Lesbian representation in popular culture is explored in the work of early career researcher Rebecca Beirne.

Queer distinctions

Lesbian representation in popular culture is explored in the work of early career researcher Rebecca Beirne.

Queer Distinctions banner

Thinking it sounded like fun, Beirne went along and delivered a paper on Willow, a gay character in the Buffy cast. When she started to receive "fan" emails praising her discussion, she realised the subject had struck a chord.

Beirne, now a lecturer in Film, Television and Cultural Studies, has since devoted her academic pursuits largely to media studies and the representation of queer women in popular culture.

Although still an early career researcher, she has already published a monograph, Lesbians in Television and Text after the Millennium, and she is working on a follow up, this time devoted to the big screen, titled Lesbians in World Cinema. A second edition of her popular 2007 edited collection Televising Queer Women is due for release in April 2012. She has also co-edited the book Making Film and Television Histories with colleague Dr James Bennett, a History academic.

Televising Queer Women was hailed as the first book to address the portrayal of lesbians on the small screen in an overarching way. The collection of essays analysed lesbian and bisexual representation in popular shows such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, Queer as Folk, Sex and the City, The L Word, The O.C. and Prisoner.

While Beirne's book notes much evidence of stereotyping- queer women portrayed as criminals, tough women, vampires, evil stalkers and so on - she says that in revising the edition she was encouraged to find there had been a shift in recent years towards a more diverse representation of gay female characters.

"There is a relative wealth of new programming that either focuses on lesbian characters or has them as significant secondary characters, shows like Lip Service and Sugar Rush from the UK, South of Nowhere (US) and the American reality show The Real L Word," Beirne says.

"There can be a bit of tokenism - I think there is increasingly a sense that shows need to have a queer character in the cast - but even the storylines of these characters are much more developed than what we have seen in the past."

"I have found about 300 films from all around the world dating back to 1931 that have some level of lesbian content," she says.

"My favourite example is Show Me Love, a low-budget Swedish film featuring two teenage protagonists which, on its opening weekend in Sweden, actually beat Titanic at the box office.

"The number of lesbian-focused films released has radically increased in the past 10 years. I think that is a really positive thing, both for lesbian and mainstream audiences."