Lesbian Representation In Pop Culture Media

Lesbian Stereotypes in Popular Culture

Stereotypes and tropes are no rarity when it comes to Hollywood portrayals of lesbians. There are several tropes that commonly occur in portrayals of lesbians within film and television. The most prevalent is called the “luscious lesbian.” The “luscious lesbian” is feminine, conventionally attractive, and most likely white. She is often used to entertain the heterosexual male audience through acting out sexual fantasies. She is gay enough to enjoy being with women, but not enough to be intimidating to heterosexual men or to exclusively interested in women.. The “luscious lesbian” appears constantly throughout pop culture with the sexualization of her character occurring to different extents. Both Katherine Hiegl’s character in the movie “Jenny’s Wedding” and Denise Richard’s in the teen movie “Wild Things” could be considered “luscious lesbians” although one movie contains no sex and the other is highly sexual.

Different movies and different levels of sexualization, however both contain “luscious lesbians”: white, conventionally attractive, and feminine.

Another common lesbian stereotype within popular culture is that of the “psycho femme.” The “psycho femme” lesbian is a dangerous, obsessive and crazed character, whose sexuality is ultimately linked to the concept of homsoexuality being an illness. An example of the “psycho femme” is the murderous and manipulative Catherine from the film “Basic Instinct”. Another could be Natalie Portman’s character in “Black Swan” whose homosexual fantasies fall under the umbrella of her psychotic behavior.

 

Misrepresentation of Lesbian Relationships

Jules and Nic from the movie “The Kids Are Alright”

Lesbian relationships are almost always the subject of films with lesbian characters and are often poorly and inaccurately represented. Mainstream media very often makes the mistake of modeling lesbian relationships off of the stereotypical heterosexual relationship. An example of this is in the 2011 movie “The Kids Are Alright”, despite this movie being touted for displaying a lesbian couple as “normal” in reality the film forces one women, Jules, the more feminine of the two, to take on the role of the “wife”, staying at home and raising the children and forces the other Nic to be the “husband”, working a professional job and claiming  ownership of the family. The highly acclaimed film “Blue Is The Warmest Color” also pushes this heterosexual mold onto a lesbian relationship, forcing Adele to be a school teacher who cooks and caters to her girlfriend Emma, a strong, opinionated, and successful artist.

A common trope when it comes to portraying lesbian relationships is “friends or lovers”, where a romantic relationship is continually hinted at but is never confirmed or seen by the audience. An example of this could be from the film “Fried Green Tomatoes” in which two characters Idgie and Ruth share a deep friendship with clear sexual undertones, however any actual homosexual love between them is never confirmed. To a lesser extent the “friends or lovers” trope also applies to the movie “Jenny’s Wedding.” Although this movie is literally about two lesbian women marrying each other, the audience rarely sees the two supposed lovers interact. The characters have no sexual chemistry between them, kiss a total of three times throughout the film, and almost never actually touch each other despite being in a relationship.

Lesbian sex is also commonly misrepresented in portrayals of lesbian relationship. Much of the time lesbian sex in film is shown to be unsatisfying or inadequate without the aid of a man. In the film the “Kids Are Alright” Jules and Nic’s sex life is ultimately a failure despite the effort both women display in romancing one and another. Jules ultimately end up having a sexually satisfying affair with her children’s sperm donor, highlighting the illegitimacy lesbian sex in the media compared to heterosexual sex. A similar situation appears in the movie “Kissing Jessica Stein” in which the main character’s relationship ultimately ends over the lack of sexual intimacy.  On the other end of the spectrum, lesbian sex in media is commonly displayed as entertainment for both the heterosexual man behind the camera and also in the audience. In the movie “Blue Is The Warmest Color” the sex scenes are long, graphic, and choregoraphed to the point of almost pornagraphic. This theme of lesbian sex scenes used to titillate and audience also continues in several movies, such as “American Pie 2”,” Wild Things”, and “Cruel Intentions.”

