It's February; Pucker Up, TV Actresses
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: February 10, 2005
On "One Tree Hill," "The O.C." and even "Wife Swap," Sapphic love is in the air. And why not? It's that extended prom night for television lesbians - sweeps.
Last week on "Happy Days 30th Anniversary Reunion," Garry Marshall, the show's creator, disclosed his old-school approach to sweeps, those months during which programmers try to impress local advertisers, who pay a rate based on viewership numbers gleaned in February, May, July and November.
"You either have a wedding or you burn down something," Mr. Marshall said. "That's what you do during sweeps week."
Or that's what you used to do, back when "Happy Days" was big. Weddings and fires might provide transfusions of plot for lifeless shows, and they even fit two of four requirements for a good sweeps stunt. But that's nothing compared with the lesbian kiss, which hits all four.
Let us enumerate. Weddings and fires work as stunts because they're (1) visual, either iconic or spectacular.
Depending on the extent of the fire, the Marshall stunts are also fairly (2) inexpensive to produce.
But weddings and fires are not, alas, (3) controversial. Family-values viewers don't balk at fire, even malevolent arson, and as long as the wedding unites a man and woman, they're cool with that, too. Thus those plot turns rarely transform a lackluster show into a news headline the way a truly A+ sweeps stunt can.
Finally, the Marshall stunts are not (4) reversible. Barring annulments and dream sequences, weddings and fires have lasting consequences in the lives of characters - and that can be a nuisance for writers who don't want series-long character development perpetually hijacked by seasonal spectacles.
And thus in the last decade television's masterminds have discovered the lesbian kiss. Eminently visual; cheap, provided the actors are willing; controversial, year in and year out; and elegantly reversible (sweeps lesbians typically vanish or go straight when the week's over), kisses between women are perfect sweeps stunts. They offer something for everyone, from advocacy groups looking for role models to indignation-seeking conservatives, from goggle-eyed male viewers to progressive female ones, from tyrants who demand psychological complexity to plot buffs.
Hooray for the all-purpose lesbian kiss, then, cynical though it may be. "L.A. Law" did it in 1991. "Picket Fences" did it in 1993. In 1994, 1997 and 1999, big prime-time shows - "Roseanne," of course "Ellen," "Party of Five" and "Ally McBeal" - did it. And, though 2004 was dry, we've had about one a year since 2001.
Still, every kiss feels like the first time. The kisses are said to break new ground, or to bring culture to new lows - either way, we seem to forget that we've seen them before. Many times. And though the target audience for these kisses may now skew younger - it's teenagers doing the kissing now, as opposed to Ellen DeGeneres and Roseanne Barr in stunts past - the kissing scenes, with the big build-up and the quick, chaste, fully dressed payoff, ought to be familiar by now.
Next up, then, are Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Alex (Olivia Wilde) on "The O.C." (Fox). The gorgeous California girls will finally kiss tonight. And what with Alex's lending of her CBGB shirt, the couple's happy expedition to get Marissa a tattoo and the tantalizing hand-holding we've seen in the last few episodes, it's high time for the girls to make it to first base. Though Ms. Barton played the aggressor in a lesbian relationship on "Once and Again" in 2002, she's now a relative ingénue, enchanted by the confidence of Alex, a bisexual blonde who has already achieved legal emancipation from her disapproving parents in order to pursue another romance with a woman.
On WB's "One Tree Hill," sexually confused Anna (Daniella Alonso) jumped the sweeps gun by a week and kissed straight Peyton (Hilarie Burton) back on Jan. 25. Peyton rebuffed the advance, but Anna has continued to wrestle with her sexual identity into sweeps. On Tuesday's episode, she went to look for love online, checking "either" when asked on one matchmaking site which sex she preferred. In coming weeks, she'll try to decide whether to come out to her parents. (With any luck, emancipation won't be necessary.)
So what is the meaning of all the kissing? It evidently doesn't scandalize anymore. A poll on one fan site for "One Tree Hill" asked for reactions to Anna and Peyton's kiss. "I saw it coming" won handily over "I'm still shocked."
But the kiss did add a twist to the psychology of the characters. Fans now seem intrigued by how the encounter will affect Peyton, Anna and their future relationships. Though many profess to dislike Anna, who is not one of the show's stars, they also seem more engaged in the drama than ever. The same goes for "The O.C.," which, though its ratings are down in its second season, is nonetheless winning props from fans for showing a lesbian relationship over time and not merely presenting it as a one-off gimmick.
