As is well known, the entertainment industry acts as both a mirror and a creator/influencer of culture. By nature, it reflects, in broad strokes, the society it is meant to portray, but at the same time, it can wittingly or unwittingly influence popular culture, prompting viewers to adopt new clothes, mannerisms, or even social attitudes.
Glee, for example, following in the footsteps of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, worked hard to reflect the most up-to-date facets of pop culture, including using pop hits from the same year and supplying ample snark commentary about things like Bravo and Lindsay Lohan. At the same time, Glee is also often credited with helping broaden U.S. society’s acceptance of homosexuality by exposing the show’s large viewership to the flamboyantly homosexual character of Kurt Hummel (and to a much lesser extent, Santana Lopez and Brittany Pierce).
When it comes to depictions of lesbians and bisexual women on screen, the entertainment industry’s track record of acting as a mirror is mixed. Some depictions are accurate, but many seem to have come from the minds of writers who never met a lesbian or bisexual woman in real life. The following list represents just some of these true and false depictions and how those depictions have influenced or failed to influence viewers.
1. False: Bisexual women are sex-crazy omnivores
In the movie The Haunting, Catherine Zeta Zones‘ bisexual character Theo purrs suggestively to Lili Taylor‘s mousey character Nell Vance—in response to whether she is afraid of commitment—”Well, my boyfriend thinks so, but my girlfriend doesn’t.” The scene summarizes well Hollywood’s historical approach to female bisexuality: bisexual women were portrayed as non-monogamous seductresses perpetually on the prowl for their next conquest. The idea of the sexually voracious, wanton vixen is probably half patriarchal fear of the power of female sexuality, half wish projection on the part of heterosexual males, and 100% harmful to the bisexual community.
It needs hardly be said that this caricatured image of the female bisexual is incongruent with real life (although of course there is always the occasional exception); the vast majority of bisexual women are monogamous. And yet, this depiction has left a lasting impression among heterosexual males that exoticizes and fetishizes female bisexuality, while many bisexual women have found lesbians are more inclined to view them as promiscuous and unfaithful.
Hollywood seems to have moved away from the “bisexual woman as vixen” trope since the mid-2000s and, instead, has a tendency to now portray bisexual women as mostly straight with a female ex lurking in the wings. Remember when Angela Montenegro on Bones had an ex/current girlfriend for a hot minute en route to getting back with her future husband, Hodges? Or when New Girl used Cece’s past with Reagan to make fiancé Schmidt jealous?
Equally frustrating, Hollywood has also dabbled with the trope of the “confused” lesbian—see Jules from The Kids are All Right, both of whom self-identify (mostly?) as lesbian but sleep with a guy—a trope that perpetuates the heterosexual misperception that lesbians are just “confused” and therefore act out by sleeping with men. Uuuuugh.
2. True: Your first love tends to be a close friend.
Amy and Karma of Faking It. Spencer Carlin and Ashley Davies from South of Nowhere. Santana and Brittany from Glee. Sophie Webster and Sian Powers on Coronation Street. Claude and Ellen from All Over Me. For many young women, their best friend (or at least a very good friend) was their first real crush. Their best friend was someone they were emotionally close to and with whom they spent a lot of time, and naturally, the lines between platonic and romantic love blurred…or disappeared altogether.
The entertainment industry does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to develop that crush, but it may also give young people a false hope: in most cases on screen, the crush is reciprocated. In real life, however, it probably is most often not. What if Naomi Campbell had never gotten together with Emily Fitch on Skins and Emily had pined hopelessly for Naomi? In that sense, Faking It might be the best representation of what happens when you try to continue being besties with your best friend even when both of you know that the crush will never go both ways.
3. True and false: Coming out to yourself is the hardest part of being gay because pretty much everyone will be accepting.
TV loves the drama of characters grappling with their sexuality, but these days, after they come out, it’s often all rainbows and sunshine. Worried about coming out? Why? All your friends are secretly super supportive and accepting! A character struggling with her sexual orientation is good TV because it’s emotionally powerful and lasts multiple episodes, but TV—at least, American TV—doesn’t often seem interested in depicting all the negative things that can happen to a character after coming out.
Instead, American TV prefers to show a generally accepting society, or else one that quickly comes around. Emily Fields of Pretty Little Liars, for example, had an accepting social net—the other Liars—that made it easier when her mom was initially unsupportive, for example. Although South of Nowhere did an excellent job of showing an unsupportive parent.
TV now depicts these situations instead of a character struggling with negative post-coming out experiences such as a long-term unsupportive family, being fired or denied access to housing for being gay. It may be a conscious decision by the entertainment industry to portray families, friends, and coworkers as accepting in an attempt to influence society to mirror that behavior, but the downside is that it creates an unrealistic impression among heterosexuals of how widespread that support is.
The industry’s portrayal of coming out is mixed. While it generally does a good job of portraying the individual’s angst when first coming out to friends and family, and this has positive effects for teaching straight viewers about this singular experience shared by everyone in the gay and lesbian community, the portrayal is less realistic in the depiction of the reactions of others. Characters are generally not kicked out of the house, or have their college tuition cut off, or spend decades isolated from their families. Because this is not shown, many heterosexual viewers are not exposed to the extent of the backlash to which some individuals are exposed after coming out, and therefore they may conclude that the experience of being gay is less arduous than it is for some individuals.
4. False: Pretty much every single lesbian has super long hair and is femme.
The entertainment industry almost exclusively demands long hair of actresses because it views long hair as more feminine and beautiful. But this means that 98% of lesbian characters have flowing, perfectly blow-dried hair past their shoulders, a wildly lopsided depiction of lesbian hairstyling.
Furthermore, because the entertainment industry remains largely gender normative in terms of how female characters are costumed, lesbian characters are almost always femme. One of the most compelling criticisms of The L Word when it first aired was that pretty much all the characters were femme with long, gorgeous hair.
No one on The L Word actually looked like someone you would know in real life. The trend persists today (Piper Chapman, Alex Vause, Nicky Nichols, etc. on Orange is the New Black all have long hair, for example, although Big Boo is butch, and Poussey had a more androgynous look).
In real life, lesbian and bi women come in all shapes and sizes, gender presentations and hairstyles, as both the gay and straight communities know. Because viewers know that the characters they see on screen are not necessarily realistic, it seems safe to say the “pretty lesbian” character is neither positively nor negatively influential—especially because most heterosexuals are more likely to be influenced by the popular culture stereotype of lesbians as flannel-wearing tennis instructors.
5. True and false: Lesbians are sexy seductresses who can turn straight women.
I mean, if the shoe fits. But seriously, as any gay person will tell you, everyone is straight until they’re not. It’s not that a woman is “turned” by a gay woman, but rather that previously unrecognized, latent sexual fluidity is activated by chemistry with someone of the same sex.
Many gay women at one time or another find themselves romantically or sexually entangled with a “straight” woman, but like a choose your own adventure, the interaction can end with the straight woman choosing to change her identification to gay, or bi, or questioning, or confirming that she is, in fact, heterosexual.
Like heterosexuals, lesbian and bi women vary widely on the “sexy seducer” scale. We can’t all be a Pepa from Los Hombres de Paco, Alex Vause, or Shane McCutcheon from The L Word. As with the idea of lesbians as pretty femmes, this occasional portrayal of gay women probably is neither positive nor negative because viewers recognize it for what it is: entertainment.