The minimal increase in TV programs showcasing lesbian characters over the last few years has actually caused debate within the lesbian community according to the August 13,2012 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Though I doubt most women in this underrepresented minority would, in theory, oppose the entertainment industry’s portrayal of their lifestyle for the masses, likely expecting understanding and acceptance as a result, it is ultimately the validity of the depiction that falls into question. As Emma Teitel, author of the Maclean’s article puts it “The lesbian media has a history of being elated with news its community will be represented on the small screen, then grossly disappointed with how its represented.”
Lesbian characters on television shows are not exactly novel territory. Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian on her hit sitcom “Ellen” in 1997. Sandra Bernhardt played a lesbian character on Roseanne for years. More recent examples are Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, Angela Darmody on Boardwalk Empire, Santana Lopez on Glee and Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars. Breaking new ground is programming showcasing lesbian characters almost exclusively such as BBC’s Lip Service and the now defunct The L-Word, and reality shows scrutinizing the lives of lesbian women such as Showtime’s The Real L-Word.
If the mainstream media is finally embracing the lesbian community, what’s all the fuss about? Well here’s a shocker. Turns out some of these women feel they are being misrepresented. According to Teitel in her Maclean’s article: “Common criticisms of these shows from lesbian pundits and TV writers often have less to do with acting and character development than with how the characters look”. She quotes Julie Blindel from The Guardian as saying about Lip Service as saying that “every single lesbian is skinny, achingly trendy and lashed with lipstick.” She goes on to say that in ‘real life’ lesbians “tend not to dress for male approval, often rejecting makeup, high heels and other trappings of femininity.” So it appears that some in the community feel that TV lesbians are being characterized as ‘prettier’ or ‘sexier’ than what is realistic.
Wow, what a surprise. Sorry, I have been trying very hard to suppress my innate cynicism in an attempt to be a more optimistic and happier person, but I feel incapable of holding my tongue here. I find it almost shocking and quite frankly insulting that lesbians would think they would be accorded an honest portrayal in the media when no other member of the female population is granted the same. I can’t say for certain, but I would hazard a guess that television networks, like the rest of the western world general, are run by rich white men. And rich white men tend to cater to rich white men. They are also business savvy, wanting to make as much money as possible by bringing in the most viewers. However, they don’t give people much credit, assuming that most purveyors of fine television aren’t seeking much more than visual titillation. So what do they do? Put pretty women on TV. It doesn’t matter what the program content or character development is. Men will be drawn to watch and women won’t question this because it is what they are used to seeing, no matter how misogynistic and self-hatred provoking. Just because the main character is a lesbian and thus by definition (according to some) shouldn’t be beautiful doesn’t exempt her from being glamourized for TV. Most straight women aren’t a size 0 with flowing locks and designer clothing, but the majority of the ones you see on TV are. Oh, and they’re rich too. So sorry for the homosexual women out there but it seems that the television networks don’t think society is ready to see ‘butch’ lesbians or women without makeup on TV, especially in HD. The masses want to see Katy Perry kissing a girl wearing Cherry Chapstick. She likes it, and so do we, it seems.
I mentioned a debate before. Well, while some lesbians are upset about their attractiveness in today’s television shows, many applaud this depiction, citing it as relevant. There are some lesbians who accentuate their femininity, going out of their way to appear “girly”. Maclean’s cites to Megan Evans who calls herself a “femme” lesbian and says “television shows featuring highly feminine lesbians have made her feel more comfortable with her sexuality.” She says that often “If you’re girly and into beauty, then you definitely are viewed as not legitimately gay”.
It seems to me that the problem here is that there is a disassociation between groups of women where there should be a unification of forces. Straight women and gay women are essentially angry over the same issue, but arguing separately. Even lesbians who believe that there is no issue with lesbians being represented as feminine should be concerned with the idealistic images of women presented on television. Lesbians should not be adversaries against each other, nor towards straight women, we should all support each other to encourage a realistic and healthy portrayal of women of all sexual orientations in the media.
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