Tropes to Avoid When Writing Lesbian Characters

Tropes to Avoid When Writing Lesbian Characters

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! Last week, we talked about writing lesbian characters but didn’t get the chance to dive into the negative stereotypes often associated with them. So today, we’re going to talk about a handful of harmful tropes that you should be aware of when writing lesbian characters.

Note: Because bisexual women are often erased in media as being “just lesbians now,” many of these tropes overlap with those common for bisexual women. However, since the media really likes pretending that bi people don’t exist, most people think of any wlw relationship as a “lesbian” relationship, and so these tropes often apply to them.

The Predatory Lesbian

As I mentioned last week, many lesbians have trouble identifying when women are flirting with them, and feel scared to flirt themselves. This aspect of lesbian culture didn’t form in a vacuum — it arose because of the predatory lesbian trope.

The predatory lesbian trope (closely related to the “crazy” lesbian trope below) is the idea that lesbian women — especially butch women — are sexually aggressive toward otherwise “innocent” straight women. This trope demonizes queer women by attaching to them the most negative aspects of male heterosexuality, such as leering, aggression, and unwanted persistence.

Image of the character Sam from Fox's "Scream Queens" (2015)
Fox’s Scream Queens literally nicknamed a character “Predatory Lez” — then promptly killed her off.

The trope is pervasive enough that some straight women are actually afraid of supposed “predatory lesbians.” For these women, the idea of a lesbian roommate, or a lesbian in the locker room with them, is threatening. This in turn makes lesbian women feel unsafe looking at or flirting with other women for fear of backlash.

So, when writing lesbian characters, be sure to bear this trope in mind. Perpetuating it can be directly harmful to queer women — both by making them feel unsafe in expressing their sexuality, and in making straight women feel unsafe around lesbian women.

The Dead Lesbian

Burying your gays is a pervasive trope throughout queer representation. Though it can appear in just about any queer rep — usually through some violent, hateful, or tragic means — it’s especially common among lesbians and other wlw characters — like Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Poussey from Orange is the New Black, and Lexa from The 100.

Image of characters Tara Maclay (left) and Willow Rosenburg (right), leaning in close to each other and smiling
#TaraDeservedBetter

This is not to say that queer women should be exempt from death in fiction — if the stakes of your story are already life-or-death, then it may actually be appropriate to have your lesbian character die. I would argue, however, that any death used for shock value or to simply demonstrate stakes is a lazy death. 

Death in fiction should serve a purpose. Cheap character deaths never feel good to your audience — and when that cheap death offs a character that your audience might have been craving, because they don’t usually get to see that sort of representation, then it can feel especially harmful and jarring.

Hot Chicks Kissing

Blue Is the Warmest Color was a 2013 lesbian film which received a lot of criticism that could have been rather easily avoided if there had been a single queer woman involved in the making of the movie. The criticism usually calls out an extended sex scene between the two lead characters, which is pretty distinctly shot in a way that’s more in line with lesbian porn than with actual intimacy between wlw.Move poster for "Blue is the Warmest Color"

This sort of fiction, of course, is not inherently problematic. Lesbians are allowed to be sexual — to imply that they have to be chaste and pure demonizes allosexual lesbians who have happy, healthy sex lives. 

Furthermore, real life lesbians are allowed to enjoy queer sex scenes! There’s a large subculture of lesbian romance and erotica, written by queer women, which is immensely popular in the wlw community exactly because we like that sort of content — but only when its written for us.

The problem arises when straight men write in lesbian kisses or sex scenes for shock value or for the benefit of the straight male audience. These portrayals are not for lesbian women — and, therefore, often feel objectifying and uncomfortable. The takeaway for this trope is NOT that lesbians need to be chaste and non-sexual, but that people who aren’t queer women really need to examine how and why they’re writing lesbian characters in sexual encounters.

Gal Pals

This is the idea that two women who are clearly and obviously in love couldn’t possibly be a couple. They’re just “gal pals.”

In fiction, this usually presents as a lesbian relationship being completely delegated to subtext while straight couples are explicitly allowed to kiss and flirt and snuggle. Often, creators will even insist that two women are just good friends, or even adapt a source material to make an explicit lesbian relationship into a “close friendship,” like what happened with the English Dub of Sailor Moon.

Image of Gabrielle (left) and Xena (right) from "Xena: Warrior Princess," witht he two women looking lovingly into each others eyes.
Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess is a seminal example of a lesbian relationship delegated completely to subtext.

Ignoring the possibility of lesbian relationships in your fiction can lead to a lot of missed opportunities. As I mentioned in my discussion about queer erasure, it’s important to think critically about how your characters are interacting and be aware of any chemistry or coding that you’re building into their interactions. And, if you intend for two women to have a romantic relationship, show it. If you’re scared or uncomfortable with the notion of that, I recommend you examine why you hold those reservations.

