently marks the deciding factor. “It’s the Clincher” according to that day’s Daily Mirror headline, printed alongside a photograph of Beth and Margaret’s kiss. The Mirror‘s article opens with the lines: “Here is the picture that says it all. Beth Jordache loves Margaret Clemence. And viewers will be in no doubt about it when the two girls have a close-encounter kissing session on tonight’s episode” (my emphasis). Without supporting picture evidence of a particular kind, an intimate female embrace or kiss, for example, it seems there is no lesbian story.
But in fact such an intimate embrace had been screened on 19 and 22 November 1993. On both occasions, Beth and Margaret are shown in bed together in each other’s arms. They kiss and hug, but in a non-sexual context so that they are depicted as “innocent” friends free from the suggestion of lesbianism. This is how Mal Young represents those scenes:
The girls went to sleep in each other’s arms, and not one letter of complaint. Everyone said “Gorgeous scene”. And then a month later we showed them back in bed together kissing and everyone said “Disgusting. You should be taken off the air.” And I said, “What’s the difference? It’s exactly what they did a month ago. They kissed a month ago, but because we didn’t suggest any undertones you were quite happy.” We wanted to point up people’s hypocrisy, and it kind of worked.
Now I want to turn to the 25 October episode, and suggest that there is a model reader for this episode who is quite capable later of reading “lesbian” in the November scenes. I identify the 25 October episode as a pivotal moment in the lesbian storyline between Beth and Margaret and one which also provided a rare occasion in mainstream TV broadcasting wherein the model TV audience became a “queer audience”. To avoid getting into a discussion about the politics and epistemology of the term “queer”, I want to point out that I use “queer” here in the sense suggested by Alexander Doty: that is, to denote an audience whose responses are “contra-, non-, or anti-straight” (xv). I am hesitant about calling the model audience a “lesbian audience” because gay, bisexual and some straight viewers might also be able to interpret the situation in this episode as opening up a “lesbian narrative space” (Farwell).
Robert C. Allen and Sonia M. Livingstone have both emphasised in their audience-oriented approaches to soap opera how through its resistance to narrative closure, “soap opera has played . . . an important illustrative and interesting role in arguments about the active viewer” in television criticism (Livingstone 53). Following the literary reader-response model developed by Wolfgang Iser, Allen demonstrates how the soap opera text “is made to ‘mean’ [through] the filling in of textual gaps by the reader, the imposition of the individual’s frame of reference upon the world of the text” (89). He claims that as the soap opera is designed to reach the largest possible audience it
contains an interpretive threshold below which the reader cannot fall and still “understand what’s going on” . . . [but that a]bove this threshold . . . the reader may engage in multiple decoding strategies – plugging soap opera events and relationships into personal frames of reference via the operation of a number of different codes (p.83).
I shall demonstrate how some of those codes operate in this episode. Beth calls on Margaret and immediately begins to talk about the book she is holding and which she has just finished reading.
Beth: I brought this over for you. I finished reading it on the way home.
Margaret: Is it good then?
Beth: It’s really sad. I’m so embarrassed. Can you believe it, I started crying on the bus. Some old woman asked if I was alright so I told her my auntie had died. I don’t know why.
Margaret takes the book, turns it over to read the back cover, and it is never mentioned again. This whole scene probably takes up less than a minute of screen time. It may not seem like much to get excited about, but it is executed in such a way that it demands specialised knowledge on behalf of the viewer if the book exchange is to have any meaning other than an attempt to introduce a level of narrative realism. At no time is the title of the book or the author’s name visible. The model reader for this scene is someone who can recognise a book by its cover and come up with the Virago edition of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and then go beyond this to interpret the book as a code word for “lesbian”. According to Rebecca O’Rourke who has written extensively about The Well of Loneliness and its meaning for different readers, the painting by Gluck on the Virago cover is enough on its own to signal “lesbian”:
It . . . shows two heads, cheek to cheek. The figures are androgynous women: short cropped hair, no make-up, noble features. This image represents lesbian whereas . . . [covers on different editions of The Well] represent women; a subtle yet very obvious distinction. It also represents two women as lesbians, a way of underlining what most interpretations of the novel elide: that Mary is as much a lesbian as Stephen (p.98).
(Could this possibly suggest that Margaret is as much a lesbian as Beth? I’m reading ahead here, but it’s worth a thought.)
