Pop Culture Rewind: What are you? Some kind of lesbian?

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Words || Jasmine Phillips

There are markedly few lesbians at the centre of comedy. The lesbian space in mainstream media seems to be reserved solely for independent dramas with graphic, several-minute sex scenes and beautifully tragic endings.
But the few representations of lesbianism we do have in comedy are inherently problematic in that they are constructed purely for heterosexual audiences. And it is my god given sapphic right to set y’all, (ironically), straight.

THE PREDATORY LEZ

It’s 2012. Carly Ray Jepsen begs you on every radio station to call her maybe, Facebook has upgraded to “timelines” instead of “walls”, and horror comedy Scream Queens unflinchingly introduces its singular lesbian character as “The Predatory Lez”.

It’s the first television comedy series to make such an explicit suggestion, but it’s already a tired trope all the same.

Almost every lesbian character in mainstream comedy is a Predatory Lesbian. She’s suave, she’s butch, and she’s ready to hit on all of the straight women. Her methods of flirting are intense and unflinching, and she is oblivious to any nonverbal cues of discomfort. (Strangely, comedy doesn’t seem to illustrate the same kind of cocky flirting from Straight Men in the same negative light. Interesting.) The Predatory Lesbian has no understanding for boundaries of any kind; Pitch Perfect’s Cynthia Rose refuses to back off even when Stacie begins blowing a rape whistle.

As soon as one woman walks off she’s ready to move on to the next, driven by an obvious lust for the feminine – any feminine! She’s also from an ethnic or some kind of other minority group, probably. Jeanne from Scream Queens is an Asian Butch, Cynthia Rose from Pitch Perfect is black. But surely that’s a coincidence!

The myth of predatory lesbianism goes way back. Like any other fear of sexual deviance, lesbophobia originally manifested as vampire mythology. But while the cultural value of Carmilla has had a frankly beautiful redemption arc, predatory lesbian mythology remains pervasive in mainstream media – especially comedy.

The Predatory Lesbian character is comic relief. Her ruthless and oblivious flirting is comically pathetic, destined to fail. She’s there to provide comfort to straight people – your discomfort with lesbianism is valid! They’re all predatory and will ignore your boundaries! They’re only after sex and they’re all sexually perverted!
Not only is this frankly kind of a disgusting cultural narrative, but it’s also fundamentally untrue.

Do you know how hard it is to be a femme bottom trying to send nudes to a butch girl? Honestly, it’s a damn struggle. Every butch I’ve ever interacted with is terrified about coming across as predatory. We’re teaching butch women that their appreciation of women is predatory, that their gaze is the male gaze. And by telling them this, we reinforce the broader conservative cultural narrative that lesbian = wrong.

OH, GOOD BLOKE!

If stand-up comedy is all about relating to the masses, it is clear to see how lesbian comedians have fallen into a trap of exploiting their own personal hardships for a vastly lesbophobic society. In order to relate to straight people, lesbian comedy centralises the experiences that straight people will get. And the path that has been carved out for lesbians in comedy is this: an overgrown and outdated trail of butch women engaging in self-deprecation. From Hannah Gadsby to Tig Notaro to Lea DeLaria, this is the story we’re telling: we’re harmless! You can laugh at us! We’re one of the boys! Don’t get me wrong, I love all of these comedians. I believe that every one of them should have a safe space to laugh about their experiences of gender nonconformity. But seriously, straight people. Enough laughing at lesbians admitting to being mistaken for men.

Name one successful contemporary lesbian comic who doesn’t have a bit about someone thinking she’s a dude. I’ll wait. The space we’ve made for contemporary lesbian comedy revolves around these experiences of gender confusion. And by popularising only this kind of lesbian comedy, we have held out our hands for straight people and offered to relieve their tension. We have given them permission to indulge in the discomfort they feel when they are faced with gender nonconformity.

Gadsby explicitly addresses the problematic nature of this self-deprecating trend. She highlights that tension diffusion, for her, began as a survival tactic. She tells the audience directly that she will not carry their tension anymore, that she will not humiliate herself (or anyone who looks like her) for their sake.But to do so, she understands that she must quit comedy.

Herein lies the central problem, my dear reader. Without this space for the self-deprecation and humiliation of butch women, lesbians cannot be comics. It is why there are no successful mainstream femme lesbian comedians, why Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is not a comedy special, but a goodbye. Mainstream contemporary comedy accepts lesbianism when, and only when, lesbians are the butt of the joke.