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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

Fan Service: On Losing Patience for Women Kissing


About a year ago, my former housemates and I decided to watch some Star Trek. I don’t just mean that we put on an episode or two. I mean we barreled through all of Next Generation, followed immediately by all of Deep Space Nine. We did 349 episodes in about six months (and yes, somehow, we were all gainfully employed). We were going boldly, okay. Seriously boldly.

We were very MST3K in our approach, shouting quips and inventing dialogue as we went along. If you’re familiar with the franchise at all, you’ll know that Trek has a tendency to whack you over the head with topical social messages. When it was clear that the writers were spinning the Wheel of Morality, one of us would inevitably throw up their hands and yell “MORAL!” or “METAPHOR!” or “MESSAGE! MESSAGE!”

We came to “Rejoined”, a DS9 episode that I have a great deal of affection towards. The cliff notes version is that Jadzia Dax – a joined Trill, comprised of a young female host and a very old gender-neutral symbiont – runs into Lenara Kahn, another female joined Trill. Dax and Kahn’s symbionts were married once, through former hosts – male and female, respectively. Their old feelings rekindle, and despite the fact that Trill society has a strict taboo against continuing a former host’s romantic attachments, they dive right into The Episode That Launched A Thousand Slashfics.

As Dax and Kahn were closing in for The Kiss, I went all melty in nostalgic glee. Their lips touched, and my friend Cian’s arms went up. “FAN SERVICE!” he cried.

I was stunned. “No, it’s not!” I said.

Our other housemates looked at me. It was two women kissing on TV. One of them was a regular character who had never before shown interest in women. The other was a guest character we’d never see again. How was this not the Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss?

“Dudes, this is…this is before Buffy was even a thing,” I sputtered lamely, totally unprepared for this conversation. What I was trying to say was that back in the day, that very episode had been the first time I’d ever seen two women kiss on TV. And for me, a woman who likes women, that was a pretty freakin’ big deal.

I did not see “Rejoined” when it aired in 1995 (to put things in perspective, Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997). I must have seen it some time in high school, as a rerun. The metaphor about cultural taboos was lost on me at the time. What had me rapt that no one on the show had a problem with Dax falling head-over-spotted-heels for a woman. Gender was a total non-issue. There wasn’t so much as a “I’ll be in my bunk” (that reference didn’t exist yet, but you get the gist). What I got out of that episode was that in the United Federation of Planets, a place that had captured my imagination since I was in preschool, you were free to kiss whoever you wanted. That was a wonderful, affirming feeling.

Somewhere in the last sixteen years, the two-lady kiss has become so over-used that any time we see it, we instantly cry “FAN SERVICE!” I have realized with some puzzlement that I’ve had that same reaction for many years now. In an attempt to figure this weirdness out, come with me now as track the time-frame of this cliché through the very narrow view of Stuff That I Watch.

In 1995, Jadzia Dax kisses Lenara Kahn. According to Wikipedia, this is only the fifth time a kiss between women is shown on US television.

In 2000, Willow Rosenberg, the Patron Goddess of Geek Women, gets together with Tara Maclay. Little fuss is made about Willow’s coming out within Buffy itself, and Willow and Tara’s relationship is treated no differently than anyone else’s. However, they aren’t shown kissing until a season later, due to the network wringing its hands.

Between 2000 and 2003, something odd happens. In the short span of three years, major networks shift from a wobbly “Um…girls kissing?” to a mighty “PHWOAR! GIRLS KISSING!”

How do I know it took three years? Because the Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss is lampooned in the last season of Buffy (apologies, the audio’s a little bit off in the middle):

Fast forward a few years. Girl-on-girl action is everywhere. The frequency of it gets downright silly. You can’t go a week without seeing two girls leaning teasingly towards one another in an episode trailer or a music video. Thirteen on House is bisexual, so she’s shown kissing ladies, though we only see her in serious relationships with men. Even Fringe – one of my favorite shows, which offers some very fine storytelling indeed – succumbed to the SWLK during its first season, as it struggled to find viewers.

At some point, folks lost all patience for it. In 2009, during the last season of Heroes, Claire is kissed by her friend Gretchen. It’s seen as a tacky grab for ratings, and is almost universally criticized by fans. After the show gets canceled, many fault the kiss as a big reason for the fanbase packing up and going home. Not because of homophobia. No, because two girls kissing is just so lame.

