Monday, August 4, 2008

Casual Lesbianism as a Narrative Device in Film and Television

We have all seen it before. The new nurse on that show that you watch once in awhile is having trouble fitting in. She seems competent, has a way with the patients, and she was the one who suggested a percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography which got the doctors thinking about Wilson's disease, and saved young Michaela's life. But there is something about her and the other nurses can't quite place it.

Three episodes later, the nurses will be at a booth in their local pub, laughing and drinking tankards of gin, and one will glance toward the bar. A look of astonishment will come over her face. She will reach out to get the other nurses attention and the music will take a peculiar, almost playful, turn. Of course, there, in the corner, will be the new nurse. She will delicately brush the hair from the forehead of a small blond thing as she leans in to kiss her flush on the lips. Back in their booth the nurses will share confident, knowing smiles. Cut! Break to the Prilosec commercial.

When you see this in movies or on tv, it is easy to get the impression that something has been explained. That it isn't merely a concession to the idea that more lesbians (dwarves, Hungarians, hermaphrodites, albinos, lepers, business women, etc.) need to be represented in the media. That there is a meaningful subtext. But what could that possibly be?

The obvious answer is that television executives have a keen understanding of my desire to contemplate the idea of attractive young women going down on each other. The less obvious answer is that the writer's were trying to create a sense of "otherness" in the character. Our new nurse will win the respect of the hospital's staff, and may even befriend another nurse or two (Platonically, and not without a scene or two of Sapphic awkwardness) but she will never fully be one of them. The other nurses, doctors, and by extension the viewers, will always see her through the prism of short haircuts, studded leather, ersatz penises, and the awful specter of fisting.

By "otherness" I don't mean the solipsistic, can one consciousness ever truly know another, type of thing. I mean the guy in the black hat, he's the bad guy, type of thing. I'd like to lay this all at the feet of Basic Instinct because it is such a wretched film, but the history is richer and the trend is more deliberate. And it is meant to be obvious; you immediately know it when you see it.

The "guess who doesn't belong" time line in Hollywood films goes like this:

1930's: Dark clothing, visible scars, eye-patch, limp.
1940's: European ancestry, monocle, unusual way of smoking cigarettes.
1950's: Black, poor, leather jacket, sunglasses.
1960's: Colorful clothing, sexually active, tinted sunglasses, high.
1970's: Make-up wearing male, androgyny, a single false eyelash.
1980's: Men holding hands, blotched skin, lisp.
1990's: Women holding hands, unwashed hair, lack of affect, ice-pick.
2000's: Brown, poor, not American, out.

This is not to say that some things haven't changed. If anything, there has been a kind of corrective backlash. The lesbian nurse will turn out to not only be the best on the staff but will be a constant source of wisdom for the young doctors she works with. The hemophiliac midget will win several bronze medals in Beijing. The one armed girl will marry the dyslexic Iranian jockey and they will run a successful bed and breakfast in Fresno. Hell, the writers may as well wear t-shirts that say: See, we're not prejudiced. We're enlightened.

It is as old as Christ and nearly as effective. If you want to make a character genuinely stand out, then describe them as having sex in a way that most people don't. And for the male audience, this is especially true of female sexuality, which is mysterious and messy and consequently more terrifying. So, the next time you see a bright young paralegal smiling at your favorite female lawyer on that other show you watch once in awhile, you can be sure that she is there for a purpose.

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