Lesbian Desire Across The Ages: From Insane To Cult Hero

Lesbian Desire Across The Ages: From Insane To Cult Hero

Cast your mind across everything you know about lesbians in history. In particular, Australian history. You might be able to name one or two lesbians, bisexuals or queer women from the 1900s, if you’re in the know. Otherwise, it’s a pretty bleak and sparse canvas, especially in reference to mainstream representations of lesbian desire. Add questions about our Indigenous lesbian history and the answers are even harder to come by (pun intended). The Gays and Lesbians Aboriginal Alliance call this the Empty Mirror.

Lesbians, and women who desired each other before the term lesbian even existed, have always been culturally invisible. They slip under the historical radar.

What we do know is that in Australia, according to the rule of law, lesbians were thought not to exist. Taking it on the clit has never been a crime. In fact, the laws against homosexuality only applied to anal sex. Why? Women were thought not to have desire like men do, let alone desire each other. Yet there are court records of female convicts in 1841 describing “nailing” each other, according to historian Eleanor Conlin Casella.

Despite this, women having sex or otherwise desiring each other were thought to be unholy bonds and quite simply, a sin. The 1950s spun around and women who didn’t fit models of what it is to be feminine, that may have dressed in men’s clothing, behaved liked men and desired like men were often admitted to the asylum or the mental hospital as mad and called men-women, according to historian Ruth Ford. Failed heterosexuals were a medical problem. By the 1960s homosexuality was thought to be a curable disease and therefore ideas moved from punishing the person to trying to cure them. A personality disorder or neurotic condition was what we had. Those lovers of the now acclaimed TV show Masters of Sex, will know that drug treatments and electro-convulsive therapy were considered legitimate treatments. According to the ideas at the time, it was all your family’s fault. If your mum was dominant – LESBIAN. If your dad was passive and gentle – LESBIAN. Talk about reinforcing gender stereotypes.

The political movements of the 1970s marched in and questioned the treatment of gay, bisexual, transgender and lesbian people and along with it, the very idea that sexual desire for someone of the same sex was a sickness. Thank fuck. According to Emily Wilson, The Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) (ha!) in Sydney played a vital and pioneering role in challenging so-called homosexuality experts. In 1973 homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s manual to great protest. Pan through the lesbian icons in popular culture we have since the pivot from being curable to just plain sexual, and there aren’t a load, but there are some. Ellen, who came out on her show of the same name in 1997, only for it to be slapped with a parental advisory warning, later cancelled and fall into obscurity. Until, that is, she rose to become the TV host and interviewer the world now loves almost as much as Oprah. Buffy explored same-sex love, also in 1997, but came to prominence as a cult classic later. The L Word came along in 2004 to the relief of white, middle-class femme lesbians and the women who love them, Lip Service followed with an Irish version in 2010, Lost Girl was the bisexual answer to The L Word in 2010, Wentworth banged on the jail cell in 2013, then Orange is the New Black dragged its metal cup across all our lips, also in 2013. Are you sensing a theme here? We’ve come from the asylum, but it seems, the cell is where the lesbian as a character has its most potent public outing. Is there a respectable lesbian character to be found on our TV screens, or is the lesbian in public life still deviant in a way that the gay dads on Modern Family aren’t? I reckon so. But I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing either. There’s lots of debate at the moment about what the LGBTI movement is and what it should stand for, should it be assimilation into mainstream ideas of marriage and family? Or should it retain its activist beginnings, standing proudly outside normative ideas about sex, desire and what constitutes a family? I don’t have a definitive answer but I think the lesbian as a cult hero, as a historical icon drips with the questions and the answers. Whatever your position, there’s no denying that while the pop cultural Lesbian may be the new black, she’s still deviant as fuck. And I kinda like that. But it also makes me wonder how far we’ve got to go before the Lesbian makes it out of the shackles of history, into something a little more fitting, and I’m not talking about a little black dress.

Originally published by LOTL.

