This past weekend, I saw an exhibition of articles depicting lesbians in mainstream New Zealand magazines at the Lilac lesbian library here in Wellington. The articles were on display side-by-side in rows over two walls, and covered everything from Ellen and Portia dating; celebrity weddings and MP affairs; KD Lang and Cindy Crawford’s (in)famous Vanity Fair cover (pictured); austere, formal ads about marriage equality; and a lot else in between.
The impact of seeing these articles altogether in one place, side-by-side, was simply staggering. They are usually seen in isolation and in disconnected contexts – one article in one magazine here, another article in another magazine there, and months or even years apart. But put together in one place, its visual impact was well, rather horrific. Almost all were highly sexualised, highly gendered, highly stylised to heterosexual norms and to the expectations of heterosexual readers. They did little to actually tell heterosexuals about lesbians and even less to reflect our identity and our lives. And they were, overridingly, for the benefit of a heterosexual readership, not us. I saw only two articles that went some way toward good representation – both were New Zealand Women’s Weekly covers and both showed marriages of Kiwi celebrities (Lynda Topp of the Topp Twins just before we gained marriage equality here in New Zealand in 2013, and Anika Moa’s in 2017) – but both were still highly gendered and stylised to heterosexual norms and expectations.
The exhibition got me thinking about what we consider to be normal, and its impact on the representation of women-loving-women (wlw). All those magazine articles, seen over a period of time, they stack up to a perception of normal that isn’t true for or of wlw. I suspect that part of the reason non-wlw readers accept these articles as normal is because they likely see them amid a cacophony of other stuff, all or most of which represents them in some way. So when they see lesbians like this, they think it must be representation – because they live in a world where everything represents them, this must represent us. And they never see anything that challenges this, or if they do, definitely not in as great a numbers or as frequently as these articles. Most readers never come up – literally – against this wall of difference, this (often devastating) psychological chasm between what you are represented as and who you actually are.
And I think the same applies to other mainstream media – especially television. If we took all the shows that have or have had wlw characters and put each on a screen in rows of screens, side-by-side over two walls, I bet we would see something very similar – highly sexualised; highly gendered; highly stylised to heterosexual norms and the expectations of heterosexual audiences; programmes that do little to actually tell wlw stories or to reflect our identity and our lives; and that are, overwhelmingly, for the benefit (and often titillation) of a heterosexual audience. And non-wlw viewers accepting this because the rest of the show, and every other primetime show, represents them, so they have no reason to think that this wouldn’t represent us. In other words, probably programmes very much like Holby City,featuring storylines very much like Berena, with the underlying rationale of the BBC’s responses to our complaints about the December storyline.
I also suspect that wlw are more likely not to see these articles and television shows in isolation and in disconnected contexts because we usually, actively, seek out wlw content in mainstream media. As a result, we are bombarded by a constant stream of images and stories of wlw that are about us, but in which we don’t see ourselves. And if we don’t actively seek it out, we are bombarded by the lack of it. At the same time, I think it is likely that most heterosexuals and non-wlw see these images and stories in drips and drabs, dispersed within a context that reflects them. These images and stories therefore end up being what most heterosexuals and non-wlw would see of us, and therefore what they would know of us. This is their normal. So when they see something like what Berena was – two older women beautifully, lovingly, honestly, falling in love on their screens – they find it extraordinary. And when it – inevitably, because it’s not built on an understanding of actual representation – collapses, as the Berena storyline did in December, it goes back to just being ordinary, normal. It’s what they expect wlw stories to be like because they see it every day. Sadly, this is also what wlw expect mainstream media stories to be like, albeit for different reasons – many of which involve poor mental health as a result of these images, and a good dollop of cynicism.
The issues that make those articles – and television programmes – on those two walls terrible representation are part of, and feed into, heterosexism – the belief that heterosexuality is normal or primary and that all other sexualities are deviant from and/or are defined in comparison to it. In those articles and television shows, heterosexism, the assumption of heterosexuality, is the context wlw were represented in. I think most people – wlw and non-wlw alike – accept this as normal because this heterosexism is internalised. Before the December episodes of Berena, before I began joining the resulting discussions on representation, I had just accepted that wlw stories in mainstream television were like this, that it was normal. I did – and probably still do – internalise heterosexism.
