Let me begin.
In 1998, when I was 14, I was madly in love with a beautiful prefect 3 years my senior. This love was grounded in and found its safety in, certain undeniable truths:
- nothing would ever happen between us
- any other desires directed at me were not to be acted on because of my devotion to her
- I would never love anyone like this again
I don’t remember who introduced whom to Xena, though I know there was soon a group of us, all just-out-of-the-closet baby-dykes and baby-bis, who merrily gathered for sleepovers to watch this rather appalling tv show. We passionately analysed the glances and touches, puns and innuendo between the two lead characters, and a few of us read fan fiction. The internet was still in its infancy; we had no facebook or youtube, but we had email and fan fiction, and the school hadn’t worked out how to block porn.
And it was mostly porn we read. We consumed story after story in order to imagine what the television wouldn’t give us in Xena and Gabrielle: a requited lesbian love story.
The appeal of unresolved sexual tension (UST in the fanfic world) isn’t new or original. From Austen to the X Files, we adore being voyeurs as characters we deem so clearly in love dance around the possibility of romance.
The delicious tension of unrequited desire filled my adolescence: the prefect I couldn’t touch but followed through the halls; the straight girls I crushed on, imagining they might one day turn (some did, though not for some years, and not with me); the television programs spanning seasons without fulfillment, and the similarly themed rom coms I consumed voraciously.
There was safety in unrequited desire, in seeking only what I couldn’t have. More than safe, it was totally hot, and though I’m thrilled I hit a turning point at about age 25 and started seeking people I could actually have, I still sometimes yearn for that denial, and I satisfy that yearning with more UST-laden TV.
I recently started watching Rizzoli and Isles, a rather ludicrous buddy cop dramedy staring the devastatingly good-looking Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. I chose to watch it after I read a lesbian blogger’s ‘subtext recap’ celebrating its lesbian UST.
You can taste the UST subtext oozing off the screen. These two women touch each other gratuitously, share a bed regularly, have candle lit dinners, pretend to be gay to put off unwanted men, get jealous when the other dates, have a superb butch/femme dynamic, dine with each others’ mothers…I could go on.
I don’t know whether the producers planned it this way, or just started playing up to their rabid lesbian fan base as the series progressed [search #Gayzzoli and isLez on Twitter if you wish to find them] but now, in season 2, the subtext is ridiculously blatant. However, the actors, writers and producers continue to insist in interviews that these are totally straight women who are “just friends”.
And so the tv producers win: we, its lesbian viewers, keep going back for more, recapping crumbs of tension as they arise, penning epic tomes of fanfic and getting off on that divinely cruel state we remember from our adolescence; the closeted, secret, unrequited desire of a friendship laced with sexual tension.
Meanwhile, they keep the “family” viewers happy and don’t have to tackle the issue or become a “gay tv show.”
And most of time, I don’t really care. It’s a stupid tv show, that I watch cos the women have beautiful shiny hair, good comic timing, shoot guns and look at each other lovingly.
But part of me gets angry. Because Josh / Donna and CJ / Danny had their resolution; the Good Wife / Will got hot and heavy at the end of only the second season; Bones is pregnant to Booth; and Moulder / Scully had some weird drawn out romance resulting in that second movie that was shit.
Poor Xena died with only a chaste peck for Gabby and I highly doubt Rizzoli will ever push Isles against the elevator wall and finally show her how well a butch can treat a lady.
Of course there are exceptions – shows like Buffy, Glee and Greys Anatomy – which bravely allow previously straight characters to discover new facets to their sexuality and come out. But they are the exceptions, and these characters tend to be surrounded by a straight ensemble cast, rather than being eponymous heroes.
For the most part, we are left grasping at subtext and settling for unrequited desire. While straight viewers can watch with the hope of resolution, we settle for less.
I introduced that same Xena-loving high school companion to Rizzoli & Isles and she is, of course, hooked. I could have bet my right boob she would love it. Within hours of pressing download, she had texted me with ‘this is everything - EVERYTHING - I want in a tv show.’
I went over for dinner the other night and we gleefully told tales of our high school explorations. We have never kissed – rare among lesbian friends – but I discovered parts of my sexuality more with her than with the group of friends I did get drunk and ‘practice on.’
Because with her, it wasn’t practice. In that computer room, she was learning the ins and outs of her desires, and finding community in writers using the internet to tell the stories we weren’t getting on our screens. She was the first person to really describe lesbian sex to me, after being the first of my friends to have it.
She expressed her teenage desires in ways I wasn’t ready to understand, still caught up in unrequited love for my prefect – who was so safe because I couldn’t have her. At the time I think I was intimidated by how bold my friend was, and, while I seemed to have the power, as the early object of her affection, in truth, I looked up to her, so sure of what she wanted. To this day, I am in awe of her guts when it comes to sex and romance. She may privately eroticise the unrequited but she nearly always gets the girl.
My friend’s girlfriend watched, aghast with delight as we dissected our new show and reminisced about our geeky teenage adventures: “oh wow…I feel like I’m meeting you both aged 15,” she said.
Much has changed since then. I get now that requited love is superior and far more satisfying long term; these days, lesbians kiss on prime time tv; I’m facebook friends with that prefect and while she is still very pretty, it’s more than a decade since I thought we were “meant to be.”
But, it was nice to discover what hasn’t changed; what my friend and I still share, after 12 years of friendship. It’s more than a penchant for shitty tv, - it’s a certain kind of desire, and a certain way of enjoying what sets our community apart. The delight we take in getting attached to these characters, despite our text always being sub, is an unrequited desire all of its own.