The Temporary Lesbian

Otherwise known as “Lesbian Until Graduation,” “Feminist Lesbian,” and “Lesbian Meets the Right Guy,” this is the idea that a lesbian woman will someday realize the error of her ways and settle down with a nice, heterosexual man.

There’s an idea among some particularly unsavory straight folx that lesbianism is a temporary affliction brought on by radical politics, sexual trauma, or simply not having met the “right guy” yet. These are the same types of people that think a lesbian can be “turned” straight. Suffice to say, I’m not a fan.

Lesbians are lesbians. Full stop. If you’re writing lesbian characters into your fiction, then keep them lesbians. 

In real life, of course, identities can grow and change — a lesbian woman may well realize that she’s bisexual and begin dating men later in life. HOWEVER, this trope isn’t a nuanced look at how an individual might embark on a personal journey of self-discovery to broaden their understanding of their own identity.  At best it’s a lazy heteronormative reinforcement of the “inevitability” of straight relationships. At worst, it demonstrates a character becoming “good” by eschewing their past immoral gayness.

Note that bisexual women in fiction should be allowed to date, and potentially even end up with, men, but the existence of this trope can make a bisexual narrative where a bi woman ends up with a man fall quite a bit flat.

The “Crazy” Lesbian

Closely related to the Predatory Lesbian, this is another way that media likes to portray lesbians and queer women as dangerous. It plays into the idea that a women must be somehow unhinged to be queer. This trope further serves to demonize queer women, and make the world less safe for us.

Image of Suzanne Warren from Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black"
They literally nicknamed Suzanna “Crazy Eyes” on OITNB — though, in the show’s defense, they do give her a sympathetic and nuanced arc overall

There’s nothing that makes a lesbian somehow less safe or trustworthy than any other women. However, this trope enforces the idea that a lesbian might, at any moment, snap on an unsuspecting straight woman — so those same straight women should really be cautious around any of their lesbian “friends.”

When writing lesbian characters, don’t perpetuate this trope. An in-depth, nuanced look at mental health and how it intersects with a queer identity, written by someone with personal experience in those communities? Awesome! Writing lesbian characters as crazy and aggressive because that’s how the media so often portrays them? Bad, please don’t do that.

Conclusion

Since lesbians are perceived as one of the “easier” queer identities to understand — most people have at least heard of them — a lot of content creators think that they know enough about them to get away with writing lesbian characters without doing their research. This, however, often leads to harmful tropes that alienate your wlw audience while simultaneously reinforcing the negative ideas that people hold about lesbians.

That’s it for this week! Sorry it ran long, but there’s a lot to cover with lesbian women. I’ll be back next week to talk about some lesbian terminology that might be helpful if you’re planning on writing lesbian characters, but until then stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

4 thoughts on “Tropes to Avoid When Writing Lesbian Characters

  1. What made up utopia do you exist in?… none of these are tropes, but clearly the writer has never spent any time in the real lgbt community..

    1. Hi! Thanks for your comment — I think it’s possible we’re working with different definitions of the word “trope,” and that we might run in different circles of the LGBTQ+ community.

      The definition of “trope,” as I use it here, is “a common or overused theme or device.” Though the term trope tends to have a negative connotation on its own, I don’t believe that any trope is inherently bad, just that 1) it’s helpful to be aware when you are drawing on a common theme in media, and 2) that it’s helpful to understand how those themes have been used in the past.

      In this case, these are common themes in queer media which I have heard a lot of complaint and criticism about from my own corners of the LGBTQ+ community. These are primarily online and have a focus on fiction and media, and we talk a lot about how these tropes have negatively impacted societal views on the LGBTQ+ community, and wlw in particular. Especially tropes like Predatory Lesbians, Crazy Lesbians, and Bury Your Gays have deep historical roots in literature as ways to morally condemn wlw, or as grim necessities to circumvent oppressive censorship laws (both things I didn’t quite have space for in this post, unfortunately).

      My goal with Tropes to Avoid is not at all to bar people from utilizing these themes, nor to try and create some perfect world where everyone only ever writes kind, sterilized depictions of LGBTQ+ characters that never ever die. Rather, I want to help people recognize where these ideas come from and to use them mindfully — which in some cases might mean avoiding them altogether. I call them “Tropes to Avoid” because they are repetitive themes throughout media which historically have been harmful, and it can be difficult to avoid that harm without context — I want to provide that context!

      All that being said — these are very much repetitive themes in media, and you can find extensive sources on them on sites like TV Tropes. Again, it’s useful for people outside the LGBTQ+ community, and even outside of particular communities within that, to be aware of the existence of these themes and how they’ve been used in the past. However, if you feel there’s a more effective way to convey this information and intent, please feel free to respond and let me know!

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