Home' LOTL : June 2004 Contents COVERSTORY15
In my mind if a label sticks in a negative way, creating
unproductive stereotypes of lesbians such as 'fat ugly dyke',
that's bad. But as indicators of different representations of
lesbians that suggest fluidity and choice, they can be useful.
They could even promote lesbian identity as a viable option. The
recent 'Barbie is a lesbian' American court case, where a 15 year
old girl won the right to wear a T-shirt to school bearing this
slogan, told young lesbians all over the world they have the right
to label themselves according to their chosen sexuality.
For my friend KC, labels are a natural tool for lesbians "if
you want to have some level of visibility ... so we can say to each
other, this is me, this is what I'm about."
It's not surprising to find exaggerated representations of
lesbians in the media -- that's entertainment. But despite the fact
that all the LA girls are tall, thin and beautiful, one of the
strengths of The L Word is the variety of lesbian images it offers.
"Bits of many characters resonate with me at some level. They
all reflect aspects of myself ... at different times in my lesbian life
of 18 years! Neophyte lesbian, out there scene dyke, committed
partner in long term relationship ... I'm still waiting to be the
glamorous café owner," Sam laughs.
So which LA L Word lesbian do we like the most? There's
no contest -- Shane wins. She is "a funny caricature of the girl-
about-town." She's cute, androgynous, sexy, fools around
without pretence. Shane provides a highly palatable 'soft' butch
lesbian image -- she swaggers, doesn't say very much, wears (not
very much) leather well and picks up women purely because she
enjoys them. She loves women. In fact the only criticism made
was "too skinny". And frankly, the consistent and relentless
portrayal of terribly thin women in the media -- women of all
sexualities and backgrounds -- is a concerning stereotype.
Marina is close second. "I like the strength of Marina, I'm
just not sure if I like her character's actions at the moment. I
certainly love the self assuredness of her sexuality and sexual
being," confesses Mel.
After the somewhat disappointing L Word pilot, the
challenge ahead for Showtime lies in character development.
"There is enough in The L Word that many lesbians can relate to.
This is quite validating in a world where there are no mainstream
representations of any aspects of our lives. I find the 'in'
references amusing, and I like how some things are self-
consciously parodied or exaggerated -- like the lesbian
pamphleteer," says Sam. KC agrees. "It portrays lesbians as fun,
sexy and glamorous. I don't have a problem with that at all."
I think The L Word has well and truly passed the test. All the
women I spoke to clearly identified with some aspects of the
characters, the discussions and explanations of particular bits of
lesbian culture and sexuality. My favourites? Helping Dana out
with her failing gaydar and the female ejaculation scene.
Convincingly real and hilarious.
Let me introduce you to Mel: 30-something police officer
in a long-term relationship with femme beautician girlfriend.
Then there's Somali (meaning Hindu Goddess of Power), a self-
described "pink princess" and young queer femme activist.
Sam is an intelligent, sophisticated 40-year-old lawyer and part
time "sporty dyke". Kate, also 40, is an independent feminist
lesbian in a relationship with a woman with kids. KC, 30,
describes herself as "a lefty Newtown feminist lawyer". And
Row is young, strong and butch. These women are characters
in my life -- colleagues, acquaintances, and friends.
"I have changed so much. When I first came out, I went
through a butch phase, now I'm more femme. Labels don't limit
who I am or who I'm attracted to. Right now I'd call myself a pc
(politically correct) lesbian poof. When it comes to partying and
relationships or encounters, I'm more like a poof than a dyke."
Somali Cerise, well known to most as Co-convenor of the Gay
and Lesbian Rights Lobby and PRIDE 'sexiest lesbian of the year'
award winner, continues to explain the meaning of her name.
"Cerise is slang French for lesbian. And my first name -- Somali --
means power, so I guess I am a 'power dyke'!"
I wanted to explore the pros and cons of labels with the
Down Under cast, especially the whole butch/femme
dichotomy as well as all the variations in between. Why are
some of us drawn to labels, images, and dress codes whilst
others actively resist the concept, defending their right to
remain undefined, fluid, individual, unique? "If you self label
that's fine, nobody should put you in a box. Many women
don't need the label and all 'power to ya'!" says Row who
identifies as a butch lesbian, but believes there are many myths
about butch/femme within the community. "Butch/butch or
femme/femme combo's are much more the norm now which
is a terrific breaking away from heterosexual stereotypes."
"Labels can be okay when you are younger to help you
understand where you may fit in the big wide world. Yet at the
same time it is those labels which ultimately make coming out
difficult if you don't fit them," suggests Mel who identifies as
butch rather than femme. "I guess when you're a police officer
and your partner is a beauty therapist it comes naturally!"
Sam identifies as part lipstick lesbian, part sporty dyke and part
lesbian feminist. Labels are just "easy reference tools" for Sam these
days, not to be taken too seriously. But for some women, "labels
are important and give them a sense of identity and belonging."
For Kate labels are very limiting and can lead to unproductive
stereotyping. "There doesn't seem to be any room within the
butch/femme realm for lesbians who don't identify as either ...
for example feminist lesbians. The butch/femme concept is
merely an adaptation of the traditional male/female roles within
heterosexual relationships" suggests Kate.
Feminist analysis of lesbian identity has long argued against
butch/femme roles suggesting they are inherently hierarchical,
polarising and oppressive. Also, some feminists claim the possibility
for the abuse of power is inherent in butch/femme relationships.
But there is a body of literature that suggests self described
butch and femme lesbians can pose a powerful challenge to
heterosexuality by exposing its roles as mere constructs which
are far from stable or 'real' and even subvert the sex/gender
system as a whole. Amy Goodloe's Lesbian Identity and the
Politics of Butch-Femme Roles is one such text.
The L Word continues to air on Channel 7,
Wednesdays at 10.30pm.
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