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Oprah talks female homosexuality!

2009 March 21
by Nat

This article in the most recent issue of Oprah Magazine was brought to my attention by a friend at breakfast this morning. It’s entitled “Why Women Are Leaving Men for Other Women“, the subtitle reads: “Cynthia Nixon did it. Lindsay Lohan’s doing it. TV shows are based on it. Is it our imaginations, or are our wives and girlfriends ditching their men and falling in love with other women?” The article is interesting but also, I find, slightly problematic. The link to the article on the website is particularly troubling to me : She’s So Fine! With team-switching on the rise, Mary A. Fischer gets to the bottom of why women are leaving men for other women

I’ve always disliked the use of phrases like “playing for the other team” and in this case, “team-switching”, with regards to sexuality. Apart from it obviously reinforcing binaries between homo/heterosexuals, I feel like it creates a sense of competition and rivalry, and often feelings of guilt or shame when an individual ‘switches sides’. The article does discuss the fluidity of sexuality, stating scientific studies showing that “it might be more fluid than we thought” and even goes so far as to say that for women in particular, it is the most fluid. I have issues with this because for one, while I think it’s great that the visibility of homosexual women in the media and popular culture is increasing, I don’t think that this article is creating visibility in a context that is actually productive. It positions alternate sexualities in women and ‘switching sides’ as something trendy and once again blurs the lines between the ‘norm’ and the ‘ideal’. Cynthia Nixon and Lindsay Lohan did it so clearly everyone’s doing it, right? Using celebrities, who often represent the ideal, and what they do with their personal lives to represent trends in society is almost always problematic. Oftentimes it ends up starting trends, which is what I see it trying to do here. Not that there is anything wrong with encouraging women to explore the fluidity of their sexualities, but I just don’t think it’s particularly productive in the long run when the reasoning behind it is something along the lines of well, the if the celebrities can do it so can I!. Celebrities are lucky enough to have the freedom to basically do whatever they want while your average joe/jane doesn’t. Celebrities don’t have to worry about paying the bills, or dealing with workplace discrimination, or worrying about how their children are going to get treated if their mom is gay, at least, not to the extent that regular people do… so I really don’t think that celebrities’ personal lives are ever an accurate reflection of what society is up to. And what is up with trying to make any sexuality trendy anyway? Does that mean race can be trendy too? What about religion? Is it ever trendy to be working class? I can think of instances involving celebrities where these things might be trendy or start a trend (like Madonna and her ever-changing religious affiliations, or several rockstars who market their ‘working class roots’), but again…they’re celebrities, they’re not meant to be representative of the general public… that’s why we celebrate them. How many A-list superstars do you know?

Another thing that bugs me about this article is its emphasis on sex. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Several of the women said that they had enjoyed sex with men but just also happened to enjoy it with women. Others said that sex with women was more fulfilling/enjoyable. All of them said something about their sexual experiences though, and i’m pretty sure it’s because the interviewer asked questions that led them to. Which leads me to the question… how much of sexuality is really about sex? I’m guessing that the writer of this article would answer that it’s almost entirely about sex. I’m pretty sure though, that none of these women left their husbands/boyfriends because the sex was bad, or because they thought sex with women would be better. I would say that the writer of the article is probably, just like most of society (both men and women), perversely obsessed with lesbian homoeroticism and in being thus is simply perpetuating the delegitimization of female homosexuality.

