Media representation

Lesbians portrayed in literature, film, and television often shape contemporary thought about women’s sexuality. The majority of media about lesbians is produced by men;[168] women’s publishing companies did not develop until the 1970s, films about lesbians made by women did not appear until the 1980s, and television shows portraying lesbians written by women have been created within the past ten years. As a result, homosexuality—particularly dealing with women—has been excluded due to symbolic annihilation. When depictions of lesbians began to surface, they were often one-dimensional, simplified stereotypes.[168]

Literature

In addition to Sappho’s accomplishments,[note 15] literary historian Jeannette Howard Foster includes the Book of Ruth,[169] and ancient mythological tradition as examples of lesbianism in classical literature. Greek stories of the heavens often included a female figure whose virtue and virginity were unspoiled, who pursued more masculine interests, and who was followed by a dedicated group of maidens. Foster cites Camilla and Diana, Artemis and Callisto, and Iphis and Ianthe as examples of female mythological figures who showed remarkable devotion to each other, or defied gender expectations.[170] The Greeks are also given credit with spreading the story of a mythological race of women warriors named Amazons. En-hedu-ana, a priestess in Ancient Iraq who dedicated herself to the Sumerian goddess Inanna, has the distinction of signing the first poetry in history. She characterized herself as Inanna’s spouse.[171]

For ten centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, lesbianism disappeared from literature.[172] Foster points to the particularly strict view that Eve—representative of all women—caused the downfall of mankind; original sin among women was a particular concern, especially because women were perceived as creating life.[173] During this time, women were largely illiterate and not encouraged to engage in intellectual pursuit, so men were responsible for shaping ideas about sexuality.[174] In 16th-century French and English depictions of relationships between women (Lives of Gallant Ladies by Brantôme in 1665, John Cleland’s 1749 erotica Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, L’Espion Anglais by various authors in 1778), writers’ attitudes spanned from amused tolerance to arousal, whereupon a male character would participate to complete the act. Physical relationships between women were often encouraged; men felt no threat as they viewed sexual acts between women to be accepted when men were not available, and not comparable to fulfillment that could be achieved by sexual acts between men and women.[175] At worst, if a woman became enamored of another woman, she became a tragic figure. Physical and therefore emotional satisfaction was considered impossible without a natural phallus. Male intervention into relationships between women was necessary only when women acted as men and demanded the same social privileges.[176]

A painting of two short-haired women in a massive bed, covered to their chins in blankets under a red top cover. One woman is looking sleepily at the other.

“In Bed” (1893) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a Parisian who employed the association between lesbianism and prostitution [177]

Lesbianism became almost exclusive to French literature in the 19th century, based on male fantasy and the desire to shock bourgeois moral values.[178] Honoré de Balzac, in The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), employed lesbianism in his story about three people living amongst the moral degeneration of Paris, and again in Cousin Bette and Séraphîta. His work influenced novelist Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, which provided the first description of a physical type that became associated with lesbians: tall, wide-shouldered, slim-hipped, and athletically inclined.[179] Charles Baudelaire repeatedly used lesbianism as a theme in his poems “Lesbos”, “Femmes damnées 1” (“Damned Women”), and “Femmes damnées 2”.[180] Reflecting French society, as well as employing stock character associations, many of the lesbian characters in 19th-century French literature were prostitutes or courtesans: personifications of vice who died early, violent deaths in moral endings.[177] Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1816 poem “Christabel” and the novella Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu both present lesbianism associated with vampirism.[181] Portrayals of female homosexuality not only formed European consciousness about lesbianism, but Krafft-Ebbing cited the characters in Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo (1862) and Ernest Feydeau‘s Le Comte de Chalis (1867) as examples of lesbians because both novels feature female protagonists who do not adhere to social norms and express “contrary sexual feeling”, although neither participated in same-sex desire or sexual behavior.[182] Havelock Ellis used literary examples from Balzac and several French poets and writers to develop his framework to identify sexual inversion in women.[183]

