Caution: this contains MASSIVE spoilers for the second series of BBC series “Lip Service”. You have been warned…
In 2010 a Stonewall report found that, out of a sample of 126 hours and 42 minutes of UK broadcasting, just seven minutes depicted lesbians “positively and realistically”. That’s about 0.1% for you percentage fans. In the same year, “Lip Service” premiered on BBC Three. If you’ve not seen it, it centres on the lives of a group of lesbians living in Glasgow, Scotland – I’ve seen it described as the British version of “The L Word”. The second series ended last week, and its tone was a fairly significant departure from that of the first series.
At the centre of the show is Cat, an architect and slightly uptight type. She’s the apex of a love triangle that also contains Sam, her police officer girlfriend, and Frankie, her first love with whom she’s also having an affair (and whose hobbies include wearing a lot of eyeliner and looking moody). Other characters in the picture include unlucky-in-love actress Tess, Cat’s brother Ed, Frankie’s on again/off again squeeze Sadie and series two newcomer Lexy, a doctor for whom Tess happens to be pining. Confusing, I know.
Oh, and remember how I just mentioned Cat was the central character? She got killed off in episode two of the latest series. For reals. Laura Fraser, the actress who played her, was offered a role in US show “Homeland” and thus was unable to continue with filming. That role was eventually given to Morena Baccharin, meaning that Fraser could have stayed after all. It’s described in this slightly excruciating interview with Fraser.
The rest of the series covered the characters coming to terms with the loss of the person who arguably brought them all together in the first place and trying to get on with their lives. Perhaps most affected were Sam and Frankie for obvious reasons. I was personally quite glad when Frankie jetted back off to New York in episode three – it seemed to be what she would do in that situation, plus I always found her kind of annoying. Sam, on the other hand, was faced with living in the flat she’d shared with Cat, and slowly uncovering the details of her late girlfriend’s adultery. Heather Peace, who plays Sam, should really be commended for her portrayal of a woman forcing herself to remain emotionless despite going through one of the most emotional things possible. Plus, as someone who has had panic attacks in the past, I can report that her pretend ones were uncomfortably convincing.
Another bonus that came from the Sam/Cat/Frankie storyline being broken up was the other characters being given more of a chance to shine. I especially enjoyed seeing Tess in her first big stage role, navigating a difficult castmate and a not-especially-successful love life. Sadly I fear if Tess were completely happy for too long the universe would implode. Lexy was a breath of fresh air too, as a sensible but laid-back character thrown into a situation that’s difficult on several levels. (Those levels being her new flatmates losing their best friend/lover, being the doctor who treated said best friend/lover when she was taken into hospital, and fancying best friend/lover’s girlfriend. Writing that sentence made me wonder if the real reason for the scarcity of same-sex relationships is the inevitable descent into pronoun-related incoherency when describing plot points.) It was also good to see Sadie integrate into the social group, having previously been an outlier, without having a complete personality transplant. The storylines were messy, but that only added to the show’s realism.
Julie Bindel wrote recently about the show, essentially saying that all the characters are young, skinny and pretty to make them more palatable to men. Ordinarily I wouldn’t link to an article that starts “Everyone knows that lesbians are ugly”, nor one written by Julie Bindel, transphobe extraordinare, but I wanted to show the other side of the argument and not all of her points are completely wrong. However, I would say that the majority of people in TV are more attractive and skinny than average, and that the stereotype that Bindel invokes as “what all lesbians are like” is just that – a stereotype. Not to mention the fact that the majority of the audience for “Lip Service” seem to be lesbians and sites like After Ellen have covered it favourably.
A lot of people call “Lip Service” tokenistic and overly sex-obsessed, but it’s no more centred on the characters’ love lives than the average (straight relationship-dominated) soap opera. While the sex scenes are significantly more intimate and varied than any equivalent straight scenes, I’m concerned that many people say they’re too much just because they’re between two women – similarly to how many people were up in arms over the fairly tame gay sex scenes in the last series of “Torchwood”, but not the equally tame straight sex scenes or the very-not-tame scenes of torture.
This isn’t to say I don’t have criticisms. While it’s great to have lesbian relationships portrayed, it would also be great to see bi/pansexual relationships represented and explored. Trans* characters and more people of colour would also be a great thing to see. One thing the show doesn’t cover explicitly is homophobia, which its creator Harriet Braun has said was deliberate since discrimination is so often the focus of LGBTQ* storylines. I guess it would be more realistic to see it explored more, but aren’t there already enough negative representations of queer people out there? I wouldn’t want one of the few positive ones to swing too far in the other direction. I think it’s important that queer people in general are represented as people and not merely fodder for Very Special Episodes.
In closing, while “Lip Service” has its melodramatic moments and occasionally dodgy writing, having a show that normalises lesbian relationships as much it does is pretty significant. I’m looking forward to what series three brings some time next year.
The Queerview Mirror is a weekly feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts each Friday afternoon.