Below you’ll find a list of all lesbian and bisexual female characters featured on scripted broadcast TV (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, The CW) in the 2015-2016 season (June 1, 2015, through May 31, 2016). To qualify, a character had to appear in more than one episode.
- 105 scripted TV shows, featuring a total of 1936 main/recurring characters
- Only 34 of those were lesbian/bisexual women – our rate of representation is 1.75%
- 13 of those are dead (38% dead)
- lesbian and bisexual women represent 1.75% of characters and 10% of deaths
- when taking into account guest roles, we counted another 11 lesbian/bi characters, 3 of which were killed off
Why it matters
Stories are powerful. They can move us, they can teach us – they can shape us as individuals or a collective, and transform our worldview or append to it. But this influence is not created in a vacuum, and the cold hard data behind which stories are being told, and for whom, shine a light on how negative portrayals of marginalized communities are being continually reinforced. The numbers and the statistics behind these messages are as shocking as they are heartbreaking, particularly to those part of the LGBT+ community.
It is said that it’s just fiction, just a story, but stories always have and always will shape our culture. That is the overarching purpose of a story, from as far back as humans were able to tell them: to impart a message that can be carried on and form the pillars of our culture and society. We know that television can influence society for better or for worse, and its power has been successfully harnessed by advertisers to influence people for as long as the medium has existed. Still, does it matter that there were only 34 lesbian/bisexual women out of 1,936 main/recurring fictional characters in broadcast TV? The breakdown of these statistics illuminates that the power of storytelling is being channeled, intentionally or not, to send the same message they have been for decades – that LGBT+ people are either reduced to tragic circumstances or completely absent from the stories that are meant to mirror our lives.
Put it in perspective, lesbian and bisexual women make up a measly 1.75% of all characters. That these stories are also constantly ending in tragedy for LGBT+ people – or “at best” reduce to be practically invisible – means that those people in small towns or isolated communities who think they have never met a lesbian or bisexual woman will continue to view them as weird, abnormal, “wrong” and in effect continue to dehumanize them. For a lot of people, the scripted show is the only access to art and the outside world. It may be the only way in which they can step away from their own lives and experience another perspective, to connect to people and views they would never connect with in their everyday life. It means that each female character who could have been lesbian or bisexual, but instead is straight, is a missed opportunity to build a bridge between fiction and reality in a way that touches the audience and encourages them to empathize and humanize those they once perceived as “other”.
Stories are not only a medium for changing perspectives: they also save lives. To many fans, especially the young ones, television becomes a coping mechanism to help them survive in a hostile environment and escape from their real lives. The heroes they idolize on TV can give everyone, especially young LGBT+ fans, the tools, the invisible armor, the knowledge and weapons to survive a life that may not be kind to them. In the same way straight people may find empathy while watching LGBT+ characters on television, LGBT+ people find allies, role models, idols of hope and a future where they feel safe and loved.
How can they dream of a better future when 38% – 13 lesbian and bisexual women so far this year alone – end up dead? This alarming trend of LGBT+ character marginalization and death severely impacts the audience who most look to stories for a message of hope and escape; instead, they have their worst fears reaffirmed, that this life will not be kind to them, that they don’t have a future where they can be happy. So why should they keep fighting to make it to that future? That lesbian or bisexual characters are so rare, and the few that exist too often only suffer, further underscores the need we have for storytellers to craft messages with real empathy, rooted in better and more widespread representation. A television show may not change the world, but it can change the minds and hearts of those living in it.
These are just numbers on a website. The stories are just fictions. The characters are just characters. But the people who are touched and transformed by them are real. Remember that when you read these.