Why Fictional Lesbian Couples “Fail”: A Spooning Theory

Disclaimer: The following is a theory about big spoon/little spoon dynamics, not the classic butch/femme, which are respected lesbian identities/dynamics in their own right. 

As AfterEllen’s comments section shows, viewers have strong feelings about fictional lesbian couples. Almost every fandom has had an active shipper base, whether for Emison or Paily, Karmy or Reamy, Bo and Lauren or Bo and Tamsin. Historically, only select lesbian pairings on TV and in film have failed to become as popular with viewers.

In one of the early seasons of The L Word, Shane’s plans to hook up with a stranger are derailed when they discover that *gasp* they’re both big spoons (tops). Ruefully, they acknowledge the pairing won’t work and go their separate ways. “Spooning Theory,” as I’ve since dubbed it, isn’t about butch/femme, but about power dynamics in a relationship. The image of spooning in bed is a handy shorthand for who, at the most basic level, prefers to take on the role of protector in the relationship and who prefers to be protected; who prefers to make decisions and who prefers to have them made for her.


Although the roles can be fluid and dynamic, meaning that a person might switch spoon types situationally, every individual has a preference to which she will naturally default. A woman is a big spoon, a little spoon, or bispoonal.

Bispoonals don’t lean strongly to either big spoon or little spoon and, therefore, can go either way—albeit weakly—depending on the spoon type of her partner. For the most part—excepting possibly bispoonals—two of the same spoon type don’t seem to go well together in the long term.

482141291And she still steals the blanket. 

Dividing the world up into big spoons, little spoons, and bispoonals may feel like an oversimplified way of understanding the complex dynamics of relationships, but it may help explain why some fictional relationships just don’t seem to “feel right” to some viewers: the spoon pairings aren’t right.

 Examples of couples that fit into the classic big spoon/little spoon paradigm include Ruth and Idgie (Fried Green Tomatoes), Pepa and Silvia (Los Hombres de Paco), Aimee and Jaguar (Aimee and Jaguar), Carmilla and Laura (Carmilla), Nikki and Helen (Bad Girls), and Piper and Alex (Orange is the New Black).

hqdefaultExhibit A: Pepa big spoons the hell out of Silvia. 

Examples of lesbian couples that do NOT seem to fit into the classic big spoon/little spoon paradigm include Dana and Alice (The L Word), Tess and Lou (Lip Service), and Rebecca and Marlene (Verbotene Liebe). Although these pairings did generate fan support, it was not at the level of other pairings.

Looking at the characters critically, something that stands out is that none are big spoons. Although some are at best weakly bispoonal, ultimately none of them are able to create a sufficient big spoon/little spoon relationship, and whether the spoon imbalance is the primary cause or only a contributing factor, all three couples quickly crumble.

folge-4370-106~_v-varxl_16d0ff Yes, I dated both of your brothers, but I feel like this time it’s going to work out.

If the hypothesis that some fictional lesbian couples “fail” to generate strong support among viewers because of incorrect spoon pairing is correct, then it follows that shows may be able to garner even more fan support by re-pairing one or both characters with a more appropriate complementary spoon. There is some evidence to support this idea. For example, Alice and Tasha, a big spoon, were ultimately more popular than Alice and Dana. 


How do characters that are bispoonal fit in? Lip Service’s Lexy comes off as a big spoon but is attracted to Sam, who is undoubtedly a big spoon, suggesting that Lexy is bispoonal because her previous partner, Bea, was a little spoon.  A true bispoonal is able to switch her dominant traits to meet the needs of her big or small spoon partner.

Lip Service 2Good thing we’ll be able to wear each other’s strong yet feminine jackets.

It can be difficult to judge which characters are intended to be bispoonal, however, because it may be the case that the writers simply haven’t figured out how to write a character in a way showing a consistent spoon orientation. When that happens, the character can come off as a weak big spoon, an aggressive little spoon…or it looks like the actress doesn’t know how to “play gay.”

In the case of Emily and Paige in Pretty Little Liars, it appears that the show attempted to create a big spoon/little spoon relationship but failed. Paige was given increasingly “butch” clothing as the show progressed as a visual cue that she was supposed to be a big spoon. Emily, meanwhile, is a strong personality who spent as much or more time comforting and taking care of Paige. As a result, what was meant to be a big spoon/little spoon pairing became instead an unintended double bispoonal pairing. Which worked, even if it wasn’t the intended outcome.  

pretty-little-liars_9Paige literally wears the pants in this relationship.

If the “Spoon Theory” hypothesis for why some fictional relationships on film are less popular than others is correct, then romantic lesbian pairings on TV and in movies seem to work best when one of the characters is clearly a big spoon, and the other is either bispoonal or a little spoon. Other spoon combinations can result in a pair that is received ambivalently by viewers. This is not to say that couples who do not fit neatly into that paradigm will fail, or that they will not find fans, or that they are not good story lines, but rather that couples that do are likely to have a larger fan base. 

In the end, “Spoon Theory” is nothing more than a simplified way to view the distribution of power in lesbian relationships; it doesn’t negate the value of couples that “fail” to fulfill the big spoon/little spoon paradigm. I like Paily, even if they’re both bispoonal.

As viewers, we like the couples we do because they speak to us in some way, most often because they represent the loving relationship that we wish we had now or as teenagers. When viewed that way, spoonality might explain in part the unpopularity of a couple, but has almost no impact in explaining the popularity of a couple. That will take a whole other theory, possibly involving sporks.