The Limits of Headlining

The Limits of Headlining

We’ve actually had a bit of an explosion (in the good way) when it comes to shows where we have queer women as the named-lead (i.e. a titular character/show). We went from a meagre three (with none on air) to seven (with three on air) just in this year alone.

Yet with this year’s cancellation of Tommy and the impending hurdles that Batwoman will face with their re-casting, I took a look back at the kinds of shows where we have queer women as the named-lead and realized they were specific kinds of shows. That is, there actually are only two genres of shows that get to be named for the main (queer) character, and neither have a great track record.

Make ’em Laugh or Make ’em Fight

That’s right. There are only two choices if you’re going to name your TV show for your lead queer female:

ComedyCrimefighting
EllenBatwoman
The Ellen ShowTommy
Abby’sHarley Quinn
Awkwafina is Nora From Queens

And it gets worse when you look at their longevity:

ShowSeasons
Ellen5 (Ellen came out in season 4)
The Ellen Show1
Abby’s1 (unfinished airing)
Batwomanongoing (1 shortened season has completed)
Awkwafina is Nora From Queensongoing
Tommy1 (canceled)
Harley Quinnongoing (season 2 is airing now)

This marks Batwoman and Awkwafina is Nora From Queens as the second and third shows to be named for it’s queer female lead that’s made it more than one season. Even then, Ellen only lasted one full season as an openly gay show, and Batwoman is in the midst of a recast. Awkwafina was renewed, but thanks to COVID, no one knows when it’ll be back.

While the lack of longevity of queer female led and named shows is certainly a problem, it brings up another one when you look at the topical nature of those shows. That is, why are we only having two types of shows?

Limited Genres

Right now, we have 39 separate genres, from Action and Horror to Telenovelas and Westerns. There’s a significant amount of crossover in those genres, though. In fact, here are the genres for the shows we’re talking about:

ShowGenres
EllenComedy
The Ellen ShowComedy
Abby’sComedy
BatwomanAction, Crime, Drama, Superhero
Awkwafina is Nora From QueensComedy
TommyDrama, Family, Police
Harley QuinnAnimation, Crime, Superhero

Most shows are really either a Comedy or a Drama. In fact ..

GenreRaw CountPercentage
Comedy51335%
Drama84257%

That leaves us with 8% of all shows aren’t a Drama or a Comedy. Comedies don’t generally have multiple genres unless they’re also aimed at a specific audience or are animated. But when you step into the world of Dramas, you start to have more granular definitions.

With all those granular definitions, you would think the spread for queer female led and named shows would at least break out into totally different sub-genres, but at the end of the day our two shows are both about a lesbian who puts on a suit and fights crime.

Does This Go Beyond?

The next question we have to ask is what it we go beyond just the named and led shows and into shows that are, unequivocally led by queer women, non-binary, or transgender characters?

Let’s just look at an incomplete what we have on-air today in the USA (excluding web series):

ShowPrimary GenreNotes
All RiseDramaOne of the secondary main characters
Almost FamilyDramaOne of three main characters
Awkwafina is Nora From QueensComedyMain character
BatwomanDramaTwo of the main characters
Harley QuinnAnimationMain characters
High FidelityComedy, DramaMain character
HightownDramaMain character
How to Get Away with MurderDramaMain character
Motherland: Fort SalemDramaOne of three main characters
PandoraDramaMain character
PoseDramaMost of the characters
Roswell: New MexicoDramaMain character
StumptownDramaMain character
TommyDramaMain character
Vagrant QueenDramaTwo of the main characters
VidaDramaTwo of three main characters
Why Women KillDramaTwo of the many main characters
You Me HerDramaTwo of the main characters

This list is incomplete, and of course, there are a lot more shows with queer mains who aren’t the ‘Meredith Grey’ of their show, but that is rather the point. Meredith isn’t queer. And the show that had the main queer of all of Shondaland was about crime and death. Yes, there’s a queer regular on NCIS: New Orleans, but you wouldn’t know it to watch, and she is not the primary character.

And even with all that, any show that has only ‘drama’ as the main genre is also about crime or the law in some way. Vida, which we love with all our hearts, centred around death and the subsequent legal drama. The whole reason the sisters in Almost Family got together is that their father committed a crime.

I actually had to work hard to find shows on the list that didn’t involve war, crime, or death (High Fidelity and You Me Her). However we should note that why most of these shows are locked in to those topics, they are also incredibly diverse. So why are the headliner shows limited to two slots?

The Safe Genres

I’m in the middle of researching why cop shows are so prevalent in the first place, but it has not escaped my notice that the primary reason we only have Comedy or Crime is that those are safe genres.

It’s okay to laugh at (and with) queers. In fact, it’s laudable if your show happens to be as well written as something by Norman Lear. Lear practically invented how to make topical comedy work, and Dan Levy’s Schitt’s Creek is the heir to his goal. We watch their shows and we laugh, and then we think about what we laughed at and why. We laughed at Archie Bunker because he was a bigot and made the fool, and we thought about why we laughed at him and then we looked at our relatives.

Comedy allows us to excuse missteps with humour. While some are laughing with the characters, others laugh at, and one can dismiss any offence. A good show does it by using comedy to highlight the problems. A bad show does it to make us all laugh at things that aren’t funny and feel better for it.

As for crime, well there’s a whole other issue altogether. It’s not your imagination that there are an awful lot of cop shows out there on TV in the US today. This kind of propaganda is intentional. It’s meant to make us feel connected to and sympathy with the police. In some ways, this has to do with the lack of a visible standing army in the United States. The attraction to things like G.I. Joe and even Voltron as kids shows where people go out and are the chosen (self or otherwise) heroes who save the world isn’t uniquely American, but it sure is prevalent here.

A queer being a police officer tells us the white lie that we’re normal and accepted in all things. We know this isn’t true. Thankfully, both Batwoman and Tommy do not actually keep on that angle. Both face adversity because they’re queer, and it’s a part of their character makeup.

Where Do We Go?

It’s obvious we need more nuanced shows. It’s fine for a show to have some death or criminal drama (watch Vida again if you’re not sure how to do it right), but that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. We need some ‘regular’ dramas. How about a medical drama staring a queer female? Legal dramas are also good. Some telenovelas where the queers are the leads and not the sisters (or the villains) would be an improvement.

There just has to be some way better for our shows to go than being limited to jokes and guns.

What are your ideas?

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife and their cats in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.

2 thoughts on “The Limits of Headlining

  • I mean technically, on Motherland: Fort Salem, Taylor Hickson who plays Raelle is the first name in the credits and the second name is Amalia Holme who play Scylla, even before the rest of the “unit” of main characters and the showrunners have said there are 4 main characters, so if you wanted you could say that 2 of 4 main characters are the queer ones. πŸ™‚

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