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Lesbians in Media and Culture: Failure to Communicate

2010 October 25

Until very recently, I did not identify as a lesbian. I proudly proclaimed my gay and queer identities, but though I was often referred to as a lesbian, I never called myself one. My reasons had to do with deeply-held pre-conceived notions about the lesbian community (butch-femme dichotomies were a big issue for me), and a discomfort with the label. In my mind, lesbian and gay were completely different labels, completely different identities, and completely different communities. Recently, however, this has changed. After 6 years of being out, I have found a comfortable niche in the lesbian community. For the first time, I feel like I fit.

Acknowledging and confronting my own prejudices and pre-conceived notions got me thinking about how our society treats lesbianism. While lesbian sexuality is fetishized by the male heterocentrist world, it is widely misunderstood, and often carelessly or ignorantly portrayed. One need not look any further than mainstream lesbian porn (both hardcore and “The L Word”) to see the chasm between the realities of lesbian relationships, sex, and communication and their mainstream representations.

Many gay women, lesbian-identified and not, I spoke to in preparation for this piece talked about managing their expectations when it comes to representations of lesbians in popular media and culture. One told me, “Sure I watch “The L Word,” but I don’t feel good about it. It’s totally fake. But it’s what we’ve got.” In a country where our relationships are treated as second-class, mainstream culture will fall short of portraying our sexuality as equal.

Media which do honestly portray lesbians are heavily marketed to this community, so “real” portrayals of our relationships and sexualities exist on the peripheries; what’s normal to us is fringe to most others. “Feminist porn,” while popular among gay women, is largely ignored by the mainstream market. Movies that center on lesbian relationships are largely independently made on small budgets (and often terribly acted: see “Better Than Chocolate”), and thus receive limited distribution (if they even reach theaters). “The Kids are Alright” is a wonderful exception to this rule (though it was not without its flaws), but the day after the movie opened, blogs were all atwitter with posts about a scene in which Julianne Moore and Annette Benning – the lesbian couple at the center of the movie – watch a porn film starring two men. While watching gay porn is absolutely a trend among lesbians, the scene led to further confusion about lesbian sexuality and attraction to men, which is NOT why lesbians watch gay porn. “The L Word” has done more harm than good by introducing America to Shane, a woman whose attitudes and look make her a proxy for the stereotypical womanizing man. Other lesbian characters fall far short of accurately portraying “normal” lesbians.

The other complicated piece of lesbians in media has to do with their all-too-common fate: death or persecution. Again, lesbians have learned to manage their expectations. We acknowledge the demonization of lesbians in popular culture, but should not accept it. Chris Straayer, author of Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video puts it this way in a review of the film “Personal Best”:

Not only are [lesbians] underrepresented and misrepresented, but also they are consistently punished. Usually that punishment is severe, i.e. death, and it is presented as destiny. If a lesbian or pre-lesbian “fell” for this depiction of homosexual destiny and unworthiness, no doubt she would either commit suicide or “go straight.” In fact, however, though a pessimistic and unflattering presentation is essentially the only one available in mass culture, lesbians do live healthy lives with surprisingly few lesbian-related problems.

Though we recognize that our destinies do not mirror those of our pop-culture counterparts, in many ways, we are victims of “othering” by the sexual majority. My biggest “lesbian-related problem” is that I can’t get married. Other than that, I’m a lot like my peers, and so are most lesbians.

One of the women I spoke to about this piece was my friend Jodi, who, along with being one of the plaintiffs in Maryland’s failed marriage equality lawsuit, teaches women’s and gender studies and media studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It was Jodi who pointed me to Chris Straayer (for which I’m eternally grateful), and first got me thinking about the “lesbian gaze.” Lesbian desire, as Jodi and Straayer point out, is inherently different than heterosexual desire, and is often predicated on female bonding. In “The Hypothetical Lesbian Heroine,” Straayer explains:

Conceptually, female bonding is a precondition for lesbianism. If women are situated only in relationship to men or in antagonistic relationship to each other, the very idea of lesbianism is precluded. This partially explains the appreciation lesbian audiences have for films with female bonding. So often has female bonding stood in for lesbian content, that lesbian audiences seem to find it an acceptable displacement at the conclusions of… “lesbian romances.”

