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.