Queer Women in Entertainment Media
The sexualization of LBPQ (lesbian, bi, pansexual/polysexual, and queer) women in the media is both rampant and incredibly harmful. This phenomena is rooted in the same ideas that cause the sexualization and objectification of all women: that our bodies and our sexuality are not ours, but exist for the consumption or entertainment of men. Queerness removes the exclusive focus of women’s sexual attraction from men, either excluding them altogether or expanding to include people of other genders. This anomaly is sought to be rectified by positioning queer women’s sexuality as a heterosexual male fantasy or a show performed for their entertainment.
While the representation of LBPQ women and girls in movies and television is rapidly growing, there is much left to be desired. Minority representation in mainstream media is vitally important to those who are being represented. Not seeing images of yourself reflected in the media you consume can cause feelings of isolation and low self esteem, and the main goal of viewers and activists pushing to increase the media’s representation of minorities is to curb these negative impacts on the mental health of minority viewers. Regardless, even with the increasing number of media portrayals of LBPQ women, many of these characters were written without a queer female audience in mind. The impact that this difference in target audience has on the content itself is very noticeable.
This phenomena can be analyzed by comparing three different media artifacts, all featuring LBPQ women, but approached from vastly different angles and targeting different audiences.
The sexualization of LBPQ women characters is most noticeable in primetime network television. These shows target a very wide and mainstream audience and in general stray from topics that could be seen as overtly political or revolutionary, adhering to social standards fairly strictly in order to avoid causing offense or controversy.
A good example of this is a fifth season episode of the long-running TV medical drama House entitled Lucky Thirteen, written by Sara Hess and Liz Friedman. The episode focuses on curing a female patient with whom Dr. “Thirteen” Hadley, Dr. House’s employee, had a one night stand. The episode’s opening scene depicts the women kissing passionately and undressing each other, mostly relying on disembodied shots of their midriffs, legs, breasts, and mouths: this strategy of visually cutting women’s bodies into small pieces is a classic hallmark of objectification.
Many comments about the attractiveness of both women are made by male characters throughout this episode, and in Dr. Hadley’s case, throughout her whole run on the show. Dr. House shows interest in this patient specifically because she slept with Dr. Hadley, and at one point in the episode interrupts a medical examination to sexually harass the patient, asker her invasive and inappropriate questions about having sex with Dr. Hadley. Dr. House asks the patient questions such as “you had sex and then a seizure, it could be a particular activity or position that set it off,” asking if the lights were on, and requesting that she rate the sexual experience on a scale from one to ten. While Dr. House is not generally portrayed as a likable character and this behavior is clearly sexual harassment, the patient responds by calmly answering all of his questions. This scene seeks to normalize this behavior, both through comic relief and the fact that the patient did not react with offense or anger.
In addition, this episode, as well as the rest of Dr. Hadley’s character arc and romantic history, insinuate that her attraction to women is purely sexual. Dr. Hadley’s promiscuous sex with female strangers coincides with drug abuse and her struggle to cope with her diagnosis of a terminal illness to position her sexuality as reckless and exclusively physical, devoid of human connection or personal meaning. Throughout the show, Dr. Hadley fosters romantic relationships with men, but never with women. The stereotype that same-gender relationships are inherently and exclusively sexual is a very harmful one that contributes to this pattern of objectification.
While this episode is an example of the sexualization of women in television made to appeal to a broad and mainstream audience and whose survival depends largely on ratings, Jenji Kohan’s Netflix Original Series Orange is the New Black does exactly the opposite. Because of its subscription-based nature, Netflix’s profit is only subtly and indirectly influenced by the success and popularity of Orange is the New Black. The fact that liking or disliking this particular show is more than likely not going to be the difference between someone canceling or renewing their Netflix subscription allows its creators––Jenji Kohan, Lauren Morelli, Sara Hess, Sian Hedder, Tara Herrmann, and Nick Jones––to generate content without worrying about appealing to a massive and mainstream audience.
Throughout the series, Orange is the new Black depicts graphic sex scenes between women characters on a regular basis. Despite the nature of these scenes, the way they are handled is distinctly authentic and realistic. Sexual situations between the women of Litchfield are often awkward or funny. Characters will have honest, candid conversations during sex and be depicted in positions or situations that are by no means designed to be appealing or exciting.
