Sweeps Week, the week(s) during the television season when Nielsen ratings data is collected (most recently at the end of November), is not known for quality. What it is known for are live episodes, celebrity cameos, character deaths, cliffhangers, and of course, the infamous shark jump. But beyond these trivial stunts, a disturbing trend has emerged: the Sweeps Week Lesbian.
I am not referring to coming-out episodes (see: Ellen, 1997), but rather the television trope involving one of the main female characters entering into a relationship with a negligible minor female character or guest star.
Signs a lesbian relationship may be purely for ratings include: a promo stressing the moments leading up to the Sweeps Week Lesbian kiss, one of the involved female characters stressing how different kissing a woman is/how soft her lips are, and one or more of the male characters acting shocked but pleased upon learning about the lesbian relationship.
I remember the first time I encountered the Sweeps Week Lesbian plotline. I was in high school, watching one of my favorite guilty pleasure shows, The OC, when the character Marissa Cooper affectionately grabbed the hand of a guest character, Alex Kelly. Alex had already been established as bisexual. Not long after, a promo for the upcoming Valentine’s Day episode featured the moments leading up to their first kiss. I was excited about the introduction of Alex’s character, since up until that point the show had only briefly featured one other LGBTQ character.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Marissa and Alex was not used to give LGBTQ people more representation in television, but as a cheap attempt to improve dwindling ratings. Just a few episodes after their first kiss, Alex was written out of the show, and Marissa returned to dating men, hardly ever mentioning her relationship with Alex again.
Fortunately, this trope has become less common in recent years. Audiences have become less likely to tune into shows that feature Sweeps Week Lesbianism, and the shows that still go that route have seen diminishing returns in their ratings.
A recent GLAAD study shows just 2.9% of scripted regulars represent the LGBTQ community (down from 3.9% in 2010). With so few representations, it’s important to be critical of Sweeps Week Lesbianism.
I want to see LGBTQ characters that are well-developed and given screen time. I want to see LGBTQ characters whose sexual orientation is a concrete facet of their identity, not something that can be manipulated or exploited in an attempt to draw in a larger audience.
No one’s sexual orientation should be treated as a spectacle. In using same-sex relationships to titillate or shock an audience, that is exactly what the Sweeps Week Lesbian trope does. And that’s unacceptable.
The LGBTQ community and allies deserve better representations in television, and I propose we demand just that. The next time you see a show guilty of using sexual orientation as a ratings pull, it may be time to do exactly what they hope you won’t do: turn off the TV.