Media portrayal of lesbianism
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Lesbians often attract media attention, particularly in relation to feminism, love and sexual relationships, marriage and parenting. Some writers have asserted this trend can lead to exploitative and unjustified plot devices.
During the twentieth century lesbians such as Gertrude Stein and Barbara Hammer were noted in the US avant-garde art movements, along with figures such as Leontine Sagan in German pre-war cinema. Since the 1890s the underground classic The Songs of Bilitis has been influential on lesbian culture. This book provided a name for the first campaigning and cultural organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla (which has since been adapted as a webseries) cited as a root of the lesbian vampire trope about the predatory love of a vampire (the title character) for a young woman (the narrator) which was picked up in 20th century exploitation films.
During the 1950s and 1960s lesbian pulp fiction was published in the US and UK, often under "coded" titles such as Odd Girl Out, The Evil Friendship by Vin Packer and The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Ann Bannon. British school stories also provided a haven for "coded" and sometimes outright lesbian fiction. Thistime started during the 1970s the second wave of feminist-era lesbian novels became more politically oriented. Works often carried the explicit ideological messages of separatist feminism and the trend carried over to other lesbian arts. Rita Mae Brown's debut novel Rubyfruit Jungle was a milestone of this period; Patience and Sarah, by Isabel Miller, became a cult favorite. By the early 1990s lesbian culture was being influenced by a younger generation who had not taken part in the "Feminist Sex Wars" and this strongly informed post-feminist queer theory along with the new queer culture.
In 1972 the Berkeley, California lesbian journal Libera published a paper entitled '"Heterosexuality in Women: its Causes and Cure." Written in deadpan, academic prose, closely paralleling previous psychiatry-journal articles on homosexuality among women, this paper inverted prevailing assumptions about what is normal and deviant or pathological. The paper was widely read by lesbian feminists. The journal is no longer published, and the article is nearly impossible to find: a Google search on the title typically yields Albert Ellis's book Homosexuality: its Causes and Cure, which was published before 1972, and before the American Psychiatric Association decided that homosexuality was no longer a mental disorder.
Paintings showing two or more females together seldom displayed much in the way of potential sexual activity between them. When it came to nudity, most women subjects were depicted as dancers or bathers, usually stated as goddesses.
Two that do stand out include Gustave Courbet's Sleep which openly depicts two women asleep after love-making (indicated by the broken pearl necklace); and Dominique Ingres' Turkish Bath in which, in the foreground, one woman can be seen with an arm around another and pinching her breast. Both these paintings ended up in the collection of erotica collector and diplomat Khalil Bey, but are now exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, respectively.
Lesbian characters rarely appear in opera; Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg's Lulu is one exception, but Charles Gounod's Sapho portrays the poetess as straight. Patience and Sarah, based on the Isabel Miller novel, has been described as the first lesbian opera.
The first lesbian-themed feature film was Mädchen in Uniform (1931), based on a novel by Christa Winsloe and directed by Leontine Sagan, tracing the story of a schoolgirl called Manuela von Meinhardis and her passionate love for a teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg. It was written and mostly directed by women. The impact of the film in Germany's lesbian clubs was overshadowed, however, by the cult following for The Blue Angel (1930).
Until the early 1990s, any notion of lesbian love in a film almost always required audiences to infer the relationships. The lesbian aesthetic of Queen Christina (1933) with Greta Garbo has been widely noted, even though the film is not about lesbians. Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, referred more or less overtly to lesbianism, but the two characters involved were not presented positively: Mrs. Danvers was portrayed as obsessed, neurotic and murderous, while the never-seen Rebecca was described as having been selfish, spiteful and doomed to die. All About Eve (1950) was originally written with the title character as a lesbian but this was very subtle in the final version, with the hint and message apparent to alert viewers.
Playwright Lillian Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour (1934) was produced on Broadway. Set in a private girls' boarding school, the headmistress and a teacher are the targets of a malicious whispering campaign of insinuation by a disgruntled schoolgirl. They soon face public accusations of having a lesbian relationship. The play was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, banned in Boston, London, and Chicago and had a record-breaking run of 691 consecutive performances in New York. A 1961 screen adaptation starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. The play's deep and pervasively dark themes and lesbian undertones have been widely noted.
Mainstream films with openly lesbian content, sympathetic lesbian characters and lesbian leads began appearing during the 1990s. By 2000 some films portrayed characters exploring issues beyond their sexual orientation, reflecting a wider sense that lesbianism has to do with more than sexual desire.