 

Whiteness and Heterosexuality of Lesbian Media

The author of the of the book which the film “Blue Is the Warmest Color” was based off, Julie Maroh, was very critical of the movie despite the overwhelming praise it received from reviewers during its release. She stated on her blog in regards to the movie “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.” While watching and researching films with lesbians in it for this class this appeared to be very common. Rarely are movies about lesbians directed by actual lesbians, but are often directed by heterosexual women and men. In fact all of the mainstream films I watched about lesbians were not directed by lesbians. Very rarely are the actresses playing lesbians lesbians themselves. To me, the exclusion of lesbian creative input in film and television, prevents accurate and meaningful portrayals of lesbian characters.

“Blue Is The Warmest Color” a film about two white lesbians played by two white straight actresses, directed by a straight man.

Another commonality that the movies I watched share, is that they are overwhelmingly white. Every lesbian character in the mainstream movies I viewed for this project were white, and there were very rarely any people of color in the background. This trend also continues in LGBTQ representation on television. In GLAAD’s “Where We Are On TV” report, in 2017 only 36% of LGBTQ characters on broadcast television were people of color. To me this shows that Hollywood has regularly ignores the stories of lesbians are not just the stories of white women but also the stories of women of color.

 

Positive and Diverse Portrayals of Lesbians in Hollywood

Although lesbian portrayals in Hollywood clearly have a long way to go I do believe they are progressing. More and more we are seeing more television shows and movies about lesbians. Streaming services like Netflix have provided opportunities for queer people to create more content that has accurate and entertaining content with GLAAD reporting that lesbians make up the majority of LGBTQ representation on streaming platforms. Shows like “Orange Is The New Black” and “One Day At A Time” have increased lesbian representation in media in a more meaningful and accurate way.

Scene from “But I’m A Cheerleader”

Films have also progressed somewhat but at a much slower pace than television when it comes to lesbian representation. The only popular film that I was able to find about lesbians that was also directed by a lesbian as well was the 1999 film “But I’m A Cheerleader.” The character’s love stories and triangles within this film have a very similar plot to many teenage rom coms of the 90’s but with added storyline of being in a conversion camp. The sex scenes in the movie are subtle and framed romantically, with soft lighting and music. This is movie is mostly white but does have at least four characters of color, and all four speak. Although not necessarily the most artistic piece of work I think it’s one of the few films about lesbians that gets it right when it comes to two girls in love.

Overall, I think Hollywood is making progress in representing lesbians, but that progress is very slow. More opportunities need to be allocated to tell lesbian stories and these stories I think should be told by actual lesbians.

 

Sources

 

Eaklor, Vicki L. “The Kids Are All Right But the Lesbians Arent: The Illusion of Progress in Popular Film.” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques, vol. 38, no. 3, Jan. 2012, p. 153. Fine Arts and Music Collection, doi:10.3167/hrrh.2012.380309.

Jenkins, Tricia. “”Potential Lesbians at Two OClock”: The Heterosexualization of Lesbianism in the Recent Teen Film.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 38, no. 3, 2005, pp. 491–504. ProQuest, doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.2005.00125.x.

GLAAD Where We Are ON TV Report. 2017, GLAAD Media Institute, glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2017-2018.pdf.

Swisher, Kara. “WE LOVE LESBIANS! OR DO WE? ‘HOT’ SUBCULTURE — OR JUST NEW HURTFUL STEREOTYPES?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 July 1993, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1993/07/18/we-love-lesbians-or-do-we-hot-subculture-or-just-new-hurtful-stereotypes/c04ac909-7af7-4fe6-965f-546c72f768dd/?utm_term=.464335a542dd.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. “The kids are all right but the lesbians arent: Queer kinship in US culture.” Sexualities, vol. 15, no. 8, 2012, pp. 917–933., doi:10.1177/1363460712459311.