Warning: NSFW video
In addition to this approach to the act of sex itself, the LBPQ women featured in the show also deviate from the widely accepted standards for sexual appeal. These women vary greatly in terms of body type, race, and age, and few of them would be considered conventionally attractive in light of social standards which savagely deny the beauty of women of size and color. Hair, makeup, and wardrobe decisions made during filming were also made, quite obviously, without either aesthetic or sexual value in mind. Characters are shown wearing almost exclusively shapeless and loose-fitting prison khakis. The women of Litchfield who choose to wear whatever cosmetic products they can purchase from the commissary are obviously doing it for their own personal enjoyment, as the environment itself does not place value on appearance.
This unapologetically honest approach to LBPQ women’s sexuality is part of what makes Orange is the New Black so provocative and controversial. While these decisions were made with the freedom provided by using Netflix as a broadcasting platform in mind, they did not seem to compromise the show’s popularity or critical reception. The series received no less than 12 Emmy nominations, and is rated at 8.5/10 on IMDb and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
On the other end of the ratings spectrum is Jamie Babbit’s satirical romcom But I’m a Cheerleader, which was a flop at the box office and a ratings disaster: the movie was given an unimpressive 34% by Rotten Tomatoes users. But I’m a Cheerleader takes place at a residential inpatient conversion therapy facility. The main cast consists of queer teenagers sent to the camp by homophobic parents. This setting is automatically overtly political, and concepts explored in the film––such as prejudice and the innateness of gender and sexuality––are heavily controversial, which serves to alienate a substantial demographic of a mainstream audience. Despite its critical reception, But I’m a Cheerleader is widely regarded as a popular cult classic among LGBQ+ audiences.
The combination of these factors allows us to infer that this film was written with a queer youth target audience in mind. Tyler Coates describes But I’m a Cheerleader as “a movie for queer people, about queer people, by queer people.” Because of this, the sexualities of leading characters Graham and Megan are approached from a distinctly queer perspective. Not only does the portrayal of these characters not cater to the heterosexual male gaze, but they are distinctly parodied within the film. Romantic interactions between female characters are emphasized and generally appear sweet and chaste, distinctly sexual interactions do not happen, and the topic of sexuality itself is approached from an almost exclusively comedic standpoint.
In analyzing these three pop culture artifacts, it appears that the root of the sexualization of queer women in entertainment media is the intention to receive positive ratings. This also accounts for women creators generating content that objectifies and sexualizes their women characters. In the current social climate, women’s sexuality is only uncontroversial when men are the focal point, and writers will keep this in mind on the quest for good ratings. A wide viewership and positive critical reception are necessary for the continued production and broadcasting of a television series and lack of box office revenue for feature films is a recipe for financial disaster. This phenomena reflects broadly on the general social ideas surrounding women’s sexuality. The compulsion to center queer women’s sexuality exclusively around men is not only degrading and dehumanizing on a personal level but contribute to acts of violence such as corrective rape. While the portrayal of LBPQ women in movies and television is not the root of the problem, the relationship between popular culture and the social status quo is such that the media will reflect societal attitudes as well as influence the way that we think.
Hess, Sara, and Liz Friedman. “Lucky Thirteen.” House. Fox. KPTV, Portland, Oregon, 21 Oct. 2008. Television.
Kohan, Jenji, Lauren Morelli, Sara Hess, Sian Hedder, Tara Herrmann, and Nick Jones. Orange Is the New Black. 11 July 2013. Netflix. Web. 8 Mar. 2015.
But I’m a Cheerleader. Dir. Jamie Babbit. Screenplay by Brian Wayne Peterson. Perf. Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall. Lionsgate, 1999. DVD.
Coates, Tyler. “Was It Good For The Gays: ‘But I’m A Cheerleader'” Decider. N.p., 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.
Higgins, Marissa. “The Problem With the Sexualization of Lesbians.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 06 Apr. 2013. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.
Josephs, Anya. “The Sexualization of Queer Women in Media | SPARK Movement.” SPARK Movement RSS. Sparksummit, 29 Nov. 2012. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.
Matthews, Cate. “Here’s Why ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Sex Scenes Are So Believable (NSFW).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.