Speaking at the Bombay Academy of Moving Images, Nisha Ganatra revealed that Bend It Like Beckham was originally intended to have a more overt lesbian theme by Gurinder Chadha. Notably, Gurinder Chadha previously directed the film What's Cooking, which featured Julianna Margulies and Kyra Sedgwick as a lesbian couple. Chadha is claimed to have softened the lesbian angle, to a case of "crossed wires" and jokes like "Lesbian? Her birthday's in March. I thought she was a Pisces," to make the film more marketable - something which has not gone down well with all gay reviewers. However, Jess' male friend Tony was retained as a sympathetic gay character. Bend it like Beckham also won an award for "Outstanding Film" from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
Notable mainstream theatrical releases include Bound (1996), Chasing Amy (1997), Wild Things (1998), Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), Lost and Delirious (2001), Mulholland Drive, Monster (2003), D.E.B.S (2004), Rent (2005, based on the Jonathan Larson musical), My Summer of Love (2004), Loving Annabelle (2006) and Imagine Me & You (2005). There have also been many non-English language lesbian films, such as Fire (India, 1996), Show Me Love (Sweden, 1998), Aimée & Jaguar (Germany, 1999), Blue (Japan, 2001), The Mars Canon (Japan, 2002), Blue Gate Crossing (Taiwan, 2004), Butterfly (Hong Kong, 2004), Love My Life (Japan, 2006) and Les filles du botaniste (France/Canada, 2006).
In 2013 Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a French drama film revolving around a romance between two women, was released. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and numerous critics deemed the film to be the best of 2013. The film was noted for its explicit sex scenes, with Variety critic Justin Chang writing in his review of the film that it "is marked by the most explosively graphic lesbian sex scenes in recent memory".
Mainstream broadcast media
Lesbian characters made very rare appearances in scripted radio programs, almost always as killers or murder victims. The first lesbian on American radio was in an episode of the imported British crime anthology series The Black Museum entitled "The Brass Button". The character, Jeanette Morgan, is the episode's murder victim. She is described as "not interested in men" and "living that strange and unnatural kind of way". Jeanette is murdered by a soldier who, having heard gossip about her, makes sexual advances. When she rejects him, he strangles her to death.
Early American television largely ignored lesbians. Homosexuality was not discussed on television until the mid-1950s, and when it was discussed — usually on local talk shows — it was almost uniformly male homosexuality under discussion. It was not until 1962, when an episode of Confidential File covered the 1962 convention of the Daughters of Bilitis, that a national broadcast specifically covered lesbianism. Lesbians were explicitly excluded from the proposal for the country's first documentary broadcast on homosexuality, 1961's The Rejected, and from the first network documentary on homosexuality, "The Homosexuals", a 1967 installment of CBS Reports. On scripted television, the earliest lesbian characters were "coded", like the villainous Miss Brant on The Asphalt Jungle (1961), a repressed lesbian who shoots girls on lovers' lane for making themselves available to boys, or neurotics like Hallie Lambert from a 1963 episode of The Eleventh Hour. After years during which the only portrayals of lesbians on television were negative, stereotypical, or both, NBC aired "Flowers of Evil" a 1974 episode of the series Police Woman. In it a trio of lesbians (described by Lesbian Tide magazine as "The Butch, The Bitch and The Femme") were robbing and murdering the elderly residents of the nursing home they ran. Lesbian activists operating under the name Lesbian Feminist Liberation staged a zap at NBC's New York City headquarters. Ten women entered the building and occupied it overnight. Around 75 women demonstrated in front of the building. The following morning protesters unfurled a twenty foot long banner from the balcony of vice president Herminio Traviesas's office reading "LESBIANS PROTEST NBC". They and street-level picketers chanted slogans like "NBC works against lesbians" and "Lesbians are sitting in".
The 1980s television series L.A. Law included a lesbian relationship which stirred much more controversy than lesbian TV characters would a decade later. The 1989 BBC mini series Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was based on lesbian writer Jeanette Winterson's novel of the same title. Russian pop-duo t.A.T.u were popular in Europe during the early 2000s, gaining wide attention and TV airplay for their pop videos because they were marketed as lesbians even though they were not.