Maybe this is why I love “Thelma and Louise” so much.

This on-screen female bonding can also be a more comfortable space than heterosexual love. In watching the average romantic comedy, the lesbian viewer might feel alienated from the couple on screen. Sure, I’ve seen “27 Dresses,” but the film’s very premise hinges the main character’s participation in an institution that discriminates against lesbians. Jodi explained that men and women register desire on screen differently. Men will tend to identify with the male character, while women will identify with the man’s desire for the woman. In watching the film, I might identify with the male lead’s desire for the woman, but I don’t necessarily identify with him, because even if I wanted to, I couldn’t marry the woman I love. Straayer argues that “Lesbians have persistently been misassigned a male point of view by straight society. Sexual preference is confused with gender identity.” My desire for women does not mean that I want to be a man.

Perhaps it is our tendency as sexual minorities to see gray areas where the majority sees black and white. As Jodi put it, “of course, they think of these things less fluidly than we do.” This is probably also why mainstream portrayals of lesbians tend to subscribe to old stereotypes, especially butch-femme representations. While lesbians know how diverse the community is in terms of gender identity and expression, the rest of the world seems largely content to ignore this fact. Rachel Maddow proudly calls herself “butch,” but Ellen Degeneres does not. To someone outside the community, Ellen’s short hair and slacks might signify butchness, but lesbians know better. There are soft butches, bois, dykes, lipstick lesbians, femmes, and an alarming number who look like Justin Bieber. (So many, in fact, that the trend has spawned the website You cannot call a woman butch just because she has short hair and wears slacks. To do so is to simplify a very complex community into a black-white dichotomy.

One of my favorite movies is “But I’m a Cheerleader,” a delightful satire in which Natasha Lyonne plays a young woman whose parents send her to a camp called “True Directions” to rid her of her homosexual tendencies. At one point, she asks two older gay men to teach her how to be a lesbian. One of them tells her “There’s more than one way to be a lesbian,” but the joke is that to the outside world, there doesn’t seem to be. We are being asked to accept a complete whitewashing of our community. We are being asked to accept “The L Word,” or even worse, “The Real L World” as accurate portrayals of our lives and communities. We are not all wealthy, white, manicured, sex-crazed, drama fiends with nothing better to do than go clubbing and sip white wine. Well, certainly some of us are, but not the lesbians I know. I know Jodi, and her partner Mary, who was just elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates (only the second black lesbian elected to state office in the country). I know graphic designers, lawyers, teachers, musicians, real estate agents, nurses, burlesque performers, stay-at-home moms, students, sex workers, social workers, biologists, and farmers.

This piece could just as easily have been written by a gay man, or a transman/woman, or a bisexual. As a community, sexual minorities are generally under- and misrepresented in popular culture and media. And this will continue so long as we live in a country that treats our relationships and unions as second class. The complexities and beauty of the lesbian community are lost in a culture that does not value us as equal members of its democracy.

7 Responses
  1. October 25, 2010

    Amazing read, and a lot of interesting, honest points. I especially love the use of the “lesbian-gaze” and the term “sex-workers”. More people need to realize that the average gaze in American media is for heterosexual white males. Very important realization. I’m trying to bring this point across on my own blog, without being so blunt about it, as someone in the industry. Sigh.

    I’m also a huge fan of referring to “prostitution”, etc as “sex-work”…it humanizes the occupation, and recognizes that these are people and deserve to work in a regulated, non-violent environment. Bravo.

  2. Shapel Mallard permalink
    October 26, 2010

    Dope write up. And I love “But Im a Cheerleader.”

