Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pop Culture Lesbians...

Joanna Whitehead has a really great article up at The F-Word, that I strongly urge everyone to read. It's a great piece about the ways that the marketing industry uses lesbian identities, and how that colors the social perception of lesbians and women involved in same-sex relationships. It's interesting that I came across this yesterday, because I'd been talking about a very similar topic with a good friend of mine over the weekend.

I have a friend that I've known for years who dates women and identifies as lesbian. Several of the issues that Whitehead talks about are things that my friend and I have also discussed- the ways that other people within the homosexual community view her, as well as the ways that men in public spaces view her.

There's little doubt that lesbianism is often treated, at least in popular entertainment media, as something that is done for the sake of the male viewer. Movie after movie, show after show, we get treated to the same sorts of things- women making out with and having sex with other women for the benefit of the men watching. It's sort of a faux-lesbianism- there's an implication that the women might be making out with or even having sex with other women, but what they're really doing is trying to excite, and maybe even find, the right man. This is a pretty common theme in pornography, too- women fucking women until a guy discovers them, at which time they suddenly realize how much fun it is to fuck men, instead.

Even when the women involved don't end up having sex with a guy, there's a sense that the exhibition is for the benefit of male viewers- it's "fan service". It's about showing lots of skin and showing two (or more, I suppose) stereotypically hot women getting it on without any threatening penises in the way, maybe? This kind of thing is, as Whitehead points out, ever present in softcore pornography like Playboy. After all, one hot woman is okay, but two hot women? Even better! And if they're making out and touching each other? Instant win.

Lesbianism has attained a weird position in our society- it's considered different, for some reason, from male homosexuality (I'd suggest that this is largely because sex tends to be marketed towards the male gaze, and heterosexual men in particular, and that male-on-male homosexuality is assumed to be threatening to straight men). Go to a college campus and attend a large frat party, and you're almost sure to find women making out to the cheers of drunken men. It's become a staple of many movies and television shows, as well. There's, at the very least, the perception that these sorts of exhibitions are done for the sake of attracting men. Lesbians or faux-lesbians inhabit our video games, movies, television shows, and comics. If you're an attractive woman making out with an attractive woman, you're probably marketing gold.

Of course, if the media has taught me anything, it's that lesbians come in exactly two flavors- they're either hot model types making out with other hot model types, or they're super butch. They've probably got close cropped hair, leather jackets, and combat boots. They're the "I'll kick in your teeth" types. If one type of lesbian is meant to titilate men, the butch-dyke is meant to terrify us.

This is the lesbian stereotype that's meant to represent a threat to men- they show us how dropping traditionally gendered things makes women into men. Not only do they start to date other women, but they don't even look hot anymore. This type is usually presented as hyper-aggressive, in-your-face, etc.

How does this relate to Whitehead's experiences, or my friend's experiences? Easy. We can look at the ways that the media presents images of a group and compare them to the ways that members of these groups are treated by society, and see how that pans out. In this case, we've got two predominant images of lesbianism: one intended to arrouse men, and the other intended to intimidate or anger them.

These messages are everywhere, and they're picked up by the public. Think about women who present in a "masculine" fashion- maybe they've got short hair and don't wear particularly "girly" clothes. No make-up, even. A woman like that is very likely to be perceived as lesbian, regardless of what she actually identifies as, in the same way that men who are seen as presenting as "feminine" are frequently judged as homosexual. On the other hand, Whitehead and my friend have the opposite experience. Because they do or have presented in a way that people see as particularly feminine, they're assumed to be straight. And, when they do exhibit something that would suggest "lesbian", it's treated like it's part of a show. It's not "authentic".

Whitehead talks about how her relationship suffers because people assume that her relationship with her girlfriend is "part-performance, part experimentation", and my friend has indicated have similar experiences. If you can't even hold your girlfriend's hand in public without having men coming up to you and making lewd remarks, or catcalling and whistling... well, it's easy to see how that could make even the most vanilla of public displays extremely uncomfortable. The idea that any physical affection that two attractive women show each other is really for the benefit of the men around them is really pervassive. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what the solution there is, because the media promotes this idea so intensively.