My, how times have changed.

I imagine that most of you don’t need me to underline the inherent sexist ickiness of this trend, the combo punch of marginalizing same-sex relationships while simultaneously insulting the emotional depth of the male audience. Yes, it’s obvious to most of us that networks treat Katy Perry kisses very differently than those of (in Willow’s own words) “lesbian, gay-type lovers.” If you need the wrongness of this trope spelled out for you, go watch this clip from a 2009 episode of Current TV’s That’s Gay. It takes three minutes to sum it up.

What I find curious about this whole thing is that we have reached a point in which television viewers are over it. We see two women kissing on TV, and not only do we not buy it, but we take it as a sign of bad storytelling. I’d go so far as to say we’d take a lesbian relationship on TV a lot more seriously if we didn’t see them kiss at all for a good long time. A decade and a half ago, seeing a same-sex kiss in the media was a validation, a source of empowerment. Nowadays, it would be kind of nice to go back to a PG-rated Willow-and-Tara sort of relationship, just to see some hand-holding and shy flirting and, dare I say, some emotional growth.

I don’t need gay characters in every show. I don’t care if your characters are gay, straight, or Captain Jack Harkness. My ability to connect with characters is not solely defined by my own preferences. I cry and sigh over straight couples just as easily. What I want is not a gay character, but a good character. However, if there is a gay character on screen, I do notice, and it’s hard for me to avoid taking the way they are portrayed to heart. The barrage of meaningless lady kisses on TV not only feels like lazy writing, but it sends me the message that my relationships don’t matter, that they are only worth something if they exist for the benefit of someone else. And now that such kisses are a worn-out trope, it makes me wonder if folks like me were ever really welcome in those stories to begin with.

But fear not! Before you think that I’m going all gloomy on you, let me take you by the hand and introduce you to a place that’s a whole lot more warm fuzzy and fun. See, as television has continued to bumble around in its portrayal of sexuality, I unexpectedly found a much more inclusive environment within the magical land of video games.

I have always loved RPGs, but in the past, the romance options weren’t my cup of tea. I’d usually just forgo romance in those games altogether (I play my games very vicariously, and brooding beefcakes just aren’t my thing). Imagine my surprise during my first play-through of Dragon Age, when Leliana started casually flirting with my character. I imagined my character looking around the camp, as if to say, “Wait, me? You’re talking to me?” Later on, after my Warden and Leliana officially became a thing, Wynne – an older, grandmotherly character – says, with warmth in her voice, “You’re quite taken with one another, aren’t you?”

For me, that little side-story brought on the same sort of feeling that I had all those years ago, when I heard Major Kira passionately supporting Dax’s love for Kahn. Everybody was cool with it. Nobody minded or cared. Though I had come for the dragons and the swords, I wound up feeling included in every possible way. It was fantastic.

BioWare always comes up in discussions of gender equality – and for good reason – but this new egalitarian trend in gaming isn’t limited to them (they don’t get it right all the time, either; even my dearest darling Mass Effect hasn’t gotten past the “Asari aren’t gay, they’re monogendered!” thing, though that is set to change in ME3). In World of Warcraft, you can complete your seasonal Love Is In The Air (read as: Valentine’s Day) quests with NPCs of any gender of your choosing. In Saints Row 2, you customize your character’s gender by using a slider – a slider! Skyrim, the latest installment of The Elder Scrolls, will allow same-sex marriage. The Fable series lets you to romance and marry whomever you fancy (you can adopt kids, too). They’re simple mechanics, and on the surface, they may seem like they don’t matter much in terms of the overall story.

And that’s the beauty of it: they don’t. In these games, choices about gender and sex don’t change the plot any more than your other choices do. These games aren’t love stories. They’re adventures! Everybody – gay, straight, Jack Harkness – likes adventures. You don’t have to fall in love, but if you want to, the option is there, and there’s an option for everybody. The game doesn’t judge.

