Lesbians on Television: New Queer Visibility & The Lesbian Normal

Author: Kate McNicholas Smith

Lesbians on Television: new queer visibility and the lesbian normal is a densely packed book that began as part of Kate McNicholas Smith’s doctoral research. This academically orientated book shares research into the contemporary shifts in lesbian visibility with popular media, focusing on the small screen. Books have previously addressed the representation of lesbians on film; the analysis of queer characters on television has usually focused on representations of gay males.

The 21st century has seen LGBTQ+ rights emerge at the forefront of public discourse and national politics in Europe and North America in ways that would once have been hard to imagine.

This book offers a unique and layered account of the complex dynamics in the modern moment of societal change, drawing together critical, social and cultural theory as well as empirical evidence, which includes audience research, interviews and multi-platform media analyses. Central to these dynamics is the re-imagining of queer lives – or a ‘new queer visibility’ – as LGBTQ+ characters have become increasingly visible within popular culture.

Structured around five case studies of popular British and American television shows featuring lesbian, bisexual, and queer women characters – The L Word, Skins, Glee, Coronation Street, and The Fosters – the book develops a detailed analysis of the shaping of a new ‘lesbian normal’- a normalisation of lesbian subjects that both help and hinder those it represents, examining their televisual representation and reception.

The book takes a nuanced look at the gender and racial politics which underpin a selection of relevant lesbian televisual works, interrogating and illuminating the often-contradictory ideologies which pervade them. She emphasizes the postfeminist and homonormative discourses which have been found in these selected queer media works. As such, Lesbians on Television is a welcome contribution to the exclusive and detailed study of how lesbians are depicted in contemporary representation. Furthermore, she looks at the emergence of queer women characters in popular storytelling and the wide-ranging effects of this mainstream representation.

McNicholas Smith’s conclusion is that contemporary lesbian representation has given us cause for both optimism and concern, with her monograph serving as a detailed account of precisely the discursive tension inherent in many queer televisual works. The earlier stereotypes of lesbians as pathological monsters and predators are discussed alongside the more recent trends of ‘lesbian chic’ and ‘lesbianism as a phase’.

The ‘normal’ depiction of queer lives goes a long way to shifting social norms through changing the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. Globally, and especially in certain African countries, there is a growing onslaught of the anti-queer/gender movement fuelled by a transnational coalition of conservative activists and civil society organizations working to counter political and social gains made by local and international feminists and LGBTQI+ movements. Such a well-researched book as Lesbians on Television is an invitation for researchers to do an analysis of queer folk in the media in the global South.

A PDF version of this 206 page book is available for free in Open Access: Lesbians on Television. It has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License and is part of Knowledge Unlatched.

Kate McNicholas Smith is a lecturer in television theory at the University of Westminster in London, United Kingdom.


  • An International Development Consultant based in Johannesburg. Her family was expelled from Uganda in 1972 and went to the UK as refugees. She is the creator of Expulsion@50 and can be contacted at expulsion50@gmail.com

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