Lesbian Representation in The Media
I wrote this segment of a literature review as part of my gender politics class last semester, and since it is queer liberation month, it felt ad hoc to share. Hope you enjoy.
Hollywood and the media have created enormous impacts in our society since it reaches almost every person living in the United States, and sometimes, it can also have the power to influence people outside of the U.S., which can create a global ideology based on Western gender and social norms (Mace 2012; Zulfiqar and Babar 2015). The media has become a crucial factor on how we, as a society, treat other individuals since it helps shape people’s stereotypes and ideologies of what ‘normal’ is or what it should look like. As a result, minorities of every type (sexual, racial, gender) have been neglected and oppressed, especially on the media, causing people to alienate from them because they seem unknown or out of the norm. Society then tends to have the urge to make sexual minorities fit into gender norms that are created for heterosexual men and women. Sexual minorities have struggled to be properly represented in the media which has created erroneous stereotypes in society and misconceptions that affect how society interact with sexual minorities, as well as how members of the community struggle to build an identity and accept themselves as they are (Ivory et al 2009; Johnson and Boylorn 2015; Randazzo et al. 2015).
As homosexuality becomes normalized, the mainstream media has emphasized the importance of being inclusive towards the LGBTQ+ community. However, the focus has stayed on male homosexual relationships in order to promote inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community, but lesbians do not receive the same support (Nölke 2018). Besides the obvious lack of power and respect towards women in society, there is still the inability to recognize lesbian women as more than sexual objects. Once women state their sexual orientation as other than heterosexual, the misconceptions and prejudices become their identity and society places obstacles on these women, which ultimately places burdens on their lives that prevents them from being who they truly are and accomplishing their professional/personal goals.
Lesbians in the Hollywood industry are portrayed as hypersexualized characters that are just experimenting and will eventually outgrow that phase of their life. Media and Hollywood’s representation of the Lesbian community have not been necessarily kind towards representing homosexuals. On the other hand, social media has been an outlet for support towards lesbians and other minority groups since they can express themselves and connect with others who are having the same experiences, and consequently share the same struggles of the community. By having a better and descriptive representation of sexual minority groups in the media, lesbians and other sexual minorities that are often overlooked, could be able to freely embrace themselves and define their identities without fitting into the heterosexual roles that society has constantly tried to force upon them (Johnson and Boylorn 2015).
Hyper sexualization of Lesbians
Although lesbians have been more represented on films and television shows on the last years, their representation is hyper sexualized in both the character’s identity and on women-on-women sexual scenes. The lesbian representation that is shown in the media does not aim towards making the community feel included and properly represented, but it is meant towards appealing the heterosexual male gaze and fulfilling their fantasies of homosexual women having sexual intercourse/relationships while also strengthening erroneous stereotypes, while simultaneously promoting a fake empowerment of the lesbian woman in society by giving them the chance of being represented in a movie or in a show, even if it is not a proper representation of their community (Annati and Ramsey 2021; Puhl 2010).
However, a study made by Whitley Jr. et al portrayed that this erotization and sexualization of lesbian women is less common on heterosexual men who have personal friendships or direct relationships with women who identify as lesbians, but they do have stronger and more intolerable opinions on gay men, which continue to enforce homophobia in society. It is important to mention that heterosexual men do not have the fantasy of participating in sexual acts with lesbian women, but they do share a fascination that cannot be explained with homosexuality on women because of the lack of research made in the field (2008). Lesbian sexual scenes are often unrealistic and pornography-like, which can negative affect how women feel about themselves and their satisfaction with their bodies. Puhl (2010) argues that the difference between sexualizing lesbians and the non-sexualized lesbians is their level of attractiveness, which emphasizes how women are objectified and sexualized in society and how materialistic and superficial the norms in society are.
Not only do women get hypersexualized on lesbian roles, but young girls in the industry playing these roles and other non-homosexual roles, also get hypersexualized. A recent television show named Euphoria by Sam Levinson is a great example of how young adults give life to hyper sexualized high school students that are involved in regular high school drama and personal experiences that influence the formation of a teenager. Euphoria is a perfect example of how the Hollywood industry hyper sexualizes women and how it can influence on younger generations towards developing eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and identity issues that will affect how they get treated in their everyday life as well as the perception of culture. The erroneous perception of teenage girls in shows like Euphoria creates self-doubt in young girls and shapes unattainable and unnatural beauty standards for the age group they try to portray (Levinson 2019; Mace 2012).