Moreover, though neither the Alex-Marissa relationship nor the Anna-Peyton one is integral to its show, homosexuality on "The O.C." and "One Tree Hill" does not come out of nowhere. "One Tree Hill" has periodically hinted at a romantic subtext to the friendship of Peyton and Brooke (Sophia Bush), while never actually staging a kiss. And lesbianism on both shows often appears to be a displaced consummation of the intimate, complex relationships between the central male characters: Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan (James Lafferty) on "One Tree Hill," and Seth (Adam Brody) and Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) on "The O.C."
Last night "Wife Swap," the ABC reality show on which mothers trade lives for two weeks, also featured lesbians, though in a considerably less frothy context. On the show, Kris Gillespie, a rich, conservative Christian mother of three, traded families with Kristine Luffey, a middle-class lesbian who lives in Arizona with Nikki Boone, her girlfriend, and their daughter, Elizabeth.
The swap showed a quick kiss between Ms. Luffey and Ms. Boone, but kissing wasn't the focus of the hour. Instead, the culture clash, which resolved in bitterness and cruelty by the show's end, provided titillation. Ms. Gillespie seemed to find herself increasingly repelled by the thought of two women in love. As she, following the show's format, introduced both more restrictions into Elizabeth's life and more indulgences - limiting Elizabeth's access to television while instituting Princess Day, during which the girl wore a tiara - she also sputtered insults at Ms. Boone, who responded with shrieks.
The tension culminated in a nonsensical showdown during which Ms. Gillespie suggested that her plight as a black woman (her husband is white) was more difficult than Ms. Boone's as a lesbian because Ms. Boone could pretend to be straight, while Ms. Gillespie's race could not be concealed. Ms. Boone took umbrage at the suggestion that she ought to pretend, and what could have been a frank if slightly surreal discussion of parity in civil rights devolved into hysteria.
At the end of the hour, the women and their partners met for a four-way discussion of the experience. Ms. Luffey's time with Brian Gillespie and the couple's three children turned out to have been fun, but on hearing about it Ms. Gillespie got mad all over again. She repeatedly called Ms. Luffey and Ms. Boone depraved, and even suggested that Ms. Luffey might be a "sexual predator" who should not be left alone with children. Names were called, and Ms. Luffey sobbed.
In all, it was a grueling episode of "Wife Swap," and one not likely to win the show new viewers. Hostile prejudice is a downer, and not a hallmark of a great sweeps stunt. Glamorous sweeps lesbians - the ones who fit the archetype - don't have time for child-rearing or rancorous bigotry. They're too busy being beautiful, trading tiny T-shirts and, naturally, kissing.
ACTRESSES PUCKER UP
"He's a Crowd" (1991)
In a first for a network prime-time series, C.J. (Amanda Donohoe) kissed Abby (Michele Greene).
Fallout: The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad) praised the "historic smooch"; the American Family Association protested; the same-sex plot went nowhere.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (1994)
Roseanne's married character received a kiss from a guest star, Mariel Hemingway.
Fallout: The episode was the No. 1 show of the week.
"The Puppy Episode" (1997)
Yep, she was gay: Ellen DeGeneres's character came out to an audience of 36.2 million.
Fallout: A year later, the show was canceled after a ratings free-fall.
PARTY OF FIVE
"I'll Show You Mine" (1999)
Julia (Neve Campbell) comes on to her lesbian professor (Olivia D'Abo). In the next episode, she goes on a date with a man.
"Buried Pleasures" (1999)
Ling (Lucy Liu) and Ally (Calista Flockhart) kissed.
Fallout: A Glaad spokesman called the episode "nothing more than just straight man's titillation."
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
"The Body" (2001)
Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) - already a couple - kissed for the first time in this episode. They were together for two-and-a-half seasons, the longest lesbian relationship for main characters on a network series.
"The One With Rachel's Big Kiss" (2001)
Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) met up with a college pal (Winona Ryder) with whom she drunkenly made out at a party, and Rachel and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) kissed, too.
Fallout: At the time, "Friends" was behind "Survivor" in the ratings; this episode did not reverse the trend.
ONE TREE HILL
"The Heart Brings You Back" (2005)
Anna (Daniella Alonso) kissed Peyton (Hilarie Burton) who, in the previous episode (shown above), had worn a T-shirt with the word "Dyke" spray-painted on it.
Fallout: Too soon to tell.
"The Lonely Hearts Club" (2005)
Poor-little-rich-girl Marissa (Mischa Barton) has been spending all her time with the bisexual Alex (Olivia Wilde). On tonight's episode, they will kiss for the first time.
Fallout: Too soon to tell.
After reading this I was curious if the also visual/inexpensive/controversial/reversi