Copious research has shown that sexualized and stereotypical portrayals of women in the media are the norm, but there is a gap in the literature regarding the portrayal of lesbians. The aim of this study was to assess how lesbians see themselves and their relationships portrayed in the media. A second aim of this study was to experimentally test whether exposure to a sexualized portrayal of a lesbian increases self-objectification while decreasing mood, self-esteem, and body image. A third goal was to explore the role of race in lesbian perceptions of media portraying lesbians. A sample of 178 lesbian women were recruited via the online survey platform Prolific Academic to participate in a study with quantitative and qualitative components. Results indicated that the hot lesbian was the most common portrayal, as predicted, and the most frequently reported stereotype of lesbian relationships was the idea of lesbians moving too quickly in their relationships, especially among White participants. Qualitative findings revealed that lesbians found media portrayals mostly negative and stereotypical, in that they were hypersexualized and for the male gaze, with lesbian relationships portrayed as temporary. Experimental exposure to a sexualized portrayal of a lesbian caused decreased body area satisfaction but did not affect self-objectification, mood, self-esteem, or overall appearance evaluation. Most findings did not vary by race, but those that did reflected racialized stereotypes. The impact of stereotypical portrayals of lesbians in the media should continue to be examined in both lesbian and outgroup populations.
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Portraying performative lesbian actions for men (ME = 3.71, SDE = 0.91; MC = 2.03, SDC = 1.14), t(33) = 7.41, p < 0.001; lesbian relationships as primarily sexual experimentation (ME = 2.85, SDE = 1.23; MC = 1.44, SDC = 0.86), t(33) = 6.96, p < 0.001; lesbians as hypersexualized (ME = 3.56, SDE = 1.11; MC = 2.62, SDC = 1.54) t(33) = 3.48, p = 0.001; and lesbians as unsure of their sexual orientation (ME = 1.97, SDE = 1.24; MC = 1.38, SDC = 0.60), t(33) = 3.19, p = 0.003.
Emotionality (ME = 1.44, SDE = 0.66; MC = 1.50, SDC = 0.75), t(33) = -0.44), p = 0.66; entertaining (ME = 2.74, SDE = 1.21; MC = 2.56, SDC = 1.16) t(33) = 1.23, p = 0.23; easy to pay attention to (ME = 3.62, SDE = 1.26; MC = 3.44, SDC = 1.35), t(33) = 1.53, p = 0.14.
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Thank you to Cassandra Annati for helpful comments on a draft of this manuscript.
Funding for this study was provided by Bridgewater State University’s Office of Undergraduate Research.
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The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare that are relevant to the content of this article.
This research was approved by the IRB at Bridgewater State University.
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Items Used to Assess Exposure to Lesbian Stereotypes in the Media
How often do you come across the following portrayals of lesbian relationships when consuming media (including movies, television, magazines, social media, etc.)? (1 = never, 2 = very infrequently, 3 = occasionally, 4 = somewhat frequently, 5 = very frequently).
The “out” lesbian (a lesbian being open about her sexual orientation)
The “closeted” lesbian (a lesbian denying her sexual orientation in the public sphere)
The “bisexual” lesbian (a lesbian who fluctuates between being with men and being with women)
The “feminine” lesbian (a lesbian whose gender expression is stereotypically feminine or ‘girly’)
The “butch” lesbian (a lesbian whose gender expression is stereotypically masculine or ‘boyish’)
The “hot” lesbian (a lesbian whose body/body parts are hypersexualized, and viewed primarily as a physical object of [male] desire)
Lesbians who view their relationship with women as illegitimate, invalid, or less ‘real’ than a heterosexual relationship
Lesbians who view their relationship with women as semi-permanent, or a ‘vacation’ from heterosexuality
Lesbians who view their relationship with women as primarily performative and for the approval from others, specifically heterosexual men
Lesbians who move too quickly in a relationship, or 'U-Haul'
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Annati, A., Ramsey, L.R. Lesbian Perceptions of Stereotypical and Sexualized Media Portrayals. Sexuality & Culture (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-021-09892-z
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