On a recent episode of the wildly popular CBS series Survivor: Vanuatu, we got a glimpse of both how far women have come, and how far we have still to go, when a lesbian ex-Playboy model advised a straight highway repair woman on how to be more "girly."
The conversation in question occurred on the third episode of Survivor: Vanuatu, when Twila (presumed to be heterosexual from her bio) indicated frustration in a tribal council session with some of the (younger) women for not making an effort to get to know her, saying they shouldn't judge her until they've walked in her shoes. When asked why she herself didn't make more of an effort, Twila stated that she found it difficult to relate to many of the other women in their tribe, because “I am the tomboy. I do weld, I do fix trucks. I do those things and it’s hard for me to bring up conversations with these women that I feel I have nothing in common with.” To which lesbian model/barista Ami offered this advice:
She then finished off by suggesting Twila start by letting one of the other women French braid her hair, because “It feels nice to have someone else French braid your hair." Meanwhile, all the other women looked on and said nothing (at least, it was edited to look that way).
There is much that is good about Survivor: Vanuatu's portrayal of women. It's rare to find women like Twila on TV—women who embody traits that are more associated with masculinity in our culture—and Ami is a welcome challenge to the all-lesbians-are-butch stereotype that is so pervasive in our culture. Throw in older lesbian contestant Scout, who is a rancher/entrepreneur somewhere in-between the other two on the femininity scale, and heterosexual contestants like sheep farmer Dolly, real estate agent Lisa, and finance manager Mia, and Survivor: Vanuatu offers a more interesting and diverse representation of what a woman, and a lesbian, looks like, than most reality shows. The fact that the women's group includes conservative Christians and lesbians working well together side-by-side is also encouraging.
But while Scout and Ami challenge stereotypes about lesbians for Survivor's millions of viewers, Ami's attempt to encourage Twila to be more feminine, however kindly meant, is problematic. It's one thing to embrace femininity yourself; it's quite another to propagate the idea that all women should embrace their "feminine side"—that we are all ultimately "just girls," who like to do "girly stuff."
Although many lesbians adhere to the traditional standards of femininity encouraged by our culture, there has historically been a certain amount of tolerance among lesbians towards women who choose not to do so—at least, more tolerance than you're likely to find among your average group of straight women. Lesbian and bisexual women, in fact, have usually been on the forefront of standing up to conventions that keep women in narrowly defined roles (like the right to vote, or to wear pants), since it is easier to challenge a patriarchal system when you are less dependent on that system for financial and social survival.
Ami is hardly suggesting that Twila wear corsets and fan herself while men do the real work; her idea of being "girly" is still a modern one which includes room for being a strong competitor in physical and mental tasks, as Ami has clearly demonstrated herself to be. Ami's point that Twila also needs to make an effort to get to know the other women is a valid one, and Ami was right to call her on that.
But her comments became problematic when they turned to a suggestion to be more feminine. When lesbians begin actively policing femininity, even a little, and in such a public forum, you have to wonder: who will be left to ensure that women feel free to express themselves in a diversity of ways?
Lesbian contestants on reality shows like Survivor and Battle of the Sexes 2 who challenge the persistent assumption held by heterosexuals and lesbians alike that most lesbians are butch is helpful since it's not only inaccurate, it makes many lesbians who don't fit that stereotype feel detached from and marginalized by the lesbian community. But we should be careful not to go to the other extreme and start exhibiting the same deleterious behavior towards butch women—gay or straight.
This scene on Survivor is only a few minutes of a single television show, and it's not likely to leave a lasting impression on the majority of its viewers. But it's indicative of a trend towards publicly marginalizing butch women that appears to be increasing on television as lesbian visibility does, manifesting itself through comments like the "hundred-footer" one on the first season of The L Word (as in "you can tell she's a lesbian from a hundred feet away"); the humorous rejection of a butch woman's advances, as in the lesbian-themed episode of Fastlane; and all the small jokes about how butch women look like men, like the one on Friends about Ross mistaking Carol and Susan's friend Tonya for Huey Lewis.
Television is increasingly taking pot shots at butch lesbians for entertainment value, with the double purpose of reminding all women of the consequences of not being feminine enough.
Making fun of butch women isn't new—heterosexuals have been doing it for years on film and television—but it's increasingly lesbians taking the shots these days, as demonstrated by the lesbian-penned episodes of Fastlane and The L Word (although to be fair, The L Word has challenged conventional standards of femininity in other ways). Although Ami wasn't making fun of Twila for not being feminine enough (in fact, she was clearly trying to be helpful, not hurtful), her comments communicated a similar message: that Twila—and women like her—don't quite measure up.
Just like you don't have to be a person of color to understand that racism has a negative effect on people of all races, you don't have to be butch to appreciate that reinforcing standards of femininity ultimately limits all women. We may not be able to stop the overwhelming social pressure to conform to traditional standards of beauty, but let's at least not contribute to it.