By Katie Swartwood
Katie graduated from the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College in May, 2019.
A Latina woman named Rosa Diaz stands before a Pictionary drawing pad; her card says “wedding.” Her black marker hits the paper, drawing two feminine stick figures holding hands. Her mother calls out a guess, “friends.” Rosa keeps drawing, adding a heart above the women’s heads. She yells out, “sisters.” Rosa frantically scribbles hearts all over the paper while her mother guesses, “business partners” and “co-owners of a chocolate shop.” Rosa frustratingly cuts her mother off to exclaim that it’s a wedding. She takes a deep breath before addressing her parents. She explains that she could either end up marrying a man, like her parents want, or a woman, because she is not simply going through a phase. She is bisexual. Her dad interrupts, “There’s no such thing.” Rosa assures them that bisexuality does exist because she identifies as such.
This scene if from Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s episode, “Game Night.” Over the years, this sitcom has proven itself to be a progressive comedy focused on highlighting social issues. Its diverse cast, which includes the Jewish main character, two Latina detectives, two African American men in positions of power, one of which is gay, an Italian assistant, and three white male detectives, has discussed topics like LGBT issues and police bias against African Americans. Despite its comedic center, Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not shy away from sensitive issues. In “Game Night,” the show combats a number of stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding bisexuality.
When Rosa, played by Stephanie Beatriz, comes out to her parents it is in a turbulent scene in which her parents allude to the fact that they would be happier if she was a mistress in a heterosexual relationship rather than be in a romantic relationship with a woman. Before storming out, Rosa tells her parents that their worst fears have come true. She is in a relationship with a woman. Despite this conflict, her parents still invite her to family game night, giving Rosa hope that they will be accepted. However, her parents do not hesitate to bring up her sexuality. Her mother explains, “…No matter what you call yourself you still like men. So you can still get married and have a child.” When Rosa defends her sexuality, saying that she can do the same with a woman, her father proclaims that she will do it with man because she is only going through a “phase.”
This scene is significant in a number of ways. For one, the show does not rely on a token LGBT character. Brooklyn Nine-Nine depicts multiple ethnic/gender/sexual identities. The fact that Rosa is in a female queer relationship is worth note. Historically, women’s homosexual relationships have often been overlooked. Judith Bennett in “The L Word in Women’s History” explains that as historians, “Most still see the past in heteronormative terms, closeting our thinking by failing to consider that the dead women we study might have been other than heterosexuals, other than wives, mothers, and lovers of men.” (1) Her article presents two critical mistakes historians tend to make when writing about the histories of women. The first is that historians often frame women in the context of their heterosexual relationships, instead of the lives of the women.
The other issue historians face is interpreting subtleties that could indicated women participated in homosexual relationships. This is also influenced by cultural and societal understandings of women’s homosexual relationships. Although Bennett’s focus is on medieval women’s same sex relationships, she helps trace a historical ignorance towards such relationships. As she explains, since women’s homosexual relationships could not disturb bloodlines, i.e., result in a child, and if no phallic props were used, it was seen by some medieval writers and priests as less sexual and, thus, less sinful than other sexual relationships. (2) While she examines ideas that are several centuries old, I do not believe they are completely left in the past. For instance, sex is popularly defined in terms of men penetrating women Many people understand how heterosexual couples and male homosexual couples have sex, but when two women engage in sexual intercourse they are met with questions like “How do you have sex?” or “How do you lose your virginity?”
This phallocentrism is important to recognizing the significance of depicting Rosa, a woman character engaged in a homosexual relationship, on mainstream television. While television has made great progress in creating dynamic LGBT characters, the focus has been on male gay characters. In their 2016-2017 “Where We Are On TV” report, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) found that gay men make up 49% of the LGBT regular or recurring characters on broadcast television alone, while lesbians make up only 17%, and bisexual characters rose 10 percentage points to 30%, with the majority of these characters presenting as female. (3) Additionally, their report helps illustrate how queer female characters struggle to remain in the story once they have been introduced. They found that more than 25 queer female characters were killed off since the beginning of 2016, often for no other reason than to further the story of the usually cisgendered, straight main character. (4) These statistics show the continued emphasis on male queerness while queer women are often overlooked.