Many science fiction series have featured lesbian characters. An episode of Babylon 5 featured an implied lesbian relationship between characters Talia Winters and Commander Susan Ivanova. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a few episodes ("Rejoined") with elements of lesbianism that implied, but never stated, that in Star Trek's 24th century such relationships are accepted, even though the show never actually depicted one. Torchwood's first series involved brief lesbian encounters for both Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), but in each instance alien intervention was responsible. AfterEllen reviewer Karman Klegroe criticises Torchwood's record on this score concluding that: "sexual tension between the male characters, particularly Captain Jack and Ianto, is standard fare, whereas the women have very few sexual interactions that aren't quickly explained away by alien circumstances". In the fourth series, recurring character Charlotte Willis (Marina Benedict) was eventually revealed to be a lesbian.
Actress and comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian in 1997 and her character on the sitcom Ellen did likewise soon after during its fourth season. This was the first American sitcom with a lesbian lead character. The coming-out episode won an Emmy Award, but the series was canceled after one more season.
The HBO series Deadwood featured a lesbian madam running a local brothel.
In 2000, the ABC Daytime drama series All My Children character Bianca Montgomery (Eden Riegel) was revealed to be a lesbian. Though the storyline received significant praise from critics and viewers and spun two popular romances (Bianca Montgomery and Maggie Stone, Lena Kundera and Bianca Montgomery), it was also met with criticism for its almost perpetual trauma and Bianca's lack of a successful long-running romance with another woman. The character was later given a wife to combat this, in the pairing of Reese Williams and Bianca Montgomery, which became the first legal same-sex marriage in American daytime television, but this was also met with criticism; critics and fans reasoned that the storyline was underdeveloped and essentially failed in popularity.
Showtime's The L Word is a drama focusing on the relationships of a group of women. The majority of the characters are bisexual and lesbian women, including: Dana Fairbanks, Alice Pieszecki, Bette Porter, Shane McCutcheon, Tina Kennard, Jodi Lerner, Helena Peabody, Phyllis Kroll, and Jenny Schecter. The success of The L Word led to a reality television spinoff, The Real L Word, which premiered in 2010.
In 2005, an episode of The Simpsons ("There's Something About Marrying") depicted Marge's sister Patty coming out as a lesbian. Also that year on Law & Order the final appearance of assistant district attorney Serena Southerlyn included the revelation she was a lesbian, although some viewers claimed there had been hints of this in previous episodes.
Other notable lesbian characters and appearances in the mainstream media have included:
- Alison Steadman (Jackie) and Myra Frances (Harvey) in Girl, a 1974 BBC play: the first lesbian kiss on British television.
- Kim Daniels in the UK TV series Sugar Rush
- Liz Cruz in Nip/Tuck
- Willow Rosenberg, Tara Maclay and Kennedy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Satsu in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight comic)
- Detective Kima Greggs and the eponymous criminal enforcer Felicia 'Snoop' Pearson from the HBO series The Wire.
- Lindsay Peterson and Melanie Marcus in Queer as Folk
- Maia Jeffries and Jay Copeland in Shortland Street
- Lana Crawford and Georgina Harris in Neighbours
- C. J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) in L.A. Law
- Dr. Kerry Weaver, Sandy López and Kim Legaspi in ER
- Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade in Bad Girls
- Paige Michalchuk and Alex Núñez in Degrassi:The Next Generation
- Dorothy's college friend Jean in The Golden Girls
- Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson) on the UK series Brookside
- Spencer Carlin and Ashley Davies in South of Nowhere
- Carol, Ross' ex-wife and her life partner Susan on Friends
- Edith (Vanessa Redgrave), Fran (Sharon Stone) and Kal (Ellen DeGeneres) in If These Walls Could Talk 2
- Jennifer K. Buckmeyer in the made for TV special Coming Out
- Patty Bouvier, sister of Marge Simpson, on The Simpsons
- Naomi Julien, Della Alexander and Binnie Roberts in EastEnders
- Thelma Bates in Hex
- Jessica Sammler and Katie Singer on Once and Again
- Jasmine Thomas and Debbie Dingle, and Zoe Tate in Emmerdale
- Maggie Sawyer and Toby Raines (implied) in Superman: The Animated Series
- Beverly Harris and Nancy Bartlett in Roseanne
- Frankie Doyle, Angela Jeffries, Sharon Gilmour, Judy Bryant, Joan Ferguson, Audrey Forbes, Terri Malone in Prisoner, 1979–1986.