This scene also provides the opportunity for an “in”-joke about lesbian intertexuality: Beth adds her response to reading The Well of Loneliness to the many others documented throughout lesbian publications. For the sharers in the joke, those viewers capable of reading “lesbian plots” on-screen, Beth has completed one of the stages of coming out! Another point of interest: October 1993 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Radclyffe Hall’s death.
It is not necessary in terms of its narrative function that viewers recognise Beth’s gift to Margaret as The Well of Loneliness, but it does offer the “queer” viewer a further interpretive device by which to measure the developing intimacy between the two young women at this stage in the TV narrative and in subsequent episodes. The Well of Loneliness features in an important episode for the strengthening of Beth and Margaret’s friendship, for it is in the 25 October transmission that Beth begins to talk to Margaret about her violent and sexually abusive father. The discussions about Beth’s father are continued when Beth and Margaret are in bed together on 19 November. Beth shares more and tells Margaret that she was raped by her father when she was fourteen. Margaret is upset for Beth and hugs her, urging her not to talk any more about men because “it’s friends who count.”
Between the end of November and the beginning of December viewers were being teased by a consciously heterosexist plot involving a form of love-triangle between Beth, Margaret and their friend Keith. Heterosexual pairings are assumed and the possibility of same-sex desire is continually denied. Keith is made homeless and stays temporarily with Margaret. They are shown to spend a lot of time together and other residents of Brookside Close view them as a couple, commenting on this occasionally to Beth. Beth’s behaviour around Keith and Margaret is interpreted by other characters, including Margaret herself, as a jealous reaction. The only conceivable reason they can find for her jealousy is that she must fancy Keith. Scenes between the three friends are constructed so that the “heterosexist” reading can be justified as the “correct” reading, even when Beth denies she is interested in Keith. Twice, Beth makes a decision to do something – to stay in or to see a film – and yet rearranges her plans as soon as Keith suggests something different. She reacts only to Keith; Margaret is not consulted on these occasions.
I have taken some time to discuss the 25 October episode and some of the scenes shared by Margaret and Beth up to and beyond the end of November transmissions in order to highlight the gaps between the TV narrative and the journal narrative and their possible effects on the TV viewer. One of the constraints of the televisual experience of soap opera is that as it is based on the idea of community, the narrative has to be built around social exchange. What happens to one character is important primarily in terms of the effects it has on other characters, so an individual can only reveal their feelings if they share them in a social context. Soap opera doesn’t allow introspection. You are not allowed inside a character’s head, and rarely do you see through their eyes. This is where The Journals of Beth Jordache complement the televisual experience of Brookside. In the Journals “lesbian” is visible for all readers, and Beth’s exploration of her sexuality is neatly detailed as a process.
While the televisual narrative provokes confusion in the viewer in trying to work out the relationships between Beth, Margaret and Keith, corresponding dates in the Journals present Beth’s own confusion about sexuality and relationships. The diary format allows Beth to discuss her feelings at a date far earlier in the narrative than that represented on-screen in the social world of soap opera. The Journals make issues of lesbian sexuality explicit and in an easy-to-follow episodic narrative, whereas the visual script is sometimes unable to represent “lesbian”. In this way, the Journals appear to justify producer Mal Young’s assertion that the lesbian storyline has been “organic” and not centred around specific events, issues or activities.
By “organic” he means that they did not decide to introduce a lesbian story for the sake of it, but that it “just grew out of the character” and “started the day Beth moved in” to Brookside Close. However, a closer examination of this statement reveals a lot about the invisibility and marginalisation of lesbian experience. Mal Young admitted that the lesbian storyline did require clear plotting and precise stages in order to be understandable to straight audiences: “most of the audience won’t understand someone just saying ‘I’ve got this thing about my sexuality.’ They need a very clear black and white plotting.” This tends to undermine his belief in Beth’s “organic” status, but says a great deal about the prevalence of heterosexism and the way in which lesbian portrayals are designed primarily for mainstream audiences (see Moritz 1994).
This point carries through to the Journals to a certain extent. My pivotal moment involving The Well of Loneliness does not appear in Beth’s diary. Instead, Beth describes how she called on Margaret merely to lend her a CD. Perhaps The Well of Loneliness becomes redundant here as a “lesbian sign” because the diary reader has access to Beth’s private thoughts. But when I questioned Mal Young about the book’s absence he said that besides issues of copyright, mentioning The Well of Loneliness would have been a distraction within Beth’s story as most readers will have no knowledge of it. For me, this serves to reinforce my sense of the 25 October episode as a privileged and transgressive moment for the queer viewer.