Gradually, women began to author their own thoughts and literary works about lesbian relationships. Until the publication of The Well of Loneliness, most major works involving lesbianism were penned by men. Foster suggests that women would have encountered suspicion about their own lives had they used same-sex love as a topic, and that some writers including Louise Labé, Charlotte Charke, and Margaret Fuller either changed the pronouns in their literary works to male, or made them ambiguous.[184] Author George Sand was portrayed as a character in several works in the 19th century; writer Mario Praz credited the popularity of lesbianism as a theme to Sand’s appearance in Paris society in the 1830s.[185][note 16] Charlotte Brontë’s Villette in 1853 initiated a genre of boarding school stories with homoerotic themes.[186] In the 20th century, Katherine Mansfield, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, and Gale Wilhelm wrote popular works that had same-sex relationships or gender transformations as themes. Some women, such as Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault wrote or translated works of fiction that focused on homosexual men, like some of the writings of Carson McCullers. All three were involved in same-sex relationships, but their primary friendships were with gay men.[187] As the paperback book came into fashion, lesbian themes were relegated to pulp fiction. Many of the pulp novels typically presented very unhappy women, or relationships that ended tragically. Marijane Meaker later wrote that she was told to make the relationship end badly in Spring Fire because the publishers were concerned about the books being confiscated by the U.S. Postal Service.[188] Patricia Highsmith, writing as Claire Morgan, wrote The Price of Salt in 1951 and refused to follow this directive, but instead used a pseudonym.[189]

Following the Stonewall riots, lesbian themes in literature became much more diverse and complex, and shifted the focus of lesbianism from erotica for heterosexual men to works written by and for lesbians. Feminist magazines such as The Furies, and Sinister Wisdom replaced The Ladder. Serious writers who used lesbian characters and plots included Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), which presents a feminist heroine who chooses to be a lesbian.[190] Poet Audre Lorde confronts homophobia and racism in her works, and Cherrie Moraga is credited with being primarily responsible for bringing Latina perspectives to lesbian literature. Further changing values are evident in the writings of Dorothy Allison, who focuses on child sexual abuse and deliberately provocative lesbian sadomasochism themes.[191]

Film

Lesbianism, or the suggestion of it, began early in filmmaking. The same constructs of how lesbians were portrayed—or for what reasons—as what had appeared in literature were placed on women in the movies. Women challenging their feminine roles was a device more easily accepted than men challenging masculine ones. Actresses appeared as men in male roles due to plot devices as early as 1914 in A Florida Enchantment featuring Edith Storey, in Morocco (1930) Marlene Dietrich kisses another woman on the lips, and Katherine Hepburn plays a man in Christopher Strong in 1933 and again in Sylvia Scarlett (1936). Hollywood films followed the same trend set by audiences who flocked to Harlem to see edgy shows that suggested bisexuality.[192] Overt female homosexuality was introduced in 1929’s Pandora’s Box between Louise Brooks and Alice Roberts. However, the development of the Hays Code in 1930 censored most references to homosexuality from film under the umbrella term “sex perversion”. German films depicted homosexuality and were distributed throughout Europe, but 1931’s Mädchen in Uniform was not distributed in the U.S. due to the depiction of an adolescent’s love for a female teacher in boarding school.[193]

Still shot of a film trailer showing Shirley MacLaine looking down at the left and Audrey Hepburn to her right staring at her, in a bedroom. The words "Can an ugly rumor destroy what's beautiful?" obscure much of MacLaine's face

Lesbianism or homosexuality was never spoken of in The Children’s Hour, but it is clear why Shirley MacLaine’s character hangs herself.