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Mad, criminal or straight: Female desire in film and TV

Mad, criminal or straight: Female desire in film and TV

When it comes to representations of lesbians in film and television, sometimes they’re there, mostly they’re not. And if they are, they’re mostly confined to cells.

The lesbian in popular culture is usually mad, criminal or she’s really, actually, heterosexual. Think Charlize Theron’s stunning portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster, the crims we all love to watch in Prisoner, Wentworth and Orange is the New Black, and the ‘queer woman turned straight’ in The Kids Are Alright and Chasing Amy. We’ve also got the feminist archetype stitched up, too. You know, the ugly, man-hating, spinster with lots of cats. And to be honest, I’ve never met a lesbian like that – and I’ve met a lot. It’s not a pretty picture on the big screen or on TV, and it doesn’t have to be.

Syd (Carrie Brownstein) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) in Transparent. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

Syd (Carrie Brownstein) and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) in Transparent. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

Statistically speaking, lesbian and bisexual women are more at risk than their heterosexual counterparts across a range of factors; we drink more, smoke more, have more orgasms (bisexuals have the least) and rarely leave the house (if you believe all the U-Haul jokes that season two of Transparent beautifully portray when Syd and Ali move in together).


But we’re also carrying the cultural baggage of being hauled off to the insane asylum back in 1900s when lesbian desire was seen as abnormal. That is, if we’re carrying anything at all, because there’s a double-edged sword when it comes to representations of lesbians in the public realm. Sometimes we’re there, mostly we’re not. And if we are, our most popular outings are confined to cells. A new study on diversity in entertainment on TV and in cinema found that female characters fill only 28.7 per cent of all speaking roles in film and less than 40 per cent in TV shows. Of the 11,194 speaking characters analysed, 49 were lesbian, 158 were gay, and 17 were bisexual. In terms of percentages, only 27.9 per cent of LGBT characters were female. So not only are we up against a gender gap, but also a combined sexuality and gender gap. Add race into the mix and 78.9 per cent of characters were white. Researcher Stacy Smith calls it an “inclusion crisis”. I call it devastating.

As a young lesbian, I searched far and wide through every TV show and movie I could wrap my eyes around to find myself reflected. I fell in love with The L Word in the early 2000s because there were lesbians everywhere; beautiful, white, successful, political, artistic, sexual, lesbians who I wanted to be. Sure, they may have popularised the idea of lesbian bed death – as if two women can’t possibly maintain desire for one another – and we rarely saw the characters actually having sex, but we knew they were doing it.

Arthouse movies were, and still are, my very best friend. But I’m a CheerleaderI Can’t Think Straightand Room in Rome are my top three lesbian flicks. Carol is a newly added addition but the running theme maintains the narrative of forbidden desire, of illness, of abnormality, as did Cate Blanchett’s role in Notes on a Scandal where she enters into a relationship with a minor much to the disdain of the desirous and bitter lesbian character embodied by Judi Dench.

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) in Carol. (Photo: Transmission)

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) in Carol. (Photo: Transmission)

I’m not saying we need normal, because that’s just boring, but we need more diversity in how we represent lesbians on the screen. Transparent’s slew of same-sex attracted characters is a wonderful cameo in our need for more, but we need more than crims, mentally disturbed people and porn stars doing the work of representing who we are.

Gay men have made it into the mainstream with ground-breaking shows like Will and Grace and more recently Modern FamilyPlease Like Me and The Family Law. Bisexuals have had my other favourite TV show, Lost Girl, but even that is but a memory now. All of these shows, excluding The Family Law, are a virtual whitewash of representation. Ellen DeGeneres, through her original television sitcom and her talk show, is a beacon and a pioneer, but still a white one. Predominantly though, lesbian and bisexual characters are still loitering somewhere between the pages of history and the celluloid closetThe closet is dead so it’s time for us, like film theorist Sally R. Munt suggests, to “come in’. And come in not just to our own gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender circles in order to write ourselves in, but to come into the community at large.

Originally published by SBS Sexuality.

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