TV's Mythical Lesbian Bar
Photo credit: free form
By Marie Claire
Kat and her chic friends drink cocktails at a busy lesbian hotspot in Manhattan on The Bold Type. In the Brooklyn version of Almost Family, Tiffany lamps adorn a retro sports bar full of sporty, queer women. In Vidas East Los Angeles, queer people call the neighborhood pub their home and organize lavish themed evenings in a multi-generation room. In the meantime, the characters from The L Word: Generation Q often gather in a recently refurbished gastropub aimed at LA lesbians. And in Youngers New York, ex-girlfriends clink in a bar full of attractive women with wine glasses.
The problem: none of these venues exist outside of our screens.
Bars and restaurants have long been fictionalized for series television (Friends' Central Perk, Crazy Ex-Girlfriends Home Base), but in popular queer shows, trend-oriented bars distract far from the reality we experience. Lesbians like me, who are looking for special places to gather, have few bars to choose from across America. A study published last year estimated that only 15 lesbian bars remained - from more than 200 shrunk in the late 80s - that are more likely to be closed due to COVID-19. The lesbian evening in 2020 is often just a special evening for girls in a gay club.
Then why, when lesbian bars disappear from big cities and small towns, do imaginary social utopias for lesbians appear again and again in women-centered TV shows? The inaccessible representations make me scream on my screen, à la Liz Lemon, I want to go there!
We watch TV because it is not realistic. Who wants to see how characters run errands and balance budgets? Carrie Bradshaw couldn't maintain her Manolo-filled lifestyle by just writing a weekly column, and Friends' living quarters are villas compared to an actual Manhattan apartment for 20 people. These shows show a simpler, more accomplished (sometimes problematic) lifestyle that is above all entertaining.
Without imagination, a queer culture as we know it today would probably not exist. LGBTQIA + creators who bring our experiences to the screen are driving both the mainstream and queer cultures into a better future.
Photo credit: Kat Marcinowski - Starz
"None of the now closed dike poles that I went into in my 20s was a chic, light, or completely hygienic room with $ 15 drinks that were properly served in martini glasses," said Candace Moore, professor of gender and cinema studies at Carleton College in Minnesota, reminiscent of earlier places like San Francisco's The Lexington and LA's The Palms. "They smelled a little, bathrooms had multiple uses, there was cheap, crappy beer." In contrast, she notes that The L Word, the lesbian-centered series that aired on Showtime from 2004 to 2009, offered queer women the opportunity to gather in luxurious rooms in West Hollywood all the time.
"This has created an upscale imaginary lesbian bar that has been around on TV and is still around," says Moore. “Here it seems to be partly a question of television giving the viewer ambitious ideas about wealth, power and fame. It offers a fantasy element. What if queer women had all kinds of capital - social capital, cultural capital, and economic capital? What if they could afford unusual salads and tequila shots "for the home"? That doesn't mean there aren't any wealthy lesbian, bi, and queer women out there, but I don't know many who plan to open bars soon. "
"I'm writing the world I want to see, not necessarily the world I live in," says Marja Lewis-Ryan, the show's runner at The L Word: Generation Q. For the sequel, she worked on a nostalgic, lesbian hand to create queer-centered hotspot: Dana's. The fictional space became so ubiquitous that Semi-Tropic, a Los Angeles gastropub used as a Dana exterior, is now hosting a monthly "Dana" night. "It's great, that's really the dream," says Lewis-Ryan. “I imagined this thing and someone actually put it into practice. I make common spaces that are safe and hope other people make them real. "
In the meantime, Los Angeles-based architect Lauren Amador has designed her own real lesbian bar - one that is partly inspired by L Word's original meeting place, The Planet. Last year she launched Fingerjoint, a pop-up lesbian cocktail bar that serves women-made wines and spirits on an “unpretentious but thoughtful” menu. Seeing Dana on the screen felt "surreal," she says. It was a brilliant representation of the space she wanted to build when she had raised enough capital - a challenge that is plaguing several aspiring bar and restaurant owners who don't have the budget of a Hollywood production company.
Shining lesbian bars in living rooms can lead to a stronger ally. The Bold Type show runner Wendy Straker Hauser said she was "shocked" when she learned that there are only a few lesbian bars left in Manhattan. In the third season of the show, Kat, who has found a new community in lesbian bars, runs for the city council to save a lesbian bar that will give up its business - art that imitates life. "As a storyteller, I always want to be precise," says Hauser. “For me, it was only recognizable how powerful it was for lesbian women not only to have a queer bar, but to have an actual space especially for them. It opens your eyes to how important that was and is, ”says Hauser.
Molly Bernard plays bubbly queer publicist Lauren on Younger. She knew Manhattan's “only two dike poles”, Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson, very well and thought it was great that writers decided to include a lesbian bar, albeit fictionally, in the series. "Wow, we lack that [in real life]," she says.
Photo credit: Showtime
The lesbian social utopia can only be seen on the screen. And that's okay - for now. The representation of lesbians on the screen has increased dramatically in the past year. Vida, Gentefied, and Feel Good have pushed the boundaries of different lesbian characters on TV, but there is still a lot to do - on screen and in reality. Problematic stereotypes regularly combine queer identity with nightlife. Lewis-Ryan - inspired by Los Angeles' sober, queer coffeeshop cuties - is considering broader, more realistic spaces to write into the second season of Generation Q. In real life, Amador has made sure to add low-ABV non-alcoholic beverages to Fingerjoint's menu, and New York's Butch Judy develops a concept for a lesbian bar that focuses more on conversation than clubbing.
It is impossible to present the lived experiences of every LGBTQ person in America in the media. We stream to escape what makes the lesbian social utopia of a nonexistent bar so powerful.
“Even if the lesbian bar may no longer exist in the same way and in the same places in the real world, I hope that it will remain a staple of visual culture. The fictional bar was never realistic, but it was a rough approach - a place where lesbians could find each other, ”says Kelly Hankin, author of Girls in the Back Room: View of the Lesbian Bar. "Whether it's a confectionery glamor version like The Bold Type or a rough neighborhood bar like Jane The Virgin, these images offer lesbians a vision of community that is still important."
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