As the late John Berger wrote, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Berger, 1972); despite being written forty years ago, this statement is more prevalent than ever in modern society. We are surrounded by imagery and advertising designed by white heterosexual males, with the aim of pleasing other white heterosexual males. Television, film and music are filled with sexually objectified women. Pornography has never been easier to access, ever since the rise of the internet and the use of smartphones coming into play. Even dating apps and websites encourage these attitudes; Match.com’s 2016 ‘Love Your Imperfections’ advertising campaign is a prime example of the ever present patriarchal attitudes in Western culture today.
The campaign features a series of adverts depicting heterosexual couples doing romantic things, such as baking and dancing. There are no adverts showing relationships between homosexual men, and the one advert featuring a lesbian couple, entitled ‘Messy Girl’, shows the two women stripping down to their lingerie and kissing passionately. As a result, the campaign seems to mainly be directed at straight men, as lesbian women are constantly sexualised by many of them. The porn industry is a strong example of this. In 2015, ‘lesbian’ was the “top-searched term on Pornhub” (Cassano), and was also “the category with the highest number of views” (Cassano). Research reveals that “men reported placing much higher erotic value ratings on female same-sex sexual behavior than on male same-sex sexual behavior…there was no corresponding pattern with women, who reported that both lesbian and gay male sexual activity were equally—and not very—arousing” (Puhl, 2010), highlighting the demand for videos featuring lesbian scenes. Katie Cattermole discusses the issue in her keynote speech, commenting that the situations lesbians are often portrayed in usually involve a male or several males watching the couple and joining them. She states that this acts as an educator for men, that “if you have a man or multiple men joining in…then it teaches you that that is what happens in real life” (Cattermole, 2014), and describes how she feels she is “not human, I’m just something for sexual gratification” (Cattermole, 2014). The same message is present in ‘Messy Girl’; instead of seeing a lesbian couple in a domestic situation, Match.com proffer a stereotypically pornographic characterisation which serves to dehumanise them, encouraging the idea that lesbian sexual intercourse is a spectacle to be watched.
‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’ is a French film, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, which won wide critical acclaim at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. However, it also heavily sexualises lesbianism. Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, described the lengthy sex scenes in Kechiche’s adaptation as “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn” (Jagernauth, 2013), and comments that “the gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing…among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen” (Jagernauth, 2013). Maroh’s review reiterates Cattermole’s hypothesis that lesbians are depicted in a way that objectifies its female participants and is unrealistic. Maroh adds “this was what was missing on the set: lesbians” (Jagernauth, 2013), showing that the presence of the male gaze often results in ill-judged, convoluted portrayals of lesbian relationships. ‘Messy Girl’ retains the feeling that it is the start of an adult film, as the women passionately stumble around, stripping each other down to their undergarments. If anything, it is positive to see same-sex relationships being accepted and portrayed in the media, however, the way in which these relations are shown is still misguided and offensive. Also, it is fundamentally flawed that the campaign does not feature any homosexual males or transgender people, giving a very narrow, closed representation of the LGBT community.
Simone de Beauvoir once wrote of how patriarchy teaches men “…to treat her as a slave while persuading her she is a queen” (de Beauvoir, 1956). Men attempt to disguise their degradation of women as a positive thing, as though they are worshipping the female form by making it into an object of sexual desire. The reality is that by epitomising women as purely sexual entities, it takes away their individuality and power, reducing them to nothing more than primitive vessels for male pleasure. This is relevant to the male gaze where lesbianism is concerned. Examples of lesbians in porn, television and film show that the women involved have not been written to represent real people, but rather idealised trophies of what many straight men fantasise these relationships to be. In Kristin Puhl’s essay she claims “it is not simply the presence of two women that generates these positive attitudes; the sexualization of the women is an intrinsically rewarding component” (Puhl, 2010), suggesting men find lesbians more arousing and appealing than gay men as they can objectify the women involved, due to internalised patriarchal values.
Moreover, there seems to be a very specific stereotype of lesbians that are sexualised by the media. Puhl writes “it is…lesbianism as sexual interaction between two feminine, gender-conforming women. The components of lesbianism—femaleness and homosexuality—do not contribute equally…Femaleness is associated with eroticization, homosexuality is not” (Puhl, 2010). Mainstream descriptions of lesbianism involve two conventionally feminine women – youthful and dainty with long hair and slim bodies – but this does not represent the full spectrum of homosexual women, let alone women in general. Again, Puhl’s essay reiterates that it is the act of sexualising women in a way that suits them that heterosexual men find erotic and pleasing; representations that differ from this narrow perception are considered unappealing. Match.com panders to this as the women in ‘Messy Girl’ fit the archetypical ‘lesbian’ criteria of being young and classically feminine. Lesbian women who are perceived to be masculine are excluded from such fetishisation. Spark Movement’s article states that “over 16% of lesbian women report being the victims of a violent hate crime…women who present as butch or more masculine are more likely to be the victims of these crimes…are often the targets of violent threats and violent acts” (Josephs, 2012). Clearly there is a huge divide in how women are treated based on whether they are conventionally feminine, and it is disturbing to see that women who do not conform to said standards are treated in such a brutal way.
In conclusion, there is a huge issue with the way the media approaches the portrayal of LGBT relationships, which Match.com’s advert demonstrates. From the lack of representation for gay men and trans people, to the over sexualisation of homosexual women, it is largely due to patriarchal attitudes that are perpetuated within society. While it is positive to see characterisations of homosexual relationships in TV and advertising, they are still narrow and unrealistic. Until patriarchy becomes less central to our culture, there will be very little change in how homosexuals are perceived and treated. Once again, to quote John Berger: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure” (Berger, 1972).
de Beauvoir, S. (1956) The Second Sex. London: Jonathan Cape.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways Of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Cassano, O. (2016) The Top Porn Searches Of 2015 Reveal How Seriously Twisted We All Are. Konbini[blog]. (no date). Available from: http://www.konbini.com/us/lifestyle/top-porn-searches-2015-twisted/ [Accessed 04 March 2017].
Cattermole, K. (2014) Lesbian Portrayals In Adult Media. Trend Hunter. 01 May. Available from: http://www.trendhunter.com/keynote/lesbian-portrayal-speech [Accessed 17 February 2017].
Jagernauth, K. (2013) cites the work of Maroh, J. (2013), who reviewed Blue Is The Warmest Color on her blog. ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’ Author Julie Maroh Not Pleased With Graphic Sex In Film, Calls It “Porn”. Indie Wire[blog]. 28 May. Available from: http://www.indiewire.com/2013/05/blue-is-the-warmest-color-author-julie-maroh-not-pleased-with-graphic-sex-in-film-calls-it-porn-97557/ [Accessed 10 March 2017].
Josephs, A. (2012) The Sexualisation Of Queer Women In Media. Spark Movement[blog]. 29 November. Available from: http://www.sparkmovement.org/2012/11/29/the-sexualization-of-queer-women-in-media/ [Accessed 17 February 2017].
Puhl, K. (2010) The Eroticization Of Lesbianism By Heterosexual Men. WWU Masters Thesis Collection, Paper 57. 19 May. Available from: http://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=wwuet [Accessed 15 February 2017].
Puhl, K. (2010) cites the work of Louderback, L. and Whitley, B. (1997), who wrote the article Perceived erotic value of homosexuality and sex‐role attitudes as mediators of sex differences in heterosexual college students’ attitudes toward lesbians and gay men.