Conversations: Media Representations of “Ideal” Relationships

By Kiki Zeldes —

The conversation below is excerpted from an online discussion on relationships, identity, and sexuality that took place while compiling the last print edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” You can learn more about the discussion and read bios of the participants.

Jaime: I see a lot of people in the media like me in some ways. I’m a straight, cis, white women; they are straight, cis, white women. They are mostly thinner and prettier than me, but I’m within a standard deviation of a socially acceptable body. I have these privileges.

My relationships… not so much. I can’t think of nonmonogamy in mainstream media off the top of my head. And the pop-psychy gender essentialism — yech. I think the closest thing to the dynamics between my current partner and me are Zoe and Wash from [the TV series] “Firefly” and [the film] “Serenity.” The schlubby husbands and hot but shrewish wives of TV sitcoms we are not. I don’t have a TV anymore, and aside from saving money, the dearth of characters and concepts that I can relate to (or even that don’t actively piss me off) is a big reason, with my irritation at the lowest common denominator method of portraying women and relationships being prominent.

Danielle: What books/sites have you found useful or more “true” in portraying relationships for you?

Jaime: A lot of feminist blogs are written by women who have relationships more like the kind that I like/have. The main contributors at Pandagon and Shakesville, for example. They talk about their relationships in the blogs, and it’s nice to see a functional open marriage, or just an egalitarian partnership.

I find odds and ends in books that often aren’t about the relationships but that include them incidentally. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, with their strong heroine, or just about everything Tamora Pierce has ever written. In nonfiction, there are biographies of people like Jill Ker Conway, Virginia Woolf, and Julia Child, and feminist works on sexuality and women and relationships—”Communion” by bell hooks comes immediately to mind. And queer literature is more likely to portray egalitarian partnerships, so stuff like Alison Bechdel’s comics are good for that.

Lydia: I just have to say, love that someone mentioned “Firefly.” And I absolutely adore Zoe and Wash. I agree with you regarding the tiredness of the “Family Guy” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” sitcoms in which a hot and smart woman is somehow inexplicably married to an overgrown man-child. It’s so insulting to men, women, straight couples—pretty much anyone who has the gumption to be in a positive, lasting relationship.

Chloe: It’s cool that you mention books and the Internet and blogs as media. I think most people were just thinking about TV and pop culture stuff, but it’s true, the Internet does offer more options—like you said, if you know where to look, which is a whole other thing. As a trans woman, I’ve found the Internet crucial to me, especially reading blogs and such. I think that’s one of the only places (in media, anyway, not counting people I have met in the “real world”) that I saw relationships that at least came close to mirroring my own desires. I hadn’t really thought about it that way before reading your post, though. Also, hell yes, “Firefly”! So good.

Jordan: My ideal relationship is never on television. I can’t think of a single depiction of a relationship involving a nonbinary trans person on television, let alone someone who also has disabilities. As a result of the fact that people like me are basically erased, I think that my perceptions of “ideal” relationships are more pure and self-shaped, if that makes sense. I’m not influenced by relationships I see onscreen, in books, etc., because they are so abstract from who I am that I don’t see myself or my relationships at all in them. My ideas about relationships are consequently very much shaped by my own beliefs and thoughts; I must construct my own media because the media pretend that I don’t exist.

Rebeka: As a child I did not grow up with a happy family. I never saw what a happy functioning relationship looked like. So as I got older, I watched the Lifetime channel as much as possible. Lifetime is kind of like reading a romance novel. The movies and TV shows they show always have a happy ending: “Touched by an Angel,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and countless fairy-tale movies. Whatever the show, there is always a man and woman who fall in love and are a happy functioning family who live happily ever after.

My mother and brother always make fun of me and say, “She’s watching the tampon channel again.” I do hope to grow up and have a fairy-tale relationship where we are madly in love with each other and create a beautiful family. I would say that this is the only way I let TV and the media affect me. I am the total opposite of what the media portray and I am very happy with that. I don’t need to try and look like what the media portray, because I am far from it. My biggest challenge is just being comfortable with myself and finding someone who likes me for me. Finding a man who isn’t affected by the media, now that is the hard part.

