The Belvedere Journal
The Misrepresentation of Queer Women in the Media
Heteronormativity is consistently reinforced through the media and has a detrimental effect on many young women's journey towards self-acceptance.
Sexuality is something that’s hard to navigate during your teenage years, regardless of your orientation. Preconceptions colour our ideas of what is and isn’t normal - your first kiss, how to flirt with someone, at what age it’s considered normal to be in a relationship. We base these ideas predominantly on what we see in the media, fantasising about a moment straight out of a classic 80s John Hughes rom-com. However, for queer girls this experience is not as universal.
As a society, we don’t recognise the need for queer representation in mainstream media nearly enough. Indeed, queer women are one of the most underrepresented demographics in film/tv/books for young adults, with 2017 statistics showing that of the 12.8% of major studio films containing queer characters, only 36% were lesbians. Heteronormativity is consistently reinforced through the media and has a detrimental effect on many young women's journey towards self acceptance. The media plays a key role in sculpting societal norms. The programmes we watch and books we real help to model our own behaviours and expectations. This means that if minority groups do not see themselves adequately represented on screen, they may feel the victim of societal erasure.
When thinking of films revolving around sapphic relationships, I struggle to recall any that are not either hyper-sexualised to an uncomfortable and gratuitous degree e.g. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) or simply not aimed towards a younger demographic e.g. Carol (2015), Disobedience (2017), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Although in more recent years, there has been a step forward in the young adult genre with films such as The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2017) and Booksmart (2018), these titles are very much in a minority.
One issue with these films is that often, LGBT representations fall under the bracket of tokenism. Disney have recently come under fire by having a character in their animated film Onward (2020) who is Disney’s 'first-ever openly LGBTQ animated character.' However, anyone watching the film would concede that this character is far from a fully-rounded. Sure, we're told she has a girlfriend, but..... that's about it. The net result is that the inclusion of the character feels like an exercise in box-ticking, a 'will-this-do?' approach to inclusivity, whereby characters are thinly-drawn and created with the transparent purpose of gaining 'woke' points rather than to provide much-needed three-dimensionality.
Arguably the worst thing modern media does with their queer character is killing them off periodically, conforming the to literary trope “Bury Your Gays”. This term originated in the early 20th Century literature and has only accelerated since then. This trope’s pattern states that in a narrative containing a same-gender couple, one of the lovers must die by the end of the narrative to aid the other's storyline. In most instances, they often die mere moments or pages after their relationship is confirmed for the audience, with the surviving lover adapting to their surroundings and being welcomed back into the straight community.
Hit show The 100 was criticised for following this trope with the female characters Clarke and Lexa. After a shooting, Lexa is fatally wounded and we see the couple sharing one last moment together. Yet within moments of her female lover dying, Clarke moves onto a straight relationship with her male counterpart Bellamy. This isn't to say that sexual preferences cannot be fluid, merely to underscore that often, lesbianism in film is merely a stepping-stone to inevitable heterosexuality. Originally, Bury Your Gays was put in place to allow LGBTQ+ authors to tell stories which featured queer characters without breaking laws regarding “promoting” homosexuality. Whilst this might have been a clever manoeuvre at the time, homosexuality has been legal since 1969. The trope is therefore no longer needed.
Overall, these issues aren’t only harmful to queer women, but also to the way non-queer individuals perceive and treat them. Until the media changes the way it reflects queer women, we are unlikely to see any real progress towards a fairer representation.