The Viability of Queer Female Led Series

The Viability of Queer Female Led Series

In looking at the overall status of representation, it’s been very clear we’re currently losing more shows with rep then we are gaining new ones. In fact, at this year’s Winter TCAs, over 75 shows were discussed and only around 10 were clearly and obviously queer oriented. But when you look deeper, there were only 3 that were led by queers.

In the middle of the TCAs, the show Mindhunter was … quasi-canceled. Everyone was released from their contracts and the show was put on indefinite hiatus. And this made me start to think about the long term viability of shows that star queer women.

Definitions

The tricky part of this is the definition of what is a queer female led show. I drew the lines as follows:

  • The show must have been on air in the last 5 years
  • The show must air on linear or streaming, but not web series
  • The show must air in the USA
  • The main character must be the headliner/star – examples: Abby’s, Batwoman, Stumptown
  • For an ensemble show, the focal character must be queer – examples: Pose, The L Word: Generation Q

This meant I can’t count my favourite show, One Day at a Time, because the focal point of the show is Justina Machado’s Penny. That also excludes Supergirl because even with Nia and Alex, the star is Kara. Runways is also out because it’s a true ensemble that I can’t tell you who the main character is. My break down was “If I removed the primary queer character, would the show stand?”

Excluding web series is because I want to understand how the ‘general common public’ is viewing things. I love web series a lot, but for this metric, they’re to the side.

Growth Or Decline?

After working this out, I sorted out that there are 15 shows (on average) a year that are primarily led by queer female characters.

If you only looked at the totals per year, your assumption would be that we were (past tense) growing and are currently on the decline. This holds true to the overall impression we have of TV shows with representation. 2020 has just begun so it’s incomplete, but it would need to add four more shows to, at minimum, keep even with the last two years.

But really the issue is that we’re seeing the same lack of growth we saw overall:

A comparison of new and cancelled shows, which demonstrates growth followed by flat and finally a downward trend.
A comparison of new and cancelled shows with total queer led shows, demonstrating the same terrible trending.

After two years of holding steady, we’ve begun a decline. There is a chance that we’ll get more shows near the end of the year, but there’s also a concern we’ll lose more. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Peak TV

There are, at best estimates, nearly 500 scripted TV shows on linear and streaming networks combined. While the unlimited bubble of peak TV doesn’t seem to be bursting any time soon, we still only see queer representation in roughly 25% of all streaming shows per year and 45% of all shows overall.

However that number (45%) includes shows that only have guests. Which is why it’s important to look at shows that headline or star queer female, non-binary, and transgender characters. Because when we do, we see that only 3% of all scripted shows in the United States have any queer content.

These show us that, again, representation overall has begun a downward trend. And remember, we’ve had a few years of flat and declining representation overall.

Which leads me to this:

Overall view of all shows to shows with any queer characters to shows led by queers.

The counts of how many shows are on air each year come from FX, who are stats nerds like me. I left 2020 blank because really we just don’t know, but a safe bet would be around 530 shows. Now we aren’t seeing the same growth you would expect with the overall growth, and worse, we never surpass 4% of all shows being queer led series.

I strongly recommend the next time someone tells you there are too many queers on TV, you inform them “Well, actually, fewer than 5% of all shows on US television are led by queer characters, and fewer than half have any at all.”

Longevity

Another aspect comes when we ask, over the course of 6 years, how long do these shows last?

There are 28 separate shows that were on the air between now and 2015 which were led by queer female characters. Of those, 50% have ended. And of those that have been canceled, they run on average for 3 years.

There are always outliers, like Orange is the New Black and How to Get Away with Murder, but even just this five-year slice shows we’re not getting much growth and shows aren’t lasting all that long. It’s beginning to look like the time to add long-running shows is reaching its end, and if you don’t attract enough of an audience in one year, you won’t last.

Conclusion

It’s not all bad.

We had a record gain of queer led shows in 2018, with 7 new shows. And of them, all but two (Stumptown and Abby’s) have been renewed. At the same time, Abby’s was canceled without getting to finish it’s run.

There’s also concern to be had over the Netflix model, where they don’t release their metrics and cancel shows after 3 seasons if they don’t bring in enough new subscribers. Network TV has always been quick to cancel underperforming shows, especially sitcoms, which is why Abby’s fate wasn’t entirely unexpected.

This makes me suspicious of the lack of risk and investment that network linear television is willing to take on something new. So many shows are reboots and remakes, but they’re not terribly risky. Sure, they made Magnum P.I. a Latino, but they have a reported dearth of representative writers on staff. MacGyver had a queer character and threw her away after less than half a season.

What we can conclude is this. Representation is stagnant, and that reflects on the volume of shows led by queers. In order to achieve any significant growth, we will need to take more risks and longer chances on things.

And with over 500 scripted shows out there, I think that’s a risk we should be taking.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Viability of Queer Female Led Series

  • You bring up excellent points. I’ve been leaning towards the view that they (the networks) either feel as though they have to scale back in this era of massive content or feel like they have done enough by providing Batwoman. It’s an over simplified explanation for my thoughts, but maybe it’s more wait and see. Also, it seems fairly obvious that someone has an ax to grind against the Batwoman show, just look at the stuff on Idmb. Maybe we can get some folks to rate the episodes and leave reviews? I feel like part of what we have to do is combat both sides of the industry. The networks/industry want our support, but it seems like only if they don’t have to openly acknowledge to the conservatives that they want our support.

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    • Tommy (which starts tomorrow) has a queer female lead and she comments that if she fails as the first woman LA police chief, it’ll be 20 years before they let someone else try. I think that encapsulates the issue. If a queer female (or queer at all) led show isn’t a break out success, they simply will not try again. But also you’re right, they rest on their laurels a lot with things like Batwoman or The L Word (the original). They did one, so they’re good.

      It’s frustrating to say the least.

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  • I saw the trailer on that, and want to watch the show. I had the exact same thought when I heard the ’20 years’ part, not just because she was a woman (probably their intent) but because we know she’s gay. I feel like there are constantly forces out there as well trying to tank our ability to get ANY positive visibility. I have this picture in my head of neurotic right wing zealots actively gunning for us…maybe I’m paranoid? Yes, since they have one show, they think yeah, we have appeased the gay masses, now let’s get back to real tv.

    So frustrating.

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