These 5 web shows feature lesbian characters that can’t be found on broadcast television.
SIDEBAR: 5 VIDEOS
Many of the new web series talk about gender in a different way than in portrayals of lesbians in TV’s past. In the first episode of the “The Better Half”, the two lead characters dress according to how feminine or masculine they’re feeling that night.
Ingrid Jungermann’s show “F to the 7th” uses some of the same absurdist and melancholy humor of Louis C.K. and sometimes features stars like Amy Sedaris and Janeane Garofalo. This episode is premised on the idea of what would happen if Jungermann had a one night stand with herself. In this clip she pushes this premise to its absurd limit.
Alison Wong says that gay men made it to TV more quickly than gay women because “The stereotype of a flamboyant gay man is that is that he is into fashion and singing,” Wong said. “But the stereotype of a lesbian would be a lumberjack or a house builder, and those don’t seem as fun or as exciting.” She describes her show “Straight Up Gay” as like “Will and Grace” but with a lesbian in the fun gay-friend role. In this clip she tries mine humor from situations where they’re both attracted to women.
When Lauren Augarten wrote her show “Scissr” she thought she was breaking down old notions of what it means to be a lesbian, and even cast a transgender woman as a cisgender character (a woman born with female parts). But she still received a complaint on Reddit that there weren’t any women of color and from a producer who wanted a more traditional butch lesbian. In this clip we see trans actress Jamie Clayton play a lesbian bouncer who turns away two clueless straight men.
Christina Bly, 28, and Lauren Aadland, 27, have both worked professionally with video, and apply their production skills to their web travel series, “Button and Bly.” In this short clip you see them filming on a gay cruise in Sweden, where they’ve since picked up a small following.
Lesbian web TV
By Oliver Morrison
At the age of 24 Lauren Augarten realized she was gay. But when she tried to find lesbian characters on TV, she couldn’t find many, and those she did find, didn’t act like the gay women she knew.
“They were either stereotypically butch and portrayed in a comedic way, or they were over-sexualized,” Augarten says. “The landscape is changing a lot: I wanted to create a world that was like the world I was exploring.”
So Augarten, who went to acting school and had writing experience, worked in as many TV production jobs as she could to learn about TV. And then she wrote a TV pilot. She cobbled together funds through an Indiegogo campaign and her own savings. Her then-girlfriend and now-wife catered meals on the set and her previous girlfriend edited on the weekends.
Two years after the initial idea, Augarten released Scissr on the web and now she says her show is being picked up by an agent and they will soon pitch her pilot to TV networks.
“This may never have happened if I could’ve turned on the TV and said, ‘Oh yeah this is what I’m going through,’” Augarten said. “But I couldn’t. I couldn’t find anything.”
Lesbian filmmakers like Augarten have been taking to the web in large numbers, inspired by the desire to create characters that more closely resemble their own lives and to fill a void of lesbian characters in mainstream media. As a result lesbian content has proliferated online to such an extent that websites have sprouted up to curate it all.
“You don’t see lesbian web series getting millions and millions of views,” says AJ Christian, professor of communications at Northwestern University, who is writing a book about web series. “But the series that do exist tend to have stable audiences ranging from the lower thousands to the hundreds of thousands.”
Mainstream shows such as The Fosters and Orange is the New Black now feature more lesbian characters than in the past. June Thomas, the former TV critic at Slate who now edits its LGBTQ section Outward, says this has changed how she watches television. “I love to watch a show where it’s not clear from the beginning whether a character will turn out to be a lesbian,’” Thomas says. “Just knowing the possibility of that is new and that feels good.”
But according to the website Section II, which aggregates lesbian content, only 23 of the more than 100 LGBT films on Netflix focus on lesbians. “It’s still a pretty small slice,” Thomas says.
Gay men were accepted in mainstream television shows such as Modern Family and Will and Grace more easily than lesbians, according to Alison Wong, creator of the web comedy Straight Up Gay. She thinks this is because the clichés about gay men seem more accessible.
“The stereotype of a flamboyant gay man is that he is into fashion and singing,” Wong says. “But the stereotype of a lesbian would be a lumberjack or a house builder, and those don’t seem as fun or as exciting.”