The things I love about stories are not defined by my sexuality. I like seeing my kind of kissing, sure, but I’m more interested in watching magic and monsters and spaceships. Wrap it up in a TV show or a game or a comic book, whatever you fancy. But when I step into a world that doesn’t make any more fuss over me than it does over other folks, that doesn’t make me feel like I’m there to be gawked at or to boost ratings, that allows me to both save the day and get the girl…well, that’s something special.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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  • Anonymous

    Love, love, love the “straight, gay or Captain Jack Harkness” :D

  • http://twitter.com/hmbscully Wendy

    Seriously, I don’t know if I consumed the rest of the article after that. (Yes, I did, it’s actually very well-written. *hat tip*.) But oh my do I love me some omni-sexual Captain Jack.

  • http://nmlop.tumblr.com nmlop

    I don’t know. I agree this is a well-written article and I get where you’re coming from with times changing. Maybe I can’t be objective because I have so many feelings about Star Trek (most of them are feelings of affection, but some are feelings about how ridiculous and/or problematic it can be) and perhaps I’m muddling the fan-service issue with Star Trek’s (and other shows’) problems with gender in general. But don’t you think it’s notable that even on Star Trek, the only same-sex action ever shown or hinted at was between two ladies?

    Before the DS9 episode you write about, something similar happened to Dr. Crusher on TNG – she fell in love with a trill dude, the host died, the symbiote was temporarily placed in Riker, and then at the end into a female host, and that’s when Dr. Crusher dumped the trill. When Riker fell in love with a member of an androgynous species with no concept of gender, his partner began developing humanoid female physical characteristics (and was played by a lady). I’m sure there are other examples I’m forgetting. Can anyone think of a time when it was two dudes making out, rather than two ladies? I can’t remember exactly, but I thought that 7 of 9 also had an encounter with a lady at one point as well. Even if these examples are about more than fanservice than in Heroes and other examples, they still cater to the male gaze, and I think the lack of dudes kissing speaks to that.

    I just find it especially tiring in Trek because, as noted in many places (including on this site), it’s supposed to be this utopian, tolerant future, and while yeah, no one freaked when Kahn and Dax kissed, other than the exceptions noted we’re not shown any sexual or romantic expression that isn’t very, very hetero. The Riker example is the most egregious example of this I can think of – it’s so beyond the world of the ST writers that anyone could identify as other than “man” or “woman” or for that matter “straight” that as soon as Riker is into someone, that person has to start becoming a “woman.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1163148945 Corinne Summers Squires

    I just like captain Jack Harkness and who ever else happens to be in the bed with him :)

  • http://twitter.com/beckysaysrawr Becky Chambers

    Absolutely. The fact that Trek’s never had a gay character is downright weird when you look at all the other ideas about gender and coupling they bring up (Andorians mate in fours, Vulcans freak out every seven years if they don’t get laid, etc.). And yes, I thought that the “But she’s really a girl!” excuse they used in that Riker episode was a total cop-out.

    “Rejoined” does indeed fall right into the category of “It’s cool if they’re girls and they’re not too gay.” There’s no disputing that. The reason I bring it up is not because it’s a shining example of equal treatment, but because of its significance to me personally. I didn’t see those issues at the time. I just saw something I could finally relate to. Fan service or no, I do think there’s a difference between Trek having girls kissing in 1995 and every other show in the known universe having girls kissing nowadays. And though Trek continued tiptoeing around the issue forever after, I do give them credit for Kira’s incredulous response towards Dax and Kahn being forced apart (can’t remember the quote exactly, but it was something along the lines of, “If they love each other, what’s the problem?”). It wasn’t much, comparatively, but it counts for something in my book. I also confess a lack of objectivity towards that episode, for obvious nostalgic reasons.

    TL;DR: I totally agree with you. If I’d just written about sexuality issues in Trek, though, I’d never have gotten to the rest of it. :)

  • Ceili

    Except that Captain Jack uses “omnisexual” as an excuse to get with men, men, and more men. I don’t think I can remember a single episode with him legitimately hooking up with a woman. 

  • Ceili

    “Fast forward a few years. Girl-on-girl action is everywhere. The frequency of it gets downright silly.”

    Really? Because as someone desperate for some FxF in her books, tv, or movies, it’s almost impossible to find anything. It’s incredibly frustrating because everyone loveeees gay men and they crop up as the go-to option in any medium ever, but us ladies are forgotten about time and time again.

