Janet King: Taking The Crown As Queen Of TV Lesbians
Lesbian representation on Australian TV is on the rise and Janet King is reigning supreme.
Waiting on one end of the phone, it is impossible not to feel a little nervous. After four weeks of trying to find even the smallest of gaps in the busy schedule of one of Australia’s most in-demand actresses, the warm tones of Marta Dusseldorp’s voice make their way down the line. She is in the final hectic days of shooting Season Four of A Place to Call Home where she plays the highly popular nurse Sarah Adams Nordstom, returned to small town Australia post World War II, after 20 years living in Europe.
However, it is Dusseldorp’s role as the titular character in ABC’s Janet King that I wish to talk about: Senior Crown Prosecutor, Royal Commissioner, lesbian. Her performance as Janet has been so strong and authentic that it delivered her first AACTA in 2015. Hungry as we are for positive representation of lesbians and queer women on our televisions, it’s a role for which we, as a queer audience, may know her best.
Janet King, the character, first appeared as one of an ensemble cast in ABC’s Crownies in 2011. Jane Allen, the main writer for Crownies is a lesbian and former lawyer, and Dusseldorp comments it was important to Allen that the two aspects of Janet came together to be “tonally right”. I am curious how, or if at all, Marta as a straight woman prepared for the role of Janet at a time when there were far fewer lesbian characters on mainstream TV than we see now in 2016.
“I didn’t in particular, because I think it’s totally normal,” she states. “There’s nothing you need to change, it’s part of who you are, its your fabric. So I just took it as read. I had beautiful Aimee Pedersen playing the role of Ash, and played it like a couple who’d been together for nine years who were trying to get pregnant.”
I suggest that playing an out lesbian on prime-time free-to-air TV was quite groundbreaking at the time. “Yeah, I didn’t see it like that. I think it might have made me too self-conscious,” she laughs. “I was like, yep, I get that she loves this woman. And Janet is not someone who’s had to fight about it because it’s just who she is. She doesn’t care what other people think.”
When the ABC ended Crownies and considered a spin-off concentrating on one character, the character that had most resonated with viewers was Janet King. “At the start in Crownies I wasn’t really that ground character, but slowly they started writing her up. That happened throughout the series, but it was certainly never the intention that she would become so dominant, I don’t think.”
Dusseldorp is proud that her portrayal of Janet has increased the positive representation of lesbians. “It’s really dawned on me the more I’ve played her, and the more it’s been embraced. It’s been like someone shining a torch on that. I played it how I think it should be played and the fact people said, ‘Thank god!’ that was wonderful. So I was incredibly proud and privileged, actually, to see that was the impact. That was very important to me once I realised it hadn’t been represented in this way necessarily.”
But she is also quick to point out that Janet, the professional, is more than just her sexual orientation. “It does not define her in the workplace. It’s not something that she’s railed with or about or for or against. For me she never defined herself in relation to anybody else to do with sexuality or gender. It was all to do with law. I felt that she was the bar; she was the law. That was really my key with her.”
The developing relationship with newcomer, AFP Sergeant Bianca Grieve, played by Anita Hegh, is a big part of Season Two of Janet King. Of course, for Janet this means dealing with the death of long-term partner Ash. Before I have an opportunity to ask the question of whether she is aware of the "Bury Your Gays" and “Dead Lesbian Trope” that has dominated the discourse surrounding shows with queer characters, Dusseldorp jumps in:
“I was totally shocked and heartbroken when the whole ‘dead lesbian’ thing came out at the beginning of Series Two. I only responded to one tweet, where I said ‘trust us’, because I knew where we were going with it and I knew it was for the best when it came down to mining who Janet was, and what she needed. And to see her reawakened with Bianca—I knew that was coming, but I was devastated at the beginning and I thought: ‘No! Don’t stop watching because we’ve talked about this!’”
Anita Hegh’s Bianca is a character that pushes Janet’s boundaries helping viewers to see Janet as a truly sexual being for the first time. Bianca’s subtle pursuit of Janet is also, at times, not so subtle and the sizzling on-screen chemistry the two women share almost jumps out of the screen.
“Yay! That’s great!” Dusseldorp says delightedly. “I found exploring the new untrodden path of Janet’s sexuality—finally—was so exciting and I had so much rapport and love for Anita, so that was really special.”
And the sex scene? Woven so seamlessly into the narrative, there is nothing gratuitous; just two women acting on their fierce attraction to one another. “We approached the sex scene as you would any other scene—striving for genuine connection, truth, respect and mutual understanding of what we were trying to portray. It was very important for Janet to connect with Bianca in this way and also to release from Ash physically and ‘spiritually’. She needed to dare to let go.”
But she is tight-lipped as to whether Bianca will be back for Season Three. “That would be too big a spoiler … Needless to say Anita Hegh is a beautiful person and actor. Her Bianca was a delight to work with.” We, as viewers, can only keep our fingers crossed.
Janet’s emotional attachment to the final IVF embryo she and Ash shared prior to Ash’s death was a brilliant vehicle for exploring the representation and treatment lesbian and other queer relationships receive in the Australian court system. Ash’s sister challenges Janet’s rights to the embryo, but Janet will not give it up without a fight.
“Where is the law to support these relationships? Where is the system when things like that happen? And I understood why Janet needed to have it. That was her last bit of Ash, for her that was Ash. I get emotional even talking about it.” Dusseldorp’s voice catches for a brief moment. “How can anyone even ask for that? So I felt, for me, it was totally personal.”
Janet King is a character that is strong and capable, but also flawed and vulnerable. She’s lost the love of her life, but she’s trying to push through the trauma to be a good parent to their twins, while honouring her lost love; to remain on top of her game at work and finally to move beyond with a new love interest. It is through the amazing performance Dusseldorp gives as Janet that we, as a lesbian audience get to partly “own” these multifaceted representations of ourselves. What Marta and Janet have done for lesbian visibility and credibility is immeasurable.
Dusseldorp’s warmth is genuine. “The fact Janet has resonated is so wonderful. If she has given you someone you can identify with, feel proud of and who you can relate to on as many levels as this—well, it’s why I love what I do.”
Season Three of Janet King was announced the week after Season Two ended and will air in 2017. You can watch Seasons One and Two of Janet King, as well as Crownies on Netflix Australia, on Acorn TV in the US, and all are available for purchase through amazon.co.uk, the ABC Shop or ABC online. In the meantime, to see more of the glorious Marta Dusseldorp, tune in to Season Four of A Place to Call Home, in September on Foxtel.
Connect with Sanya Franich on Twitter @sanfran1912