Femme Representation on Screen a Reflection of the Male Gaze
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hollywood (here a metonym for the entertainment industry in general) likes its female characters gorgeous, girly, and pliable. From Bond girl Pussy Galore to Samantha from “Sex and the City,” female characters are treated as sex objects for the male gaze, with matching expectations for the actresses who play them about the need to exude “sex appeal” to male viewers (paradoxically, this is true even in the case of movies whose intended audience is female). A direct consequence of this chauvinistic approach to female representation is that Hollywood almost exclusively depicts queer women as “high femme”: long hair, make-up, high heels and dresses. To Hollywood, queer female characters are almost indistinguishable from straight female characters; both have to conform to the male ideal of what “feminine beauty” should look like. (And in fact, the line becomes so blurred that ostensible lesbian Pussy Galore sleeps with the irresistibly masculine James Bond and man-eater Samantha has a Sapphic dalliance.)
The depiction of the queer female community on both TV and in movies as being almost exclusively composed of high femmes, of course, has been a longstanding point of contention for the queer female community. It is an extreme skewing of the community’s demographics that disproportionately represents the presence of high femmes at the cost of literally everyone else in the community. According to metrics from the dating site match.com, only 8% of lesbians self-identify as “lipstick lesbian” (also called high femme or “ultra femme”). Given that 11% of lesbians self-identify as “butch,” this leaves around 81% of the queer female population falling somewhere else along the spectrum of gender presentation. Whether they identify as “chapstick lesbian,” “androgynous,” or any other label (this article is not about what qualities define each category, so it is to the reader to make their own judgment), the point is that only a fraction of the community is represented by characters depicted as high femme.
While many articles over time have identified examples of good butch representation—for example Big Boo on “Orange is the New Black,” Denise on “Master of None,” or Corky from the movie “Bound”—as a way of counteracting this overrepresentation and encouraging Hollywood to add more diversity of gender expression in its queer female characters, Hollywood’s historical obsession with the “straight-passing lesbian” suggests that even high femme representation is not automatically positive. For example, what queer American woman above a certain age could forget the travesty that was hitwoman Ricki (played by Jennifer Lopez) going straight for Ben Affeck in the movie “Gigli” in the early 2000s? The point is, if Hollywood insists on continuing to make the majority of its queer characters femme as part of its obsession with a certain ideal of feminine beauty, then these characters should be more than just women in dresses who act as either a foil to straight male characters or a visual amuse-bouche for straight male viewers. In real life, femme lesbians operate, like all queer women, within a distinct subculture that colors how they interact with the world, and a good femme character should reflect that: they don’t exist to titillate men, they’re simply women who love a good pair of high heels and other women. If there is one single characteristic that might define a “good example” of femme representation, then, it might be that the character does not exist primarily for the male gaze.
What specific characters might be held up as good examples of femme representation? One might easily point to femme characters in features directed by a lesbian and intended for lesbian audiences, as these features automatically remove the male gaze. These would include, as just a few examples, Tala from “I Can’t Think Straight” (director Shamim Sharif) and Vivian from “Saving Face” (director Alice Wu) in movies, and Maybelle from the webseries “Maybelle” (director Christin Baker). Even the presence of a queer woman as a writer or producer can result in positive femme representation regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the director, for example Mel and Liz on the webseries “RED.” (Of course, a queer female presence in the crew is no guarantee of a positive example of femme representation. One can make valid arguments on both sides about whether femme representation in “The L Word” or “D.E.B.S.” were to at least some degree exploitative and titillating.) Even when there’s no obvious queer influence in the cast or crew, however, it is possible to provide good queer femme representation simply by avoiding the same sort of objectification of women to which straight female characters also fall prey. An example of this would be the Israeli film “Ha-Sodot” (“The Secrets”), which took a completely sympathetic and female-driven approach to storytelling despite having a male director.
Right now, male-dominated Hollywood is facing a crisis: women on both sides of the camera are increasingly calling out the entertainment industry for its sexism and are demanding greater gender equality. Actresses are challenging what they perceive as the imposition of a male gaze, and developing their own projects that will enable more balanced and equal storytelling that does not objectify women. The future of representation for queer women who are femme, butch, and everything in between will to a large degree depend on who wins this culture conflict: the old boy’s club or the new feminist wave. So long as the male gaze persists and male Hollywood insists that female characters must all have long hair and wear dresses in order for movies to be successful, then the queer female characters that we will see will continue to be femme women who appeal to men. Should women win even a partial victory, however, we may see greater diversity of representation, with more gender diversity and less of a focus on the sexual appeal of queer female characters to men. Having femme queer women on screen is good, because they do represent a large part of our community… but we need more diversity and less fetishization at the same time.