Pop Culture Playlist: Demystifying Lesbian Stereotypes

by Maria Danna

Lesbian Stereotype #1: Lesbians are women who like women, so they shouldn’t look or dress like men

Hartbeat – Watermelon…:

Hart’s video uses a relatable food analogy to help explain the relationship between gender identity and sexuality to those who are confused by the butch-femme or butch-butch dynamic in lesbian couplings. Gender identity politics are a slippery issue, and Hart’s focus is to use the analogy of liking watermelon but choosing not to wear it as a way to relate her personal identity to a larger audience. What I find particularly interesting about Hart is her body confidence and the way her identity as a woman of color intersects with the critiques of her gender presentation and sexuality (Hall). Our society views black, masculine women as undesirable, and her being in three subordinated groups (a lesbian woman of color) does not  fit in to the hegemonic, feminine white woman paradigm, which is subjecting her to greater criticism than her sexuality alone would be subject to if she fit those standards of beauty (Crenshaw).

Lesbian Stereotype #2: Female-female sexuality is only acceptable if it is a performance satisfying the male gaze

Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 MTV Music Awards:

This is a perfect example of a lesbian double-bind (Frye). The binary that exists where women who are physical with one another either have to serve as fantasy fulfillment for the pleasure of a male audience, or they are seen as undesirable man-haters that go against patriarchal norms and are feared. To try and exist outside of the binary is nearly impossible without suffering and being penalized or censured (Frye). The bigger issue is when this is reflected in our pop culture by big-name female musicians during a live performance, as there is a causal connection between the way lesbians are represented and the way they are expected to behave in reality (Dyer).

What the media portrays female/female sexuality to be is incredibly damaging to lesbians who wish to have their sexual lives not be the subject of dinner conversation, but more importantly it sends a terrible message about female sexuality as a whole. Female-female sexuality being viewed as a performance is reducing it to being a vehicle to attract the male gaze, and eludes that the only source of sexual power a woman can achieve is to be objectified by men (Vale).

Lesbian Stereotype #3: If you are a woman and have been romantically involved with a woman, you are/were a lesbian

Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black:

In Orange is the New Black we finally see a common stereotype disrupted in mainstream media. A common misconception is that there is not a sexuality spectrum, and that sexuality is either gay or straight. If someone, like Piper Chapman, has had a relationship with a woman in the past but doesn’t identify as a lesbian, she is a “former lesbian”. This is a conflation of sexuality and mainstream pressure to identify with a fixed and definable social identity (Dyer). Fluid sexuality is not something that is supported by mainstream culture, as it is usually too confusing and complicated of a concept for those in power to wrap their heads around it. Therefore, lesbians and those in the sexually-fluid category end up being lumped together as far as the patriarchy is concerned. It leads to the perpetuation of harmful ideas of what it means to have feelings for those of the same sex, and is harmful to both lesbians and those who wish to not place themselves in a specific category.

Lesbian Stereotype #4: You can always tell if someone’s a lesbian because of how they look or act

Arielle Scarcella – Lesbians Guide to Looking GAYER – A How To:

For many lesbians who are cis-gendered women and exhibit typical feminine characteristics or mannerisms, it is a struggle to identify and fit into the gay community. Arielle comically outlines ways to appear “gayer” in order to be recognizable as a lesbian, and this common struggle reflects how stereotypes act as a way to identify yourself to others in your community, and sometimes act as a tool to publicly demonstrate that your identity deviates from societal norms (Dyer). Subordinated groups can utilize stereotypes as a type of ordering process used to make sense of the group as a whole, as well as a point of reference in order to identify those who are in their community (Dyer). In this specific instance, exhibiting typical lesbian traits would mean to make a part of your identity that is usually invisible, visible. Those who do not have these visible markers of sexuality are assumed to be straight by those who are a part of the heterosexual community, and therefore are not acknowledged by mainstream or gay culture.

When these stereotypes are disrupted, the ideology of a typical lesbian gets dismantled and can lead to confusion and sometimes hostility from the dominant culture (Hall). We use ideologies, according to Hall’s The Whites of Their Eyes, in order to understand aspects of existence and identity that would otherwise not be clear to us. It is unnerving to those in a place of power to not be able to peg down those from a  minority group who  seemingly fit into what they define as their own dominant boundaries.