Lesbians have a history of being misrepresented on the Hollywood industry because of the lack of women involvement in positions of power. The sexualization and objectification of women in movies and television shows display the lack of women in roles of power as directors, editors, producers and other important roles that make crucial decisions towards what is shown to the people and what message they want to convey. The entertainment industry is mainly owned and controlled by cisgender non-Hispanic white men; therefore, lesbian women do not have a say over how or in what ways they want or would like to be represented. Up until 2014, where 4 roles out of 4,610 female characters on movies were lesbian, it was not common for lesbian women to be portrayed on movies nor television shows, especially not lesbians who identified as people of color, creating an intersectionality of systematic oppression created by an industry that is mostly dominated by men (Smith et al 2016; Heldman and Haggard 2017).
The lack of involvement and representation shows how the industry propagates patriarchal dominance and we can see the consequences on our society that tends to be unaccepting and prejudiced towards lesbians and other sexual minorities, since they often are addressed with a negative connotation (Nölke 2018; Bartlett 2018). Because there is no female involvement in positions of power, especially not from sexual minority groups, young women tend to have roles where they are sexualized and objectified simply for the male gaze and for more time on screen which dehumanizes women for profit towards the male elite that are in charge. When women grow old enough to stop looking like teenagers, they get replaced with younger and better-looking girls which end up creating and promoting a culture of pedophilia and sexualization on the entertainment industry that can lead to harassment and sexual assault as well as other forms of abuse like unequal pay wages and other forms of gender discrimination (Heldman and Haggard 2017; Lolita 1997; Smith et al. 2017). Men have considerably more screen time on movies and shows as main characters, but women have more sexual screen time since, in Hollywood, sex sells. Women are often objectified by heterosexual non-Hispanic white men that are in power in order to have more engagement and views, and ultimately make more money off exploiting and sexualizing young women (Sender 2003; Mace 2012; Annati 2020).
Lesbians have two popular ways of being portrayed by the media which are either ‘butch’ or ‘hot lesbian’. The stereotypes put on lesbian women are based on gender norms and roles created by heterosexual men that forces women to fit into one of those two standards because anything else is different to what is known and may disrupt society and the status quo (Haugen 2018). By forcing queer people to fit into heterosexual gender norms, we are assuming that their identities are the same as the people who are not minorities and therefore limiting their right to freely express themselves and achieve their happiness without obstructing it (Nölke 2018; Randazzo et al. 2015).
The butch stereotype often refers towards the women who has more masculine characteristics in comparison to the social norms we have created for men, and therefore the partner in the relationship that exhibits these masculine traits, is categorized as the ‘man’ in the relationship. While the femme stereotype refers to the partner in the relationship that exhibits more feminine traits and therefore, she gets categorized as the ‘woman’ in the relationship. The constant need to categorize the unknown into what the media and society has told us is not normal, is an obstacle towards the sexual minority groups since it preempts their ability to create a separate identity that does not have to be categorized with any heterosexual gender role (Annati 2020; Ivory et al. 2009).
Another stereotype that the media focuses on but is not as popular as the ones previously mentioned, is the ‘hot lesbian’ stereotype. The hot lesbian stereotype is another way that Hollywood hypersexualizes lesbians and creates a negative connotation in society which can lead to hate crimes, disrespect towards the community, and misconceptions of how to treat women. Also, lesbian relationships in the media are not prevalent, but when they do get exposed, they tend to be put into filling the roles of a heterosexual couple but with the difference that they make them seem as they move too fast in their relationship, as if they are rushing into it, which only creates confusion for the younger generations that might be confused with their sexual identities.
Sadly, because lesbians are not represented enough nor properly, and have been seen as something “taboo” throughout the years, this community has relied on erroneous representation of the media to guide themselves on how to behave or act sexually which limits their identity and forces them to fit into heterosexual gender norms (Bartlett 2018). The lack of representation of lesbians in the media has motivated the community to express themselves through their wardrobe, as seen on early Hollywood and the Costume theory that depicted the LGBTQ+ community as odd and different. The portrayals of the community as different, motivated the sexual minority to use clothes and fashion as a way of self-expression and empowerment towards creating their identity without having to follow gender norms (Cox 2011; Gill 2011).