Something else that bugged me in the article was the apparent pitting of men versus women, as lovers and companions. The title of the article “Why Women Are Leaving Men for Other Women” does this at the start. Most of these women did not ‘leave’ men for women. They didn’t just decide to divorce their husbands, split up their families and drastically alter their lives, with the sole purpose of pursuing women. Many of them describe having ‘found’ qualities in a women (not women) that they were attracted to and so were able to build new relationships that just so happened to be homosexual. One of them even said that it’s about “being attracted to people”. Good for her. That was not, however, the greater message that I abstracted from the article. This is not, of course, the fault of these women, but rather, the writer of the article, who, even in light of many of the womens’ stories of being attracted to individual people not gender, insists on positioning women against men. The writer appropriates their stories for her own uses. This is particularly true of Macarena’s story, where she discusses the joys of now having ‘what she wants’. Macarena talks about the tenderness and intimacy that she is now able to have as well as the strength of a more masculine figure in her relationship with Jack Halberstam. This is a very particular story involving specific indivuals and their specific personalities and desires. But the writer then goes on to basically say that the reason that women leave their men for other women is because men can’t provide the tenderness and intimacy that women want. There are two problems with this. Firstly, not all women want the same things and by generalizing like that, the writer merely alienates women that don’t want that intimacy and have all the things they want with a man. Secondly, not all women are the same. By assuming that all women can provide the intimacy that all women apparently want, she leaves out all women that are not particularly tender, emotional or intimate (qualities which are all part of dominant stereotypes of women anyway) and that may happen to search for these things in male companions. Just like it’s not fair for heterosexuals to say that all gay men are weak and effeminate and that all gay women are angry bull-dykes, it’s not fair (or productive) for homosexuals to say that all straight men are insensitive and that all straight women just don’t know what they want or are unfulfilled. Granted none of the women in the article are actually saying that themselves, but I feel like the writer is. Replacing a binary in which the heterosexual is dominant with a binary in which the homosexual is dominant doesn’t get rid of the binary… “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

woah… that ended up being a longer rant than I though it would be. I really did enjoy the article though, and it was nice to see such a widely-read magazine try and talk about these things!

One other article. I read this in the paper (USA Today) on Thursday: Women step up as men lose jobs. My first thought was instantly of Rosie the Riveter. After reading it I was surprised by the underlying idea that house-wives going out and getting jobs was still something so radical and difficult for families to deal with. I guess tradition still prevails in the majority of American families and that even with the steady increase of women in the workforce in the last couple of decades, headway still needs to be made…

3 Responses
  1. Hannah Mueller permalink
    March 21, 2009

    You pick apart this article really well–I think especially by pointing out the generalizations about “all women” wanting the same thing that “all men” don’t have. But like you said, how great that this is in Oprah magazine! To print a quote like this:
    “I was still inscribed in a heterosexual framework that said only a man could provide for my kids and be part of a family,”
    coming from a woman in a relationship with another woman, that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever read stated so clearly in a mainstream newspaper or magazine. But hopefully these issues really are on the rise; I get the impression that a lot of people are talking about the NY Times aritcle about the fluidity of female sexuality.

  2. Simran Singh permalink
    March 22, 2009

    Oh! I really enjoyed reading your reaction to the article. Specifically, the part where you ask what is up with making sexuality, race, religion, or social class trendy. I am actually writing a research paper for my Politics of Pop Culture class about the culture of hipsters. I decided to research individualism in a commercialized culture, specifically in how a culture based on trying to be unique tend to become “popular” because Urban Outfitters commercializes it with trends.

    Basically, hipsters originated from making the ‘working class’ cool. They wear second hand clothes and V-neck tshirts, drink PBR, and smoke Parliaments – all symbols from the working or revolutionary class. Now these things have lost their historical meaning and are now “cool” and “trendy.” It is interesting to see how a youth counter-culture can take symbols, icons, and images from the past and ‘trendify” them to make them cool. Hipsters, and lots of other sub-cultures tend to do this. Extending this to sexuality is interesting and I’m glad you brought it up.

  3. Fred Armentrout permalink
    March 29, 2009

    Nice work Nat. Perhaps your generation will live long enough to see the day when people’s sexual preferences remain their own business and they won’t need celebrity role models or Oprah’s imprimatur to get on with their lives openly and with whomever they see fit. It would have been helpful if the writer of the article had conveyed that point rather than a reiteration of the sex wars in drag.


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