Sexualized Saturdays: “I’ve Never Done This Before”

I love queer characters. I want them in all my shows. I want all the characters in all my shows to be queer. Maybe that’s asking too much, so I’m offering an alternative to geek media writers: give me at least a few queer characters in your shows, and for the love of God/Goddess/Gods, write their stories well.

When I started watching Orphan Black just about a month ago, I already knew that one of the clones, Cosima, was going to be queer, and I was excited to watch her story unfold. Unfortunately, there was nary even a hint of what could have been a very interesting nature vs. nurture discussion. Just as upsetting, I was treated to this outstanding line from Delphine, her new paramour: “I’ve never done this before.” Cringe/eyeroll/facepalm/etc. “I’ve never done this before” is not good queer narrative writing; it’s a line from the beginning of a porno. Let’s examine why it’s problematic for that to be the only queer narrative seen on TV.

"I've never done this before" *bow chicka wow wow*

“I’ve never done this before” *bow chicka wow wow*

Probably the number one reason this is extremely problematic is because it seems to play into seduction/conversion stereotypes: the dreaded “oh, she turned me gay”. Alternatively, it can lead to characters becoming complete switch-hitters who just promulgate bi-erasure by negating any prior heterosexual relationships after they’ve finally given it a go batting for the other team. “I’ve never done this before” presents a deleteriously un-nuanced view of sexuality, and I think part of the problem is in the phrasing. If someone says “I’ve never done this before” and means “I’ve never done this before, and I’m not really looking to change that right now”, it is absolutely unacceptable to kiss or make any kind of moves on them, no matter how well this works out on TV (or porn). But if someone says, “I’ve never done this before” and they really mean, “I’ve never done this before, but I’ve been wanting to!” the situation is completely different. It is up to writers to clarify the specific connotations of such a problematic line. To just go from “I’ve never done this before” to full-on same-sex relationships without any kind of insight into their thoughts can paint a picture that sexuality is a choice or a switch one can just flip, when this opportunity could and should be taken to show the intricacies of thoughts and feelings that people go through in embarking on their first same-sex relationship.

There are NO ULTERIOR MOTIVES here, trust me!

That smile just screams, “There are NO ULTERIOR MOTIVES here, trust me!” (x)

The way the Cosima/Delphine storyline played out is absolutely not the only way it could have gone. Why couldn’t Delphine have been a lesbian? She’s French, blonde, a biologist; being a lesbian would’ve just been one more characteristic. It would’ve made the romantic aspect of their storyline go much more smoothly; they have enough to worry about what with Delphine being her monitor and Cosima dying of a mystery ailment and tackling the clone mystery from the science angle. Frankly, it would have made more sense if Delphine was actually a lesbian (or openly bi woman), as apparently the monitors are set in place to get really close to their charges (they are/were all in relationships with the clones), and surely Dyad would have known about Cosima’s orientation. The way it played out, it felt super shady having Delphine “go gay” in what seemed to basically just be an attempt to get closer to Cosima. Was she sleeping with Cosima only to get the information she wanted? To make it more genuine, “I’ve never done this before” could have so easily be substituted for anything from “I do this all the time! Yay lady-loving!” to “I haven’t done this in a while because lately I have been dating a man, but that one relationship does not define my sexuality!”

Twink alert

Twink alert! Actually, also stalker alert #clingy

I find it interesting that this is more common to female queer story arcs: I recently got Netflix and finally started binge-watching those seminal, ground-breaking queer TV shows, The L Word and Queer as Folk (I need to be able to pass a test on these shows to apply for the Homosexual: Level II certification). Among many other storylines, both shows begin their first seasons with a character newly entering into the LGBTQ+ community: the doe-eyed Jenny in The L Word and the prototypical twink Justin in Queer as Folk. But there is a huge difference between these two newbies. In the first episode, Justin loses his v-card to a dude he met at a club, but there were no ands, ifs, or buts (just some butts) about it—he wanted some gay sex. He is only seventeen, but he was not at all seduced by the man more than ten years his senior; on the contrary, he is very confident in what he wants.

That's why her bangs are so big; they're full of secrets!

