Why the Media Still Doesn’t Get Lesbianism Right

Huffington Post
Huffington Post

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 & GraceThe 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.

7 thoughts on “Why the Media Still Doesn’t Get Lesbianism Right

  1. This is a wonderful analyze and a great way to let off some steam, and to show the world how pissed off all lesbians feel about these ridiculous stereotypes. Thanks!

  2. Great article! I love this lot’s. And it explains a whole lot. And maybe I’m naive but it seems like the stereotype of the “lesbian has sex with a dude” is dying out. More and more portrayals of homosexual women are sort of making progress to be more accurate and positive, which is good. Although it seems to be switching with queer men this time and that’s making me a bit queasy. And call me naive again, but it also seems like, the majority of human beings are smart enough to realize that these movies/tv shows are just fictional and these characters are not real. So they’re smart enough to know that these things would not happen in real life. And that gays and lesbians would NEVER do things like that. At least that’s what common sense would tell you.

  3. Thank you so much for this!!! I have NEVER in my life understood why the hell these film/tv makers make these women “gay” if they are just going to go out and have sex with a man anyway. It makes no sense! But you’ve explained it perfectly that the main reason for that is because a lot of these are written by straight (and possibly bi) men, who are doing it for THEIR gaze only. It’s despicable! When will people wake up and realize that gay women are just like gay men. They are NOT attracted to the opposite sex AT ALL. They only like the same sex. Of course it’s the opposite with straight people, and BISEXUAL people like both. When will people get that?! And why do these actresses agree to play these roles? Why does no one ever speak up and say, “hey wait a minute, something is not right here!” And I hate to say it, but sometimes there have been portrayals of gay men having sex with a woman. It happened on Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under. It’s just as sad.

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