If you asked me to remember the first time I saw a queer woman on television – real or fictional – it would take me a while to pinpoint. Maybe it was Ellen Degeneres, who has been a staple on mainstream television since before I was born. Maybe it was the main character in Sugar Rush, the 2005 Channel 4 drama about a teenager who really fancies her best mate. Or maybe it was that Sex and the City episode in which Samantha realises she likes sleeping with women, too, and temporarily describes herself as a lesbian. Sure, there have long been queer women reflected back at us in pop culture, but not many. And certainly not ones who are realistic, complex or deviate from the cisgender, white mould.
Which brings me to last month, when Netflix released a reboot of mid-2000s reality show Queer Eye (formerly Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) to widespread acclaim. Despite initial reservations (it’s just about men, it risks exacerbating stereotypes), it’s hard to deny that it’s a brilliant, beautiful show. It gracefully unpicks ideas about masculinity, challenges conservative views about Black Lives Matter, eloquently confronts loneliness and celebrates the queer experience. It’s such a good show, in fact, that I couldn’t shake one thought: why isn’t there something like this featuring queer women?
I am not the only person to have had this idea. “Queer Eye is fine but I would like a companion show with butch women helping straight women who want to feel comfortable being less performatively feminine,” wrote one Twitter user, to the tune of 24,000 likes. “I want to see a lesbian version of Queer Eye … where, instead of giving straight people a makeover, the lesbians get you a lot of comfortable clothes with pockets, make you dump your shitty boyfriend and find you a supportive group of female friends,” wrote another. I swiftly found myself fantasising about a parallel universe in which the queer culture among women around me would be mirrored on screen. It’s been nearly a decade since the last reality show that came even close – the genuinely ridiculous and addictive The Real L Word, about lesbians in New York and LA – so aren’t we due another?
The thing is, while multifaceted queer womanhood is considered “the norm” in the circles I occupy in east London, there is still a long way to go before it’s embraced by the global mainstream – and that includes the gay mainstream. This was clear last week when RuPaul, who is responsible for bringing underground queer culture to your straight uncle Paul’s living room, undermined both cisgender and transgender women in relation to their participation in drag. “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big F-you to male-dominated culture,” he said in the Guardian, before making painfully misinformed statements about the bodies of trans women. The Drag Race host’s comments held a certain irony, as pop culture has often embraced the lives of cis gay men before other members of the LGBTQIA community, making the dismissal of women far from radical. He’s since apologised, but the message rang loud and clear: insidious misogyny persists in the queer community in myriad ways, and it’s often reflected in the culture that is sold back to us.
None of this is to say that the past few years haven’t seen an amazing array of programmes depicting the lives of queer women. The San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, for instance, has become such a cult favourite that its theme song, Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth, has found new life as a queer anthem in clubs. And Transparent, the Netflix show that debuted four years ago, brilliantly explored a wide range of identities. But it’s also OK to demand more from our television screens, and greater visibility in shows that aren’t just fictional – but based in reality, too. Queer Eye is another great step in the direction of seeing more real queer lives on screen. Now let’s open the net even wider.