    Especially those of us who like our women on the more feminine side of things, and when Hollywood -does- throw us a bone it’s a plaid-colored combat boot upside the head. -.-

  • Life Lessons

    I watched the Jadzia kiss when it first aired. It was great. I remember reading that everyone on the set wanted it to be right and not exploitative. Star Trek, You rock!

  • Anonymous

    In this case, I think it’s okay to be of two minds about Star Trek, and Rejoined in particular.  The episode was a gutsy, progressive step forward.  It also wouldn’t have been made if it were two male characters.  If there’s a contradiction there, it’s the same contradiction faced by everyone in history who’s ever pushed boundaries: If you push too far, they shut off the cameras and pretend that you don’t exist.

    They were working within the limits of Hollywood, and of Rick Berman’s blatant homophobia.  As much as we should have seen long term f-f relationships and any m-m relationships (and, for that matter, a transexual or two would be nice — trills and Quark’s horrific gender-day-tripping notwithstanding,) Star Trek was still well ahead of its time in even taking the subject on, and deserves some respect for that.

  • http://fempop.com Alex Cranz

    Between Rejoined and Xena 1995 was a very sapphic year. Though Rejoined might actually be the better representation and maybe even story?

    I’ve just…I’ve justs shocked myself.

  • Anonymous

    I started noticing EXACTLY what you are talking about.  Where’s the FxF in popular fiction?  In the past, gay guys were often relegated to offensive stereotypes.  But now I’ve seen some progressive portrayals of gay men (the TV show “Happy Endings” in particular).  Where are the positive and progressive portrayals of gay women?

    Honestly, gay women are usually made the evil temptress or psycho bitch.  Nothing positive there.  Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule (a minor character in AMC’s “The Killing”… Seriously, this show breaks many tropes and stereotypes).

    I think Becky gets it right in the article. But I would suggest, that the modern girl-on-girl that “is everywhere” is not portraying gay women, but straight (or at best bi) women that want attention from men.

    It became not about women freely exploring their sexuality, but about men enjoying a peep show. UGH.

    Full disclosure: I’m a guy and proud of it… but this kind of behavior towards the other half of humanity is outrageous.

  • Anonymous

    While it wasn’t girl-girl, Star Trek TOS had its “moment” way back in the day, when Kirk and Uhura were forced into kissing:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FynuBw_VsBE I’m pretty sure it’s been cited as the first interracial kiss on network TV.

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  • Anonymous

    And not just fiction. The amount of times I see anything LGBT covered in the media (and I am talking US and EU), the focus tends to be on the men i.e. an article covering a pride parade will have 4567890 pictures of guys – be it in drag, costumed or otherwise – but maybe 1 out of 10 pics, if at all, is showing women.

  • Anonymous

    “In 2009, during the last season of Heroes, Claire is kissed by her friend Gretchen. It’s seen as a tacky grab for ratings, and is almost universally criticized by fans. After the show gets canceled, many fault the kiss as a big reason for the fanbase packing up and going home.”

    That’s actually the sad part about the declaration that a f/f kiss is fanservice. On Heroes, Claire eventually dates her roommate Gretchen. They have discussions about their sexualities, with Claire’s initial refusal of Gretchen stemming from the fact that Claire needs a friend first of all and not a love interest. So much like your friend dismissing the kiss on DS9 as fanservice when the show was trying to depict a more complex view of sexualities and relationships, Heroes was as well. The advertisers may have capitalized on the scene as fanbait and some fans may have reacted to it as such (although not in my corner on the internet, where Claire/Gretchen was a very welcome addition to the show), but the show ultimately wrote it as something else.

    And that is one of the real problems with depicting lesbians on TV these days. Even when writers do not succumb to the male gaze and portray a relationship ONLy as titillation, they are accused of doing so and often not given a chance to write a story about women.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hzg.lauren Hillary Lauren

    “I think Becky gets it right in the article. But I would suggest, that the modern girl-on-girl that “is everywhere” is not portraying gay women, but straight (or at best bi) women that want attention from men.”

    Actually, I believe she was making that point (watch the That’s Gay video link, it’s hilarious). And I totally agree-fantastic article, Becky!