That’s why her bangs are so big; they’re full of secrets!

Jenny, on the other hand, came onto the scene as ostensibly straight, with a long-term boyfriend. Her introduction into same-sex hanky-panky is very much in the “I’ve never done this before” camp. No mention about previously finding girls attractive—those glamorous L.A. lesbians are just powerful enough to turn anybody, apparently! Very interesting how these two shows chose to take such different approaches to portraying male and female queerhood; while it is a commonly-held belief by the general public that female sexuality is somehow more fluid than male sexuality, the veracity of this claim is debatable.

yeah...this was a thing that actually appeared on screen... (through the eyes of a robot)

Yeah…this was a thing that actually appeared on screen… (through the eyes of a robot)

This article, of course, wouldn’t be complete without mentioning probably the most famous gay TV couple of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow and Tara. Willow was in a very serious, loving, presumably physical/sexual relationship with a man, Oz, and previously her attraction and love of her childhood friend Xander was always an important plot point (in fact, it continued to be a plot point even during her relationship with Oz). Then she goes off to college and meets and falls in love with a woman, Tara. While the two never have a “I’ve never done this before” dialogue moment, when Willow tries to explain herself to Buffy, she basically does a variant on that famous line, saying it wasn’t something she was planning on or looking for, practically saying she is in love with Tara in spite of her being a woman. Her tune changes within the next few seasons, and she is written as totally gay, without any addressing of her previous involvement with men. Never once does she say, “I like men and women equally!” or “I think pansexual might be the best way to describe myself!” or even “That thing with men was all a show because I was in denial and not comfortable with my homosexuality!”

Jack was probably helped out by being on a show created by an openly gay screenwriter.

Jack was probably helped out by being on a show created by an openly gay screenwriter.

As a counterpoint, I bring up my old gay TV hero, Jack McPhee. Jack has previously dated a girl prior to his first appearance on the show, and begins dating a girl in his first season on Dawson’s Creek. However, when he comes out later in the season, it is not because some man has converted him over; it is him acknowledging a truth that he can no longer deny, and here’s an important point: he actually talks about his feelings surrounding his sexuality. He talks about always knowing he was different, even if he couldn’t put a name to this difference. He talks about feeling the need to suppress feelings that could bring disdain and dishonor from society, and more importantly, his family. In my opinion, this dialogue about the quiet, almost unconscious self-knowledge of being different and the ongoing struggle to be as “normal” as possible while growing up resonates so well with most queer narratives I have heard from people in real life. Much more so than, ”Man, that bartender is hot! I think I’m gonna go gay for her!”

Now, this isn’t to say that nobody finds their story accurately reflected in a “I’ve never done this before” storyline. It’s obviously impossible to speak for every single person about their journey on the sexuality spectrum. But I think it’s important for “I’ve never done this before” to not be the only queer narrative we see on TV. It’s all about clarification and taking five minutes out of one episode in a whole season to have a character discuss their thoughts and feelings a little more, a point I brought up once before while mentioning the ambiguous sexuality of Stiles on Teen Wolf. Throughout this post, I provided a number of alternative lines to “I’ve never done this before”; I look forward to the day when I hear one of them or something similar from a TV character.

8 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: “I’ve Never Done This Before”

  1. FYI, Willow wasn’t in a “presumably sexual” relationship with Oz — she is explicitly shown/stated to have lost her virginity with him in one episode. I’m just sharing a point of fact that it happened — it supports your argument that it’s totally weird and unrealistic for Willow to suddenly just “be lesbian” without any attention given to her journey or how she thought of her previous straight relationships.

    • Thank you for the clarification! My knowledge about Buffy sometimes in not as encyclopedic as I like to think it is (especially about season 3 — it’s one of my least favorite seasons so I haven’t spent as much time re-watching it as some of the others, like 2, 4, and 5). I was thinking the most explicit reference was Willow cryptically talking about her “half monty” with Oz without revealing which “half” was uncovered, but you are right: in the graduation episode there is a more direct post-coitus scene.