Encouraging for future representation is the fact that Mal Young takes very seriously reactions to Brookside in the lesbian and gay press, and has become more aware of lesbian and gay audiences through Beth’s story. The publication of Beth’s story in journal format provides a valuable resource for the young people who have identified with the character of Beth and written in both to the producer and to Anna Friel. The Journals not only encourage lesbian visibility but expose such hidden and taboo areas as sexual abuse and domestic violence. Mal Young has already had an enquiry from a Theatre-in-Education company wishing to dramatise the Journals for discussion in schools.
Of course, what the Journals cannot provide is a visual representation of lesbian desire. I have already suggested that the visual impact of the kiss scenes in the television narrative has been important for the mainstream press in recognising a lesbian storyline, and that this has contributed in some part to the media’s continued high profile interest in Brookside‘s lesbian themes. What I don’t want to do is deny the significance of these on-screen kisses for lesbian audiences. It is crucial that lesbian desire is enacted on screen. Articles about the representation of lesbian characters on American TV (and I refer to these because they are currently more abundant than those from a British perspective), have criticised the way in which lesbian characters are not allowed to express sexual desire or passion. The absence of lesbian desire can effectively make lesbians invisible by ignoring lesbianism as a factor of a character’s identity and by obscuring homophobia and “the condition of lesbianism within culture” (Chris Straayer, quoted in Hantzis and Lehr p.113). To be non-threatening to heterosexuals, whether other screen characters or TV viewers, lesbian characters must not display lesbian desire.
So, you may see lesbians on prime-time American TV, but what you never see lesbian characters doing is being sexual. The much-hyped “lesbian kiss” on Roseanne (screened in Britain 3 June 1994) wasn’t really a kiss at all, and certainly didn’t represent lesbian desire for this viewer. Even so, the American TV networks threatened to cut the episode. Such censorship of lesbian sexuality is relevant to my discussion of Brookside because Margaret and Beth’s kiss screened on 14 January was cut from the Saturday omnibus edition due to its earlier transmission time of 5.00pm and the alleged unsuitability of lesbian scenes for “family audiences”. Ironically, this action may have helped TV producers to justify further representations of lesbian desire. Many viewers were prompted to contact Producer Mal Young over this censorship, resulting in 80 percent viewer support in favour of the kiss being shown. He told me that this support allowed him to screen a subsequent kiss “which was actually more sexual” between Beth and Chris, her university lecturer and present lover.
Sasha Torres has commented that “TV’s refusal to represent lesbian erotic life” has to do with one of the narrative roles constructed for lesbian characters as “homosexual guarantors of chaste homosociality”. They are supposed to “localiz[e] the homosexuality which might otherwise pervade . . . homosocial spaces” (179). This is one of the reasons Christine Geraghty has given to explain the previous absence of lesbian issues in soap opera. She suggests that:
it may . . . be because of the crucial role of women in soaps that the representation of lesbian relationships is so difficult. . . . The representation of female friendship . . . through the presentation of a lesbian couple, could reverberate through the soap, calling into question the basis of the relationship between other women in the programme (p.158).
There has been no attempt in Brookside to localise lesbianism in the character of Beth Jordache, in fact quite the opposite. The subject of women’s desire in general has been opened up for discussion, and in a way which challenges the dominant discourse of sexism and heterosexism. Brookside has been prepared to eroticise female friendship, upsetting the heterosexist assumption that a character can be “safely straight”. Rather than lesbianism being localised in one character, the visibility of Beth’s sexuality through her relationships with Margaret and then Chris has led to the extension of the lesbian plot into other characters’ lives. Outraged by her husband’s homophobic remarks directed at Beth, Brookside‘s Jean Crosbie is now re-living the love she had for a woman friend when she was eighteen. I would like to suggest that Brookside‘s ability to enact lesbian desire has kept lesbian audiences focused on the character of Beth Jordache, whereas interest in Emmerdale‘s Zoe soon wained. [See Hantzis and Lehr on lesbian viewers and the enactment of lesbian desire.] Responses in lesbian and gay publications offer support for this point.
One area I propose for more detailed study is a comparison of the reportage on Brookside across a range of
mainstream and lesbian/gay publications. An analysis of the language and cultural signs used to indicate lesbianism both in Brookside and in mainstream press reactions to the soap could provide an assessment of how far current lesbian cultural codes and debates are understood and addressed outside of lesbian and gay cultural production. Such responses to soap opera lesbians could also be usefully compared with the mainstream media’s representation and treatment of non-fictional lesbians.
