Why ‘Girls5eva’s’ Gloria is a different kind of lesbian on TV

ANALYSIS: With Season 3’s arrival on Netflix, Paula Pell’s pop star/dentist deserves to be famous 5eva (because 4eva’s too short!)

It’s devastating to think that we almost didn’t get a third season of Girls5eva. The delightful comedy series about a girl group staging a comeback decades later aired on Peacock for two glorious seasons starting in 2021. The show then appeared to go into a permanent limbo, before a surprise rescue from Netflix, which picked up the first two seasons in 2022 and dropped a brand-new third season this week. 

It’s not just an extremely funny show from creator Meredith Scardino and executive producer Tina Fey, but Girls5eva has also given us Gloria (played by real-life lesbian Paula Pell), a plus-size, grey-haired lesbian. She’s not just an incredibly funny, body-positive icon, but a fiercely loyal friend. Whether she has to do a death drop on stage to get an executive’s attention, or brawl with one of the Property Brothers to get her girl group the tour they deserve, she’ll do it. She’s selfless to the people she loves, but is also determined to forge a satisfying path in life for herself. 

But what makes Gloria extra special is Pell. Her performance is consistently hysterical, but there’s such genuine honesty Pell taps into that makes Gloria irresistible. By bringing her own experience as a queer woman to the role, she lends vital authenticity. Girls5eva may have television’s most well-rounded, loveable lesbian.

Gloria is a girl-group singer turned dentist turned back to girl-group singer. She’s easily the most financially secure and successful of the group—a thriving career in dentistry will do that. Gloria is also unapologetically and happily queer in the show’s present day—a far cry from the Gloria we see in flashbacks, clearly terrified of coming out and trying to play up her false attraction to men at every opportunity. 

The first couple of seasons found Gloria navigating her identity with her ex-wife Caroline (they were the first gay couple in New York to get divorced, she claims), who came in and out of the picture as Gloria struggled to let go. But in Season 3, with that relationship finally behind her, Gloria is ready to discover a life of sex and self-discovery (while she’d slept with men, up until now, Caroline had been her only lesbian lover). Gloria embraces being different, and is always doing something unpredictable: this season, she develops a penchant for caring for wounded animals while on the road.

Lesbian representation is somewhat on the rise on TV—according to GLAAD, in the 2021–2022 season, lesbian characters outnumbered gay men on broadcast television for the first time. Still, there’s a limit to the variety of queer women we get to see onscreen. While more shows are delivering lesbian characters, they are often short-lived—Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, Willow, A League of Their Own, Paper Girls and First Kill, all released in 2022 or later, were cancelled after a single season. 

 

In many of Hollywood’s most commercially and critically successful properties featuring bi or lesbian women, the characters are typically in their teens like Heartstopper, Glee and Riverdale, or their 20s or 30s: think Warrior Nun and the aforementioned A League of Their Own. There’s a staggering dearth of lesbian characters in their 40s, or—heaven forbid—their 50s or 60s. Granted, that’s something queer and straight female characters have in common, but with significantly fewer queer characters than hetero ones, the margins are even thinner. 

That’s not to say they don’t exist, but older lesbians in mainstream media are few and far between and often end up one-dimensional. In Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, one of the only currently airing shows with lesbians in their 40s, Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) begins a romance with Laura (Julianna Margulies). While it is a rare and exciting example of women over 40 in love on TV, it is certainly imperfect, and Laura often feels one-dimensional and shoehorned into a jealous lesbian role.

While some of these shows garner Emmy wins, nominations and critical acclaim, they focus so much on a single aspect of these women’s lives that none of them come off as especially well-rounded, and all of them are dramatic or serious. Body diversity is non-existent—it’s nearly impossible to find a plus-size lesbian character in a starring role on TV. Most tellingly, their lives are almost entirely defined by their relationship with other women, and rarely do we get a sense of who these women are outside of their romances. But in Season 3 of Girls5eva, we get to understand so much of who Gloria is on her terms, and she’s not defined by her age, body or sexuality.

There isn’t anyone else like Gloria on television. The closest comparison is likely The Simpsons’ Patty Bouvier. The long-suffering animated sister of Marge and twin Selma finally came out in the 2005 episode “There’s Something About Marrying,” and love has largely eluded her ever since. I mention this because being single is what the majority of her storylines revolve around. It took her another 15 seasons before she found a successful relationship with Evelyn, who was introduced in Season 31. She’s made a few appearances, but whether they’re still together is anyone’s guess: The Simpsons isn’t exactly a beacon of narrative consistency. 

Patty, like Gloria, is also plus-size and middle-aged. But while Gloria loves her body (during an Instagram live she refers to herself as “Her Royal Thickness”), most of the jokes about Patty are Homer talking about how completely unappealing and grotesque she is (in fairness, Patty ribs back in equal measure). Despite hundreds of appearances, there’s not a whole lot to Patty besides being a mostly single, chain-smoking lesbian. The Simpsons have made strides toward rectifying this—Patty and Selma sing to Lisa about the joys of body positivity—but considering how much of a peripheral character Patty is, it’ll likely be another dozen seasons before we get to know her better.

What really makes Gloria such a special character is the joy she radiates onscreen. It feels obvious, but it’s hard to overstate how fun she is. Even when Gloria goes through a breakup, there’s never any sense of misery—Girls5eva never loses sight of its comedic roots. While most lesbians are forced into a single character type, Gloria contains multitudes; she’s able to be shy and confident; happy and sad; curious and indifferent; horny and prudish. There’s an extraordinary versatility to her character that we simply don’t get from other similar character types in television and film. Queerness is so much more vast than what television typically gives us, and featuring a happy older lesbian onscreen like Gloria gives us a vital reminder that there’s so much more to the queer experience beyond youth.

Much of that likely comes from Gloria’s storyline closely mirroring Pell’s own life. Like Gloria, Pell got divorced after nearly 20 years of marriage and had to figure out what to do next. She married Janine Brito (who plays Gloria’s ex-wife Caroline and also writes for Girls5eva) in 2020. It certainly feels like Pell relishes every moment of bringing Gloria to life. Speaking to Vanity Fair, Pell said, “If we’re going to be inclusive, let’s be inclusive with age too. And I certainly feel like content is more inclusive now with queer people, which is making me very thrilled because I had an absolute desert of it when I was growing up.” 

Now Pell gets to be the very representation she once coveted. A big part of Gloria’s Season 3 arc is her epic quest to sleep with all 178 types of women according to a spreadsheet she’s created (including “female Popeye,” “corn-fed Xena” and the ever-elusive “cigar mommy”) on her journey of self-discovery. Gloria is so incredibly charming that when she completes the list, it’s hardly surprising. 

Seeing an older, plus-size lesbian be the heart and soul of Girls5eva is an absolute joy. Television so rarely lets us see queer women beyond a certain age, which leads younger generations to wonder what they have to look forward to. In Gloria, we get an answer: the sky’s the limit.

Barry Levitt is a freelance entertainment writer and his work can be seen in The Daily Beast, SlashFilm, Vulture, i-D, and LGBTQNation. He covers animation, queer cinema, and everything in between.

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