The Problem with Pretendbians in Popular Culture

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Why is it that the most popular lesbians are pretendbians?

This is a question I have been asking myself on and off for years. Pretendbians have been a part of popular culture since my childhood – often overshadowing genuine lesbian representation. So, why are most visible ‘lesbian’ interactions rarely performed by lesbian women?

Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. were arguably the original pretendbians. I was ten years old when Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova achieved international fame with their smash hit All The Things She Said. During the music video, Lena and Yulia share kisses in the rain and hold hands while groups of onlookers stare in disapproval. The girls are separated from the spectators by a chain-link fence and the bars of a prison cell – unsubtle metaphors for the way lesbians are often cut off from mainstream society. The video has now been viewed over 180,000,000 times on YouTube.

During live performances that were broadcast to millions of homes, t.A.T.u. would kiss and caress one another. It was the first time I ever saw two women kissing on television. And yet, both women are straight.

Although much of the hype surrounding t.A.T.u.’s music was based on their relationship, it was nothing more than a fiction crafted in the pursuit of profit. That discovery was disappointing in ways my young self didn’t fully understand at the time. It later emerged that one half of t.A.T.u. is homophobic, and would not accept a gay child.

The pattern of pretendbians began with t.A.T.u., but sadly it didn’t end there. Months later, at the 2003 VMAs, Madonna kissed Britney Spears onstage. It’s no secret that Madge is a gay icon – but that kiss was nothing more than cynical attempt to cash in on the latest trend.

Some people – mostly The Straights – saw it as a positive sign that people were receptive to lesbian sexuality. But I think it’s exploitative for straight women to commodity lesbian desire for personal gain – especially when it’s done to provoke a reaction in a male audience. Lesbians have enough trouble resisting the male gaze without wealthy straight women undermining our efforts. If pretendbians take us one step forward, they drag us two steps back.

Lesbians have enough trouble resisting the male gaze without wealthy straight women undermining our efforts. If pretendbians take us one step forward, they drag us two steps back.

While we have moved beyond the crass co-opting of lesbian sexuality, there are still serious problems in how we’re depicted by popular culture. Katy Perry rose to fame with the hit single I Kissed a Girl. And while Perry is not a pretendbian – she has since come out as bisexual – the fact remains that her song positions that women’s same-sex physicality as an experiment performed for the male gaze:

“I kissed a girl and I liked it / The taste of her cherry chap stick / I kissed a girl just to try it / I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it…”

The music video was three solid minutes of women dancing in fishnets and fancy underwear, while Perry stroked a cat and then began caressing herself. The video’s climax was most clichéd of teenage boy fantasies: a pillow fight. It looked more like a Victoria’s Secret catalog than the average gathering of lesbian and bi women.

Similarly, singers like Ariana Grande rely on the imagery and camp culture created by the gay and lesbian community to achieve mainstream success. With Monopoly and Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored, she teases romantic connections with women. But Grande does not live a lesbian or bisexual life – at least not in the public arena, where she counterbalances blackfishing and queerbaiting with a reputation as innocent.

From inside a heterosexual marriage, Miley Cyrus claims that she wants to “revolutionize queerness” – which comes across as insincere and patronizing from a woman who holds straight passing privilege. Much like her appropriation of Black culture, Cyrus’ deployment of gay culture seems as a commercially motivated.

Many people are only receptive to lesbian stories being told if they know the women in question are sexually and romantically available to men in real life.

The problem of pretendbians isn’t confined to the music industry either. The mainstream success of lesbian films is inescapably tied to the leads being played by straight women. Many people are only receptive to lesbian stories being told if they know the women in question are sexually and romantically available to men in real life.

In many ways, 2019 is an excellent year for lesbian film. India’s first mainstream lesbian movie, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw that Girl), was released to international acclaim. Gentleman Jack offers all the romance of a period drama – with a Sapphic twist. Wild Nights With Emily reminds us of the storytelling power within independent film. But none of these leads are played by lesbians.

Hollywood’s lesbian problem makes it even more troubling when celebrities with no right to the word lesbian claim it.

Hollywood’s lesbian problem makes it even more troubling when celebrities with no right to the word lesbian claim it. Caitlin Stasey, best known for her role as Lady Kenna on the sumptuous period drama Reign, describes herself as a lesbian. At first I was delighted – I’ve admired Stacey since her stint on Neighbours, the Australian soap that made perfect sick-day viewing back in my school years. Later I rediscovered her Stasey within the launch of a feminist website, Herself, designed to challenge the shaming of women’s bodies.

And yet Stasey is in a relationship with actor Lucas Neff. A heterosexual marriage is about as far from lesbian as any woman can get. Stasey acknowledges the controversy, but not the contradiction: “I know it troubles many people for me to refer to myself as a lesbian considering I have a male partner.”

What Caitlin Stasey or any other celebrity chooses to do with her personal life is of very little interest to me (unless Jessica Lange comes out as a late in life lesbian). But the way straight women playing pretendbians are valued over lesbian women highlights the homophobia in this society. Lesbian roles on screen are almost always closed to lesbian actresses. And actresses in same-sex relationships – whether it’s Black Panther’s Lupita Nyong’o or Killing Eve’s Fiona Shaw – are most popular with the public in straight roles.

A version of lesbianism that is accessible to men, and often performed for their entertainment, should not be more palatable than the real thing. Even with the mainstreaming of lesbian and LGBT issues, there remains an idea that lesbians are gross or boring – our stories not worth being told, at least not from our own perspectives. And lesbians deserve better.

A version of lesbianism that is accessible to men, and often performed for their entertainment, should not be more palatable than the real thing. Even with the mainstreaming of lesbian and LGBT issues, there remains an idea that lesbians are gross or boring – our stories not worth being told, at least not from our own perspectives. And lesbians deserve better.