Because of the Hays Code, lesbianism after 1930 was absent from most films, even those adapted with overt lesbian characters or plot devices. Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour was converted into a heterosexual love triangle and retitled These Three. Biopic Queen Christina in 1933, starring Greta Garbo veiled most of the speculation about Christina of Sweden’s affairs with women.[193] Homosexuality or lesbianism was never mentioned outright in the movies while the Hays Code was enforced. The reason censors stated for removing a lesbian scene in 1954’s The Pit of Loneliness was that it was, “Immoral, would tend to corrupt morals”.[194] The code was relaxed somewhat after 1961, and the next year William Wyler remade The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. After MacLaine’s character admits her love for Hepburn’s, she hangs herself; this set a precedent for miserable endings in films addressing homosexuality.[195] Gay characters also were often killed off at the end, such as the death of Sandy Dennis’ character at the end of The Fox in 1968. If not victims, lesbians were depicted as villains or morally corrupt, such as portrayals of brothel madames by Barbara Stanwyck in Walk on the Wild Side from 1962 and Shelley Winters in The Balcony in 1963. Lesbians as predators were presented in Rebecca (1940), women’s prison films like Caged (1950), or in the character Rosa Klebb in From Russia, With Love (1963).[196] Lesbian vampire themes have reappeared in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Blood and Roses (1960), and The Hunger (1983).[197] Basic Instinct (1991) featured a bisexual murderer played by Sharon Stone; it was one of several films that set off a storm of protests about the depiction of gays as predators.[198]

The first film to address lesbianism with significant depth was The Killing of Sister George in 1968, which was filmed in The Gateways Club, a longstanding lesbian pub in London. It is the first to claim a film character who identifies as a lesbian, and film historian Vito Russo considers the film a complex treatment of a multifaceted character who is forced into silence about her openness by other lesbians.[199] Personal Best in 1982, and Lianna in 1983 treat the lesbian relationships more sympathetically and show lesbian sex scenes, though in neither film are the relationships happy ones. Personal Best was criticized for engaging in the cliched plot device of one woman returning to a relationship with a man, implying that lesbianism is a phase, as well as treating the lesbian relationship with “undisguised voyeurism”.[200] More ambiguous portrayals of lesbian characters were seen in Silkwood (1983), The Color Purple (1985), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), despite explicit lesbianism in the source material.[201]

An era of independent filmmaking brought different stories, writers, and directors to movies. Desert Hearts arrived in 1985, to be one of the most successful. Directed by lesbian Donna Deitch, it is loosely based on Jane Rule’s novel Desert of the Heart. It received mixed critical commentary, but earned positive reviews from the gay press.[202] The late 1980s and early 1990s ushered in a series of films treating gay and lesbian issues seriously, made by gays and lesbians, nicknamed New Queer Cinema.[203] Films using lesbians as a subject included Rose Troche’s avant garde romantic comedy Go Fish (1994) and the first film about African American lesbians, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, in 1995.[204] Realism in films depicting lesbians developed further to include romance stories such as The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love and When Night is Falling, both in 1995, Better Than Chocolate (1999), and the social satire But I’m A Cheerleader in 2001.[205] A twist on the lesbian-as-predator theme was the added complexity of motivations of some lesbian characters in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), the Oscar-winning biopic of Aileen Wuornos, Monster (2003), and the exploration of fluent sexuality and gender in Chasing Amy (1997), Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), and Boys Don’t Cry (1999).[206]

Television

Homosexuality addressed by television started much later than films. Local talk shows in the late 1950s first addressed homosexuality by inviting panels of experts (usually not gay themselves) to discuss the problems of gay men in society. Lesbianism was rarely included. The first time a lesbian was portrayed on network television was the NBC drama The Eleventh Hour in the early 1960s, in a teleplay about an actress who feels she is persecuted by her female director, and in distress, calls a psychiatrist who explains she is a latent lesbian who has deep-rooted guilt about her feelings for women. When she realizes this, however, she is able to pursue healthy heterosexual relationships.[207] Invisibility for lesbians continued in the 1970s when homosexuality became the subject of dramatic portrayals, first with medical dramas (The Bold Ones, Marcus Welby, M.D., Medical Center) featuring primarily male patients coming out to doctors, or staff members coming out to other staff members. These shows allowed homosexuality to be discussed clinically, with the main characters guiding troubled gay characters or correcting homophobic antagonists, while simultaneously comparing homosexuality to psychosis, criminal behavior, or drug use.[208]

