By Tasha Sanders, Intern 2014
Turn on the TV today and you’ll see more depictions of LGBT* than ever before. This increase has resulted in society becoming more accepting of this minority group. Mainstream audiences have been exposed through shows such as Will & Grace, The Fosters, and the wildly popular Modern Family, in which two of the characters are not only gay but married and raising their daughter. This helps broaden views on something that twenty years ago was unheard of in the media. When Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom aired in 1994 and the lead character famously announced, “I’m gay!” she was dethroned as America’s Funniest Sweetheart and became a pariah.
We’ve come a long way since then, but still have miles to go. The problem lies in how LGBT* people are portrayed. While people are growing more comfortable with this new “normal,” their perception is skewed because the majority of the time, what we’re seeing just isn’t accurate. The media plays an important role in our perceptions on societal issues, and that’s why we need to see fewer tropes, more truth.
Lesbians, for example, are still overwhelmingly underrepresented. According to GLADD, gay men make up 46% of the LGBT* representation in the media, while the percentage of lesbian characters sits at 30%. And of those characters, what we typically see is very… well, stereotypical. More often than not, she fits the lipstick lesbian trope. She’s femme, traditionally attractive and hypersexualized. Sometimes she takes a heterosexual relationship out for a spin, even though she is not bisexual. This undermines lesbians and makes lesbianism seem a flippant lifestyle choice, rather than simply an intrinsic part of who they are.
Where other straight characters are fleshed-out, lesbians tend to play more of a sidekick role, helping the lead along and offering proverbial lesbian words of wisdom. They’re often found looking for a romp in the hay or just being the supportive souls they are, depending on which stereotype is being played up by the character.
Being a lesbian in the media means that your defining characteristic is your sexuality. A lesbian in the media can never just, for example, go out for a drink with her friends. She’ll either hook up with one of her straight friends or meet a man who will temporarily sweep her off her feet, just in time for a one night stand. Instead of taking time to get to know more about our lesbian heroine, these kinds of scenes serve as cheap ploys to boost ratings and are usually forgotten about by the main, straight characters after a few episodes. Sex and the City was notorious for perpetuating this trope. All of the characters, Samantha, Carrie, Miranda, and even Charlotte, had a sexual interaction with a lesbian.
The male gaze is prevalent where lesbian depictions are concerned. Women are constantly objectified in the media, and it stands to reason that lesbians have it rough—they’re not objectified, but stereotyped to extreme levels of exaggeration. Portrayals are often made with the straight male viewer in mind, which is why lesbians are so often absurdly sexualized. Scenes are often filmed in a voyeuristic manner. The L Word comes to mind when I think of lesbian portrayal with the male gaze in mind. Nearly every episode contains a graphic scene. In one episode, a neighbor is shown spying on two lesbians swimming naked in a pool, playing up the voyeurism prevalent throughout the series. While it is the first of its kind, it’s lacking in the diversity that is sorely needed on television. The controversial foreign film Blue is the Warmest Color is heavy with explicit, borderline pornographic content that prioritizes the male gaze. Not only does the main character, a lesbian, have sex with another woman, but she also has sex with a man in one of the most provocative scenes in the film.
In order for society to fully accept LGBT*, their portrayals in the media need to be realistic. It’s so important for LGBT* to see real examples of people just like them to provide a positive sense of self, and the media is one of the most essential avenues for this. The rest of society needs to see positive portrayals to help break down these harmful stereotypes and end discrimination. Seeing proper portrayals helps humanize LGBT* folks.
ABC’s new TV show How to Get Away with Murder seems to be doing a pretty decent job of this. The show succeeds on many levels. It includes a diverse range of characters, including a Black lead, Viola Davis, who is both strong and emotionally vulnerable at the same time, accurately debunking the “angry black woman” stereotype recently dragged back into the headlines by a recent New York Times article. The new series also showcases a gay student who, only one month into the season, is presenting deep character development and is more than just a student defined by gay sexual activity. In the hit TV show The Fosters, a lesbian couple raises their children in an average suburban home. The show has been praised by critics for its authenticity and positive portrayal of lesbians as multifaceted and relatable.
The media needs to depict LGBT* in this light more often so society can get comfortable with what it really means to be a lesbian. For better inclusivity, accuracy is key.