We’re approaching the beginning of June, which means we’ve just rounded out the last days of May sweeps; the final Nielsen ratings collection days for school-year scheduled shows. While there are four month-long collection cycles throughout the year, the collection for the month of May is usually a hot one; television writers and producers pulling out the big guns to pitch the ratings for the lead up to and including the season finale, praying to prove that they deserve to continue on for one more season (except for HBO and other subscription-cable fare, which seems to live according to its own rules). We can usually count on seeing a number of gimmiks to boost the ratings: pregnancy, proposals, weddings, deaths, etc. There are also some less plot-heavy, but still prevalent one-off events like the pregnancy scare and another that has fallen out of favour recently: the Lesbian Kiss Episode.
A phenomenon created in 1991 by L.A. Law wherein two female characters (one usually a main, the other a one-off) alluded to some same-sex attraction, culminating with a smooch, the Lesbian Kiss Episode device was incredibly popular on dramas and sitcoms in the ’90s and ’00s. These were different than interactions between actual LGBTQ characters (see Buffy and ER) and always centred on a straight character(s). Said interactions were always isolated incidents, highly contextual to the episode plot and rarely reoccurring. They also were aired almost exclusively during sweeps, using the ‘allure’ of objectified girl-on-girl sexual intimacy as a ratings grab. Men were never afforded the same steamy gay action (back then anyway).
In these early pre-watershed days of writers dabbling in same-sex attraction, actual same-sex people/couples/kisses/fondling/standing around talking about ponies were practically unheard of (and very taboo -think of the children!). Same-sex people on TV, pre-watershed (aka. the time of night when boobies are allowed on tv), were supposed to be essentially sexless (or, at best, conveniently and dramatically bisexual to add a grain of lip-service diversity), but were only ever seen sexually interacting with members of the opposite-sex.
Still, during sweeps the cultural taboo seemed to be a writer’s friend instead of career suicide. The device was utilized by such ratings giants as Roseanne, Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Party of Five, Friends, One Tree Hill and The OC. The plots were often pretty contrived, forcing established hetero characters into clearly isolated incidents of same-sex action.
Remember the Friends epsiode, “The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss”, wherein Rachel recalls, re-plays and then re-experiences a drunken make-out session with sorority sis Melissa (Winona Ryder)? This “Lesbian Kiss” incident is so isolated from the actual plot that the steamiest moments of it occured years before the timeline of the show, and Rachel only re-creates the kiss on the street to prove to a skeptical Pheobe that she did, at one point, do something crazy and out of character. But Rachel is quick to reiterate, when Winona’s character declares her love after the second kiss, that she is very straight. Scandelous. Once he hears of the college smooch, Joey spends most of the episode openly fantasizing about the purely descriptive incident, reflecting the desired reaction from the audience. Straight guys thinking about girls making out. How shocking!
The Lesbian Kiss Episode could also be used by producers/writers/networking to include more diversity in the cast without actually incorporating any diversity into the cast, in what I would call gay-lite. Pandering to GLAAD (and perhaps vying for a coveted GLAAD media award, the ultimate symbol of gay approval) and other organizations pushing gay-visibility and equality, the Lesbian Kiss Episode is a simple tool to feature same-sex attractions and sexuality while not actually altering any characters, plot-lines or attempting to accommodate the messy business of introducing or featuring actual LGBTQ characters. It’s also a much less taboo way of getting gay onto TV, since the crucial male 18-55 demographic is generally believed to enjoy watching women be sexual with other women, whereas the complexity of real LGBTQ characters is generally believed to be less appealling to the typical Family Guy-addled male viewer.
Gay-lite, aka isolated incidents of TV gay, is ratings and social-pandering gold. It gives the impression of giving real screen time to gay characters and issues, but does little to actually explore these issues or create 3-dimensional gay characters.
The device has fallen out of use recently. There are essentially two reasons for this: first, same-sex characters are much more common on television than they were 20 years ago and are more likely to be reoccurring characters; and second, with an increase in same-sex characters, pre-watershed same-sex sexual interactions are much more common and acceptable. It’s not much of a ratings grab to see Mitchell and Cameron on Modern Family kiss when they have been an openly gay, cohabitating couple for more than one season already (although it did take a while to get that kiss on TV. Hello second season!). And if the GUYS can kiss on tv, it’s pretty safe to assume that the girls have at least a little more wiggle room for some hot Katy Perry-esque action (although whether that’s more for the benefit of ratings than awesome cast diversity is debatable).
It’s still not very common, but as the LGB presence on television grows, I have high hopes of seeing some more TQ characters on the box behaving like 3-dimensional characters as well.