Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Studying LesBians: lesBian representation on television and its influence on lesBians

Studying Lesbians is a new monthly column that discusses current and not so current research about lesbians and bisexual women.

A while back I told you all about my new research column and what great topics related to lesbians and bisexual women I would be covering. Well, I let you wait some time for it (good things are worth the wait, right?), but now it's time to give you the first proper edition of the research column.

This time I want to talk to you about the influence of the media on lesbians and bisexual women. In particular, I want to discuss the research by our own Saskia, who wrote her Master thesis on the influence of the L word on the identity of Dutch lesBians (Don't you wish your thesis had such a fun topic?).

More specifically, in her research Saskia tried to examine the meaning of the L word for and its influence on the identity of Dutch lesBians. She did so by conducting 11 in-depth interviews with lesbians and bisexual women, covering a number of different topics related to sexual orientation and sexual identity.

The main findings were that the L word had a "normalising" function with regard to lesBian identity. A show like the L word being shown on mainstream Dutch television, helped with lesBians' confirmation and acceptance of their own identity, as well as provided a helpful tool for coming out.

In addition, by showing such an abundance of feminine lesbians, the L word helped diminish stereotypes that all lesbians are Butch men-hating women. Or phrased differently, that lesBians are really just like straight women only they happen to be attracted to women.

However, as many of you know and probably agree with, the L word wasn't just a positive celebration of lesBian identity. The lack of realism, for example the total absence of heterosexual elements in the show (like the straight best friends that most of us have), limits the meaning the L word has for some lesBians.

More importantly, the L word wasn't a very inspiring influence on the identity of bisexual women, who either saw them not reflected on the show at all or when they were, they were portrayed in a rather negative light.

Therefore, Saskia's conclusions of her study were that the L word only managed to fulfil a part of the needs of lesBian viewers. Moreover, her respondents expressed a great need for more lesBian visibility on television, especially in such a way that is recognisable for the core audience. If you are interested in reading Saskia's entire thesis (it's in Dutch), you can ask her via email.

Of course, Saskia isn't the only one who's looked into the influence of the media on lesBians. For example, several researchers have commented on the lack of visibility of lesBians on television, which makes us feel like we are not represented and makes us feel invisible.

Then again, when lesBian characters are introduced, we tend to be rather critical, especially if we don't feel this character is like a "good lesbian" should be. I think that if we would just have more lesBian characters on television, there would be more diversity and less need to be so picky.

Many researchers have looked into how we are represented on tv, the heteronormality and stereotypical portrayal of lesBians on tv, about the how's and sometimes also the why's. I find it a very interesting topic, especially when it's looked at from an academic point of view. In future columns, I'll be looking at some other aspects involved in this more closely, including research on development and importance of lesBian identity.

If you're interested in the topic of lesBians in the media or the L word in particular and you want to find out more, you should check out dr. Michele Aaron's book New Queer Cinema or one of her article New Queer Cable? The L Word, the small screen and the bigger picture. Also interesting reads are Lesbians in television and text after the millenium and Televising Queer Women. Online you can find many other articles on the topic, including We all have feelings for our girlfriends.

So what do you think about this research? Find it interesting? Do you agree with it or not at all? What other research topics would you like to see discussed in future columns? Leave your comments and suggestions in the comments.

This post was first published on eurOut.

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