I've been thinking a lot lately about our society's views on lesbianism. It's been a hard topic for me to avoid. There's Ellen & Portia's wedding, pictures of Lindsay Lohan with her girlfriend, the streak of lesbian writer Sarah Waters' books and films I've been engrossed in, and there's "I Kissed a Girl" on the radio every 30 seconds or so. The first three embrace a full view of lesbians, they're allowed to love and commit and be girly or not. The latter, sadly, is far more common.
Let's face facts: we like our lesbians young, pretty, drunk, and with boyfriends cheering them on. We prefer the spring break girls making out for kicks (or, often, cameras) because that way no one has to feel threatened by their sexuality. It's no mistake that when LiLo got a girlfriend instead of a boyfriend and actually got serious about her, the tabloids suddenly quit talking about her.
For all the progress we've made with our views on gay life and culture, we seem to be stuck in a rut with lesbians. Take a search for gay characters on TV and they are dominantly men. You've seen plenty of young gay male characters, they're allowed to struggle with their sexuality or be totally comfortable with it all before they hit legal age. When you do find a lesbian character, they're usually "experimenting" with their sexuality or have left a long-term relationship with a man for a woman. (Can you believe it was 14 years ago that Ross's wife on Friends who left him for a woman was played for comic relief and yet we still keep making the same joke?) You won't see women who identify themselves as lesbian the way male characters identify themselves as gay. (The two exceptions to this that I've found are The L Word and my favorite character on Weeds, the adolescent Isabelle who's hot for her best friend's Mom.)
As for The L Word, I haven't watched the show so it's hard for me to take a stand. So instead I'll pass the baton to Sarah Waters: "You see very sexualised images of lesbians, women who tend not to look like the lesbians I know, very made up and girlie and in one way it's a nice advert for lesbianism but it does not feel very real." From what I've heard about the show, this is a common complaint. Their "lipstick lesbian" approach makes them more appealing to a mainstream audience, even though it may not adequately portray the depth of the real lesbian community.
That all brings me back to Sarah Waters. She gives us in her books exactly the kind of diverse portrayal lesbians should be getting in general. When you represent a small community, there can be a temptation to make your characters too perfect, to try and show the best of you. By presenting them as all sorts of different people complete with flaws, they feel accessible to anyone, gay or straight. Their feelings of longing and desire are the same ones we all have.
It's not surprising that Waters hasn't quite been a breakout success in the U.S. After all, we're too busy listening to Katy Perry (who happens to be straight) sing about the taste of cherry chapstick. If you look, you'll be able to find her novels almost anywhere, but I bet many of you hadn't heard of her before. Three of her novels have been adapted for British television, though most in the U.S. played only at gay film festivals. (I even heard somewhere that when the BBC's version of Tipping the Velvet played in the U.S., that we edited out the naughty parts.) But I think Waters is exactly what we need to give lesbians the legitimacy they still haven't obtained.
If you'd like to get started (and I think you should), Waters' books are Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, and my personal favorite The Night Watch. The film adaptations of the first three are all available from Netflix and Amazon. I've just finished watching all three films, and while I do like the books more, there's something liberating about being able to watch two girls kiss just like any two other people.