- Serena Southerlyn on Law & Order
- Xena and Gabrielle (implied) in Xena: Warrior Princess
- Pittsburg Police SWAT commander Lt. Connie Reubens in The Kill Point
- Emily Fitch in the UK TV series Skins
- Arizona Robbins and Callie Torres in Grey's Anatomy
- Lana Winters in American Horror Story: Asylum
The "lesbian kiss episode"
Mainstream American broadcast media have created a subgenre of lesbian portrayal with what is sometimes referred to as the "lesbian kiss episode", in which a lesbian or bisexual character and a heterosexual-identified character kiss. In most instances, the potential of a relationship between the women does not survive past the episode and the lesbian character rarely appears again. The first of these was "He's a Crowd", a 1991 episode of the legal drama L.A. Law.
The Millennium has brought forth new types of modern advertising. There has been a shift towards highly sexualised and sexually explicit advertising materials in print, fashion, art, music, television, and movies. It would seem that most advertisements featuring two or more women have a negative context to them. They almost possess a soft-core pornographic theme to them.
Gill (2008) presents a shift in the representation of women by breaking advertising segments down into several different identities. Of the them is the “hot lesbian”. The “hot lesbian” identity portrays the fantasy of two or more extremely beautiful, lesbian women engaging in “suggestive” lesbian behaviour, or flat out sexual activity. There are many notable examples of ads portraying hot lesbians in them (Versace clothing, Skyy Blue Vodka, Pornstar clothing, Nikon camera, American Apparel clothing, Calvin Klein products, Miller Light beer, etc.).
Sender (1999), Ingebretsen (1999), and Bhat et al. (1998) point out that there are advertisers who do use gay and lesbian models to promote directly to the gay and lesbian community, but wish to remain innocuous to heterosexuals. Gay and lesbian advertisers do not actively pursue national recognition (which is essentially to a much larger demographic of heterosexuals) mostly due to fear and criticism. However, some very notable corporations such as, “Sony, Toyota, Microsoft, Levi's, Banana Republic, American Express, Miller, and Absolut now commonly use gay media. Some firms (IKEA, Calvin Klein, Benetton) have gone further into using homosexual imagery in advertising to [appeal to] more general audiences” (Bhat et al., 1998, p. 10). The gay and lesbian advertisers should be creating ads that appeal to all sexual preferences, even though this may be easier said than done. The gay and lesbian advertisers must go beyond their select audience for ad campaigns targeting gays and lesbians to look at the inclusion, instead of exclusion, of heterosexuals. Sender (1999) suggests that on the heterosexual side, “images which are arousing for lesbians, but which may not have originally been intended for [lesbians], may actually offer greater pleasure than those which are implicitly coded to suggest a lesbian reading” (p. 191). If such is the case for “hot lesbian” advertisements, then there is nothing to say that actual lesbian advertisements might find heterosexuals left wanting something as well from them.
Academics such as Diamond (2005) Wirthlin (2009) take exception to the role of “hot lesbian” in advertisements, and what has turned lesbianism into a commodity. As Diamond (2005) states, “media representations signal a new appreciation and celebration of women’s sexual freedom and diversity. On the other hand this is not necessarily the case…by portraying it as a fashionable ‘add on’ to otherwise conventional heterosexuality” (p. 105). They argue that women view these advertisements and images as a true reflection of what it is to be lesbian, thus making it much harder for real lesbians to acknowledge their sexuality. Furthermore, Wirthlin (2009) points out that, “In order to resist this we must first recognize the ubiquitous presence of “fad” lesbian images and then problematize their use in popular culture. Next, there needs to be an active resistance against these images through counterculture advertisements and the performative act of resistance, such as through the act of writing as oneself, by utilizing multiple voices and subjectivities” (p. 113). In both academics view, lesbian or bi-sexual women must be sure of what media means to them, and call into question things that do not appear “authentic”. Lesbians must also be educated on the topic of the “hot lesbian”, and ensure they do not fall into the “heteronormative appropriation” of advertising’s effects.