      However, I think overall I meant to question the extent of their physical/sexual relationship rather than to question if they ever had sex. I could have probably phrased this better, perhaps “presumedly regularly physical/sexual relationship” or something of the sort — we presume they had sex more than that one time, regularly or often even, cuz well, they’re teens/young adults, but we don’t know for sure, as we have no on-screen proof. If she was bi (or pan) all along, frequent heterosexual sex would totally make sense, but if in fact her interest in men was part of denial of homosexuality this could change the picture. Maybe she and Oz did only have sex that one time before graduation; she realized she wasn’t into it, and kept finding reasons to opt out and subdue/nullify the sexual element to their relationship, leaving it more romantic than sexual. Alternatively, if she was in denial about homosexuality, maybe they had LOTS of sex in an effort to prove something to herself!

      The sad thing is we’ll never know, cuz writers couldn’t take 5 minutes for her to discuss any of this. Not to mention, Willow’s sex life as a whole was never fully explored on screen the way Buffy’s or Xander’s was. Since she was a “nerd” for many of the first few seasons, I feel like in a way she was de-sexualized (cuz nerds can’t be sexy and have active sex-lives, obvi); we got to see Buffy and Riley in numerous post-coital scenes, and once they are going at it for literally a whole episode, fueling the poltergeists in season 4 episode “Where the Wild Things Are”, and Anya and Xander are ALWAYS talking about sex, even if we don’t see it. (Curiously, Xander and Cordelia seemed to talk more about dating [and the awkwardness of their situation] than sex; do you know if they were ever confirmed to have had sex?) As Willow matures and sort of “grows out” of nerdhood, we see her sexuality featured more prominently (Buffy also moved to UPN from WB which I think allowed them to show more lesbian content). Her post-coital episode with Tara near the end of season 6 was quite sensual, and she and Kennedy (blegh) were shown having sex while two other, straight, couples were also having sex (not all together!) in an episode toward the end of season 7.

      Hope this is some food for thought. Thanks again for making sure I was passing along accurate information!

      • 🙂 I totally agree. Willow’s sex life was never given the same attention any of the others’ were. I’d personally say she seemed a lot more comfortable and sensual once she came out as lesbian, so it’s entirely possible that she was uncomfortable and closeted throughout her relationship with Oz and desired relationship with Xander. (Lesbian women can have intense emotional friendships with men, after all, and not being aware of your own orientation can lead to all sorts of things.) Or she could be bi, which I personally would love, but she’s basically treated as lesbian the moment she gets with Tara. The whole point is that we don’t know, because they never deigned to tell us, and it’s a common problem with this kind of thing!

        To my knowledge Cordy and Xander never had sex, now that you mention it. I feel like that would’ve been mentioned on the show if they had, given the interest in Buffy’s sex life around the same time and all the attention Cordy/Xander got on screen. But as far as I know it was never shown and never mentioned after they broke up… I almost wanna say it was specifically said that Faith was Xander’s first time, but I’m not sure about that.

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  3. I didn’t take Delphine’s “I’ve never done this before” as bad writing. I took it as Delphine being awkward in the situation. She had to act as if she were lesbian/bi and was falling for Cosima, and she acted poorly (the character, not the actress). I’m behind on season 2, so I’m not sure how their relationship progresses. If Delphine ends up falling for Cosima romantically, then that would be proof of bad writing from the get-go. In that case, it would definitely have been better if Delphine had been written as either lesbian or bisexual from the start.

    • I’m trying to stay spoiler-free as possible since I don’t know where you are in the series, but it seems for all intents and purposes that Delphine and Cosima are in a committed relationship. Switching teams has never been so easy!

      I’d love to hear more thoughts as you watch more of Season 2 (although honestly, the duo’s relationship isn’t featured that much)

      • I binge watched this Saturday – all caught up now. Yes, Delphine and Cosima seem committed. I don’t get a strong romantic vibe from Delphine, though. Maybe it’s because of the writing, the acting, or, as you mentioned, the fact that the writers started the whole affair by presenting Delphine as new to bisexuality/lesbianism. And the fact that there’s been little physical interaction makes it easier to see it that way.

        If you can’t tell, I’m trying mightily hard to give the writers the benefit of the doubt here.

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