For instance, how far has the mainstream “success” of Brookside‘s lesbian storyline been due to the appeal of actress Anna Friel, who plays Beth Jordache? – to her talent, charisma, confidence, conventionally attractive appearance, and of course, her heterosexuality. I measure “success” by the number of newspaper and TV interviews Anna has been asked to give.
One of Anna’s TV appearances was on Channel 4’s The Word, with actress Nicola Stephenson (Margaret), on 14 January 1994, the night their kiss was screened. By this time, The Word had its very own lesbian presenter, Huffty, which might lead you to think that the lesbian voice was well represented. But no, only fictional lesbians were allowed to perform as lesbians on the show, not Huffty. Through its treatment of Huffty, The Word effectively silenced lesbianism except in a fictional context. Huffty is made to perform heterosexist and demeaning stunts – such as reuniting members of the studio audience with their first sexual partner (always heterosexual) – and she is reportedly even banned at some stages from the studio so that she cannot get “too close” to fellow-presenter Dani Behr. Hardly ever is she allowed on the interview couch, as she herself points out on one show. On the night Anna and Nicola appear, Huffty is safely out of the studio, at home with an ear infection. Because the show is live she can smuggle in some of her own lines: there is no time for editing. But she is continually undermined by the other presenters. At the end of the final show in the season, Huffty’s frustration is clear when she shouts “Lesbian Power” several times over the closing credits.
A problematic issue in the debate about media representation of lesbians is the demand for “positive images”. What is a “positive image” of a lesbian? And who is meant to be “positively reinforced” by this image? One area I want to open for discussion is how to move beyond a blanket call for “positive images” of lesbians in the media so that it might actually be possible to explore the variety of issues which are involved for audiences, and particularly lesbian audiences, when watching lesbian characters on television.
I’ll end as I began with questions of visibility. When is it that a lesbian can be seen? How do you tell by looking? I wonder who the high-gloss visibility of “lesbian chic” is working for when it can construct some women/lesbians as the enemy? And the enemy not only of a dominant society steeped in high-moral tones of “back to basics”, but also an enemy to lesbians. In the mainstream press, “chic” can often be read to mean “an acceptable performance of femininity”. When Ann Diamond, writing in the Daily Mirror (26 Jan. 1994), focuses her attention on Jane Brown, the Hackney school head, what she sees is distorted by homophobia. She is looking for confirmation of her stereotypes, yet questions Jane Brown’s sense of perception:
What made her look in the mirror that morning and think she looked remotely suitable for a crisis meeting with the boss and an inevitable photocall with journalists? . . . Donkey jacket, jeans and clodhopping boots – and a stubborn look topped with a haircut that reminds you of the Greenham Common women.
I have to say that in the picture of Jane Brown printed below Diamond’s photograph, Brown’s hairstyle looks remarkably similar to Diamond’s own. The following week in Brookside (2 Feb. 1994), Chris invites Beth to her birthday party, but this time by attempting to dismiss stereotypes the script implies that being a “big butch woman” or looking “dykey” is something bad, or at the least, inappropriate behaviour.
Chris: “It’s a straightforward birthday party. It’s not going to be full of dykey women with shaven heads wearing bibs and braces.”
Shame! Not even some? I thought. After all, I’ve got to protect my interests!
I have not tried to suggest through this discussion that Brookside‘s lesbian storyline is merely a reaction to the “lesbian chic” craze, because this is clearly not the case. What I hope to have demonstrated is that as the alternative and mainstream media have repeatedly used images from Brookside to illustrate other stories with a “lesbian” interest, Brookside is positioned as a central text in the current cultural debates about lesbian visibility and lesbian representability.
Much rests on the lesbian representation in Brookside for the development of a television criticism which specifically approaches lesbian themes from a British perspective, both in terms of textual and audience analysis. The more detailed analyses which are currently available tend to focus on the representation of lesbians on American TV networks, although as broad historical perspectives are becoming more common in new publications focusing on British lesbian/gay culture and lifestyle (Howes; Collis; Medhurst), it is likely that more detailed analyses of particular TV programmes will follow.
