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pixed l word.jpg

New type of mainstream lesbian on post-millennium TV
Published: Monday, 30-Apr-2007

mainstream lesbian on post-millennium TV The New Yorker's take on the 2004 US TV series The L Word- which emblazoned "Not your mother's lesbians" across a photo of the conventionally beautiful female cast draped around each other in a naked cluster - was typical of recent media articles claiming there was a 'new' type of mainstream lesbian on post-millennium TV, said Rebecca Beirne, who graduated with a PhD from the University of Sydney's English Department last week. It also exemplified the tendency to stereotype and pit against each other different generations of lesbians. Dr Beirne's research on representations of lesbians in popular culture, particularly television, and what they mean for lesbian culture and visibility has spawned both her PhD thesis, "Pixellating lesbians: lesbian texts and trends after the millennium" and an anthology of solicited academic essays, Televising Queer Women, accepted by international publisher Palgrave Macmillan. The 'pixellating' of her thesis title refers to the tendency of the media and academics alike to "break lesbian subjectivity and representation down into pixels, then use these tiny elements of the picture to explain lesbianism", she said. The result was oversimplification, distortion of lesbian pasts, and "an urge to proselytise trends as inherently new despite their often recycled natures". Though more glamorous, the supposedly new images, Dr Beirne found, "were largely very similar in terms of themes and kind of representation to a lot of popular culture images of the nineties and earlier". The L Word,for instance, both harked back to nineties 'lesbian chic' and sold lesbian narrativessimilarly to how 1950s lesbian pulp novels were sold. The eroticised images, like those of the pulps' covers, were voyeuristically pitched largely at heterosexual men and, akin to the pulps' obligatory punishment of its lesbian heroines, the women in The L Word led mostly unhappy lives to appease potentially homophobic viewers. Yet The L Word was "a great step forward, showing lesbian stories on television to a degree we've never had before," Dr Beirne said, serving a similar function to the flawed 1950s pulps whose lesbian readers were still excited to see themselves in print. In representing lesbian sexuality, mainstream television's impulse was either to hypersexualise - as in the "Hot girl-on-girl action" Channel 10 promised in The OC - or to be very chaste as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, frequently praised for its lesbian representation. "While Buffy's other characters are seen having sexual relations with their partners on the show, the sexual contact between Willow and Tara, one of whom is a witch, is displaced into their 'doing magic together'," Dr Beirne said. "People trying to create positive representations are often scared they'll be accused of putting the lesbian in for the titillation factor, so they go too far in the other extreme." The US version of Queer as Folk was a 'very curious' show, she said. "In most television with mainly heterosexual characters they often have gay male characters who are desexualised and the butt of jokes. In Queer as Folk, mostly about gay men, the lesbian characters take up the position that gay male characters usually do: lots of misogynist jokes are made against them and, compared to the men, they're presented as very straight-laced, very monogamous, very desexualised with the focus on them as mothers. So it's going back to a traditional view of women and situating them outside potential radicalism." Even though in actual lesbian communities there were a lot of androgynous looking women, feminine lesbians predominated disproportionately over masculine lesbians on noughties TV, Dr Beirne said. Yet while the more masculine lesbians were largely disparaged on TV, they were afforded more authenticity as 'real' lesbians. When there was an attempt to represent masculine lesbians, they still had to be glamorous, like Melanie in Queer as Folk. "Mel is talked about on the show as if she's a very butch woman, but you look at her and she's conventionally beautiful and very feminine, though she has short hair. So mainstream TV gestures occasionally at there being masculine women but is still too scared to represent them." Although the lesbian serial killer image prevalent in the 1970s still sometimes popped up in programs like Law and Order, representation of lesbians was generally more positive than before 2000, Dr Beirne found, though still not very realistic. "But you don't see very realistic images of women on television", she said. "They're usually hyperbolic". British was more realistic than US television's representation and also responsible for some complex characterisations in fine adaptations of novels like Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. A new and welcome trend, Dr Beirne said, was the move towards lesbian characters in TV programming for teenagers - not just as one-off 'special issue' characters as in soapies like Neighbours, but as leads. Notable examples were the UK's Sugar Rush which, unusually for teenage television, foregrounds desire and the US's South of Nowhere with a focus on identity. Along with mainstream TV, Dr Beirne also looked at samples of lesbian popular cultural production, analysing both in the context of lesbian culture and feminist, lesbian and queer discourses. Amongst these were the Sydney strip event Gurlesque, which she found synthesised sex-radical and lesbian-feminist perspectives that are often described as ideologically opposed, and Bechdel's ongoing comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For which represented a microcosm of lesbian cultural and political history through engaging its disparate characters in constant dialogue. Dr Beirne's Televising Queer Women, the first book-length academic work to exclusively discuss the representation oflesbian and bisexualwomen on television, is due out early next year. Meantime, Dr Beirne's scholarship has earned her nomination as an "expert of international standing" by the ARC College of Experts. www.usyd.edu.au