Lesbian Stereotype #5: A lesbian who has never had sex with a man is a virgin, because lesbians can’t have sex

Autostraddle – The ‘Is it Sex?’ Flowchart:

This chart is a satirical attempt to debunk what it means to have sex, and is an oppositional way of thinking about sexual practices that one normally wouldn’t consider to be sex. According to Vale in The Cult of the Virgin, it is nearly impossible to find a standard for what defines virginity, and therefore it is a socially constructed concept capable of reinforcing a heterosexual, hegemonic society whilst not being truly accurate (Vale). The wide range of sexual activities that should be defined as sex are reduced to being secondary-acts that are always bested by coitus. Society at large, and men especially, feel the need to question the sexual voracity of two women in bed together since, historically, female sexuality has been assumed to only be a vehicle for a man’s sexual satisfaction (Vale).

Playlist Analysis

The playlist I have complied composes a narrative of queer women who are resisting the hegemonic culture and making statements about what it means to be a lesbian, and how this identity is constrained by a white, heterosexual mainstream culture (Lull).  Race, class, and gender presentation are reflected in the playlist just as much by what is not present in my playlist as by what is present. Finding a wide range of women from different classes, ethnicities and races was especially difficult, and demonstrates the lack of diversity being represented in non-normative gender or sexual identities (Hall). We exist in a system of institutionalized oppression, and my playlist represents a hierarchy within a hierarchy, where white, feminine lesbians are upheld as the ideal representation of lesbian identity and those who exist outside of that paradigm find themselves without much mainstream representation.

Our pop culture is perpetrating a very harmful and damaging image of what defines a lesbian, most notably that their sexualities are seen as inferior, or as a source of entertainment for the masses. Both the meme from Orange is the New Black, the ‘Is it Sex?’ Flowchart and the pictures of the Madonna-Spears-Aguilera performance demonstrate the over-sexualization and misunderstanding of what it means to be a lesbian and how this sexuality is expected to be depicted in reality (Dyer).

The lesbian double-bind can be seen in every one of the stereotypes outlined in the playlist, and it creates a binary where extreme displays of lesbian sexuality for attention are viewed as the norm, and reclaiming lesbian identity as something that exists outside of patriarchal influence is subversive (Frye). Both Arielle and Hart touched on what it means to be a lesbian, especially in terms of how one should look and act. Both of the women are on opposite sides of the gender-presentation spectrum, and expressed how this affected their daily life in reference to how those in a position of power interacted with them.

Even belonging to a subversive counterculture, it is nearly impossible to separate Lesbian identity from mainstream, hierarchal ideals and values. Lesbians have taken the common stereotypes assigned to them by a society that doesn’t respect the nuances of their culture and personal identity and created outlets to express their refusal to comply with patriarchal norms. But even so, there are still layers of oppression that exist within an oppressed minority that won’t be easily overcome. This playlist serves as a way to correct and caution those ways of viewing a culture that is not your own within a certain type of ethnocentrism that doesn’t allow you to respect the varied identities that exist within an oppressed minority. 

Works Cited

Autostraddle. “The ‘Is it Sex?’ Flowchart” Tumblr. 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Reading Women’s Lives. Ed. Amanda Rossie. New York: Pearson
Learning Solutions, 2010. Pg 56-61

Dyer, Richard. “The role of stereotypes.” The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. New York: Routledge, 1993. 11-18. Print.

Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression.” Reading Women’s Lives. Ed. Amanda Rossie. New York: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2010. Pg 41-47

Hall Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes:  Racist Ideologies and the Media.” Silver Linings: Some Strategies for the Eighties. Ed. George Bridges and Ros Brunt. Lawrence & Wisheart: 1981. Pg 81-84 

Hartbeat. “Watermelon.” YouTube. 24 May 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Karlan, Sarah. “11 Ways ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Is Doing it Right.” Buzzfeed. 15 July 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Lull James. “Hegemony.” Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach.” New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press, 1995. 1-5. Print.

Scarcella, Arielle. “Lesbians Guide To Looking GAYER: A How To.” Youtube. 23 April 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

“Top 10 Sexiest/Worst Celebrity Kisses”. Blurbshare. 7 July 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.

Valenti, Jessica. “The Cult of Virginity.” Excerpted from Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with
Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010. Print.

One comment

  1. […] Pop Culture Playlist: Demystifying Lesbian Stereotypes (wgss2230.wordpress.com) […]

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