In January 1996, 31.6 million Americans tuned in to watch Ross Gellar’s ex-wife Carol marry her partner Susan on the culturally iconic show “Friends.” It was a landmark moment on broadcast TV, not just because it was 19 years before same-sex marriage was actually legalized in the United States, but because it was the first time on American television two female characters were shown getting married.
“Representation” as it relates to TV and film has to do with multiple facets of the minority experience. Do minorities see themselves portrayed on screen in the numerical proportions that they exist within society, for example? Are minority characters fulsome, three-dimensional characters, or are they two-dimensional stereotypes and props to support white male characters? Do the storylines of minority characters advance the character development of the minority character, or are the characters there only to further the non-minority characters’ development? Are minority characters given complex storylines that interweave with the storylines of other characters on the show, or are they repeatedly given the same types of storylines over and over again, often carried out in a vacuum away from the rest of the characters? And finally: do the situations that the characters face on the show match the situations faced by minorities in the real world?
When it comes to the depiction of queer women on TV, we have made varying degrees of progress on these representational issues. For example, while queer women are still not portrayed in proportion to their incidence in society (not even close), since the late 2000s and early 2010s we have seen a large shift from “blink and you missed them” characters played by guest stars during Sweeps Week to robust characters played by regular cast members.
Simultaneously, queer female characters’ storylines have evolved from a character’s storyline being her sexual orientation to a character’s sexual orientation being just part of a much larger storyline about how she interacts with her peers and her environment. This has meant in practice that the titillating lesbian lip peck from Sweeps Week has been replaced by actual emotional and physical intimacy for queer female characters. Put another way, storylines about lesbians in search of sperm donors have been replaced with stories about bisexual women captaining spaceships and lesbians running the local sheriff’s department.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the lack of same-sex weddings on TV. LezWatch.TV has documented 1,194 shows, mini-series, and webseries with fictional characters that are queer female, transgender, or non-binary, but of these only 20 regular TV shows showed an actual queer wedding. While it’s true that what small parts of the world allow same-sex marriage only started allowing it circa 2014, 20 is…anemic, to put it mildly. Moreover, many of those marriages didn’t last anyway.
On “All My Children,” Reese cheated on Maggie with a man the day before they got married, resulting in an annulment of the marriage. Callie and Arizona broke up on “Grey’s Anatomy” (but maybe got back together off screen eventually? Who knows.), which is still better than when mobsters shot up Pepa and Silvia’s wedding on “Los Hombres de Paco,” killing Silvia. Tonya and Dana broke up on “The L Word,” which was for the best, but then Shane left Carmen at the altar, as did Sophie to Sian on “Coronation Street.” Kate died the day after she and Caroline got married on “Last Tango in Halifax,” while the marriage between Esther and Kim on “Hollyoaks” devolved quickly and ended up with Kim being committed to a mental institution.
What remains—in terms of recurring or full-time characters getting married on-screen and staying married—on a regular TV series boils down to: Julie and Katherine on Amazon Prime’s “Alpha House,” Nicole and Charlie on Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” Rita and Valeria on Italy’s Rai 1’s “È Arrivata la Felicità,” Florencia and Jazmín on Argentina’s El Trece’s “Las Estrellas,” Stef and Lena on ABC Family/Freeform’s “The Fosters,” Carol and Susan on NBC’s “Friends,” Santana and Brittany on Fox’s “Glee,” Lizzy and Prudence in NBC’s “One Big Happy,” Freya and Keelin on The CW’s “The Originals,” Nomi and Amanita on Netflix’s “Sense8,” Ruby and Sapphire on Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe,” Cameron and Rhea on Starz’s “Take my Wife,” and finally Clara and Marina on Brazil’s Globo’s “Em Família.”
This means that roughly 2% of all documented shows with queer female pairings showed a queer wedding, with a little over 1% obtaining happy endings. These are terrible statistics.
To be fair, cis straight characters normally don’t have big, fancy weddings either (with notable exceptions like Bones and Booth on “Bones”) but then again, heterosexuals don’t need to see straight weddings on TV to have their sexual identity validated. The validation of heterosexuality is everywhere, from jewelry commercials to Valentine’s Day cards to “his and hers” everything. In addition to reflecting minority communities on screen, “representation” is also about sensitizing the majority community to minority issues and normalizing inclusion in society.
Studies have consistently shown that individuals who are exposed to LGBT individuals—whether in real life or on a TV screen—are less likely to hold homophobic beliefs. The fact that three states have already introduced anti-gay marriage bills this year highlights the significant need to show gay marriages on TV in order to de-stigmatize them. In a painfully tangible way, we need Hollywood to help us teach straight society that gay marriage didn’t kill the dinosaurs, and it isn’t the bogeyman that some people think it is either. It’s simply two people getting married, same as straight marriage.
2019 is already on track to be a big year for weddings. Charity proposed to Vanessa on “Emmerdale,” Kate and Rana proposed to each other on “Coronation Street,” and Waverly possibly maybe proposed to Nicole on “Wynonna Earp.” The big question is whether this portends a shift in representation trends. Will we eventually see more queer female weddings? One answer is to say that British soap operas for years have had same-sex female relationships that led at least to engagements, so we are likely seeing a continuation of longstanding trends there and nothing new. Another is to say that as more queer female characters are introduced onto TV shows, the higher the likelihood that we’ll see same-sex marriages, just based on numbers. For now then, it looks like the trendline is the same, but there is hope for the future.
The last point about fictional same-sex weddings is fans want to see them, just as they want to see first kisses, the first “I love you,” and other significant milestones in a relationship. Broader social points about representation and inclusion aside, it brings fans joy to watch two characters that they love celebrate their commitment in a loving, heartfelt ceremony.
There is a reason that fans write fanfic about weddings. A wedding suggests commitment and permanency. It suggests happily ever after. At the end of the day, fans are sentimental, and we want our big, queer weddings, darn it!