Moritz states in two of her essays, “American Television Discovers Gay Women” and “Old Strategies for New Texts: How American Television is Creating and Treating Lesbian Characters”, that “lesbian characters and story lines began their fictional coming out” in the mid-1980s. She cites a number of TV shows which have included lesbian characters. Many of these have subsequently been screened in Britain: Golden Girls, Kate and Allie, LA Law, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Hunter, Hotel and Heartbeat. A recent addition to this list is of course Roseanne, with a regular character played by Sandra Bernhard, and its much-hyped episode (screened on British TV 3 June 1994) featuring a “lesbian kiss” between Roseanne and actress Mariel Hemmingway.
The “coming out” of British lesbian characters may be dated slightly later. Since 1989 British-made TV productions include dramatisations of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Portrait of a Marriage, a lesbian relationship depicted in one episode of Casualty, recurring lesbian characters in the series Rides about a women-run taxi service, a lesbian character in the police drama series Between the Lines and lesbian presenter, Huffty, on The Word.
In suggesting answers to the question “what does it mean to have a lesbian character in a TV soap?”, I have taken some guidance from the work of Robert C. Allen and Sonia M. Livingstone, both of whom have independently discussed the genre of soap opera with reference to reader-response and audience-oriented theories. A characteristic element of soap opera narratives cited by Allen is that they “contain upwards of forty regularly-appearing characters, and while some are more prominent than others at any given time, none can be singled out as the motor of the narrative” (69-70). In this way, individual characters are given a certain equality; there is no distinction between main or minor characters as all of the regularly-appearing characters are central to the soap’s narrative and presentation of community. Darlene M. Hantzis and Valerie Lehr in their discussion of Heartbeat, an American prime-time drama series set in a women-run medical clinic and first screened in 1988, suggest that debating “the significance of [having] a central lesbian character on television” (my emphasis; 108) is a critical issue while lesbian representation remains minimal.
Heartbeat’s lesbian character, Marilyn, has received a lot of attention from American critics writing on the representation of TV lesbians, and is consistently identified as the first recurring lesbian character to appear in a prime-time American show (Moritz 1989; 1994; Torres). Lesbian appearances in shows prior to this had been confined to single episodes. Marilyn may be a central recurring character but her appearance in a drama series which concentrates on separate issues each week, every episode ending with some degree of narrative closure, means that it is difficult to view a character’s development in a progressive or consistent way. It is through soap opera’s status as an “open text”, offering a continuous narrative which resists closure that we might begin to see what it means for a character to perform as a lesbian on TV.
- Allen, Robert C.
- 1985. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.
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Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Allen. London: Routledge. 101-37.
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- 1994. “Brookside of the Moon.” Select (May): 38-42.
- Collis, Rose.
- 1994. “Screened Out: Lesbians and Television.” Daring to Dissent: Lesbian Culture From Margin to
Mainstream. Ed. Liz Gibbs. London, Cassell. 120-46.
- Geraghty, Christine.
- 1983. “Brookside: No Common Ground.” Screen 24.4-5: 137-41.
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- Hantzis, Darlene M. and Valerie Lehr.
- 1994. “Whose Desire? Lesbian (Non)Sexuality and Television’s Perpetuation of Hetero/Sexism.” Ringer 107-21.
- Howes, Keith
- 1993. Broadcasting It: An Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality on Film, Radio and TV. London, Cassell.
- Livingstone, Sonia M.
- 1990. Making Sense of Television: The Psychology of Audience Interpretation. Oxford: Pergamon P.
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Lesbian and Gay Community in Britain. Eds. Emma Healey and Angela Mason. London: Virago. 238-50.
- Moritz, Marguerite J.
- 1989. “American Television Discovers Gay Women: The Changing Context of Programming Decisions at the
Networks.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 13.2: 62-78.
- 1994. “Old Strategies for New Texts: How American Television is Creating and Treating Lesbian Characters.” Ringer 122-42.
- Radclyffe, Megan.
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- 1994b. “Brookside‘s Close Liaisons.” Diva (April): 24-26.
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- 1994. Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality. New York: New York UP.
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- 1994. “Playing it Straight.” Everywoman (April): 18-19.
- Tibballs, Geoff.
- 1992. Phil Redmond’s Brookside: The First Ten Years. London, Boxtree.
- Torres, Sasha.
- 1993. “Television/Feminism: HeartBeat and Prime Time Lesbianism.” The Lesbian and Gay
Studies Reader. Eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge. 176-85.
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- 1994. “Turning On: Dykes on the Small Screen.” LiP (Spring): 20.
- Young, Mal.
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