Furthermore, it is important to look at Rosa’s representation as a Latina LBGT character on television. GLAAD reports that only 26% of women of color characters are Latina and only 6% are LGBT characters across five main broadcasting networks. (5) Rosa’s character is statistically uncommon, making her significant addition to the small screen. She has the ability to show queer Latina women that their stories are worth telling. Moreover, Rosa’s character does not sit on the sidelines on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Her involvement is important to plot lines since she serves as one of the main characters. Furthermore, alongside her other Latina co-star, she highlights that Latina women serves as more than maids or sex symbols.
It is also worth noting that the actress who portrays Rosa, Stephanie Beatriz, identifies as bisexual herself. This is critical because while LGBT characters account for a minority of overall characters, the actors that play them are often cisgendered or straight. This fact that straight actors continually win awards for their portrayal of LGBT characters, while LGBT actors are not awarded for any roles. For example, no openly gay actor has been awarded an Oscar for Best Actor, while straight or cisgendered actors have won Oscars for playing queer characters. Having a bisexual actor portraying a bisexual character is essential because it allows for not only authenticity, but it also provides LBGT actors and actresses the opportunity to broadcast their talents.
Stephanie Beatriz has spent six seasons on a popular show, playing a character that resembles herself. Something she explains as noticeably absent while she grew up. (6) This is not only in terms of race and gender, but also her sexuality. Beatriz actively engages with the media to discuss her struggles. She raised awareness for several issues she has experienced, such as diversity, disordered eating, and her sexuality. She came out via twitter, apparently before even telling her parents, who she explained were not as thrilled about her sexuality as the general public was. (7) This is a similar reaction that her character, Rosa, faced. Beatriz allowed her own experiences to direct her character, adding depth and credibility to Rosa on screen.
Recently Stephanie Beatriz had the opportunity to portray another lesbian women of color on the small screen when she guest starred on Netflix’s One Day at a Time as Pilar. Pilar was a married, lesbian relative of the Alvarez family, the main focus of the show. On this episode Pilar served a role model for the young Elena, a Cuban-American who identifies as lesbian and dates her non-binary partner, Syd. In this episode, Elena clings to Beatriz’s character since she serves as a representation of someone similar to herself. This is why authentic representations of queer women on screen is essential. It allows young women to realize they are not alone, that other women like them exist, too.
- Judith M. Bennett. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.), 109.
- Judith M. Bennett. “The L-Word in Women’s History.”, 111.
- “Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion ’16-’17,” GLAAD, 6. https://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2016-2017.pdf
- “Where We Are on TV,” 3.
- “Where We Are on TV,” 12, 18.
- Stephanie Beatriz, “On My Radar.”
- Trish Bendix, “Stephanie Beatriz on Coming Out as Bisexual and Her Celebrity Crushes.” AfterEllen.com, August 10, 2016. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/498435-stephanie-beatriz-coming-bisexual-celebrity-crushes#1HAX6AxBiF3X42bU.99
Beatriz, Stephanie. “On My Radar: Stephanie Beatriz Shares Why Diversity On TV is Important.” Latina.com, August 6, 2016. http://www.latina.com/blogs/stephanie-beatriz/diversity-on-tv-latina-roles
Bendix, Trish. “Stephanie Beatriz on Coming Out as Bisexual and Her Celebrity Crushes.” AfterEllen.com, August 10, 2016. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/498435-stephanie-beatriz-coming-bisexual-celebrity-crushes#1HAX6AxBiF3X42bU.99
Bennett, Judith M. “The L-Word in Women’s History.” In History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
“Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion ’16-’17,” GLAAD. https://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2016-2017.pdf