Lipstick Lesbians on Network Television- An Identity Crisis In The Making?


On the far right- Brittany Pierce from Fox’s “Glee”


On the far right- Santana Lopez from Fox’s “Glee”

Like many people, I watched the first two seasons of Glee, and then I stopped. This was not just because I was sick and tired of the random song intercessions that were hardly, if at all, better than the originals, although that did not help matters. The main problem I had with the show was the character design. Every character had an element that was more stereotypically dramatic than the drama in most shows combined. Quinn was pregnant, Kurt was bullied for being gay, and when Brittany and Santana developed sexual tension, I was off the bandwagon. I moved on to another guilty pleasure show Pretty Little Liars, where one of the main characters, Emily Fields, started dating a girl named Maya and then later a girl named Paige. While I was excited that lesbians were featured so prominently on two successful shows, the more I watched Pretty Little Liars, and even as I tried to get back into Glee, I noticed something inherently problematic about these representations. All the lesbian characters on network and basic cable in the 2000s have been, for lack of a better word, ‘lipstick lesbians’. In the lesbian community a ‘lipstick lesbian’ is someone who you would not be able to pick out as a lesbian in a line up, she is traditionally rather girly and, much to her stereotypical frustration, often gets mistaken for a straight girl in any setting. And, while lipstick lesbians are a part of the culture, by using them solely as the face of the lesbian world in major television shows, TV is loosing important parts of the more spectacular elements of lesbian subculture. By stripping the lesbian subculture of any spectacular elements, network and basic cable television are using their symbolic capital to create a bifurcation of lesbian identities.


Emily Fields From The ABC Family Show “Pretty Little Liars”


Paige McCullers From ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars”


Nora Underwood From ABC Family’s “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager”


Anne Juergens From ABC Family’s “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager”

 Characters like Brittany and Santana, Emily and Paige, and even older lesbians like Nora Underwood and Amy Juergens from ABC Family’s The Secret Life Of The American Teenager are problematic in the ways in which they strip lesbian subculture of any spectacular elements. In Subculture: The Meaning Of Style Dick Hebdige discusses the ways in which the 80s punk scene is a prime example of spectacular subculture. Before using the punk scene as a case study however, Hebdige defines spectacular subcultures in general as visual spectacle, while noting that “the communication of a significant difference…is the point behind the style” (102). For Hebdige the punk’s reappropriation of safety pins, large mohawks and other distinctive style features illustrate their desire to step outside the mainstream.

Bunny Alice

Playboy Bunny Alice From NBC’s “The Playboy Club”

Although Hebdige focuses on the way the punk culture conveys meaning in their dress, elements of spectacle that prove difference can be seen in the queer community as well. In her article Tattoo Me Catherine Lundoff talks about the way tattoos can be seen as a visual tie to the queer community. She says that her “guess is that queers get tattooed…[because] in a world where you’re an outsider, where someone always seems to want to control your body…a tattoo or piercing is a way to take it back” (127). These tattoos then are a visual representation of a queer person’s desire to be outside of the mainstream. But this is just one way that someone in this community could identify themselves as queer via their style. Other, less permanent options, may include a rainbow patch on a back pack, or wearing a t-shirt with a upside down pink triangle on it. By wearing these items you are making the queer community a spectacular subculture, displaying allegiance to a lifestyle other than the mainstream  through visual cues. Yet in lesbian representations on television there are no visual clues signifying that these characters are lesbians. Brittany and Santana, at least in the early seasons of Glee, were almost always seen in their cheerleader uniforms. Alice, from NBC’s short lived The Playboy Club, is an actual playboy bunny, and dresses as such through out the series. There is not a tattoo to be seen on a lesbian on any ABC Family show. The sexual identities of these characters is hidden by a lack of visual cues.

These representations matter because of the symbolic capital that television holds. As discussed by Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic capital is the power to make your interpretation, vision, or values the most accepted. With the widespread arm of network and basic cable TV, it is not hard to see this symbolic capital at work. Glee has been one of the most popular shows of the younger generation since its inception, and watching Brittany and Santana, or any lesbian story line, week after week can change the way someone who is discovering their lesbian identity relates to the subculture that surrounds her sexuality. For lesbians in New York City, who are just a subway ride away from many different gay communities, these representations may seem less important. Being in a city of this size allows a chance to learn from the spectacular elements seen on the street everyday. However it is important to remember that for many these main stream media representations are what sticks and helps to form identity, again proving the strength of the symbolic capital of television.

The keyword guiding my curation is identity, because I believe that these representations of lesbians in mainstream media are leading to an identity crisis for young women who are just discovering their sexuality. Although when discussed in terms of Professor Portwood-Stacer’s article on anarchists, the term bifurcation of identity meant a disconnect between those who understand the deep roots of anarchism and those who bought their anarchy patch at their local Hot Topic, I believe in another way that term applies to the issue of lesbian identity thanks to mainstream representation as well. Here the group splits in two in a slightly different way however. On the one hand you have the privileged lesbians who can tap into the spectacular elements of the subculture, usually by being able to step beyond the representations they see on TV and get out and observe other the codes other lesbians are using to identify themselves. But what about the kids who live in small towns and are unable to take a field trip to the West Village and observe these visual cues at work? These are the second group in this new bifurcation, ones who will grow up in the community think that all lesbians start their lives looking like Brittany and grow up to look like Norah Underwood. And in the subculture, the type of lesbian you visually present yourself as can carry meanings beyond your sense of style, so being able to distinguish for yourself is important, but difficult if television, full of its symbolic capital, is stripping away other representations of lesbian culture.

It is tough to argue that no representation of lesbians would be better than our current representation, and that is not what I am advocating. Having lesbian characters on television offers this subculture a chance to see themselves reflected in the mainstream, to know they are not alone, or to help negotiate their identity and the way they relate to their sexual preferences. However, I think it also important to examine both the good and the bad surrounding these representations since television holds such a high level of symbolic capital. Now that lesbians are featured in shows, it is time to not only push for greater representation, but also to question the quality of these representations and how they will help, or hinder, those who are just now coming to terms with what it means to be a lesbian. Because, while we might not walk around with huge mohawks or zoot suits, we are still a spectacular subculture in ways that matter to our identity, and ways that get lost when television presents only type of lesbian identity.

Works Cited: 

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambrdige: Harvard University Press, 1984. 1-7, 190-209. Print.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning Of Style. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd., 1979. 102. Print.

Lundoff, Catherine. “Tattoo Me.” Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Communities. Ed. Dawn Atkins. New York: The Haworth Press, 1998. 125-28. Print.

Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “I’m Not Joining Your World”: Performing Political Dissent Through Spectacular Self-presentation. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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