Then and Now: A Decade of Lesbian Fads, Trends, and Behaviors

Slapwraps. Skip-Its. MySpace. Napster. AOL Chat rooms. Beanie Babies. Fraggle Rock. Tickle Me Elmo. Pogs. Cabbage Patch Dolls. Tetherball. Pet Rocks. Lava lamps. America is constantly coming up with flash in the pan fads that, in retrospect, look as funny as 1980s hair.

Just as we scoff at the idea of 1970s disco suits today, 40 years from now there will be equal merriment over the memory of men in skinny jeans. Embarrassing memories of suit jackets with shoulder pads and windbreaker ensembles excepted, fads aren’t a bad thing. To the contrary, fads occur because they represent something that is integral to our sense of self or sense of society, whether the desire to be thinner (the Atkins Diet, Southbeach Diet, Paleo Diet) or the enjoyment of harmonious singing from young, attractive manboys who represent idealized boyfriends (‘NSync, the Backstreet Boys, One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer). The underlying social drivers of fads are so powerful and pervasive that the fads they spawn recur every few years, albeit with a slight enough variation that each new fad can deny any association with the old.

Lesbians of a bygone era…?78030723via Getty

Whether we recognize them as such or not, in the lesbian community we have had our own fads, many of which persist in a different but similar form today. Without trying to divine their psycho-socio roots, the following represent just four of the fads, trends, and behaviors that have swept the queer female community in the last decade:


Then: The L Word viewing parties (2004-2009)

When The L Word first debuted, lesbian bars across the country set up weekly viewing parties. For women uninterested in going to a bar or who lived in places with no accessible lgbt space, friends held girls’ nights to watch new episodes. It was a supremely unifying moment: the first time the lesbian community had a show dedicated entirely to it, and the community rallied to experience it communally. Even straight women came to the viewing parties, and it was the first time many of them were exposed to the diversity of the lesbian community. We commiserated over the strangely persistent presence of the band Betty, railed against the death of Dana, and had all the feelings about the quality of the writing and the characters, and we did it together.


Now: Binge watching Orange is the New Black home alone (2013-present, or until the new L Word premiers…)

OINTB debuted right as “binge-watching” on Netflix became a “thing.” Because all the episodes of a season were released at once instead of one at a time, it undercut the need for a weekly viewing party (who has the patience to wait 13 weeks when Piper’s fate can be discovered in a single weekend?). Although some people do throw OINTB binge-watching parties, in general, binge-watching is not a particularly communal activity. As a result, most of us watch OITNB at home alone or with their significant other. OITNB is similar to The L Word in that both are popular both with gay women and with straight female viewers (OITNB is Netflix’s most popular original series), meaning that women of all sexual orientations have plenty to talk about even if they don’t watch side by side.

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Then: The heartbreaker androgynous heartthrob (2004-2009)

Speaking of The L Word, the character of Shane McCutcheon was the first widely recognized TV lesbian heartthrob that also transcended the LGBT community. She was a devil-may-care, loyal yet undependable, untamable sex goddess, and her androgynous swagger appealed to a lot of gay and straight women. The “Shane”-type character—complete with messy haircut and wife beater shirt—reappeared in the form of Lip Service’s Frankie Alan (2010-2012) and Wentworth’s Franky Doyle (2013-2016). Shane inspired thousands of lesbians to copy Shane’s style, but there was only one real Shane.


Now: The sexy, smart, strong partner (2013-present)

Two season back, we asked whether Stella Carlin of OINTB was the new Shane. Stella might be popular with straight female viewers and share Shane’s gender non-conformity, but it is Alex Vause who made women swoon. Even when Stella joined the cast, most viewers still preferred Alex. Alex is smart, snarky, and assertive…with a soft spot for Piper. We probably wouldn’t want to date Shane, but Alex? Yes, please.


Then: Shipping Xena and Gabrielle subtext (1995-2001)

When it comes to subtext, Xena: Warrior Princess wrote the book. Or at least, a lot of articles, particularly in Whoosh!, and several Ph.D. theses. Xena and Gabrielle shippers picked apart every moment the two shared on screen, looking for subtle clues that the two were more than just friends. The lesbian community’s belief in and support of subtext was part of the yearning for characters of our own, and the show obliged by purposely writing in subtextual scenes. If you were a gay or bi woman who watched Xena, you were a shipper.


Now: Shipping Rizzles and SwanQueen subtext

Some things never change. Gay and bi women around the world have dedicated countless hours to analyzing Rizzoli and Isles and Once Upon a Time for subtext. The same drivers from the days of Xena: Warrior Princess still exist today, namely, the desire to see lesbian relationships represented on screen and the identification by viewers of excellent interpersonal chemistry between two female characters that seems to transcend platonic friendship.


Then: Lesbians who look like Bieber (2010)

Remember all those lesbians posting pictures of themselves looking like Justin Bieber? If you don’t beliebe me (sorry, I couldn’t resist), there’s a Tumblr to remind you. In 2010, the Tumblr won the NewNowNext OMFG Internet Award, and even Bieber himself acknowledged the fad by 2011. As we wrote at the time, however, it wasn’t necessarily that lesbians were imitating Bieber, but that many lesbians happened to already have a style that coincided with Bieber’s fashion choices.


Now: Kate McKinnon imitating Justin Bieber on Saturday Night Live (2014-present) 

Out comic Kate McKinnon has been #winning on SNL lately, whether as Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some of McKinnon’s best work, however, has been parodying Justin Bieber. From Bieber “vogueing” on Piers Morgan Live to mocking his Calvin Klein ad to a surprise appearance on Celebrity Jeopardy, McKinnon has managed to accentuate certain of Bieber’s stereotyped traits for laughs. There are still be lesbians who look like Bieber today, but they probably wouldn’t want to self-identify that way.



These are just a few of the “fads” or behaviors that swept the lesbian community in the last few years. What other fads have we followed that we no longer do?