Another stock plot device in the 1970s was the gay character in a police drama. They served as victims of blackmail or anti-gay violence, but more often as criminals. Beginning in the late 1960s with N.Y.P.D., Police Story, and Police Woman, the use of homosexuals in stories became much more prevalent, according to Vito Russo, as a response to their higher profiles in gay activism.[209] Lesbians were included as villains, motivated to murder by their desires, internalized homophobia, or fear of being exposed as homosexual. One episode of Police Woman earned protests by the National Gay Task Force before it aired for portraying a trio of murderous lesbians who killed retirement home patients for their money.[210] NBC edited the episode because of the protests, but a sit-in was staged in the head of NBC’s offices.[211] In the middle of the 1970s, gays and lesbians began to appear as police officers or detectives, facing coming out issues. This did not extend to CBS’ groundbreaking show Cagney & Lacey in 1982, starring two female police detectives. CBS production made conscious attempts to soften the characters so they would not appear to be lesbians.[212] In 1991, a bisexual lawyer portrayed by Amanda Donohoe on L.A. Law shared the first significant lesbian kiss[note 17] on primetime television with Michele Greene, stirring a controversy despite being labeled “chaste” by The Hollywood Reporter.[213]

Still shot of a television show from 1997 showing, Ellen DeGeneres leaning forward to speak to a woman with long blond hair seen from behind. In between them is a microphone

Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out in the media as well as her sitcom, “ranks, hands down, as the single most public exit in gay history”, changing media portrayals of lesbians in Western culture.[214]

Though television did not begin to use recurring homosexual characters until the late 1980s, some early situation comedies used a stock character that author Stephen Tropiano calls “gay-straight”: supporting characters who were quirky, did not comply with gender norms, and/or had ambiguous personal lives, that “for all purposes should be gay”. These included Zelda from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies, and Jo from The Facts of Life.[215] In the mid 1980s through the 1990s, sitcoms frequently employed a “coming out” episode, where a friend of one of the stars admits she is a lesbian, forcing the cast to deal with the issue. Designing Women, The Golden Girls, and Friends used this device with women in particular.[216] Recurring lesbian characters who came out were seen on Married With Children, Mad About You, and Roseanne, in which a highly publicized episode had ABC executives afraid a televised kiss between Roseanne and Mariel Hemingway would destroy ratings and ruin advertising. The episode was instead the week’s highest rated.[217] By far the sitcom with the most significant impact to the image of lesbians was Ellen. Publicity surrounding Ellen’s coming out episode in 1997 was enormous; Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time magazine the week before the airing of “The Puppy Episode” with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay”. Parties were held in many U.S. cities to watch the episode, and the opposition from conservative organizations was intense. It won an Emmy for writing, but as the show began to deal with Ellen Morgan’s sexuality each week, network executives grew uncomfortable with the direction the show took and canceled it.[218]

Dramas following L.A. Law began incorporating homosexual themes, particularly with continuing storylines on Relativity, Picket Fences, ER, and Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, both of which tested the boundaries of sexuality and gender.[219] A show directed at adolescents that had a particularly strong cult following was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the fourth season of Buffy, Tara and Willow admit their love for each other without any special fanfare and the relationship is treated as are the other romantic relationships on the show.[220] What followed was a series devoted solely to gay characters off of network television. Showtime’s American rendition of Queer as Folk ran for five years, from 2000 to 2005; two of the main characters were a lesbian couple. Showtime promoted the series as “No Limits”, and Queer as Folk addressed homosexuality graphically. The aggressive advertising paid off as the show became the network’s highest rated, doubling the numbers of other Showtime programs after the first season.[221] In 2004, Showtime introduced The L Word, a dramatic series devoted to a group of lesbian and bisexual women, running its final season in 2009.


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