Monday, September 8, 2008

How We Like Our Lesbians

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.


Radical Reminders said...

Great post. I'm certainly going to add those books to my "must read" pile that seems to be growing rapidly :)

lindsay said...

The lesbians on the L Word are pretty much lipstick lesbians, even the butch women. They all tend to follow the same body type and "conventional" Hollywood attractiveness. It's nice to see some diversity in sexuality on television... but we're still stuck in the same mold of what's attractive and what's not.

Try Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. It's a great graphic novel about her looking back on her past while coming to terms with her own sexuality. Great read.

Jessica said...

I have read Fun Home. Another great recommendation. I really loved it. Feel free to post other great lesbian reads or films or whatever.

habladora said...

Renee of Womanist Musings has a post up (here) right now that deals with a similar issue - our need to still treat lesbian relationships as Other. I think that both our wanting to turn lesbianism into a fetish for straights (like in the Katy Perry song - kissing girls to make boys hot) and our constant portraying of same-sex relationships as Other points to how narrowly we still want to define gender rules for women - and how much those rules are confined to a stereotypical view of what men find sexually alluring.

Anonymous said...

I recently saw the film "Tell No One" (I believe it's French). In it, one of the main female characters has a wife. There was a scene that struck me as so normal, when she tells an officer she needs to get home because her wife is waiting for her. Just like that. No giggling or references to hot girl-on-girl fantasies.

It was so refreshing, and yet it made me think that such a casual reference is a long ways off for American films.

Aviva DV said...

Really interesting post. I have read all the Sarah Waters books--they're totally fantastic (also, the audio book version of The Night Watch is amazingly well-read/acted)--but I have to say that a substantial number of queer women I know (most of them American or Canadian) have at least heard of her, if not read her books. I'm sure it's true though that her books aren't nearly as popular in the US and that her popularity here is more of niche market popularity than it may be in the UK.

As someone who's been on the programming committee of a GLBT film festival for the past three years, I would say there are more marginally mainstream lesbian movies out there these days, but they're still mostly independent films and don't get wide releases. (Still, if you like romantic comedies and haven't already seen them, I would check out Imagine Me and You and Saving Face. Also, the funny, lesbian-feminist film Itty Bitty Titty Committee)

As for lesbians on television, I'm willing to cut the L-Word a little slack (and I've actually published an article about this) because, while I agree that the characters don't represent a very diverse body of lesbian looks, you could say that of virtually any television show out there. TV prefers pretty people who fit a certain standard. Of course, that's something we shouldn't stand for in general, but it's not just a problem with the L Word. I think queer visibility, even in a glossed-over way, is mostly a good thing.

Other contemporary TV shows with lesbian/bisexual characters:
* South of Nowhere, a teen show that has unfortunately been canceled after this season
* Sugar Rush, which is a UK show I don't know much about, but is a teen show, like SoN
* Bad Girls, another UK show, with a lot of out lesbian/bi characters of many varying types
* And then the lesbian/bi characters on a few ensemble dramas like Grey's Anatomy (or Laura Innes on ER a few years back)

Also, maybe a few more potential lesbian/bi characters in new shows this fall.

That's still a pretty sad list, but it's something. Also, check out the never-aired, not-picked-up pilot for a lesbian cop drama on UPN: Nikki and Nora and the online lesbian TV show 3Way.

Whew...sorry for the super-long comment.

Jessica said...

noticed and fourth wave: thanks for the suggestions. I'm glad that at least people are making efforts even if it hasn't hit the mainstream.

I do have to admit that Dr. Hahn on Grey's is one of the exceptions to my rule, although it's still unclear how that whole thing will play out. I'm hoping that just because my two favorite characters on that show may get into a lesbian relationship won't mean that they aren't given a decent storyline. We'll see. That show feels so overwhelmingly hetero sometimes...

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it kind of annoys me to see every lesbian in the media/entertainment be a man's fantasy. What about people like me, just average women? I'm not butch or femme. I'm not lesbian or straight. Or would that be to nonstereotypical for the masses?

habladora said...

I'm not butch or femme. I'm not lesbian or straight.

I think that speaks for most of us - we're all scattered throughout those spectra. We're so enamored of labels, though, that we really try to force everyone we see into either/or categories. Funny that normal people, with their complex and fluid identities, are just too radical for main-stream media.

sally said...

On Habladora's note, there's a post up at Girl w/Pen about heteroflexibility.

M.R.Ambrose said...

OH! You should watch the LWord, for sure!

I think there is definitely a point where lesbian acts can be defined as heterosexually pleasing. But...I dont think I would describe Ellen or even Lindsay Lohan that way. Only because their relationship are not faceted to please men, but are genuine.
oh!press pass

habladora said...

Another interesting conversation about how gender performance intersects with sexuality is going on (here) at the F-Word.

The Amazing Kim said...

Tipping the Velvet! There I was, a 14 year old, up late at night, watching the ABC, anxious about the squirmy feeling I felt in my stomach when I saw two women kiss. I know a Kim who'll be browsing the library tonight!

Could be, perhaps, that in a relationship between ladies you can say "bugger off" to the world - particularly the beauty-idealed, obsequious-behaviour-producing part - and that's just too independent for some people.