The following interview with Karen was published on LL Passion in September 2018.
I first noticed your article on AfterEllen (hereafter AE) about “9 Tips for Straight Actresses Who Want to Play Gay” and there is a similar article “Here’s How TV Can Win Gay and Lesbian Viewers’ Trust.” I have watched really a lot of lesbian films and TV shows and I couldn't agree more with all you wrote. What inspired you to write it?
I have a three-fold purpose with my articles: to influence, educate, and inform. Pieces like “Here’s How TV Can Win Gay and Lesbian Viewers’ Trust” are intended to influence the entertainment industry to have more LGBT representation. In essence, these articles seek to use compelling data and evidence to persuade Hollywood that there’s an easily reachable market for LGBT content, and then provide a roadmap for content makers showing them how to reach that market. Pieces like “9 Tips for Straight Actresses…” are intended to educate people within the entertainment industry about the LGBT community: what makes it unique, how to interact with it, etc. And then of course, the informational aspect of articles crosses multiple areas, whether it’s to alert readers to new shows that have good representation or some new trend that’s happening in the pop culture world. Over the last two and a half years, I’ve been purposely building a library of articles that is intended to act as an easy reference for people in the entertainment industry who want to educate themselves more about LGBT issues but wouldn’t even necessarily know what questions to ask or where to find their answers.
Specifically regarding the “9 Tips” piece, I’ve found there’s a tendency among heterosexual actresses to take an LGBT role without doing adequate—or in fact any—study of the LGBT community. I often hear actresses say things like, “Gay and straight people are no different; love is love.” I, personally, would argue that’s an oversimplification on their part that misunderstands and minimizes the uniqueness of the LGBT experience. One of the things about being LGBT that I don’t think is well understood by straight people is that it can be a primary identity for LGBT individuals. For heterosexuals, sexual orientation is like being right-handed: something so natural and common that they don’t think about it as a facet of their identity. But that’s not the case for most LGBT individuals. The LGBT community is a minority community that has a very specific set of experiences and worldviews that merit exploration and preparation the same way that an able-bodied actor would do background research on playing someone with a disability.
I really love how you frequently use statistics in your articles to point out the important facts, recently in the article 'Latin American Markets are the Future of Lesbian TV Characters'. This article is a nice example of how to fight with stereotypes and prejudices regarding female homosexuality in certain parts of the world. Can you tell us why you frequently use statistics to write articles on lesbian representation and what do you wish to achieve with it, do you think article contain stronger message when there are figures behind?
Several years ago, in a movie called “Moneyball,” there was a scene in which a group of old men sit at a table discussing baseball players that they’re considering recruiting for a professional baseball team. The men are using subjective and often flawed ideas on which to base their decisions, things like, “His girlfriend is ugly, so he must have low self-esteem. He won’t do well as a professional baseball player.” Then the young man in the room, who has studied statistics, presents a rigorous statistical analysis for each player, arguing that the recruiters need to base their decisions on data in order to get the best results. The team moves from using subjective feelings to objective information, and as a result the team starts to perform very, very well. This is a true story, by the way, of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in 2002. The point is: numbers can sometimes tell us a truth that is otherwise hidden.
Before 2016, many of us in the LGBT community recognized that lesbian and bisexual characters were consistently being killed off of TV shows, but it wasn’t until someone put together charts and figures proving that the actual number was around 25-30% of all characters ever on American TV, and that this rate was five times higher than the rate at which heterosexual characters were being killed, that Hollywood actually paid attention to the problem. Numbers have tremendous power because they move the conversation from the realm of qualitative (“feelings”) to quantitative (“evidence”). The Latin American markets piece was absolutely about using numbers to tell a story that was otherwise invisible, and in that case numbers were able to tell an immensely more persuasive story than would otherwise have been told using words alone. So I have a great affinity for statistics and metrics because I believe they add a lot of weight to arguments.
Lastly, the other reason that I use numbers so frequently in my articles is because numbers are the language of the entertainment industry. For example, the producers of a TV show might not be moved by the argument that adding a lesbian or bisexual character is a morally commendable and socially progressive thing to do, but if I can prove that having these types of characters will have a measurable impact on the show’s viewership numbers, which equates to profit for the company, that’s when Hollywood starts to listen. And I use “Hollywood” as a metonym for the entertainment industry in general. This same argument can be applied in the UK, Argentina, India, or wherever.