    Something I’ve thought of before that could be wrapped up in this is the bizarre pop culture belief that two women can’t really have sex because neither would have a penis. Therefore it’s not *real* sex, and more acceptable or less offensive or something. Has anyone else picked up on this trend?

  • http://www.thechildhealthsite.com/clickToGive/home.faces?siteId=1 Edcedc8

    hear hear, Becky!

  • Anonymous

    Ah, Star Trek… If only it was as tolerant as it was supposed to be. I’d like to join ZenPoseur (hi there!) in saying that “Rejoined” does deserve its share of respect for being immensly courageous for the time. I, too, saw a rerun, probably around 2000, and the message was completely lost on me. It was a rather romantic storyline, I remember being slightly bored (I was in Star Trek for Borg and explosions, after all!), but it didn’t occur to me that the f/f-thing was unusual. Years and several Episodes of Buffy and QaF (which I liked, embarrassingly enough) later, it struck me that the rather annoyingly romantic plot is actually quite nice and that kiss was an immensly emotional moment, regardless of the gender thing. And as the article said: ““Dudes, this is…this is before Buffy was even a thing,” I think that we should aknowledge the courage and the nice story writing in that particular episode.
    I can, however, see the other side, too. The fact that there seem to be no gay or bisexual male characters (not even talking about humans here) in a universe that detailed is, in fact, a horrible thing, there is no doubt about it. I’ve stumbled over rumors that Voyager’s Chakotay was originally supposed to be bisexual, I don’t know how much of that is true or wild mass guessing. They certainly didn’t go through with it. In my opinion it would have been horrible anyway, ostracising a character who is already portrayed in blatandly racist way. Chakotay’s “indian” culture subjects him to significantly more othering than any other character on voyager with the possible exception of 7of9 – to add the feature “deviant!sexuality” to “gentle!warrior”, “wise!teacher”, “weird!religion” and “respects!nature” would have been…. even more horrible. If that’s possible.
    Unfortunately, Star Trek really is not the beacon of tolerance we’d like it to be. It still did a good job in some cases.

  • Anonymous

    I forgot to say above: This is one of the smartest articles I’ve read in quite some time. Thank you so much! :)

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I’ve seen interviews with Frakes (Riker) where he says that he pushed really hard for the other character to be played by a man, but got nowhere, and was really quite annoyed about it.

  • Anonymous

    I thought this was a very interesting article. To be honest, I never saw this episode. Lost patience with “Deep Space Nine” in the second season. But I do think we’ve gone down a different road when it comes to lesbian kissing. I think the key is that DS9′s kiss was part of a developed relationship. Katy Perry Kiss well describes the current trend of women turning bi for an episode or two (cough, cough, O.C.), rather than pursuing a fully realized relationship. That’s why Buffy had such a hard time. Probably if they had tried to have Dax’s relationship last more than one episode, even that kiss would never have happened.

  • http://zadl.org SuperZADL, Now With Kneepads!

    That was very well written and quite insightful. Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/johnradclyffe John Radclyffe Lohan

    oooh I’d have to disagree with you about the predominance of non-femmes – Femme lesbians are more palatable, more attractive in the conventional heteronormative sense and so they are what are shown time and time again. Even in that great video on lesbian-kisses-for-ratings it really stood out to me how femmey all the girls were. (i wrote a thesis on butch lesbian representation in film/television so i really had to go digging!)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E67BYOXJJUP6HVE4DWG2HH3NOE James

    Don’t try and intellectualise some beautiful and
    perfect….just enjoy it.

  • Rebecca Bloodworth

    Stargate Atlantis. It was a body-switch episode (Duet) but two male characters share quite a kiss.

  • http://randomstabbing.blogspot.com doctressjulia

    STFU.

    …and enjoy it. 

  • http://twitter.com/willowtweet nia ▪ nathalie

    naomi/emily from skins were awesome. definitely not just fan service.

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  • Ceili

    Yes, femmes are shown when they’re there to titillate men, or when they’re “bi” girls drunk, or what have you. But when an actual lesbian is shown it is, almost bar none, a horribly masculine stereotype.