Heidi: Children’s stories and movies like Disney films introduced me to a heteronormative ideal at a very young age. When I was a young teenager, I started having feelings for some of the girls on my favorite TV shows. I was so ashamed of my feelings toward girls, including my best friend at the time, that I really tried to overcompensate by becoming as boy crazy as possible. I felt normal when I was kissing a boy, even when I was feeling abnormal for not enjoying myself like they do in the movies.

This only got worse in my early twenties. I actually went as far as to get married to a man I knew I didn’t love (or even enjoy being with sexually) because I wanted the typical middle-class white-picket-fence life for myself and my children. I thought that I was supposed to get married, that it would make other people happy and provide a “normal” life for my children. That is what I saw throughout the media growing up; rarely were there positive portrayals of a single mother, except for the stories in which she later found a husband.

I am having a similar problem right now. I have not had any interest in dating or having a sexual relationship in about two years. I cannot think of a single television character who is asexual and not considered to be extremely odd in some way. With so much emphasis on sexuality and “hookup culture,” asexuality becomes very taboo. I like the fact that women are more than ever free to explore their sexuality, despite the fact that a double standard does still exist between men and women, as does the dichotomy of “good girl” and “bad girl,” which is strongly tied to sexuality, but I think there also needs to be a space for women without desires, not because they are “good” or “pure” or abstaining for moral or religious purposes, but simply because they are just not interested in sex, or do not currently feel a strong desire to be involved in sexual relationships.

Sophia: I think the lack of interracial relationships in the media is one of the reasons why my parents were not totally supportive of our relationship when my husband and I started dating. My parents saw very few interracial relationships in their immediate community. They couldn’t see how my husband and I could have anything in common. They were afraid that my husband, in the white majority, would take advantage of me, an Asian/Hispanic minority woman. With time, my parents thawed out as they got to know my husband. Now they love him, and they appreciate how thoughtful and sensitive he is to how foreign my parents still feel, even after almost fifty years in the United States, about straying outside their cultural communities.

EJM: I’ve had the same situation with my parents. I think they are very accepting of my sister-in-law, who is white, and my partner, but I think it is still hard for them to cope with the fact that we are not in the “normal” relationships that they see in their community. I’m really glad to hear how accepting your family is of your husband. It gives me hope that my parents will be able to do the same with my partner and my sister-in-law and see beyond the cultural differences.

Judith: More than shaping my knowledge of the “ideal” relationship, I think media images affect me by severely limiting my sense of what relationship models are possible. Years after coming out as a lesbian, I still find that if I watch too many sitcoms (with their almost entirely heterosexual pairings), I find myself asking questions about how I’d handle that situation were it to arise with my husband.

It’s as if I temporarily forget that the media I’m being fed are not relevant to my own experience. It frustrates me, because I believe in role models; I believe in examining what has worked for others and incorporating the facets that I suspect will work for me. My favorite Disney film, when I was a kid, was “The Little Mermaid,” and yet I was fundamentally uninterested in Eric. I realize now that I selectively identified with Ariel; I connected with her experiences as the youngest daughter, her desire to be somewhere else, and her need to explore, while simultaneously dismissing her love for Eric. For all the problems I see in that film now, it’s eye-opening for me to realize that, even as a small child, I had an ability to find my own representation and ignore what failed to speak to me.

These days, I seek out media that represent me, and my understanding of representation has expanded to include more than lesbian relationships. I look for feminist media, queer media, media that emphasize enthusiastic consent, media that do not presume sexuality is easy, media that recognize power dynamics and work to address them creatively. I look for stories in which—to paraphrase “The Celluloid Closet”—the people I most closely relate with are not there to be pitied, feared, or laughed at. In keeping with my days of Disney watching, I still take what resonates with me, in films, books, and television shows, and leave the rest. But I also engage more consciously and actively. I critique the media that don’t speak to me, and I create stories and representations of my own to help build a fuller picture.

Chloe: As a trans woman, I have to echo what some folks have already said about the lack of media depictions available to me at all. I had almost nothing to work with from the start. When people talk about trans women in the mainstream media, it’s usually to ponder how we could be “crazy” enough to “mutilate” ourselves or something. Our sexuality rarely comes up directly, though it’s always there, on the underside. I suspect this is largely because of the ways our decision to transition has long been treated as a sexual fetish or deviancy.

