there is not one single media representation of lesbians. Depending on the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the type of production (mainstream or independent), and the story being told, there may be a multitude or range of representations. 

At the same time, even with all these representations, there are some common stereotypes and conventions we can see if we pay close attention to the patterns in what we’re viewing. Lesbians are typically portrayed in one of two ways in mainstream media. These two types of representation parallel a typical gender binary, so that lesbians are either masculine or feminine.

On the masculine side, the “butch” lesbian is tough, gritty, angry, manly, and edgy. On the feminine side, she is girly, fashionable, pretty and sensitive.

These stereotypes and conventions may not reflect our reality or any reality we personally know or recognize. In fact, they simply may be common shorthand used by those working behind-the-scenes doing the writing, directing, producing, casting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup.

If we can start to see patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, their body type and body language, where they live, what kind of job they have, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.

dig in...do now

Begin by making a list of the types of representations of lesbians you can think of in American media. Also, take a look at the media on this site tagged “lesbian” and “LGBTQ.” Then, consider:

  • What types of representations of lesbians do you typically see?
  • Are the characters stereotypical or complex?
  • If they are stereotypical, what kinds of stereotypes do you notice?
  • Are the representations masculine or feminine? How can you tell?
  • How do they dress? How do they speak? Who are their friends and romantic partners? Where do they live? What do they do for work?