Review: Televising Queer Women

Televising Queer Women edited by Rebecca Beirne


I’ve never met anyone else who thrifts like I do: hard. I’m talking going through every shirt at the Goodwill because you never know when you’ll chance across a Disney*World exclusive t-shirt. Peter Parker has Spidey senses. I have retail senses, telling me when there’s a copy of Textual Poachers for sale at the thrift store I used to volunteer at. So when my retail senses were directing me to a literally underground thrift store that creeps me out a little, I trusted it, and ended up finding a book about two things near and dear to my heart: media criticism and queer ladies.

As I’m writing this, I’m currently between gigs—the past gig being earning my undergraduate degree and the next gig being attending the Denver Publishing Institute. (Which I should be at right… now. I’d be nothing without scheduled posts, kittens.) Being away from academia has made me a little nostalgic for dry texts about the things I love, although talking with Ana lately has reminded me that I never did have the easiest time reconciling my fandom-born approach to media criticism with academia. While Televising Queer Women rarely nods at fandom, many of its essays (save a few that were a little dense even for me) would feel right at home on LiveJournal.

Yes, LiveJournal, as opposed to the more modern tumblr or Dreamwidth. Televising Queer Women was published in 2008, with a few articles being polished for publication after previously appearing elsewhere. It’s astonishing the difference five years can make in the pop cultural landscape, let alone the fannish one. (What pairing was the Migratory Slash Fandom fixated on that year? Okay, I’ll stop.) The main shows examined at length here are Ellen (through the lens of The Ellen DeGeneres Show), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City, and The L Word. (All shows I have either barely or not seen, incidentally.) While I couldn’t help but wish some of these women could get their hands on Glee and eviscerate it, most of the arguments put forth in these essays still apply. Erasing bisexuals? Hello, Glee! Defanging lesbians by focusing on lesbian mothers, emphasis on “mother”? Hello, The Fosters!

The tension that runs through all of these essays is that between characters who are “acceptably” queer and those who are “too” queer. The hope, of course, is that those who are “acceptably” queer will, in being accepted by the straight mainstream, pave the way for the others to be accepted. But, because representation is so limited, there’s plenty of room for this to backfire and even affirm problematic narratives about gender and sexuality. The L Word is full of lithe, traditionally attractive women—but the lone butch in the main cast, Max, is, in fact, a transgendered man and transitions over the course of the show. This example really highlights how an unproblematic narrative can be made problematic by context. Without the context of other representations of butch women, Max’s individual character narrative threatens to become the universal narrative of “all butch women really want to be men”. For showrunners like The L Word’s Ilene Chaiken, that’s a lot of dangerous terrain to navigate. Of course, sitting here in 2013, The L Word has successfully blazed a trail that’s increased the visibility of queer women on television, but the terrain remains dicey.

One danger is, of course, queerbaiting on a very localized scale: tantalizing the audience, especially queer viewers, with the promise of a girl-on-girl kiss (rarely between two queer-identified women) that ends up being disposable in the actual text of the show. Because the queer audience is starved for representation (especially in 2008), we try to take what we can get, but the point remains the same—the stories, or at least the trappings, of queer women are only good for rating spikes. As Candace Moore puts it in “Resisting, Reiterating, and Dancing Through”, there’s a difference between the media event (seeing a character come out in a single episode and never following through) and the media ritual (actually seeing characters be consistently out over and over). Two articles, the wonderful “Going Native on Wonder Woman’s Island” and the less coherent “A Label Like Gucci, Versace, or Birkenstock”, examine a three-episode arc in Sex and the City where Samantha dates and then breaks up with a woman. Such stories, Melissa M. M. Hidalgo argues, are “what Kelly Hankin would call ‘sites[s] of heterosexual tourism,’ safe spaces for the straight girls to visit and play with the (lesbian) natives for a night or three before heading back to the safe confines of heterosexuality (18)” (122).

My favorite piece in the collection, however, is Jennifer Moorman’s “Shades of Grey”, which focuses on bisexual visibility. In a society where people define your sexual orientation by who you are currently dating (instead of, you know, how you actually identify), there are only two ways to visually communicate that a character is bisexual: she must either be polyamorous (Moore is quick to point out that polyamorous folk are even more invisible than bisexuals in the media) with partners of different sexes, or we must see her go through enough monogamous relationships with partners of different sexes to reinforce that. In her essay, Moorman asks the reader to envision what bisexual sex between a man and a woman would look like. Would not a straight viewer see it only as straight sex, despite both parties identifying as bisexual? Moorman’s writing style is organic (as opposed to some of the other essays in the collection, which can be a little stiff and academic), and she highlights both the problem of a society that demands proof of orientation and how to depict bisexuality in a way to earn that proof. It’s fascinating stuff.

Bottom line: While the breakneck pace of pop culture means that Televising Queer Women is a little dated, the problems it explores—bisexual invisibility, queerbaiting, and the dangers of being the only representation—are perennial. Worth a read if it’s up your alley.

I bought this book at a thrift store.

5 thoughts on “Review: Televising Queer Women

  1. It’s interesting that you’re posting this as I’m just now in the middle of the new tv show “Orange is the New Black” which has lesbian and bisexual characters. I think the showrunners are doing a good job with it, but I’m sure there will soon be some great critical essays about it, especially after some of the initial hype for the show quiets down.

    • I barely have room in my schedule for the television I do watch that I’m hesitant to add another show, but there’s a trans woman of color actually played by a trans woman of color on Orange is the New Black! I have to check it out.

  2. Interesting post. I have seen Buffy, and I was impressed by how they depicted the lesbian relationship in the series. One of the girls is full-on lesbian while one is bi-sexual. I don’t remember much of the series, but I do recall the love between them. I am impressed particularly because this seemed a teen-oriented show.

    • Full-on? I don’t think there’s really a gradient. 😉

      I find representation a little better in teen fiction, actually, because there’s usually an educational argument to be made, versus, say, a romantic comedy aimed at adults.

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