As the newly appointed “social media maven” for the SexLab, I approached the month of July with a heightened sense of obligation to the lesbian/bisexual/queer community/transwomen to represent and promote the issues that rarely garner the same attention as those of our male counterparts. As I browsed the gay/lesbian-friendly websites that typically yield our hardest-hitting commentaries, I found myself scrolling down to the bottom of the page or deep into the archives to find stories for or about queer women. On websites proudly publishing “Gay News, LGBT Rights, Politics and Entertainment,” news about queer females was relegated to a separate page called “Women”—as if stories for queer women did not fit under the site’s general tagline. A quick browse through the “Women’s section” yielded serious thought-pieces such as “Tomboy Purse Alternatives” and numerous recaps of movies and television shows featuring queer lady story lines and sex scenes. I paused—countless stories about life-saving preventive drugs for gay and bisexual men, gay male athletes navigating the realm of heteronormative sports leagues, and the history of the gay rights movement through the lens of white gay males, and my biggest concern should be how to match my purse to my gender expression?
I decided to investigate and found that other queer women had noticed similar discrepancies between our lived experiences and media portrayal, or lack thereof. After reviewing some opinion pieces on the topic, I found several arguments as to why gay and bisexual men receive more media attention than queer-identified women. From a research perspective, men who have sex with men (MSM) face a significantly greater risk of acquiring HIV infection than women who have sex with women (WSW). Some argue that gay male culture presents a greater affront to traditional masculine and heteronormative culture than lesbian culture does to feminine gender and sexual norms and therefore elicits more negative media attention. From this reasoning, queer women are more capable of “flying under the radar” and avoiding harassment simply by virtue of invisibility. Or, at the end of the day, is lesbian media invisibility simply a byproduct of media’s tendency to trivialize or misrepresent issues that directly affect women?
I had an opportunity to discuss these issues with an expert in the field, Dr. Sara McClelland. Dr. McClelland is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Women’s Studies and Psychology who focuses primarily on sexual well-being across the life span. I have included her insightful commentary below in italics.
In order to understand the quantity and quality of media representation of queer women, it’s critical to consider the demographics and interests of those who dominate media production. According to the folks at Free Press, women hold less than 7% of all radio and TV licenses, despite comprising over 51% of the American population. Furthermore, 90% of the media we consume is produced by six media giants, all of which are owned and operated by men. So how does this translate into under- or misrepresentation of queer women? Dr. McClelland said one possibility is that the men controlling media output are more likely to cater to the perceived interests of male viewers. More explicitly:
“The things that get highlighted are still in the service of a viewer, a social media viewer, who has an interest in being titillated. A lot of social media is focused on the titillated viewer. There we can use a feminist perspective to think about, well who is the imagined viewer? That viewer is assumed to be male often. In that way we have titillation which focuses really on the imagined straight man or the imagined person who finds sex, and information around sex, titillating.”
This emphasis on the titillated male viewer provides insight into the power dynamics at play in the fetishization of lesbian sexuality. Rather than depicting queer-identified women as complex beings navigating a wide array of life experiences, characters are reduced to the aspect of their sexuality that generously caters to the male gaze. As a result, queer women are sexually objectified and their relationships are misrepresented to meet the demands of a phallocentric viewership. Dr. McClelland described how this phallocentrism shapes media representation of female intimacy:
“The feminist in me thinks the absence of penetration means that we don’t know what to think about and it means we don’t really have a language to talk about women’s sexuality. We need to fill in that language. So we often use this penetrative discourse. So the things that get talked about are either threesomes or penetration by a man if there is a man present, or penetration by a dildo, so you get this penetrative discourse. So you get this sort of male gaze aspect of what women’s sexuality can look like.”
Put simply, media representation of queer women’s sexuality is not necessarily for us, and in most cases, is not entirely representative of us. So where do we go from here? One option is to challenge these misrepresentations by actively supporting media that depicts the diversity and complexity of queer women’s sexuality and relationships. Moreover, we can channel this support to media that do not rely on centering the male perspective as a way of validating these relationships. Though not without flaws, some examples that come to mind are the widely acclaimed Orange is the New Black and ABC Family’s The Fosters. Stepping away from a reductionist view of queer women may allow us to focus on other aspects of the lived experience that are equally deserving of attention and discourse. Friends, fucking, family, food – the authentic slices of queer women’s lives are rich and infinite – but until they’re making the media moguls rich too, can we really hope for more from their limited imagination?
For more information on Dr. McClelland’s work in the field, visit the Progress Lab website. To read more about the representation of queer women in media, check out the Queer Women of Color Media Project, The Busy Signal and The Critical Media Project and let us know what you think.