I myself 'strongly vote' for the happy ending lesbian storylines and wrote an article about the importance of happy lesbian love stories by using knowledge about (mostly philosophical) concepts of love through Western history... therefore I also love your articles on Happy Ending Project where it is shown your extensive knowledge on portrayal of lesbians in soap operas throughout the world. Do you think there are differences in lesbian story telling in American, European, Australian and Latin American films, TV-shows and soap operas regarding happy lesbian love stories and in general regarding contents, form and media representation, if yes how?
I would say that in my opinion there isn’t a difference in how stories are told around the world. In this sense, love and love stories are universal, and that’s why “Romeo and Juliet” is performed time and again the world over. Nor is there even much difference in the presentation, given that much of the world takes its inspiration from how Hollywood frames its storytelling. What has surprised me, on the other hand, is how many non-Anglo (US, UK, Canada) storylines have had happy endings, and I think that is a reflection of efforts by content makers in these countries, specifically in Latin America, to shape the reactions of their audiences to homosexuality to be more accepting and positive.
In which ways representation of lesbians in films and TV-series changed in the course of four decades and have we achieved goal of the equal representation of straight and lesbian characters yet? Can you give us five examples of positive change in films, TV and soap operas and explain why they can serve as good examples? What do you think still needs to be done?
Obviously, representation in the United States has changed dramatically in the last four decades, and the entertainment industry is doing much better by all measures both qualitative and quantitative. In the 1990s, one might have seen just three lesbian characters on all of American TV in a single year and one character in a movie. There was almost no representation at all. Then as more lesbian and bisexual characters—most of whom were on TV—were introduced, we started to see the “evil/crazy bisexual woman” trope. Hollywood moved away from that trope within a few years—I’d like to believe in large part due to websites like AfterEllen highlighting how toxic the trope was—and instituted in its place the “lesbians have sad endings” trope. Now we’re at a point where TV shows are adding so many more LGBT characters that it can be hard to keep track of them all, a situation that twenty years before would have been unfathomable.
On the other hand, American movies have a long way to go to catch up. Progress has largely remained stagnant in terms of the numbers of LGBT characters introduced each year despite pushes by groups like GLAAD and websites like AfterEllen and Autostraddle for increased representation. Of course, for both movies and TV we can’t talk about parity between straight and lesbian characters; it’s just not there. The amount of screen time, the amount of physical intimacy, these are tangible metrics that can easily be used to prove the inequality. But the first step for all of this is more characters in general. US TV may be doing better, but what about Canadian TV or German movies? We’re a global community, and progress can’t be limited to just a few Western countries. Progress must happen everywhere.
The five examples that I would highlight showing progress on LGBT representation would be:
Film: “The Secrets” (Ha-sodot) is a wonderful film that was made in Israel in 2007, with amazing acting and an unbelievable message of female strength and empowerment. One might have expected that a lesbian love story featuring two girls at a seminary in Safed, part of the very orthodox Jewish community there, would have met opposition from Israel’s conservative elements, but the movie was actually critically acclaimed. I think this movie proves that we shouldn’t make assumptions that a conservative society will never become more progressive in its views towards homosexuality. If Israel can support and recognize a lesbian movie that directly challenges patriarchal culture and rigid religious dogma, then any country can make a movie with two women in love.
TV: According to data from LezWatch.TV, an excellent source of information on LGBT characters on TV shows around the world, the number of female LGBT characters who have been killed on American TV shows in 2018 so far is between 1/8 and 1/4 of how many were killed on TV shows in 2016. That’s a very tangible metric that shows that Hollywood learned from the backlash it received in 2016 and made the decision to do better on its treatment of American LGBT characters going forward. Not only are American TV shows killing their LGBT characters at a fraction of the rate they did a few years ago, but they’re adding more characters across most networks. The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” leads the way on adding queer female characters and giving them meaningful storylines. The show has had 14 queer female characters in four years, not a single one of which is dead.