And, unfortunately, these sorts of attitudes aren't limited to knuckle-dragging men, either. These sorts of attitudes aren't completely absent even within the homosexual community. During one relationship, my friend told me that her girlfriend's friends didn't believe that she (my friend) was "really a lesbian." They were convinced that she was just experimenting. This, despite the fact that my friend had been openly gay for longer than her girlfriend had even been dating people. Are her experiences common for other lesbians like her? I can't say for sure, but hers isn't the only story like that I've heard.

I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it was a common experience amongst more femme lesbians, and even Whitehead hints at it:
I'm increasingly confronted by educated colleagues, friends and acquaintances in their 20s, whose faces glaze over with a 'brain-cannot-compute' expression that belies their high-pitched, hurried words of acceptance. The unspoken message here seems to be that if you are gay, play by the rules. Don't fuck with our heads by dressing 'femme'. We need to know where we stand, goddamnit - stop being so inconsiderate! To me, such responses are a direct result of the mainstream media's omnipresent messaging that dictates how we should look and what we should think.

So, while she doesn't specifically mention, in that passage, the reactions that she and her girlfriend get from other members of the homosexual community, the attitude seems similar, to me. The reaction that my friend seems to get sounds similar, at least- if she's going to identify as a lesbian, she needs to do so in an obvious way- a way that is comfortable to other people.

In some ways, this ties into larger conversations about the ways that the media promotes and reinforces stereotypical gender representations, but it sounds like it's an issue of its own, too. These representations, and the ways that society as a whole buys into them, are really harmful to people in their practical, everyday lives. Someone who seems to fall between the lines, like Whitehead and my friend do, faces the problem of being alienated from the communities that she might otherwise get support from.

On the one hand, pop-culture treats women like them as public property- any outward expression of homosexuality by a woman that doesn't look like a stereotypical lesbian is going to be treated like an attempt to get male attention. Where straight couples can walk down the street arm in arm, these women often still face strong homophobic reactions- instead of getting "bashed", though, they get hit on, whistled at, catcalled, or, sometimes, groped, or worse. On the other hand, these women are sometimes treated as outcasts by other members of the LGBTQ community- there's the concern that they're just experimenting or that they're not really homosexual.

I have to admit that I haven't really heard of homosexual men experiencing anything quite like this. Part of that almost certainly comes from the differences in the ways that male bodies and female bodies are used in entertainment. Given that women's bodies are so frequently conflated with "sex", while men's bodies are not, it's easy to understand why there might be less a sense of ownership over men's bodies in the public sphere. I do wonder, though, do men who don't present in a way that society deems homosexual get the same reactions that these women do from within the LGBTQ community? That is: is there concern that they're not really gay?

I'm also curious about the experiences of people who are perceived as homosexual, but might identify as straight. Certainly there are strangers who will harass someone just based on the perception that another person might be gay- I know that I've been verbally harassed on the street by other men who, for whatever reason, thought I was gay (or, who were using it as an insult in an attempt to get a rise out of me).

All of which is tied into this idea that our sexuality is really important to other people. There's a sense that we owe it to society at large to make it clear which way/s we swing. Poeple get really disturbed and/or offended by what they see as unclear gender presentation (or it becomes the subject of SNL skits. Har. Har.), and just as disturbed and/or offended if they can't tell whether you date men or women. I'm not really clear where that sense of entitlement comes from- why do we think we have a right to know who other people are interested in knocking boots with? And, really, what will it take to convince people that not everything that women do is for the sake of men?

I'm sort of meandering at this point, so I open the floor to all of you. What do you think? Does this strike a chord with you? Have you personally witnessed this sort of thing- been subject too it?


roses said...