  • Anonymous

    it’s really the only way to explain it. i aspire to be like captain jack

  • Anonymous

    he does it more in doctor who, and in the earlier episodes of torchwood (specifically aimed at gwen), but that’s more so that the actor is gay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000438732409 Benjamin James Lemon

    I absolutely love your article, and I agree that the SWLK is a little, how you say, overdone. I also love how you brought up Bioware and other roleplaying video games into the fold by mentioning how they are handling same-sex relationships. To me love is love, no matter the gender or sex of the person(s) involved, and I want to congratulate you on writing such a thoughtful and impressive article. :)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WV4AOGLYFJUIOMZMPWPYUHQJT4 Faith

    Becky I wanted to tell you just how much this article meant to me.  I am an openly lesbian woman in a happy relationship, and everytime I see two women together on tv or in a movie I am at first delighted.  Then it turns into the “she was only doing it to experiment” fanservice and it ruins it entirely for me.  If you’ve ever seen Kissing Jessica Stein it’s the perfect lesbian movie ruined by the last five minutes of complete bull, resulting in a caring sweet relationship ruined so the main character could go back to the underdog guy character who started out the movie treating her like crap.  That sort of thing is disheartening for those of us who just want lesbian and gay relationships to be accepted. 

    I do feel bad when only two women are given onscreen relationships but two men aren’t, and the thought that it’s because straight guys find it hot is disheartening.  I’m all for guys being into women, or bi women who like threesomes with other women, but real lesbians aren’t going to want to be involved with a guy.  I am bisexual but strongly into women so I don’t think men are out of the question for me, but I would never dump my girlfriend for one, we’ve been together over a year now and we are very happy and were best friends for a few years before that. 

    I guess the point of this long rant (thanks for indulging me) is the fact that lesbian kisses are great…if there is a valid relationship to go along with it.  I hope to see that starting to become a trend, and in fact I am hoping to be part of that, as I’m working hard right now to get published into the fantasy genre book industry.  This isn’t an attempt to toot my own horn, but this is an issue I am passionate about and the explanation is so I can say that I tend to involve my characters in every type of relationship, including gay, straight, and Jack Harkness (love that btw).  But I try not to make my story about the relationships only, yes they play a part, but they’re also dealing with a complex world full of danger and love is only one aspect of life albeit an important one.  And although there are quite a few scenes with girls kissing (and more) there are also straight scenes and I am working on developing my first guy/guy relationship too.  But none of the characters make crazy sexual preference swings and those that might go another direction do so for the right reasons, not just for ratings. 

    I know it’s hard out there but I hope there are others like me and you trying to get the right voice out into the world.  That love is special no matter who shares it.  Your story touched my heart, making me realize that I’m not alone in wanting to see that come true.  And as a fellow girl geek I think I’ll go out and get a copy of Dragon Age, so thanks for the tip there :)  Thanks Becky, and fyi I read another article saying that the David Foster proposed reboot of a star trek tv series would include two gay characters, one female and one male.  So maybe DS9 failed to fully cross that hurdle, but with any luck the next incarnation might prove to be the one we’ve been waiting for!

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  • Kim Tink

    I agree with this. It’s sad when something can be used so often that it loses its meaning. There are shows that handle the GLBT issues well, and yet it can still be seen as fanservice or intentionally causing controversy for ratings. Some of them deserve it, and you know it when you see those (usually). But others at least attempt to do it right, and that’s when it’s a shame.

  • Anonymous

    Wow…Great Article!!!
    LOVE it. Here via BH, and so glad they shared it!
    Makes me miss fandom and academic writing–thank you. ;-)
    & Gah I lurve Jadzia! ;p

  • Carmen Sandiego

    I’m surprised Xena wasn’t mentioned. I have to rewatch as I missed a lot of episodes, but their relationship was in the subtext of their friendship and companionship for a long time before it came to the forefront, right? Again, it’s been a long time and I missed a lot of episodes so correct me if I’m wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/sarasakana Sara Sakana

    “horribly masculine stereotype”

    I think you misspelled “woman who chooses not to follow the male-codified, male-enforced standards of ‘conventionally feminine’ appearance.”

    And just so you know, judging a woman’s “femininity” or perceived lack thereof based solely on her appearance is pretty misogynist and gross.