Bravery: Thoughts about strong female leads

Merida from BraveIt has been posited by various sources that the heroine of Brave Merida, could be read as being a Lesbian.  [Full disclosure I have not seen the movie yet]

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:

  1. Being a tomboyish character or one who is not read as stereotypically feminine.
  2. 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.


8 thoughts on “Bravery: Thoughts about strong female leads

  1. yeah..the reveiws saying she was probably a lesbian character really bothered me too….especially since they were mainly written by men not lesbians. Also, why not read that she was asexual? OR maybe she just wasn’t attracted to those particular guys? It sucks how women characters have to be so damn political

    • Yeah, the fact it was mostly hetero guys providing this reading was also highly problematic. The fact that she was read as a lesbian is not problematic it is why she was read as one that really bugs me.

      • Exactly, these readings that she is a lesbian are based strictly on stereotypes not evidence. I will say though that close male friendships typically get read as gay as well though…for instance if I read one more Sherlock Holmes and Watson are gay I am going to scream. These readings are usually done by straight women too*sigh*

      • That is interesting. I think that Sherlock and Watson are more likely to be read as gay by American audiences because they are British, does this make sense?

        In general in my experience I have found that close male friendships are less likely to be default read as gay unless there is specific evidence, but I am willing to be proven wrong!

  2. Hmmm. I’m troubled by this analysis, although I agree with many parts of it. There are multiple ways to perform gender and sexuality, and we need to resist limiting stereotypes and tropes.


    Idgie Threadgoode *was* a lesbian. It’s canon. Just one that had been invisibilised by the movie makers. Her and Ruth’s deep and meaningful *and sexual* relationship was bowdlerised for the movie theatre. I hope (and am sure that) that straight women can and do identify with her (just look at the straight protagonist in the same film, who certainly does), but to say “Just because she’s tough doesn’t mean she’s gay! Umm, no. She’s read as gay because she goes and rescues her femmier friend (who is also read as gay/bi in the film, and is gay in canon) and loves her more than anyone and lives with her and raises a child etc, etc. Don’t go claiming her as a straight tomboy role model. Don’t play into the ‘invisible lesbian’ syndrome. I get that straight women can do all of these things, but seriously, not in the numbers that queer women do. And hey, can’t straight women have queer role models? I certainly count among my role models people who do not share any of the following with me: age, race, gender, sexuality, able-bodided status, cisgender status etc etc. But queer women are valuable to me, because when growing up, I heard again and again that butch women were ugly, unfeminine, aggressive, predatory etc etc etc. And that because I was ‘girly’ (i.e. liked ponies and dolls, and had long hair) I couldn’t possibly be ‘like them’ (or worse, ‘like them’), despite loving treeclimbing, wearing jeans, reading, etc etc.

    We NEED role models. We’re not hijacking straight role models. We’re claiming some for ourselves. We queer narratives and characters, because we have very few other options. I understand that straight-but-tomboyish women need role models. They exist (although sadly not in the numbers that are needed). And children don’t see sexual identities – they see people, and sometimes people loving other people. If certain types of women are always castigated (for being too girly, not girly enough etc), then they pick up on that, obviously, and because straight people (and self-hating queer people) describe these people in an insulting manner as having a deviant sexuality, children become away that having a deviant sexuality and gender expression is a bad thing. Now, this is bad for straight children (or children who grow up straight). It’s fucking TOXIC for children who grow up queer.

    And every time a straight woman complains that she’s read as queer because she likes sports/is kinda tough, this butch-loving femme dies a little inside. Because if you’re read as queer, then I’m read as straight, and excluded from my community. And frankly, I hear a note of “and I’m not queer and I resent being read as queer because who’d be a lesbian, right?” I’m certain that you don’t mean that. But I’ve heard it SO MANY TIMES in different forms, and it always makes me feel like shit, and it’s a trope that you need to be aware of if you’re going to talk about this.

    This really grates my cheese. It grates my cheese that straight male reporters are assigning a sexuality to a child protagonist on the basis of “Well, she doesn’t like these sorry male specimens”, when sexuality isn’t even RELEVANT to the story. And it REALLY grates my cheese that straight feminists are complaining that “we’re taking all the good women”. Excuse me. No. Straight men don’t get to catagorise female sexuality like that. And straight women don’t get to complain about queer women ‘nicking’ their role models.

    And I love, love Rainbow Dash. Truly. But I’d always read Applejack as the babybutch, personally.

  3. Hi Shrev, thank you so much for taking the time to post your comment. I apologise for not adequately researching Fried Green Tomatoes. The way I was taught in high school, was as a close female friendship which I guess illustrates the very point you are making.

    I get that queering narratives is important and I totally agree that straight woman can and should be able to look up to queer women. I guess the main point I was really trying to make is that we should think about why we queer certain women over others. I would never try and argue that a queer reading is invalid.

    I think when straight men queer a character it is about labeling them as not womanly enough, and therefore deviant and other, which is really awful. So yes, straight women need to stop shying away from, or being offended by being read as queer because it further reiterates these problems.

    Thanks again for your input, and I am truly sorry for not thinking through this post properly. At the end of the day straight women do have more role models to choose from.

    • Thanks for replying so thoughtfully – and I do agree with one of the main points of your post, that ‘lesbian’ is often a label placed on a woman *and meant as an insult* (when done by certain people, e.g. straight cis men) as a punishment for not performing womanliness correctly. And as a queer femme, this bites me in the arse twice over – once, because I am thereby excluded from my own community, and the second time for being part of that community in the first place, and appreciating those qualities (romatically/sexually) in other women…

      If you were taught Fried Green Tomatoes in high school as a narrative of female friendship, then…. well, you were taught wrongly 🙂 I mean, *of course* it is about female friendship, but there is a central romantic relationship in there as well. And that’s one of the reasons I love the film and the book – there is room for straight women to have loving, deep and supportive friendships, which are distinct from women having romantic and sexual relationships with each other. There should always be room for all of us, so we don’t have to squabble between ourselves – we should see straight tomboys and girly lesbians, and beautiful butches and everyone on the feminine spectrum. Part of the problem is that we have relatively few feminine role models who perform gender in a ‘deviant’ way; and because we are starved of these images, because we are starved of seeing ourselves exist, we naturally want to claim these role models as our own… which leads to us feeling like there isn’t enough pie to go round, and worrying that someone else might take the last bite… That was a kind of mixed metaphor, actuyally, but hopefully I got my point across 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to listen and engage!

      • Sorry for the slow reply, last week got away from me a little bit.

        Totally get the double exclusion thing, so sad and so difficult. Accusations of queerness being used as a way of policing womanhood is also used as a weapon to a degree in female friendships. The whole idea that you don’t want to get “too close” to girls or people will think you are lesbian is so awful, I saw this a lot at my all girls high school, where people were doubly aware of it because as an all girls high school everyone already thought we were lesbians already. I guess hetero women really need to realise that being called queer or a lesbian is actually not the worse thing that can happen to you. Queerness and queer women are valuable and every time you we shy away from the label we add to the oppression of queer folks everywhere. No-one wants to be mis-identified but really if someone is trying to insult you by calling you queer and you actually get offended you really need to check yourself.

        I am very saddened by the fact the queer component of the narrative was not even discussed as a possibility when I was taught it in high school, in reference to the film only, now I feel I must go read the book so thanks for that :).

        You are more than welcome, and thank you so much for taking the time to discuss these things with me.

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