Wong tried to counter this by making the lesbian version of Will & Grace, except with a straight male and a lesbian as the main characters. But she eschews old stereotypes. “We skip a lot of the Home Depot, Birkenstock jokes,” she says.
A variety of web series are attempting to fill the cultural holes of mainstream TV by introducing lesbians of all types: lesbian detectives and lesbian outlaws, Asian lesbians and African-American lesbians, lesbian political journalists and mocumentary-style lesbian rock bands.
And some just want to create roles where the sexuality of lesbians isn’t their defining characteristic.
“The essence of our show is relationships, and our main characters just happen to be gay and lesbian,” says Christine Ng, 28, one of the creators of the web series The Better Half, which has received more than 150,000 views.
Many of the shows attract audiences from across the English speaking world. But The Better Half’s audience expanded into Latin America as well when two Spanish speakers asked permission to translate their show.
Attracting viewers to a web series is a less competitive process than fighting for ratings. “Everyone on the web is trying to gain viewers and the way you do that is by collaborating with other people,” said Lauren Aadland, 27, one of the creators of the lesbian travel show, Button and Bly. “So instead of creating a competition market, it’s kind of a help each other market.”
One major community has formed in Brooklyn. Several of the actors in the Brooklyn comedy F to the 7th have their own shows. But F to the 7th isn’t just filled with other web actors: the quality of the scripts has helped attract celebrity actors such as Amy Sedaris and Janeane Garofalo, according to Ingrid Jungermann, the show’s creator.
Jungermann attributes some of her success to the show’s focus on the common humanity of its characters. “Ultimately everybody is the same: we’re all insecure and we’re all lost,” Jungermann says.
For her new season, she made her character go back into the closet to start dating men again, so she could explore her own insecurities around and judgments of men. “I believe that equality means that we’re just as fucked up as the next person,” Jungermann says. “Equality doesn’t have to be a positive thing.”
But for all her focus on universal truths, Jungermann realizes that shows like hers often get their initial boost from publicity on lesbian blogs such as After Ellen and Autostraddle. And still she has to rely on donated labor. “I have so many favors to pay back, I feel like I owe blow-jobs to everybody,” Jungermann says.
Several websites have started to aggregate shows like Jungermman’s in the hopes of encouraging the showmakers to continue producing series.
“Making low budget web series is a young person’s game,” says Allie Esslinger, the founder of Section II. “The older you get, if you haven’t found that pipeline for distribution, it becomes harder to keep doing it. That’s why it’s a good time to bring in an infrastructure to the wild wild west of Internet distribution.”
Even most of the shows’ creators say the vast landscape of web-shows is too confusing to navigate.
“The problem is that the critics don’t review web series,” says Christian, the professor at Northwestern. “So there is no way to find out that anything is happening.”
By becoming the Netflix of both short web videos and feature length Hollywood movies, Esslinger thinks she can help the smaller shows generate revenue. “Being able to pitch brands is really hard when you have 30,000 hits a month. But bringing on content sponsors for a site that has 400,00 viewers and over a million hits, that’s a lot easier.”
The site Tello offers a subscription service for lesbian TV content for five dollars a month: the site splits the profits between shows based on how many viewers each show attracts. “If we get only 10 subscribers that will be more revenue than we could ever make on add revenue,” says Christin Mell, who founded Tello in 2007.
The site has attracted loyal subscribers, in part by always including a “celesbian,” a celebrity that has a lesbian following. The site combines subscription revenue with fundraising campaigns, which have brought in as much as $65,000 to produce their cop show, Nicki and Nora.
“Before all of us had a full time job and were doing Tello on the side,” says Mell of the site’s four employees. “And now we do part time jobs on the side only if we need supplemental income. So we’ve definitely seen a huge amount of growth each year in our revenue.”
But now that lesbians are creating their own spaces for TV content, they’re starting to receive some of the same complaints that they once made of networks. When Augarten posted her show Scissr on Reddit, one user asked if it was going to just be another show about white girls. The critique resonated with her and she has since added characters of color.
“Do you try and represent everyone you possibly can?” asks Augarten. “Or do you stick to what you know, silencing certain voices inadvertently?”