  3. Arla Berman permalink
    November 4, 2010

    great article, Genya! its interesting, this piece is aimed at people who are not lesbians and therefore are more prone to misunderstanding and stereotyping them, but what I find equally if not more interesting is the fact that many lesbians, queers, gay males, homosexuals in general not only fit themselves into the boxes of stereotype built for them, but have come to use said boxes as cornerstones, building blocks, for a subculture.

    as you said, rachel maddow proudly refers to herself as butch while ellen does not. for every gay woman ive known that rejects labels, theres one who proudly adopts a dozen of them, complete with handkerchief. i think there is a real problem with knowing just how much labels can help people struggling with their sexual identity and how much trying to embody a ‘type’ is more limiting than liberating. “if i cut off all my hair, did i do it because im a lesbian, or because i wanted to look like one?”

    it’s hard to know when gay women are choosing to be more ‘manly’ because of this outside view of them and when it’s because they really do have gender identification stuff going on. at my local gay bar a lot of my friends have fun spotting the ‘baby dykes’, or the girls who are obviously trying too hard to with the way they look and act. most of them look and act like some version of the aforementioned Shane.

    It’s sad because I think most people accept their sexuality with the help of a widely recognized stereotype because they don’t want to feel like an alien, they want to be recognized by society even if its in an ill fitting caricature, and i’m sure a lot of trends in the gay and lesbian communities are an inextricable mix of ‘genuine’ and ‘evolved from outside stereotypes’, so they can go most of their lives without shedding labels and looks they may not really want in the first place. we need more gay female role models in the media who say what you’re saying here, girl.

  4. Genya Shimkin permalink
    November 4, 2010

    excellent comment, arla! you’re absolutely right. i think this whole “wearing a label and wearing what its stereotypes” thing is exactly what kept me from identifying as a lesbian. i didn’t want to be crammed into the box of dyke, baby dyke, soft butch, or anything else. and i think there are a lot of identity crises happening amoung young queer women, but not because we question our sexual orientation.

    i often ask myself, “do i have short hair because i’m gay? or am i gay because i have short hair?” (it’s obviously an over-simplification, but you get what i’m saying.) my mother alawys had short hair, so my having the same never seemed odd until i realized i was gay and wondered whether i had internalized the stereotype as much as my mother’s appearences.

    sexual and gender identity are crazy tangled webs, and navigating them can be daunting. but sometimes, wearing a label and feeling a part of some smaller subsect of the larger community helps provide direction through the maze.

    thanks again, arla!

    • Genya Shimkin permalink
      November 4, 2010

      *“wearing a label and therefore wearing its stereotypes”

  5. November 19, 2010

    Wow! Fabulous post, I especially dug the last paragraph:

    “This piece could just as easily have been written by a gay man, or a transman/woman, or a bisexual. As a community, sexual minorities are generally under- and misrepresented in popular culture and media. And this will continue so long as we live in a country that treats our relationships and unions as second class. The complexities and beauty of the lesbian community are lost in a culture that does not value us as equal members of its democracy.”

    You just don’t hear enough those types of sentiments–especially in the LGBTQ community in my opinion. We all get at one time or another so caught up in what little box we’ve picked (so secure & empowering that box may be at times) we don’t stop enough to peak out over the edge.

    And, BTW, I don’t know if it’s the L Word or just Hollywood or what but I often feel more subconscious about a woman seeing me naked than a man…and yet isn’t one of the cliches about being with a woman feeling more accepted, less body conscious? I mean in my experience, having been with men, they’re just happy if there’s boob in front of them. Where as women take in details and nuance. Now with a woman my body has been very much accepted, flaws and all. Still, esp. as I am single at the moment and only wishing to pursue samesex dating/relationships, I feel this pressure with a woman to look really hot in a way that I don’t quite feel with men, like a woman might still expect more. Can anyone relate to that???

  6. March 8, 2011

    well i feel the same way you feel i wish to meet with you and talk with you

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