The lesbianisation of female leads is something that happens pretty commonly when a characters sexuality is not explicitly determined or overtly defined. This I believe is a normal and reasonable response to the lack of representation of Lesbian characters in popular media. If well rounded lesbian characters are not going to be portrayed on screen then it makes sense to infer them when it seems reasonable.
However I feel that it is important to be cautious when reading pop culture texts in this way. Female characters tend to be lesbianised for doing either or both of the following:
- Being a tomboyish character or one who is not read as stereotypically feminine.
- Having deep and very meaningful friendships.
The first notion obviously comes from and reinforces the widely held perception that only lesbian women ever act in ways that are not overtly coded as womanly or feminine. So a woman who happens to kick ass without existing to appeal to the ‘male gaze’ she is automatically read as lesbian. A could example of this is Idgie Threadgood in Fried Green Tomatoes, who is a tomboy through her whole life.
In regards to the second criteria, I think this comes from the notion that women’s friendships cannot ever be deep and supportive, or even a positive thing. Almost universally in mainstream media women’s friendships are portrayed as being snarky and competitive to some degree. We see over and over again in both film and television that women cannot count on each other, while this is changing it does seem that whenever we are presented with a female friendship that is not like this our heads explode. A way of rationalising this is to read into the text that these women are actually engaged in a lesbian relationship.
I think these readings are limiting both for straight and lesbian women. Strong women do not necessarily have to be lesbian, and lesbian women do not have to be strong. By acting as though this binary is real we are doing a disservice to all women and reinforcing cultural tropes about what it means to be a woman. There is no one true way to be a gay woman just as there is no one true way to be a straight woman, and yet if you look at main stream media the opposite seems to be the case. Those of us who exist on the margins do our very best to challenge these ideas, but it is an overwhelming and exhausting task.
Of course there is no real meaningful choice if the choice is to reinforce tropes about women or choose to be basically completely erased in mainstream pop-culture. Women of all types need greater representation in pop culture, this is the only way in which these tropes can be challenged and that a nuanced understanding of what it means to be a woman lesbian or straight can be portrayed. Until then we the marginalised continue to try and create our own media that properly depicts us in the ways in which we wish to be depicted.