Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Psycho Lesbian and You, or, Why This Trope Needs to Die

Ah, the Psycho Lesbian trope.


Overtly homophobic. Implicitly ableist. Kind of sexist if you think about it. Outdated. Inaccurate.

And yet, so, so ubiquitous.

What is the Psycho Lesbian, you may ask? Simple. It is a woman in fiction who is attracted to other women -- technically she doesn't have to be a lesbian, but let's be real. If a writer is closed-minded enough to use this trope in the year of 2017, then they're probably too closed-minded to acknowledge that bi/pansexuality exists. But she's not a sympathetic or likable character, and she's usually not a well-rounded one, either. No, the Psycho Lesbian is evil, scary, mentally unbalanced, and above all, predatory. Maybe her evil acts are driven by her lust for another female character, or maybe she makes unwanted advances on her. In more overtly ridiculous examples, she may have been straight and sane at one point, before some traumatic event turned her gay, and evil. And, of course, crazy. Her moments of expressing attraction towards other women are treated as creepy and lecherous. (This can be especially infuriating when male characters made similar comments elsewhere in the story but didn't get treated as predators for it.) More often than not, she'll be extremely violent, especially when compared to the "good" women in the story.

Oh, yeah, and she's usually dead by the time the story is done.

It's no secret that, for the vast majority of history, media has been extremely homophobic. And for the vast majority of history, homosexuality was seen as a mental illness, and that the people who were "inflicted" with it should be pitied at best, killed at worst. So it's not too hard to see where this trope started. And, thanks to societal norms and laws condemning homosexuality, and creative restrictions like the Hays Code, even writers who didn't view queer people this way (some of whom may have even been queer themselves) were forced to either conform to this trope, kill all their gay characters or have them "turn straight," or keep the gay in their stories to subtext. (And even that wasn't always enough to protect yourself. Look up Oscar Wilde's trial for a perfect example of that.)

So, yeah. Queer people in fiction tend to get the shaft. And queer women in particular have a reputation for being predatory -- which just isn't true. It's an old stereotype, one that still plagues the WLW (women loving women) community to this day. If a girl dares to show interest in another girl, she's treated like she's "forcing" herself onto the girl, regardless of whether or not she actually is. Are there predatory lesbians out there? Sure. But there are plenty of predatory straight men out there, so why don't they get stereotyped? Why is it that a teenage boy developing a crush on his female best friend is seen as perfectly normal, but a teenage girl developing a crush on her female best friend is seen as creepy and weird? And why is it that a villainous lesbian in fiction who is motivated by love is almost universally treated less sympathetically than a villainous man?

The answer: homophobia, and a deeply-ingrained tendency to see homosexuality as "the other."

Women who actively pursue romantic or sexual relationships have had a long history of being viewed as "improper," or, if you're looking for the more commonly-used term, "slutty." Slut-shaming in fiction goes a looong way back, and still continues to this day, though it is fortunately starting to die down a bit. How many horror movies feature the shy, virginal protagonist surviving, while her sexually active, forward friend dies horrifically? So media already sends the message that a woman actively seeking out sex = death, even if you're a sympathetic character. But a woman actively seeking out sex from someone of the same gender? She's not like us! She's deviant! She's evil! And she must be punished.

But Susie, you say, it's just fiction! You shouldn't get so bent out of shape over this! But to that I say, fiction does not exist in a vacuum. People's worldviews are reflected in the content that they create, and people's worldviews are influenced by the content they consume. I'm not saying that reading a book that uses this trope makes you a homophobe, but these books further enforce the idea that gay people are "the other," and that being "the other" is bad. We're told to celebrate our differences, then told that if we're too different, we deserve shame and to meet violent ends. And that's not even getting into how this trope can feel to a queer woman, especially a young one whose worldview is still developing. These characters send the message to the WLW community that we're not worthy of love, or happy endings, or even life. Or of being treated with enough basic respect to get some representation that isn't an insulting caricature. For every queer woman like me who was raised in an accepting environment and always knew I'd be okay if and when I came out, there's one who was raised to believe that being who they are is inherently bad -- and the fact that this trope is still getting used doesn't help. So not only does this trope enforce the "us vs. them" mentality that is so prevalent in homophobia, it also enforces to young women that they better be straight, or else.

So, says the inevitable strawman comment, am I saying that there can be no villainous lesbians in fiction ever? Well, no. The problem isn't as simple as that. It's not that these are villains who just so happen to be lesbians. I wouldn't mind half as much if we got some WLW villains who are just as well-developed, sympathetic, intriguing, and human as the straight ones. I wouldn't mind half as much if the WLW villain had a counterpart in the form of one (or more!) WLW on the heroic side. I wouldn't mind half as much if we got some WLW villains whose love for another woman was used to humanize them rather than make them seem more deviant, and thus, more frightening. I wouldn't mind half as much if we got some WLW villains whose sexual orientation had fuck all to do with their villainy, and was just incidental.

But we don't get that. We get dehumanizing stereotype after dehumanizing stereotype. All the heroes are straight, and the only queer person in the cast is the bad guy. The bad guy makes unwanted advances on a hero, and grows more unbalanced until they meet their (often very violent) end. They are treated as different in a context where different is the last thing you want to be. The heroes get paired off into neat, happy, heterosexual couples, while the only queer person in the cast is dead, imprisoned, or worse. And they all lived happily ever after!

Douchebags.

I've said before that this trope is dying out, and I stand by that statement. Most of the "classic" examples of this trope are pretty old. But it's not dead yet. Hell, I was inspired to write this column when a book published in 2016 used this trope. 2016. While I am genuinely curious about what the hell made the author think that was a good idea, I was mostly just pissed off and disappointed. We're getting better, but the trope lives on.

The point I'm trying to make here is that the WLW community doesn't need any more Psycho Lesbian villains representing us. We've got plenty of those, thanks.

What we need are some heroes.

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I know this may not have been the most organized column in the world, but that's what happens when I write while emotional and fired up. This rant was inspired by the shitty, shitty book "The Cabin," which I reviewed here. If you've encountered the trope I'm talking about, tell me your thoughts down in the comments below.

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