Soap operas: By the numbers, the UK has the most LGBT characters on its soap operas, but credit has to be given to Latin American telenovelas. Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have each had multiple telenovelas in the last five years with lesbian love stories, and all of them had happy endings. Now Chile has a telenovela that is positioning its pairing for a happy ending, too. This is a whole region of the world going from not having much representation to having almost exclusively positive representation in one of its most popular and socially influential genres. I specifically highlight Brazil’s “Em Familia” (Helen’s Shadow) as an example of a beautiful story told with sympathy about a married woman discovering her love for another woman.
Webseries: The number of webseries available online for free through sites like YouTube and Vimeo have exploded in recent years as people who otherwise might not have had the means to create their own content have been able to. Canada’s “Carmilla” and Brazil’s “RED” epitomize the success of these ventures and how individuals who are outside of the Hollywood machine can create a quality product that has hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Ship captains: In the early 2000s, many actresses were afraid to take lesbian parts. There was a fear that playing an LGBT role would lead to typecasting and limited career prospects. Today, that fear is gone. More than that, some actresses are actively championing their LGBT storylines—rallying fans, speaking out positively, etc.—support that has likely been a major influence in the growth of these storylines on TV.
Do you think it is important that lesbian actresses play lesbian roles the same as it is important that transgender roles are played by transgender actors/actresses?
I think that’s a very difficult question. LGBT actors are constantly being discriminated against, whether overtly or covertly, and that needs to change, first and foremost. To me personally, the problem is not casting someone who is cisgender to play someone who is transgender or casting a straight woman to play a lesbian, the problem is never casting the transgender or lesbian actors to play anything. To deny minorities the chance to represent even themselves on screen and have the majority take those and all other roles is the height of privilege. As a result, in the case of transgender actors, so long as Hollywood won’t cast them in cisgender parts, then I think absolutely they should have priority on transgender parts. For lesbians, I think it’s perhaps slightly less essential to give priority on lesbian parts because they’ve had some success at winning heterosexual roles. But ultimately, the real need here is for LGBT actors to have an equal chance to get any role, whether that role is cis-, trans-, straight, or gay.
What is it in lesbian community with so called 'lipstick or feminine lesbians'? I have noticed a lot of prejudices and stereotypes regarding them. Do you think that we 'need' to associate them predominantly with heterosexuality and male gaze?
I can only answer that question as it relates to representation on screen. Hollywood does an awful job of showing the great diversity of gender expression that we have in the LGBT community. In Hollywood, 98% of lesbian characters are high femme/lipstick lesbians and the remaining 2% fall somewhere further long the butch scale. That said, this is really just a reflection of Hollywood’s perpetual objectification of all women, regardless of sexual orientation. Hollywood seems to think that the only women worth putting on screen are the ones in mascara, lipstick, and dresses. I do think this limited view of what is “feminine” caters to male viewers—the male gaze—and it unfairly cheats female viewers of all orientations of a realistic depiction of who they are.
What is your next project: what do you hope to achieve with it and what inspires you the most?
My current pet project and future article is looking at the voices of influence in the LGBT pop culture community. Who are our thought leaders? Who drive analysis of trends in a way that has real impact? If I’d been trained as a data scientist, I would have done social network analysis and come up with more concretely backed data, but since I don’t have that training and knowledge, I’m asking pop culture commentators whom I know for their opinions and trying to use that anecdotally-based evidence to reach a conclusion. Mapping out this sort of understanding of our community is important to me to help me understand the intellectual parameters of our community. I often view what happens in pop culture as a barometer for the health of a community, so if I can find what voices have impact, I hope to be able to track what issues are affecting us most and where we see ourselves going. I like to stay busy and always have several projects on which I’m working, so I’m also finishing writing part two of a young adult fantasy fiction duology. Growing up, there weren’t many books that featured queer female protagonists, much less young adult protagonists in the fantasy genre, so it’s important to me to contribute to the community, so that young women today will be able to read stories that speak to their own experience and give them role models to follow.
Ultimately, I’m inspired—or a better word would be “driven”—by the desire to make change. I’ve always been a believer in the LGBT community and in the need to make the world better for my community, however possible. Everything I write is an effort to improve things in one way or another, pushing at the margins and trying to create incremental change that could one day have much greater effects. Although it’s very, very hard to see the impact of what I write, I keep faith that in some way, I’m making life better for the people around me.