Sexualised or killed off: the treatment of queer women

How are queer women represented in the media? Well, when they are it is all too frequently in highly sexualised roles, that do little to reflect the lives of real queer women. That is at least while they enjoy screen time, as queer women are killed off disproportionally quickly in shows - leading to the trope 'bury your gays.' In this article we explore why greater representation is important for queer women, and what it might look like. 

If you are a person who identifies as female and are attracted to other female-presenting people, you will probably have been told that your orientation is “sexy”, asked to spice up someone’s love life in a threesome, or been asked what man hurt you. It’s almost as if the thought of a woman not wanting to be involved with or include men in their romantic life is abhorrent and unbelievable, and hey, even if I’m not interested in them, I’ll be willing to have sex with any female romantic partner they have to fulfill their fantasy. These are more than just personal views held by the people I’ve come into contact with. In fact they seem to be backed up by portrayals in many aspects of the media.

I could speculate for hours on the reasons for the lack of lesbian representation in our society, and why those that do exist are mainly sexual or surrounded by violence. Maybe it’s the fact we live in a society that views women who love women as going through some sort of phase or resorting to their attraction to females through some sort of inability to find a male partner. Or maybe it’s just the erasure and taboo surrounding historical homosexual relationships between women. In any case, the results affect most non-heterosexual female couples.

The most obvious example is porn. With “lesbian” being the most searched term on Pornhub in 2015 and countless websites dedicated to videos featuring sex between two women, it’s not surprising that for a lot of people lesbianism is linked directly to sex. Furthermore, the storylines for a lot of these porn videos are linked to typical fantasies, including lesbian “hazing” at fake sororities, drunk girls just “fooling around”, or girls seducing their best friends because they’re missing their boyfriends. These narratives all point to women turning to women in moments of desperation or necessity - even the “amateur” videos almost never focus on women portrayed as couples.

Obviously, porn is meant to portray an idealised fantasy and the image of two women sitting on the sofa chatting and hugging or going out on a date probably won’t satisfy the viewers. However, with huge numbers of people watching porn from a young age, sometimes even before being educated about relationships, it’s alarming that this is sometimes their first - or only - exposure to the subject.

Mainstream media has included queer women in films and television for years now, with hugely popular teen dramas such as Skins, Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars featuring lesbian or bisexual characters. This is a great step in normalising queer women in some respects, but the inclusion of only one or two characters creates them as token figures or tropes, hardly ever given the same recognition or dedication as the heterosexual relationships in the shows. Furthermore, the characters in all these shows have faced painful and sometimes brutal deaths. In fact, the 166 lesbian and bisexual women who have been killed off in TV programmes has spurned the coining of the trope “bury your gays”.

All the good done by the inclusion of non-heterosexual women is therefore erased, quite literally, by the writers, with many relationships failing to grow or evolve on the shows before the characters are killed. There are some really positive and loving queer relationships in mainstream media, and the presence of non-straight celebrities as household names including Ellen DeGeneres and Jane Lynch are great, but they are still somewhat rare, and mostly are white females. To put it simply, better and more representation outside of sex and death needs to exist to normalise lesbian relationships.

Until there is greater representation and recognition of lesbian relationships as something else other than a cute idea to throw into, then quickly eliminate from, a plot in television, or hyper- sexualised and fuelled by a lack of male presence, these ideas and stereotypes are going to remain. With the J. Walter Thompson group finding earlier this year that only 48 percent of 13-20 year old's identify as exclusively heterosexual, there is no denying the necessity for better representation to help normalise and reassure young queer people that their orientation is not a choice or a phase, but a real and valid part of themselves.