Tasha Borkowski discusses how TV and film often get it wrong when it comes to the portrayal of lesbian relationships.
They say in heaven, love comes first, we’ll make heaven a place on earth, ooh, heaven is a place on earth. As this Belinda Carlisle song rang out of the television, I was left feeling uplifted and hopeful. The fourth episode of Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed Black Mirror subverted all expectations; not only expectations of the usually reflective but bleak series, but of the depiction of gay women in popular culture. It was completely refreshing to see a lesbian couple take centre stage, not as a sign of controversy or a symbol of struggle against adversity, but just as any heterosexual couple would be portrayed at the heart of a drama. This is not to mention that the episode did not emphasise the fact it was an interracial coupling.
Once the song faded out, a wave of annoyance came over me. Why are lesbians never allowed this normality in other representations? I praise Brooker for not alluding to this episode’s choice of characters as anything but ‘normal’. Of course their characters were used to spark controversy in other areas of society but their relationship was a depiction of something real: two people in love who were dealing with issues exterior to their sexuality. Perhaps this is because it was set in the near future which incites hope that such acceptance and typicality will eventually be the case.
It is no secret that lesbians are not the first choice for heroines but usually a male sexual fantasy or the antithesis of all that is feminine. They’re a perceived threat to the patriarchy. After all, we know that women only fit into four categories: the virgin, the mother, the whore and the lesbian. We are taught by popular culture as well as by other parts of society, what is good, what is bad and what is normal. Lesbians, however, have always eluded our culture.
The anthology series American Horror Story is often one to push boundaries and is typically quite liberal, yet the fourth season ‘Hotel’ has quite an erotically charged scene featuring two beautiful young Swedish girls who, after being murdered, find their ‘purpose’ by seducing the leading man and engaging in a bloody and fetishized threesome with him. Moreover, films like Basic Instinct and Black Swan portray lesbians as sociopathic, mentally unwell criminals. It is also obvious that many of these women identify as bisexual, but this is probably not to include this group in popular culture, but to reassure men that they are still desired.
Once in a while, a series or film pops up that allows for lesbians to be seen as people. A notable series that does this is Orange is the New Black, which is set in a women’s prison in the US and uses wit and dark humour to deal with the oppressiveness of the American penal system. It has more lesbian characters, or characters that fall somewhere on the homosexual side of the sexuality spectrum, than one would expect from mainstream television. It does, however, titillate the viewer with its numerous sex scenes and displays of lesbians preying on the vulnerable. The background focus of one episode shows Nicky and Boo compete to sleep with the most women, including attempts to seduce heterosexual inmates.. Nevertheless, we do see a more real side to the characters’ relationships that does not pigeonhole their mannerisms and appearances. I cannot be too quick to cite this series as entirely positive. It still maintains racial stereotypes, particularly in regards to black women. The script eludes to black culture as lowbrow and unintelligent in contrast with the highly eloquent white protagonist, Piper. The black women communicate with rap battles whilst Piper and her partner Alex are seen as cultured and highly educated. Clearly this series is not as progressive as it was originally presumed to be.
Similar intentions can be credited to Pretty Little Liars. This series has countless flaws, although admittedly I was a fan, especially regarding its revelation of the much anticipated ‘A’. Choosing to have a transwoman as the show’s villain is severely damaging to LGBTQ+ rights and plays into the aforementioned displays of trans individuals as mentally ill. It’s saving grace is its treatment of the character Emily. Her sexuality is nothing but an additional characteristic and is not all she has to offer nor is she stereotyped. Given the audience is mostly adolescent girls and young women, she is a perpetually positive role model.
One can’t help but notice the comparative representation of gay men in popular culture. Of course there are television series and films that are guilty of offensively stereotyping gay men. Some are effeminate and predatory, eager to turn any male who isn’t careful to the dark side of sexuality. However, on the whole, there is a much greater acceptance of gay men and overwhelmingly positive connotations with their characters. It’s undeniable that even amongst minorities, men take precedence and do not alienate society in the way that women do. Oh who wouldn’t yearn to be portrayed as the delicate hero, the friendly neighbour or the caring and sassy best friend? Often a source of humour and a means of adding a bit of punch to any scene, we all love the gay character. Audiences have been much more eager to watch a gay leading male in mainstream television and film long before a lesbian leading lady. From Will and Grace to Cucumber, society can be very accepting, if you’re a man.
Yes, it seems like a simple request, but can popular culture start presenting us with more positive lesbian characters and keep up the LGBT roles in general because, this may seem radical, lesbians are just like anybody else.
Illustration by Camille Hnat