I have a friend who looks a lot like the stereotypical butch lesbian. Short hair, combat boots, piercings and tattoos... the whole deal. She tends to date more "feminine" women, and she says when men see her with her feminine, non stereotypically lesbian looking girlfriend, they get really, really angry about it. Like it's an outrage that this attractive, feminine woman should be dating a lesbian. Just thought I'd throw that observation in there.

iwishiwasvm said...

Thank you so much for this post and for many of the others. I recently stumbled across your blog and it's so nice to read a male feminist who lives in my state.

As a bisexual who is currently dating a lesbian, I really relate to this post. We are both "femme" looking, so I often feel like our relationship comes off to most men as "part-performance." It is very hard for me to balance my want to be allowed to kiss my girlfriend in public with the reality of how the males around me view it.

I mean, it's bad enough that I get cat-called and whistled at and hit on in the first place. I even won't tell most men (especially early on) that I'm bi. I learned that mistake when I was first coming out. I felt their eyes change, they started treating me different....I wouldn't be surprised if one of the reasons my rapist does not view what happened as rape was that I was a "slutty, blonde bisexual" and everyone knows they want it. Ugh.

EG said...

I kind of got trouble about this from a woman I briefly dated. I'd had a crush on her for two years, but she was involved with someone else. They broke up, she asked me out, everything went fine. We talked on the phone the next day, and I said "Look, I should tell you, I'm bi, and I know that can be a problem for some women." She said "No, not with me."

Ha. Maybe bi's not a problem, but bi and femme apparently were. Which she let me know when we went to bed together, and she spent the whole time--the whole time--saying things like "I've never kissed a girl who wears lipstick before" (trust me, it was in the tone), and "I know you're just experimenting" and "I can tell you really don't want me" and "I know you wish I were a man."

I tell you, by the end of the night, she was right about one thing--I really didn't want to be there anymore.

Cara said...

I think that in many ways, this kind of thing might actually be harder on bisexual women. There's that old stupid theory that bisexual women are actually straight and bisexual men are actually gay. Which is of course bullshit. So people believe it, and when a bisexual woman starts dating a man, everyone is all "mhm, I knew it!" And it also requires constantly explaining your sexuality other people. Not to mention the scorn that is held even in many lesbian circles for bisexual women. I mean, I get where they're coming from -- they're fighting all of the stereotypes that you mention in this post, and the vast misunderstanding of bisexuality is a big part of what leads to them. I imagine that lesbians get a hell of a lot more than outright bigotry. But I think that bisexual women probably suffer more from people trying to illegitimize their orientation.

As for being called gay, here's a great technique to use, unless you're seriously afraid that someone is going to get violent. My husband and I were at a pro-chioce rally after this year's Supreme Court ruling. He was one of only a handful of guys there, and for some reason a guy driving by in a car decided to take his aggression against women's right to reproductive autonomy out on him. He yelled out the window something about him being gay or a "fag" . . . so my husband blew him a kiss. Which the dude clearly did not appreciate. It was pretty classic :)

Katy said...

I completely agree with Cara who put the situation so well. I'm a bisexual femme woman and my partner is a bisexual man and it is hard to take part in any sort of queer celebrations together as we immediately read as heterosexual and "other". It can be a difficult deal trying to make headway in the queer community or the straight community as neither is really very accepting of the fact that this isn't performance, this is who we are.

It often feels like there's a lesbian street cred one has to get before one can be accepted. Makes me have a Buffy flashback to a Willow/Tara moment where they discussed exactly that. But it is late and now I'm rambling. Point is: great post!

Exposing Feminism said...

I wonder what lesbians make of this?

assembling words to armory, she waits... said...

*sigh* a day in the life... i could rant forever on this topic. but it's friday, i'm at work, been taken down to half my usual meds as a doctor-prescribed 'experiment' and i just don't have the energy today. i'm sure i'll extend a post on my site and link back to you as soon as my head's less foggy. but, as usual, roy, you make me smile. i realize 'no cookies for you' and all, but damn, it's nice to know that someone actually gets it once in a while. thanks.

Nat said...

This is a fantastic post, thank you for making it!