Do lesbians have to conform to
stereotypes fitting gay males--fat-free bodies, designer clothes, aggressive
sexuality--to win media visibility? Why are the women of The L Word and
Queer Eye so Birkenstock-free?
Despite Time Out New York's snarky plea for Bravo to wake up and
smell the "scruffy dykes" who need makeovers--a response to last month's
premiere of Queer Eye for the Straight Girl--I've been thinking that
a more interesting premise would be a Dyke Eye for the Straight Girl,
complete with a cast of big-bellied bull dykes boasting bulging muscles and
motorcycles, offering fashion tips to Atkins-enslaved straight girls
saturated by Cosmopolitan and Clinique. Fat chance!
If filtered through the lens of our social and cultural lesbian stereotypes,
the dyke declarations on a Dyke Eye for the Straight Girl might read:
* Why get a manicure when you can bite your nails for free?
* It's normal if you've been together for three months and aren't having sex
* Closet the purse (along with your dresses); a chain wallet is cheaper and
attaches nicely to cargo pants.
* Lose those hellacious high heels; buy yourself some sensible shoes.
* If he doesn't pick you up with a U-Haul on the second date, dump him!
* Get a cat.
* Buy lots and lots of tea.
* Be in bed by 9 p.m., even if it's Saturday.
* Don't save the bonbons for when he breaks up with you: Eat them anywhere,
anytime, all the time!
* Friday night fun is shopping at Home Depot.
Advice like this might land her some lesbian lovin', if she's lucky, but
send every straight guy (at least all the ones I know) running--very fast.
However amiss the above stereotypes might be, when most Americans think
"lesbian," these are the images and ideas they conjure up--which are several
light-years away from the dykes portrayed on queer shows such as The L
In fact, I'd argue that the lesbian configurations in popular culture are a
forced appropriation of gay male culture, styles, and attitudes, rendering
lesbian visibility and appeal contingent on a very limited definition of
what a lesbian is: conventionally pretty, white (or just off-white),
feminine, and affluent. In other words, a "lipstick lesbian" that all men
(gay and straight) can stomach.
While Honey Labrador is the dyke addition to the new Queer Eye for the
Straight Girl, she is, like the cute cast on The L Word, what I
call a "gayified" lesbian. Tellingly, David Collins, Straight Girl's
openly gay creator and executive producer, recently told Out magazine
that Labrador is "a gay man in a lesbian's body--everything we could've
I'm not saying that lesbians like Labrador and those portrayed on The L
Word don't exist, or that there isn't a loud note of progress in
portraying lesbians as something other than frumpy and bull dyke-ish. But
isn't it striking how well they conform to our cultural stereotypes of gay
men (gorgeous, fit, wealthy, fashionable, cultured, artistic) rather than
lesbians (overweight, poor, unfashionable, sexually lethargic)? Take a
closer look at The L Word and you'll see that it's not only straight
men who are being metrosexualized.
There's Shane, whose wardrobe is super-gay, with her snug-fitting leather
pants and tight muscle shirts; she's the bad ass, who can get any woman,
anytime, anywhere. (She is the lesbian counterpart of Brian, the sexual
predator on Queer as Folk.) Then there's Bette, the director of a
modern-art museum, and Alice, the journalist at a trendy fashion magazine.
In season 1 we had Marina, the owner of a packed and prospering café, who
seduced Jenny, the budding fiction writer, away from her boyfriend, Tim.
Remember how she seduced her? She walked in on her while she was in the
bathroom (a notorious spot for public gay male sex) at Tina and Bette's
house the first night they met, then planted an uninvited, passionate kiss
on her. Indeed, the world of these women is centered on sex. That isn't
anything to frown on, but again, sex-centricity aligns them with gay men,
who have historically seen sexuality as the key to their liberation.
For example, Alice, the bisexual character, made a sex chart with Shane, the
sexual stallion, at its center so she can trace who has slept with whom.
Dana, who started the show as the deeply closeted femme tennis player,
jealously pondered how Shane is so sexually successful with the ladies.
Alice offered this startling explanation: She's got "nipple confidence."
(Are nipples the lesbian phallus?) At one point Bette, who was introduced as
one half of seemingly the only functional monogamous relationship on the
show, felt compelled to say, "Monogamy isn't just hypothetical; it's
something that people actually practice."
Since when have lesbians become sex-crazed commitment-phobes?
Since...well, they haven't.
But lesbians have to hitch a ride on "gay male fabulousness" in order to be mediaworthy. The bull dyke just won't do. And it's not just because she's
seen as an aesthetic disaster. It's because she's a forceful fist swinging
in the face of Prada shoes, Gucci purses, Versace dresses, and Wall Street
Unlike her lovely-looking gay brothers and sensual straight sisters, she
hasn't been penetrated (literally and figuratively) by advertising and the
need to sexy up for the status quo. But stereotypes aside, how liberating a
bull dyke's advice might be to a straight women (or a lipstick lesbian):
wear what's comfortable and affordable; you look beautiful without makeup;
stop starving yourself; and so on.
Here's hoping Logo, Viacom's all-gay cable network launching in June, is
bolder than Bravo and Showtime.