Between 2008 and 2010, the blog “Stuff White People Like” (and subsequent companion books) poked good-natured fun at the interests of liberal, urban white Canadians and Americans, stereotyping them as affluent, anti-corporate hipsters interested in things like yoga, pumpkin spice lattes, and children’s games as adults. Although some protested that the blog was racist and unfair to that segment of society, many people who fell within the lampooned group agreed that it accurately reflected the societal stereotype about them and contributed their own suggestions to the blog in a spirit of goodwill and self-deprecation.
A positive effect of the blog was to show that while not universally true across a group, certain interests, likes, and experiences do seem to be common in general, and by pointing these out—in this case, for urban, upper-middle-class whites—people both within and outside of the group can begin to understand these stereotypes/commonalities and the effects that privilege (or in other cases, the absence of privilege) have on shaping the group.
The gay and lesbian community cuts across all groups (gender, race, disability/ability, age, urban/rural, socio-economic status, etc.), making it hard to create a generic list of “Stuff Gay People Like” that would be generally representative of everyone without being so broad that the listed items are things everyone, gay or straight, likes. A narrower list of stereotypical “Things Lesbians Like” would be feasible—and include things such as Xena: Warrior Princess, lesbian rockers, and plaid shirts, all the things we joke about with our friends—but rather than teaching a lesson about privilege, as “Stuff White People Like” did, probably would speak more to how a subculture’s “culture” is diffused across time and geography to its members.
To look at lesbian subculture through the lens of privilege, a more educational list would be “Stuff Straight People Don’t Understand about Lesbian Culture.” The following (incomplete) list is therefore intended to point out three experiences many lesbian and bi women undergo which straight people, in general, don’t seem to understand, on the hopes that by pointing out how heterosexual privilege has contributed to these experiences, our straight allies will work within their own community to create change.
Why Lesbians are Upset About Lesbian Tropes
Lesbians die on TV. A lot. Over 146 lesbian and bisexual characters around the world dead and counting at the end of 2016. They also spend a lot of time falling in love with men and suddenly becoming straight, or being crazy bisexuals. For a full list of tropes and lesbians, see TV Tropes, and for a funny summation, see this AfterEllen article from last year. Most straight people don’t understand the magnitude of this recurrent tropes problem (although many black people do, given their own struggle with tropes) or know that these tropes exist at all. (Or they’re Jason Rothenberg and they knew about the trope but then pretended the time they killed their lesbian character was totally different from all the other times lesbians were killed).
Perusing the comments section of Variety’s excellent article on Lexa’s death on The 100, for example, several straight commentators argue that the gay community shouldn’t be upset because straight characters die all the time. It’s just equality, so it’s no big deal. Plus, it advanced the storyline, you know? As another commentator astutely responded, however, if there are two plates of cookies, one with 100 cookies and the other with two cookies, and each plate has a cookie removed, that’s 1% of the straight cookies gone and 50% of the lesbian cookies. It must be nice to have so many characters on TV that represent your sexual orientation that the loss of one is unremarkable. Given how few characters are lesbian and how often they’re murdered or killed in an accident, however, the community is rightly sensitized to the maddening recurrence of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, as well as other tropes.
A quote from Rothenberg’s interview with TV Insider about Lexa’s death summarizes the problem well:
“Lexa’s death triggered real emotional trauma for some people, you know? It tapped into the real world, it tapped into their lives, and as a straight white male, I obviously didn’t anticipate how deeply it would affect certain people. I look at it now and I realize that if somebody had that kind of a reaction and then were to look back at the way I behaved on Twitter leading up to it, which was celebrating this relationship that then crushed them, I can understand why they would find that reprehensible. I hope that people understand that.”
Why Heteronormativity is the Gay Community’s Biggest Enemy
“Heteronormativity” is an abstract concept with various definitions, but for gay people, it generally refers to most societies’ assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and that men and women should have binary, traditional gender roles. Put bluntly; it’s why many people still ask of lesbian relationships, “Which one is the man?” And it’s why many straight people complain, “Why does she dress like a man?” as if pants and a tie were the exclusive domain of masculinity.
This heteronormative understanding of sexuality and gender is embedded in and woven into the fabric of state and social institutions in ways that are insidious and discriminatory. Heteronormative societies not only privilege heterosexual relationships and both overtly or covertly discriminate against gay and lesbian couples (and single people), they are also deeply uncomfortable with any perceived blurring of gender lines or gender roles, to the extent that sexuality-based hate crimes largely stem from the victim’s perceived failure to fit into an “appropriate” gender presentation.
While straight people understand the concept of homophobia, most probably don’t understand the relationship between homophobia and heteronormativity. That heteronormativity—in particular, society’s strict interpretation of gender expression—is often the root and homophobia a symptom, consider that Ellen DeGeneres may be successful wearing a vest and sneakers on TV, but a woman on the street wearing the same outfit may face discrimination. If that woman wore a dress and had long hair, however, she would receive different treatment even if both were known to be gay.
Gay and straight women alike are often punished by society and employers for not wearing makeup, dresses, or high heels, or for being outspoken because these things fall outside the desired gender presentation/roles for women. As a result, straight women have a better understanding than straight men of how heteronormativism affects society’s treatment of individuals, but may not realize the extent to which it affects lesbians. Straight men who fit society’s gender roles may have very little understanding at all of the heteronormative currents swirling around them. Until society is able to move away from a heteronormative model of conceptualizing relationships and gender expression, heteronormativity will continue to undercut lesbians socially and professionally at best, and put them at risk of assault at worst.
Why the Fetishization of Lesbians Is Pernicious…and Isn’t Getting Much Better With Time
The media and entertainment industry for the last decade or so have perpetuated the idea that lesbians and bisexual women are sexy vixens there for the male gaze. The press uses salacious article titles like “8 Straight Married Celebrities Gone Lesbian” (Gone where? Gone hearkens back to “Girls Gone Wild,” of course, and all its associations.), and in interviews focuses voyeuristically on the bisexuality of Megan Fox and Olivia Wilde (Do men regularly get asked if they’ve ever had a same-sex experience, as women are?). Occasional film characters like Ricki from the universally loathed movie Gigli, meanwhile, teach men that you really can turn a lesbian straight. To be fair, the sexualization of women transcends sexual orientation and affects all women, but even so lesbians seem to be especially prone to this over-exaggerated characterization.
That women are there for the male gaze specifically is indicated by the fact that for every Bullet (The Killing), Big Boo (Orange is the New Black), or Sam (Scream Queens), there are 50 femme women on the screen with long hair and makeup wearing a dress and heels—a demographic distribution that does not match the lesbian community’s real proportions on the street.
It’s no accident that according to PornHub’s 2015 annual metrics report, “lesbian” was the most-searched term on the site globally. The distorted view that porn and some entertainment industry sources give of who lesbians are—objects of male fantasy, of course—and what they do (amusingly, “hardcore lesbian scissoring” as a search was up 918% this year. *Snort*) contributes to a lingering belief among some men that lesbians “just haven’t met the right man yet” or that they can be “turned” by a man who’s manly enough. In darker incarnations, it can also lead to violence when a gay woman breaks the fantasy by not responding to a man as he expects she should.
Many men may be aware of the over-sexualization of women in general (see for example controversy over the drawing of female superheroes), but probably do not recognize the pernicious melding of over-sexualization and sexual orientation that presents gay women as sexually voracious and available to men. Unfortunately, although women have made advances in reducing sexualized portrayals of women on screen, the legacy of Pussy Galore (Goldfinger) and Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct) persists.
These three things were a fraction of the things that straight people don’t understand about lesbian culture. What else don’t they understand?