Because of that history, we’re thought of as “improperly sexual” no matter what we’re doing. It shows up when right-wing propaganda tries to stir up some kind of creepy panic about how we’re going to assault other women in the bathroom (because obviously trans women only go into bathrooms for sexual reasons, not just to, you know, pee). I’d say the vast majority of media images of trans women, besides the stupid bathroom stuff, are stories about when trans women (usually young trans women of color) are murdered, and this is often attributed to the stereotype that trans women are all sex workers (and thus, of course, “deserved” it by getting ourselves in dangerous positions). So while trans women’s sexuality is not directly talked about in the media, it’s usually there, and it’s almost always seen as something threatening, immoral, dangerous to both ourselves and non-trans people, something that is perverse or something that gets us killed.

Media portrayals of trans women are getting slightly better, I think, but it brings up a whole other issue—most of what’s seen now is of relatively privileged white, middle-class, late-transitioning trans women, like in the movie “Transamerica.” There are still few portrayals of young trans women of color. Or, when we have the occasional positive images like the story of Angel in “Rent,” it’s still a tragic story that ends in death. At least it’s closer to reality, and at least something is getting out there, I guess.

Kali: What the media say about my relationships now, since I became disabled, is enough to make me both devastated and enraged. The media say that either my partner will leave me, or he is some great self-sacrificing person. There’s no room for a relationship where both of us want to be there. Where both of us rely on each other, instead of just me relying on him. The media say that if he stays, it’s some kind of amazing act of love, not the more mundane sort of romance that people who are not disabled have. He’s not some brave, dramatic rescuer, and I’m not some crippled damsel who needs rescuing. We’re just a couple of people in love. That’s all. But there’s no space in the media for happily ever after for us—either he has to give up his chance at something “better” and live a half life to “save” me (which typically ends in the disabled partner dying), or he has to leave me because my disability is just too miserable for him, and poor disabled me just isn’t enough of a woman for him. I try to ignore the media, but I’ll admit I have some trouble with the idea that I’m not good enough for him and don’t deserve him.

Nina: I am a black woman and I am looking for a partner. Race, color, creed don’t really matter, but there are very few positive representations of black women and black women in positive couples. The only representation of the love that I am looking for is in Barack and Michelle Obama. Politics aside, they represent what I want: two educated beautiful black people in love and affectionate with beautiful children. They strive to make a change in the world. You may not agree with their politics, but their love is undeniable.

Rebeka: Nina, I so agree with you. I am a half African/Caucasian-American girl. I am, shall we say, a bigger girl, so I am not portrayed in the media really at all, and if I am, it’s not in a very positive way. I am only eighteen, so I am very new to the relationship phase of life. However, I love your Michelle and Barack comment. I hope to one day find love like they have. I just wanted to thank you for being so comfortable being you. I am still coming to terms with my self and sexuality, but it makes me very happy to hear from a strong African-American woman like yourself, who has a strong sense of self. Thank you for being you.

Tasha Maria: I can remember growing up on the South side of Chicago in the late ’70s and the images of relationships on television were negative stereotypes of African Americans.

I felt a little better during the ’80s when hip-hop hit the scene and many of the rappers back then rapped about love. LL Cool J’s hit songs “I Need Love” and “Around the Way Girl” were my favorites because he talked about the black women with a lot of respect and love. It also rubbed off on the boys because they wanted to be like LL. We also had “The Cosby Show,” which made me feel like my dream was possible.

After “The Cosby Show” ended and gangsta rap became more popular, a total shift happened, and the African-American woman became a target in the worst way. The images of misogyny filled up the airwaves and the lyrics became more and more disrespectful. The term “baby daddy” was invented in order to explain the increase of unwed mothers.

These images didn’t affect just the African-American community but women in general in ways that seem to be irreversible. Even old men like Imus felt the need to describe women as “nappy-headed hos” due to decreasing respect of women.

I turn on many popular television shows and they show interracial relationships usually between an African-American man and a Caucasian woman but rarely do they show a woman like me being loved or respected. Is the African-American woman near extinction? is a common question I have to ask myself from time to time. It has really made me feel sad to hear so many other sisters talk about relationship issues.

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