Jhally (1989) and Jackson (2009) on the other hand do not see the portrayal of women being objectified as commodity or “hot lesbians” necessarily wrong. Not in the literal sense, but advertisements are reflective of what our views are. In turn, this may open up women who were unsure of their sexuality (even though most lesbians would state that they were lesbians from birth) and let them experiment without the boundaries. As an example, older advertisements from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s are made up of ideologies of what men wanted, and what they believed to be their ultimate dreams. Those ads supposedly portrayed what women dreamed about, when really this was only because they were being told what to dream about by men. Women were just heterosexual in everyone’s eyes, as being lesbian was a major taboo during that time. Lesbians were always in the background, just not front-and-centre. Nowadays, you have postfeminist women who want to be free from labels, experiment sexually, and use fashionable lesbianism in advertising as it does not affect their heterosexual ways. It has become a “fad”, or “cool” to be bi-curious, or tri-sexual. This in turn may open up other avenues for women who were once shunned upon. Sexuality and gender have been elevated to a privileged position in our cultural discourse, and thus powerful media campaigns only further this cause. It is natural that the “hot lesbian” would be at the forefront because sex always sells, and the “hot lesbian” theme in advertising is what is taking place now. As such, people can view the advertisements as just advertisements, or it can pique their curiosity.
For much of the 20th century, gay relationships were discouraged from being shown in comics which were seen mainly as directed towards children. Artists had to drop subtle hints while not stating directly a character's orientation. An example was in the 1938-39 edition of Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates: one of the main villains, Sanjak, has been interpreted by some as a lesbian with designs on the hero's girlfriend, though this is not openly stated. Further, some writers and others (notably Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live) have commented that the Peanuts character Peppermint Patty is a lesbian (and inferred a relationship with her close friend Marcie, although such an inference was never supported by the comic strip's content). (Peppermint Patties has been used as a pejorative slang word for lesbians.)
Until 1989 the Comics Code Authority, which imposed de facto censorship on comics sold through newsstands in the United States, forbade any suggestion of homosexuality. Overt lesbian themes were first found in underground and alternative titles which did not carry the Authority's seal of approval. The first comic with an openly lesbian character was "Sandy Comes Out" by Trina Robbins, published in the anthology Wimmen's Comix #1 in 1972.
Meanwhile, mainstream publishers were more reticent. A relationship between the female Marvel Comics characters Mystique and Destiny was only implied at first, then cryptically confirmed in 1990 through the use of the archaic word leman, meaning a lover or sweetheart. Only in 2001 was Destiny referred to in plain language as Mystique's lover. Previously, WildStorm's Image Comics had featured Sarah Rainmaker of Gen¹³ as a character with an interest in other women, and had openly depicted homosexual relationships between the members of the Authority, such as Jenny Sparks and Swift.
In 2006 DC Comics could still draw widespread media attention by announcing a new, lesbian incarnation of the well-known character Batwoman even while openly lesbian characters such as Gotham City police officer Renee Montoya already existed in DC Comics.
In 2006, the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, was lauded by many media as among the best books of the year. Bechdel is the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, one of the best-known and longest-running LGBT comic strips.
Manga and anime
In Japanese manga and anime, lesbian content is called Girls Love (in Japan) or yuri. In the west, a distinction is occasionally made between yuri (more explicitly sex-based) and shōjo-ai (more romance-based), a term created in the west by analogy with shōnen-ai. Shōjo-ai is not used in that sense in Japan, where (as a manga term) it mainly denotes lolicon.
The third season of the anime series Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon S, introduced Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, a lesbian couple. However, the season was heavily censored when dubbed and shown on TV in the United States. Many of the scenes which would suggest this particular relationship were cut away and the two characters were depicted as cousins (this led to further controversy as many fans noticed the editing). In many of the manga artist group Clamp's series such as Miyuki-chan in Wonderland or Cardcaptor Sakura, some characters are clearly lesbians. In Miyuki-chan in wonderland, for example, Miyuki is constantly trying to escape the attention of scantily clad female admirers; while Tomoyo in CCS is famous for her ostensibly innocent but rather suspect obsession with playing "dress-up" with the lead character, Sakura.
SaGa Frontier (a PlayStation title produced by Square) has a lesbian character named Asellus. Another character named Gina is a young girl who tailors Asellus' outfits, often discusses her deep attraction to Asellus and becomes her bride in one of the game's many endings. However, much related dialogue and some content has been edited out of the English-language version. The PlayStation title Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix (a prequel to Fear Effect) reveals that Hana Tsu Vachel, a main character in both games, had a sexual relationship with a female character named Rain Qin. Strawberry Panic! is a mild Japanese lesbian game for PlayStation 2 featuring romance amongst a group of female students living in a common all-girls' boarding house atop Astrea Hill. Tristia of the Deep-Blue Sea, Neosphere of the Deep-Blue Sky, Akai Ito and Ayakashi Ninden Kunoichiban, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl are widely known in Japan. Gone Home is an interactive story game made by Fullbright that follows the story of a girl, Sam, who falls in love with her female best friend.
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