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03/07/2020 The Communication Science magazine

The Road to Acceptance of Queer Women in Media Representation

Acceptance or fetishization? This article takes a critical look at the way the media portrays lesbians and their relationships.


Like any 19-year-old, I was recently browsing through Twitter when I saw an article that caught my attention because of its surprising title, “Lesbians more accepted than gay men around the world, study finds”. My immediate reaction was, ‘What kind of heterosexual nonsense is this?’. Then I realized the mistake the researchers had made like many others before them: they had confused acceptance with fetishization.

Even though the LGBTQ+ community has increasingly been globally recognized over the last few years, we still have a long way to go before any sexual orientation – that isn’t heterosexual – can be defined as ‘accepted’. Unfortunately, I think it’s safe to say that non-straight women are not even close.

Since the very beginning of the process of ‘normalizing’ the LGBTQ+ community on TV, Women who Love Women (WLW) have always been framed into two main categories. Either they are the background character who’s going to get killed off in the first 20 minutes, or the overly sexualized woman who is clearly there specifically for the titillation of straight men. As any sapphic will tell you, none of the media showing queer women is actually made for queer women. They are only stereotyped as the attractive feminine girl, who decides to ‘try something new’, with giggles and cute blushing.

However, this depiction leaves out a large part of the WLW community – the ‘masculine’ women – who do not wish to abide by the traditional gender norms of how a woman should look. Why, you may ask? It’s simple: they are just not what straight men want to see. They prefer the cute, shy and femme WLW, since they represent a challenge for them to ‘convert’.

You know, the typical comment, ‘She just hasn’t found the right man yet,’ or ‘She just hasn’t had good D,’ that some use as an excuse as to why they – straight dudes – have the right to hit on non-heterosexual women, even if they are adamant that they do not like men at all. These men act as if the way these women choose to portray themselves to the world suddenly cancels out their sexual orientation. As if having long hair and not wearing flannel shirts 24/7 (which is what they think all queer women do) makes them automatically straight. As if a piece of clothing or a haircut is a statement.

Yes, sexual orientation is complex and multifaceted, but it is not a matter of choice.

But that’s the problem – in the eyes of these men, it is. That is why WLW relationships are hardly ever taken seriously, as they are usually described as ‘just two girls experimenting’. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying new things, the ‘experimenting’ stereotype seems to imply that men’s sexuality is fixed, while women’s is not. Yes, sexual orientation is complex and multifaceted, but it is not a matter of choice. Women don’t choose to be straight or not, and they definitely do not make the decision based on what pleases men.

This narrative of ‘fluctuating’ sexuality is especially dangerous, as it perpetuates the over-sexualization of non-heterosexual women in the majority of media. In fact, WLW relationships on TV are mostly reduced to what they do in bed. They are shown ‘entertaining’ each other because that’s what the male audience wants to see, in ways that almost any queer woman would deem gross and unrealistic. It was actually proven that male viewership of a TV show is boosted if directors include a scene of two women kissing in the final episode. Yet another confirmation of how WLW portrayal in media is extremely centered around the male gaze.

Female relationships are meant to be watched, not to be appreciated but to be objectified.

This phenomenon shows up on television more than anyone could ever imagine, in particular in comedy shows. This trope is often portrayed in a comedic way, showing a man overhearing a conversation between two women where he senses some sexual tension. Can he watch them talk? Is this going to end with the two of them romping in the sack? Are they going to invite him to join them? If you really think about it, it is extremely sleazy and creepy, but somehow the audience finds it hilarious and is invited to laugh. As if a relationship between two women could be anything more than a fun perversion to satisfy the appetites of men.

This type of representation – i.e. the wrong and twisted kind – is extremely counterproductive and harmful to the LGBTQ+ community, who is still fighting to get rid of those stifling stereotypes that have oppressed its members for decades. What the community needs is a positive and inclusive representation, but especially one that is real. Only then, we can talk about acceptance.

Cover: pexels

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