Get the rollers out! The drama about Gentleman Jack AKA Anne Lister, the 19th-century entrepreneur, landowner and proud lesbian with the Princess Leia hairstyle, is upon us. Suranne Jones plays the pioneering queer icon, with a script written by the great Sally Wainwright.
“As you’re playing her, you’re aware that everybody has a right to be who they are, regardless of sexuality,” Jones has said of her role as Lister. Also starring Gemma Whelan and Gemma Jones, the series explores Lister’s pushback against gender norms as well as her romantic relationships.
Recently, audiences have been spoiled for women-on-women scenes on our TV screens (in Killing Eve or The Good Wife, for instance), but it’s worth shouting out the lesbian characters on the small screen who have become part of the pantheon. Here are some fan
Piper Chapman and Alex Vause, Orange is the New Black
There are many lesbian (and bisexual) characters one could choose from OITNB, but it was Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex’s (Laura Prepon) tumultuous romance that took centre stage in the earlier series. OITNB has a large lesbian fanbase, which isn’t surprising given that its very first scene was Piper dancing seductively around a four-poster bed with Alex watching on. There have been a lot of shower scenes. But perhaps the most touching moment was Alex declaring: “I heart you”, and Piper’s reply: “I heart you? What is that … I love you for pussies?” Well, that, and their “prison-marriage” in season six.
Ellen Morgan, Ellen
Ellen DeGeneres’ double coming out – as herself and her onscreen titular character – has become known as a monumental moment for gay rights in the US and, by extension, the world. Is there any better way of coming out than accidentally shouting it across a microphone to Laura Dern? There is not. One of the best things about the seminal 1997 scene is that Dern’s hug is quite obviously full of IRL pride and love for her offscreen friend. (Oprah Winfrey also guest-starred in the episode.)
People forget, however, that the reaction to the character (and DeGeneres herself) coming out was not actually very progressive. Some advertisers pulled out, then ratings dropped so sharply that the show was cancelled. There was even a bomb threat to the set. But there is no doubt that DeGeneres – who reinvented herself as the massively popular chat show host she remains today – has had a huge effect on LGBT+ representation in US culture and society. An outgoing Barack Obama awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 was a hugely emotional moment.
Sophie Webster, Coronation Street
Sophie (Brooke Vincent) starting her sapphic adventure was the key surprise element of the 2010 New Year’s Eve episode, bedding best mate Sian (Sacha Parkinson). Sophie, a committed Christian, struggled both with her faith – and her judgmental mother – while coming to terms with her sexuality. There was an excellent panning shot to a copy of the Bible on Sophie’s side table as her and Sian first got down to it. I rooted for these two, and was devastated when their white wedding didn’t go exactly to plan. By which I mean Sophie screwed up her vows and torpedoed the whole ceremony.
Sian left the cobbles, but Sophie went on to have a long-term relationship with runaway Maddie Heath (Amy James-Kelly). Sophie has become UK soap’s most iconic lesbian – as well as Corrie’s first. Since then, Corrie has featured other lesbian characters, such as Kate Connor, who, after various trysts (including with Sophie) had a mutual proposal moment with Rana Habeeb (Bhavna Limbachia). That storyline has just been nominated for an LGBT award.
Yorkie and Kelly, Black Mirror
In what was the standout (and Emmy-winning) episode of Black Mirror season three, Charlie Brooker wrote San Junipero, a feel-good love story spanning decades that captured viewers’ hearts. It’s unusual for Black Mirror episodes to leave one feeling happy – rather than terrified and despairing of humanity – so watching the relationship between Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) play out was a treat. Set mostly in the 1980s, the episode follows the more outgoing Kelly seduce the shy and unsure Yorkie. The dancing scene in which Yorkie realises her feelings is a gem, as is the final scene.
Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence, Brookside
The 1994 kiss between Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson) was not, as often cited, the first lesbian kiss on British television – but it was the first before the 9pm watershed. Importantly, Friel spoke in later years about Channel 4 staying faithful to Beth’s sexual identity throughout its run: “I am proud we got it into the contract that Beth would always stay gay; it wasn’t because of her sexual abuse. I was savvy enough and understood what could or couldn’t happen with that storyline at that time.”
Kat Edison and Adena El-Amin, The Bold Type
I genuinely can’t think why I got into this show which has a lesbian media type as one of the lead characters. Absolutely stumped. Though The Bold Type is far from perfect, it does include the adorable couple of Kat Edison (Aisha Dee) and Adena El-Amin (Nikohl Boosheri). Dee and Boosheri have been widely praised for their onscreen chemistry which, quite frankly, is off the charts. I would recommend as your latest binge-watch.
Arizona Robbins, Grey’s Anatomy
A paediatric consultant introduced in season five – and serving as the longest onscreen lesbian character (10 seasons!) – there was something very impressive about a character who could hang out in a stockroom and talk matter-of-factly about a “patient bleeding out” and still end the scene with a full-on snog session. Executive producer Krista Vernoff described Arizona as “one of the first members of the LGBTQ community to be represented in a series regular role on network television. Her impact on the world is permanent and forever. Forever.”
Kitty Butler, Tipping the Velvet
Long before Keeley Hawes was being miserably failed by Richard Madden’s protection officer in Bodyguard, she was romping (as Kitty Butler) with Rachael Stirling in the popular 2002 BBC mini-series adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Victorian erotic novel Tipping the Velvet. There were corsets, there were cummerbunds, there was coming. There was a lot of coming.
Bette Porter, The L Word
And finally, it is impossible to choose a favourite lesbian character from The L Word. Just kidding, it isn’t. It’s Bette, obviously (played by Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals). The archetypal power lez, Bette was the Yale-educated badass director of a prestigious art gallery – a particular departure from stereotypical television roles for people of colour at the time. Bette was a snappy dresser and could work a trouser suit like no one else. She was the sophisticate who once fingered Alice at the opera. Then there was the time she boldly masturbated in a jail cell. Her great love was Tina, who she had a child with. I am writing here in the past tense, but Beals has signed on for the new instalment of The L Word, so watch this space.