March 29, 2008

Friends: A Case Study of Lesbian Representation

Susan & Carol, lesbian lovers on Friends announce their marriage intentions

The increased on television is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, through its visibility, gays are having a voice legitimized in the public sphere. On the other hand, only a homogeneous, normative gay is portrayed on television.

The Friends episode, The One With the Lesbian Wedding, is a typical example of homonormativity. By casting the gay characters in a normative light, they become more digestible to the dominant viewers back home.

Easy To Digest

Susan and Carol represent a cookie-cutter T.V lesbian formula. They both conform to proper gender performances (both wear skirts, have long hair, and wear make-up) and are quite pretty. In essence, they are both fairly femme. Obviously this was done so to make Susan and Carol appear "normal" to the viewers.

Marriage, as an institution, is outdated. But as it is part of the normal family life, the creators of Friends marry off Susan and Carol. If they are married, you have to accept their love as real. This logic is used often in sitcoms, especially for lesbian characters.

(Homosexual) Married characters essentially lack any form of physical desire. Because of this, gay characters can be seen mingling with heterosexual characters with out the fear of contaminating the sterility of the heternormative environment. The Victorianesque garments that Carol and Susan wear only reinforce this notion of a bourgeois middle-class sexual repression sexual repression.

What is most frustrating is the lack of even a simple kiss. After being pronounced married, the camera cuts away from the wives. Homoerotic desire is extinguished to maintain a normative propriety. It is one thing to show that the network is liberal (gay marriage on their network) but another to show that they actually accept it.

Even during the intimate moment of having their portrait taken together, Susan and Carol don't maintain a closeness that shows their love. The camera quickly cuts away from them, following the drama of the other characters.

Reassurances From Normative Characters

Susan and Carol's lives revolve around the lives of their heterosexual counterparts. Throughout the entire episode, their eros is only privileged through Ross' ultimate blessing. Susan has cold feet, and Ross is the one who soothes Susan. Carol's father is seen as a military man.

All the codes are used as a cooling and normalizing agent to, again, make Susan and Carol appear normal. What is important to understand is that homosexuality becomes inherently tied to heteronormative approval. Homoerotic desire cannot (and doesn't) exist with out permission of normative characters.


Besides the normalizing aspects of the show, I do have to admit that there is some promise to this visibility. Ross plays an active role in raising his and Susan's son, Ben. Carol is also active in her role as mother, portraying a functional and happy 3-parent family.

But this does not mean I am happy about portrayal in the show. Besides highlighting only one form of the queer body, this episode of Friends actually typecasts alternative forms of gender expression as a joke! The sole butch character is shown in a joking/predatory light as she is trying to pick up the naive Phoebe.

Audience reception is important in all this. It is obvious that these characters aren't created for a gay audience in mind. By casting gay characters with a normative audience in mind, Susan and Carol are created, a sexuality-free zone where alternatives don't have a voice.

Gay visibility is fine and dandy, but not when it comes at the expense of alternative means of expression. The butch character is ridiculed in its visibility on Friends. A social hierarchy is created between the good lesbian (Susan and Carol) and the bad. While I applaud the show for showing that alternative sexualities do exist, I am discouraged by the total lack of desire and its ridicule of non-conforming gender play.

To be invisible is essentially to be non-legitimate. But until new and more diverse gay characters are shown, our contemporary gay visibility doesn't represent the diversity in the gay community.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You got Carol and Susan confused. Carol is the blonde one while Susan is the brunette. Carol is Ross's ex-wife and Ben's birth-mother.