Lesbians in TV: Gender Expression
With the rise of gay rights and same-sex marriages headlining newspapers and websites, we see a trend in popularizing LGBT characters within film and television that were, for the most part nonexistent, however, patriarchal norms and gender expression still dictate how lesbians should be depicted in both society and the media.
Megan Evans’ article, “Femme Invisibility” briefly discusses how an increase in “femme” lesbians is a stray from the “stereotypical image of a butch lesbian”, but representation of lesbians within popular culture continues to be controlled by male-perspective and the idea that lesbians can only be butch (Evans).
In our society, there are many unspoken rules and strict guidelines of how we should express our gender, which is usually assumed contingent with our anatomy. Therefore, by having discordance with gender and sexuality, you have discordance within society. As a femme lesbian herself, Evans comments on fictional femmes’ struggle with femme invisibility, with other lesbians telling them they “don’t belong” and heterosexual males saying, “But you’re too pretty to be gay.” But what does that even mean?
Because a woman who desires women that essentially dresses and acts typically feminine, her gender expression somehow makes her less gay? By not choosing to defy gender norms socially constructed by our patriarchal society, her feelings toward other lesbians are doubted?
Evans’ examples of upcoming femme lesbian television characters include Santana (Glee), Emily (Pretty Little Liars), Callie and Arizona (Grey's Anatomy), three of which, interestingly, are queer women of color. Of these women’s series, we see the ways in which men respond negatively to their “chosen” sexuality which counters their gender expression of femininity, often claiming that these women are rebelling against the heteronormative societal constraints because they hate men. This leads into what Adrienne Rich calls “male power” and the misconception that “women turn to women out of hatred for men,” (Rich). Lesbians seek both emotional and sexual relationships with women because they desire women, not because they dislike men, or have had negative previous encounters with men, and they ways in which women choose to express themselves, (feminine, masculine, androgynous, etc.,) have no direct connection to their sexual preferences.
Evans’s other concern is the “great lack of lesbian role models” within the screen media history (Rich). In television series, we have the cast of The L Word, of which served as the main source for lesbian programming during the mid-2000’s. More recently, we have appointed Ellen Degeneres as our widely worshipped and best known lesbian icon, but one woman does not represent the extremely diverse group of lesbians, not only in gender, but in race, class, ethnicity, and experience. Even more disheartening, much of television programs available to lesbians were made by and for heterosexuals, cementing unrealistic and stereotypical ideas into society’s understanding of lesbians. Even the historical context of the word lesbian has medical undertones, which circles back to the old view of homosexuality as a “mental health problem requiring psychiatric treatment,” (D’Emilio). It appears that much of the limited lesbian history has been removed or omitted by society's editors and conservatives, many, no doubt, are enforcers of male power.
Too many of people have fought to erase these misconceptions of lesbians, there needs to be more focus on the ways in which we live and love as people, how we defy gender and societal constraints. Appropriately representing lesbian characters within television and film continues to be a frustrating and slowly-progressive process that is hindered by stereotypical and patriarchal views on women’s sexuality and gender expression combined with the lack of positive historical context.
D’Emilio, John. "Homosexuality and American Society: An Overview" from Sexual Politics, Sexual, Communities in the United States 1940- 1970. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" from Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. ed. George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmermann. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995.
Evans, Megan. “Femme Invisibility” The Huffington Post. Web 28 Jan 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-evans/femme-lesbians_b_1237648.html