However, since the entertainment industry has not shown support towards lesbians, bisexuals and other queer women, women have struggled with the normalized gender norms of society and the concept of ‘coming out’ and being in a closet. The normalization of having to ‘come out’ to your parents and friends is an obstacle towards the groups of sexual minorities since by having to do that, they are accepting that they are different and creates shame towards being part of these groups. Also, media does not represent lesbianism as a sexual orientation, but a phase that women usually go through when they go to college and eventually overcome to get into a serious heterosexual relationship with a man. The symbolic death of a lesbian relationship in television creates a confused community that does not know how to create and maintain relationships and belittle their sexual orientation as if it is a momentary or temporal feeling that is mostly driven by sexual pleasure, not emotional connections (Chloe 2009; Annati and Ramsey 2021).
Social media has functioned as a safe space for minorities to share their experiences and connect with each other by empowering who they are, unapologetically. As seen on a study by Johnson and Boylorn, free independent platforms properly expose what it is to be a minority and what the reality of their everyday lives look like, without having outside perspective from someone who is not part of the community (2015). Unlike the entertainment industry, social media has become a way for minorities to be properly represented with the correct aspects of gender, race, sexual orientation, and experiences that ultimately shapes the intersectionality of who they are as a person and as a minority since these factors determine who they are.
Young women who are doubting of their sexuality use the media and the internet to help guide themselves through the process of their identity creation. If a sexual preference is portrayed in a negative connotation, the people who identify with this orientation would feel ashamed of who they are and could be prone towards developing identity issues (Bartlett 2018, Annati and Ramsey 2021; Nölke 2018). It is important to have the correct information available for people on the internet and on movies in order to promote inclusiveness and sexual education in order to prevent prejudices.
Gap in the Literature
Since homosexual representation in the media has been considerably new, tracing back to 2014 for lesbians, further studies are needed to better understand heterosexual fascination towards lesbians that leads to the creation of 10% of lesbian pornography and overall sexualization and objectification of queer women in the media (Puhl 2010; Smith et al. 2016). Research studies should focus on identity building of the LGBTQ+ community and how their representation differs from their actual identities and everyday lives. Another understudied aspect is the intersectionality of people of color as lesbians and bisexuals and their lack of representation on the media and how these minorities are often portrayed when they do get representation (Annati 2020).
An important aspect that should be studied is the hyper sexualization and objectification of women in the media and how to prevent the entertainment industry from exploiting and abusing women and sexual minorities. The existing literature does not go into the psychological nor social study of the constant hyper sexualization of older people portraying high schoolers and younger people when the producers could simply cast people that age that will properly represent the stages of life that everyone goes through instead of creating traumas on younger generations.
Lesbians in the media are often underrepresented since cisgender non-Hispanic white male who are in control of the entertainment industry have no interest in being inclusive with promoting a society that includes minority (Heldman and Haggard 2017). However, when they are represented, they are misrepresented. Although the community has found another way to express their identities through social media, proper representation in the entertainment industry is crucial towards a more inclusive and open-minded society. Including minorities into the mainstream media would disrupt the norm and the narrative that the United States has tried to keep throughout the years of white heterosexual supremacy that has been proven to be linked with racism, sexism, and sexual prejudice in our society (Haugen 2018).
However, by including sexual and racial minorities into the media, it will create proper and distinctive representation of the citizens of the United States and would help create a united society. Addressing the problem from the root, which are addressing the people with positions of power which are the ones who decide what is broadly streamed to the masses on television, we can strive towards fixing our society. A society that is supposed to be inclusive but does exactly the opposite to its people if they do not fit their beauty standards or the roles they have created for men and women. Not only would the quality of television representation change, but the involvement of women and other minorities on the entertainment industry can grow and be more inclusive professionally.
The media has a great impact in our culture and the Westernization of other cultures since it shapes society’s perspective, ideologies, and prejudices towards minorities. Lesbians should have proper representation and should include all types of lesbians not only white lesbians or white sexual minorities. Proper representation on the media would not be limited to sticking towards heterosexual gender roles that have been forcefully placed upon the sexual minorities and would have the freedom to express themselves how they want without being force to stay inside of the status quo.
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