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7 thoughts on “Lesbian Representation In Pop Culture Media

  1. Hi!
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post, and thought you made some very interesting points throughout. One of the only movies you listed that I have seen was “The Kids are Alright”, and I remember being upset by the depiction of Jule’s and Nic’s relationship because it did seem so heteronormative. Then when Nic decided to end her relationship for her sperm donor, it seemed extremely far from the reality of a situation like that. These portrayals are so unfair, and it is frustrating seeing how slowly the film industry is moving to catch up. You are right though, television is becoming much more inclusive through Netflix series. I think accessibility for minorities and underrepresented groups is key to creating more shows like this, because their lack of representation comes from it being so hard for these groups to be a part of the film industry.

  2. Hi Minaenquist,

    Being unfamiliar with how lesbians are portrayed in the media, I thought this was both interesting and informative. After reading your post, it made me think about past movies I’ve seen where lesbians are portrayed and I think you’ve describe the portrayal well. One in particular was when you talked about the illegitimacy of lesbian sex. The portrayal in “The Kids are Alright” seems to be, like the previous replier said, unrealistic. Despite the fact I don’t identify as lesbian, I can relate to how frustrating it is to see your identity not portrayed accurately. I think it’s so important to either try and portray minority groups accurately or diversify those portrayals as it can distort how some peoples view of those groups. I can see movies like “The Kids are Alright” to be harmful for lesbians because it just perpetuates this idea that lesbian relationships don’t work since there is no man. In addition to that, the almost pornographic portrayals of lesbian relationships seen in movies like “Wild Things” and “Blue is the Warmest Color” are harmful too because it causes people to see lesbian relationships as sexual entertainment despite the fact it is no different from a heterosexual relationships. Hopefully with the rise of amateur film makers and continuing normalization of homosexual relationships, the portrayal of lesbian relationships, and relationships from the LGBTQ community, will be portrayed better.

    -Lisa

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post! It is unfortunate that some much of media that features lesbians isn’t in fact created by them. I really admire the lesbian separatist movement of the 70’s. The goal was to make a community that was by and for lesbians. It is really important not only to have diversity on screen but also in the creators of media. The result of the alternative is inaccurate portrayals that are centered around the male gaze. I hope for a future of lesbian content creators. A movie you might like is Watermelon Woman, it was made by a black lesbian woman and it touches on some really important points about the erasure of black lesbian history and fetishisation of blackness. Thank you for a great read!
    Athena

  4. Hi!
    I haven’t really paid attention to the portrayal, or lack-there-of, of lesbians in mainstream media. Your blog post really opened my eyes on the topic and I’ll likely look for the lesbian identity in any future shows or movies that I watch.
    I found it pretty shocking that most movies and TV shows with lesbian leads are written by straight directors. Which makes me wonder, is Hollywood purposely preventing LGBT directors from showcasing their talents?

  5. Hi I enjoyed you post very much! My “big picture blog post” was of a kindred spirit to yours I think. I thought te examples you chose real lent well to our overall analysis. It was interesting when you explored how lesbian sex was viewed as inatequete without a male. This was something I was not aware of being present in hollywood beforehand.

  6. After reading your post, I like it. Talking about this topic, I found it is so interesting. A lesbian is a homosexual woman who is romantically or sexually attracted to other women. Lesbians often attract media attention, particularly in relation to feminism, love and sexual relationships, marriage and parenting. Some writers who have asserted this trend can lead to exploitative and unjustified plot devices. The lack of lesbian portrayal in the media can also influence the consumer’s view of the particular sexuality. Common tropes of lesbians in the media include butch or female lesbians and lesbian parents. Lesbian characters have made very rare appearances in scripted radio programs, almost always as killers or murder victims.

  7. Hi!
    This is a very well written post! I found your analysis of the media’s representation of lesbians very interesting. I know of many movies that have almost pornographic lesbian sex scenes, but I had never realized that it was a way of making the movie appeal to straight men. It’s also a way of essentially saying that being a lesbian is only about the sex– which it isn’t. It includes the romance and emotional aspect that you’d find in any other relationship.

    I also like that you mentioned the show One Day at a Time! I loved that show and loved that it included not only a woman of color who is a lesbian, but also a nonbinary lesbian.

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