The Problem of Lesbian Representation
They say it’s a man’s world here.
It was built, shaped and created for and by men. For their consumption, their use and above all their pleasure. Against this rose the beleaguered lesbians. The first time I heard about lesbians was in a hasty whisper about Deepa Mehta’s Fire. As he got older, the references continued, albeit sporadically. FRIENDS with the obligatory laugh track at every mention of Ross’s first wife, Barney Stinson losing his mind at the mere mention of a girl fight, and who can forget the sheer adoration with which teenage peers discussed lesbian porn ?
Stonewall paved the way for gay rights, Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl paved the way for the modern sexualization of lesbian relationships. It wasn’t until I was much older that La Vie d’Adèle provided the first look at lesbians as they really are: human. In the world of men, the idea that women could successfully live and thrive in relationships without them has either been objectified or dismissed. No in-between. Most of it boils down to the simple question that lesbians are – women. Women who make up less than three percent of recorded history. Women who have been grown to be dependent on men. Women, who laughed at a tall, strong man and lived their lives seemingly independently. Boy, did that piss off the men. It was one thing to get the vote, another to own property, but to completely remove the need for men?
So men, fed a diet of heteronormativity. Perhaps it’s society’s glorification of the penis and masculinity in sex that makes people marvel at what two women can do in the bedroom. Even now, in 2022, most readily available information about lesbians is about sex. Lesbians were a porn category for a long time before they became people. The fetishization of same-sex attraction affects the everyday experience of queer women. This causes them to stop and look around before they can say goodbye to their partner in public. He drops his hands to the side as a man walks by on a quiet street. If we frame examples of women kissing on physical stages in a hyper-sexualized way, we suggest that lesbian affection belongs in a metaphorical stage. It exists for and is continually fueled by the straight male gaze. A performance, one might say, depends on the number of spectators for its very existence.
Lesbian representation could exist, still exists today, through the male gaze. This is because women’s sexuality has been recognized as an entity in its own right. So, there has never been a place in popular media for female love where a male doesn’t matter. Anecdotally, one could radically explain that male and female sexuality suffer from inverse problems. Male sexuality is taken too seriously and female sexuality does not live up to this societal norm, once again. Penises are menacing and always demand attention, but vaginas don’t matter unless they tickle…straight men.
But at least do they talk about it? That really doesn’t solve the problem, does it? Being fetishized is not like being in the same boat as being accepted. They don’t even share an oar. Having your identity and your relationships judged by what is considered sexually attractive to outsiders is not a celebration of homosexuality. Television and movies have been primarily responsible for socializing these attitudes by regurgitating a narrative of lesbianism that is unrealistic and unrepresentative. The familiar idea of queer women is one that is built to be attractive to men. And most portrayals of queer women only feature cisgender, female-bodied white women. Pop culture continues to push the idea that femininity is exclusively related to sexuality.
The reasons why the media misrepresent queer women are complex. Journalist Julie Bindel suggested the problem is that men, who still largely dominate the industry, fear losing priority. “Men have a deep fear that if you subvert the patriarchal norm, things will start to break down, including male identity,” she said. Additionally, pornography, which has generally been made for men by men, has been incredibly damaging to how we define lesbianism. The proliferation of men “joining” lesbian sex in erotic media has further reinforced the idea that women’s sexuality is inherently fluid and only an experimental phase. This is incredibly harmful to women in the LGBTQ+ community because not only does it completely invalidate the experiences of bisexual women, but it also paints lesbianism as easily accessible to men. The narrative that lesbianism is a hypersexual fantasy for men is born in society and has real-life consequences. These hypersexual responses make it nearly impossible for queer women to be taken seriously in society.
After the resounding success of Red Scare in the United States in the 1950s, America saw Lavender Scare. One policy was based on the unfounded fear that gays and lesbians “posed a threat to national security because they were vulnerable to blackmail and were seen as having weak moral characters”, according to historian David K. Johnson. Johnson, however, argued that lesbians were less likely to be persecuted than gay men because “lesbians traditionally had less access to public space than men and were therefore less vulnerable to arrest and prosecution for their homosexuality” . So, in an extremely roundabout way, perhaps in this case, the oppression of women allowed them safer passage than most. Moral policing had become the norm in a post-Cold War era and fighting communism meant pushing the idea of nuclear families with no place for homosexuality. It was not until 1998 that this frankly frightening policy was abandoned. Homosexuals have lived under judgment, fear and accusations of blasphemy. Why society chose to add sexualization to their condemnation remains a mystery.