Trish Bendix at Alternet.org wrote an interesting piece on the representations and visibility of lesbians in prime time TV shows. She argues that although there are lesbian couples and characters in popular shows, like Grey’s Anatomy and the upcoming show I Hate That I Love You, there is a large disparity in numbers between gay womyn and men, and often the representations of lesbians are patterned by gender norms.
Bendix identifies pregnancy in lesbian couples as an overdone plot line. In Grey’s Anatomy, Callie’s and Arizona’s relationship has recently been complicated by Callie’s pregnancy, and the couple’s relationship has turned into a negotiation of these issues. The upcoming show I Hate That I Love You will feature a lesbian couple dealing with similar issues. Bendix says that these plot lines exist in a much more political context of how we understand womyn’s sexuality and gender roles.
Her two main points are:
“[the shows construct] ‘woman’ [as] synonymous with ‘mother.’ The endurance of this stereotype has resulted in a persistent double-standard in television roles for men and women — male roles only sometimes revolve around parenting issues, while roles for women overwhelmingly do.”
“Openly gay women pose a threat to straight women (because they are interested in converting them), straight men (because they are attempting to assume their masculinity and take their women) and children (because they are pedophiles and corrupters). It might sound silly in 2011, but these very ideas lie in the basis of homophobia, besides the basic uninformed opinion that ‘the Bible says it’s wrong.’”
I think Bendix’s ideas offer insight into how popular culture codes non-heterosexual sexualities. Heteronormative standards of love burden relationships like Callie’s and Arizona’s, begging for the justification of their existence. Callie’s pregnancy functions as a rationalization of homosexuality. A loving couple becoming pregnant is something a heteronormative culture understands. It implies family and motherhood, concepts that fit into heterosexual love. A couple with the inability to participate in penile-vaginal sex conflicts with popular understandings of relationships, and thus uniquely lesbian love-making never appears as a focal point between Callie and Arizona. Grey’s Anatomy can celebrate its inclusiveness of different sexualities, but only to a certain extent. Acceptability of non-heterosexual relationships depends on how many similarities can be found with heterosexual ones, and those similarities become the basis of rationalizing difference.
What is also interesting to me, as an occasional viewer of Grey’s Anatomy, is the construction of Callie and Arizona as a lesbian couple. Callie identifies as a bisexual, but somehow loses that part of her identity when she is with Arizona – they are in a “lesbian relationship.” This may be a reflection of society’s lack of attention to bisexuality or poor plot development, but I think it’s worth our scrutiny. We need to challenge ourselves as consumers of popular culture to not accept certain representations as they are acted out for us. We literally need to rewrite the script of sexuality if we ever want to live in a truly diverse society.
(photo via flickr: http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5244/5255092333_57eec1e65e.jpg)