So I would like to shift perspective a bit. This may seem really obvious, but I would like to take out this internalised heterosexism and see what happens. Because the way I see it, there are two problems of perception here: the first is how others see wlw within this context; the second is how we see ourselves within it. And because internalised heterosexism isn’t normal – it’s internalised prejudice.
The first thing that happens is that if heterosexuality is assumed to be the norm, anything that depicts something other than this, like two women falling in love (let’s call them Bernie and Serena, or Berena for short), creates the impression of going against the norm, of doing something exceptional. In this context, Holby City and its executives are extraordinary for showing wlw – as is any other TV show. They are seen as doing something exceptional. In the same way, the actresses who play these characters are seen as doing something incredible, as bastions of representation. But this idea that representing wlw is extraordinary only holds in the context of heterosexism, in the context of prejudice.
Because this is the second thing that happens. There are many sexualities, a myriad ways of expressing being human. If heterosexism is removed, what is normal is not heterosexuality but sexuality. Women who love women simply become part of the plethora of humanity and its possibilities, just like heterosexuals and any other sexuality. It’s no longer atypical or niche. It becomes ordinary, mainstream, normal, and providing visibility and good representation becomes not being an exceptional human being, but an ordinary, decent human being. If the context of heterosexism is removed, actresses who play wlw are not heroes, they’re just ordinary, decent people, and storylines like Berena, when it was good, are not exceptional, they are just ordinary, everyday humanity being shown on our screens. When it’s not good representation, that’s when it’s not normal. That’s when it’s deplorable. In the same way, something as good as Gentleman Jack is not extraordinary, it’s normal. What was not normal was the almost (almost) whole scale deplorable mainstream representation we had before it (and sadly, after it…). Any time we think otherwise, we are participating in the heteronormative framework that allows us to be – and thinks it’s ok for us to be – so misrepresented.
I think this disparity of perception accounts for a great deal of those broken promises of good representation and “getting it right” that were made before December – the BBC, Holby City, its executives, Catherine Russell, et al, thought they were being extraordinary, and viewers, including Berena fans, believed them. But patting oneself on the back for being a decent human being, for doing what is normal, it’s a bit weird. And it shows how embedded what that person is patting themselves on the back for actually is in the very heteronormativity they are claiming to be avoiding. Perhaps more worryingly, this assumption of extraordinariness is also what both Holby City and DIVA are using to defend the Berena storyline – even Bernie’s #BuryYourGays trope death – so ardently.
I also think that this disparity of perception means we don’t see good representation as our right – and that others have no reason to see it this way either. I think overcoming internalised heterosexism could be very much like overcoming internalised homophobia, because the two are so intricately connected. Homophobia – the hatred of LBGTQI+ people – stems from heterosexism. If the only normal is heterosexual, it is ok to physically attack us, disown us, sexually assault us, evict us from our homes, fire us from our jobs, deny us access to our children, criminalise us, sexually harass us, even kill us (etc., etc., etc.) because we are not normal. When we overcome our internalised homophobia, we realise we have a right to be safe. The world is not doing us a favour by not harming us. It is our right to not be harmed. Part of this right therefore includes the right to be considered part of the norm – to be seen in society and to be included as we are, as a matter of course. We have, rather mundanely, the right to be normal – and the right to be seen as normal. In other words, we have the right to be visible and we have the right to be represented accurately.
The world is not doing us a favour by doing this. Holby City, Simon Harper, Catherine Russell, Jemma Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Sharon Stone, Sally Wainwright, Suranne Jones, Chris Chibnall, Gentleman Jack, Coronation Street, Bhavna Limbachia, Emma Atkins, Michelle Hardwick, Heather Peace, Pearl Mackie, Stephen Moffett, Alex Kingston, Carolyn Pickles, Charlotte Rampling, Alison Hannigan, Amber Benson, Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart, and all the other actresses, producers, writers, and show runners who, and shows which, showcase wlw, they aren’t doing us a favour (and many on that quite random list have not claimed to be, which is probably my point). Visibility and accurate representation are not privileges we are granted in a heteronormative society and which therefore get to be determined by others. They are our right. But this is the problem of perception. This idea that they are going against the norm and doing something extraordinary blinds us, at the very least detracts us – wlw and non-wlw alike – to the fact that this “extraordinary” thing that is happening, it’s actually our right. It doesn’t benefit us, and it feeds into the prejudice.
By River Kingston