Lesbians and the media: the price of visibility


The good, the bad and the gorgeous: Popular culture's romance with lesbianism
Edited by Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge
Harper Collins, 1994. 253 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Kath Gelber

With all the fuss about lesbians in popular culture these days, it was only a matter of time before a collection like this one emerged. It has been put together by women who know their material: the co-editors are Diane Hamer, who worked for Channel 4 in Britain on the OUT series, and Belinda Budge, who is a founder member of Scarlet Press, among other worthy pursuits. Within its first few weeks the first print run was entirely sold out in Sydney, and a second is on order.

This collection has all the dyke favourites that will make you want to rush out and buy it. It's got Madonna, k.d. lang, the Indigo Girls and Michelle Shocked; it's got Jodie Foster, the "gorgeous lesbian" in L.A. Law, Linda Hamilton from Terminator and Sigourney Weaver from the Aliens series. It's got the dyke detective genre and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Plus — and no lesbian collection worth its salt would be complete without her — Martina Navratilova.

Overall, the book attempts to assess why it is that lesbians have apparently become so chic these days: from the (in)famous Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford shaving a very butch-looking k.d.lang, to the inclusion of lesbian "episodes" in such high-rating TV soaps as L.A. Law. At first glance, it would seem lesbians are very "in" — hence the assumption that with this visibility comes a degree of political and personal acceptance of lesbians. It's something we're not used to.

However, all is not as it seems. The purpose of those who produce the diet of mass consumption remains the same — to make a buck. And the inclusion of lesbians in the recipe may also mean we are getting our fingers burnt.

After all, lesbianism is a marketable image in more than one way. Lesbian chic conforms to popular notions of fashion, beauty and the desirability of rich women, such as the images used in Basic Instinct, or by Madonna.

The portrayal of lesbian sexuality is still "shocking" and therefore a marketable commodity. As other former shockers have become less and less shocking, lesbian sexuality has remained largely taboo or invisible. That gives it marketability, a price tag.

It's no longer shocking or new to show a man and a woman having sex, however graphically; it's not very shocking to show fetish, bondage or s/m sex although this is more usually reserved for second-rate comedies; and it's certainly not shocking to show blood, guts and goriness.

But lesbians — well that's another matter. Yes, the average heterosexual audience is still wondering what lesbians do in bed. As Clare Whatling says in her article, "Hollywood is only too happy to use lesbianism as subject-matter so long as it pays".

This manufacturing of suitable, yet exotic, images is not confined to lesbians. In the same way, many Third World images and images of black people and their culture have entered popular culture as exotica, something different, something previously unexploited. The images that began as products of a marginalised culture, and which therefore contained a rich heritage of political opposition to the mainstream, have been coopted by the very culture they sought to oppose. Dreadlocks are now cool in Hollywood.

While the images have been transposed, however, the politics often has not. The symbolism of opposition, of struggling against adversity, of fighting for a marginalised voice to be heard, has been lost as popular culture sifts through to find what it wants, leaving only the equivalent of the white flour in the recipe — devoid of most of its fibre, strength and taste.

The good, the bad and the gorgeous analyses other limitations of the portrayal of lesbians in various forms of the popular genre. In L.A. Law, for example, despite its notoriety, the lesbian content was exceedingly coy, almost entirely asexual (the only physical intimacy seen between two women was one brief, chaste kiss), and marginalised to the extent that in fact heterosexuality was still seen as "normal".

Elizabeth Wilson argues that gay love can be used as a "lens through which heterosexual society is desperately peering at its own problematic practices". Ultimately, through means of marginalisation and "otherness", the portrayal of lesbian and gay sexuality can be used to make heterosexuality safer, more secure despite its problems, more normal even if it is boring, and the ultimate and inescapable destination for the main protagonists in any story. See the end result in Basic Instinct.

As is the nature of popular culture, the portrayal of lesbians has both its good sides and its bad, as the title of the collection implies. Certainly it has been enjoyable to watch an out star like Martina Navratilova make tennis history. It has been even funnier at times to watch how media coverage of her matches tried to deal with "her friend" Judy Nelson. When Martina made history by winning her ninth Wimbledon, the hug she gave Judy went live-to-air all around the world. Not so in the sports round-ups, which judiciously cut the hug from the segment.

Other issues are taken up in this collection, such as the lesbian "reading" of popular, overtly heterosexual texts through various means including being in-the-know about the supposed lesbianism of icons like Jodie Foster, and lesbians inserting themselves into straight narratives just because they plain enjoy the female protagonists, such as in Aliens, for example.

In general, the collection is enjoyable reading, although a couple of the articles are overly jargonistic and difficult to read. This may limit the book's potential to reach a wider feminist readership — including young women just becoming involved in feminism for the first time — which is a bit of a pity.

Ultimately, this book reminds us that visibility in and of itself doesn't mean acceptance. As always, the question remains — visibility on whose terms? A diverse presentation of images, inclusive of lesbians, blacks and non-Western cultures, may mean relatively little. In the words of Sue O'Sullivan, "Diversity, if it is devoid of any serious notion of resistance, is a bit like rainbow 'freedom rings' — pretty and possibly signifying friendliness but nothing much else."

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