Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sexism, Heterosexism, and What All This Has to Do With Lindsay Lohan

Linsday Lohan has broken a lot of rules: rules about drug use, rules about driving under the influence of intoxicating substances, rules about showing up for court mandated substance abuse classes. And in different ways, she has paid for breaking all of these rules both personally and professionally. But in the world of Hollywood, where substance abuse and running afoul of the law are nothing out of the ordinary, Lohan's main transgression in the eyes of America was perhaps not her all too familiar troubles with alcohol and other drugs. It was her wanton disregard for a prevailing narrative about women, femininity, and sexuality that Lohan has refused to adhere to. It is for this supposed sin, more than any other, which she is currently being made to pay.

When America was introduced to Linsday Lohan, as a precocious child star, she was intended to symbolize wholesome family values in her film choices. In movies like "The Parent Trap," "Herbie: Fully Loaded," and "Freaky Friday" Lohan was the all American girl. She dated Wilmer Valderrama of "That Seventies Show" fame.

Then came Samantha Ronson and the ultimate Hollywood transgression. In 2008, Lohan began publicly dating the butch lite DJ, speaking publicly about their relationship and stating that while she was not a lesbian, she was very much into Ronson and did not want to classify herself sexually.

Now when it comes to today's Hollywood, there are a number of narratives that a female star may embrace when it comes to same sex attraction and relationships. Firstly, there is what I will term the "lesbian option" in which a female celebrity, usually somewhat older in years than many stars and closer to the butch end of the spectrum than the femme one, declares herself to be exclusively homosexual and then proceeds to date exclusively members of her own sex. This is the path forged by Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, and to a lesser extent, Cynthia Nixon. While this is perhaps received in middle America with a certain amount of requisite bigotry, this is rarely a big shock as the celebrity in question was often assumed to be gay anyway or at the very least not likely to be sexually attractive to normal heterosexual men.

Secondly, there is what I will term the "pseudo-bisexual option." Embraced by everyone from Madonna to Christina Aguilera to Britney Spears to Anna Paquin to Drew Barrymore to Lady Gaga to Megan Fox, this involves a young, popular female celebrity, assumed to be sexually desirable to average heterosexual men, who announces or hints in an ostentatious way about being bisexual. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways from French kissing another sufficiently femme woman on an awards program or by simply declaring to a tabloid that the star in question has always felt herself attracted to both men and women. However, it is never expected that these admissions of desire for women will lead to the celebrity in question having a publicly acknowledged romantic relationship with a member of the same sex as herself. Instead, she is expected to date men exclusively and probably to eventually have a heterosexual marriage with a sufficiently heterosexual man. This allows the star to cash in on the rebellious, sexy mystique associated with female bisexuality without actually accumulating the baggage associated with engaging in same sex relationships or identifying meaningfully with the gay (or especially with the lesbian or bisexual) community. The primacy of heterosexual relationships or relationships with men goes unchallenged. While the star may fantasize about women or occasionally kiss one, she would never really choose one over a man. This is the meme immortalized in Katy Perry's hit song "I Kissed a Girl." The narrative is reassuring for heterosexual men and much of American society because it serves to trivialize female bisexuality and to a lesser extent, lesbianism.

But Linsday Lohan did not adhere to this narrative. She did not come out as "lesbian" or "gay" or "homosexual." She did not muse emptily to Rolling Stone or Cosmopolitan or The Star about how "everyone is really bisexual" or about how she sort of kind of had a crush on a girl one time. She did not stick her tongue down the throat of another female celebrity on national television. She simply had a very public relationship with a woman without ever renouncing either her heterosexuality or her homosexuality. As one of the most sexually desirable women in the country, she willingly chose a relationship with a woman over a relationship with a man without qualification or apology, without even being a lesbian. It is for this transgression that Lindsay Lohan is expected to pay.

Other dynamics are at work in Lohan's reception by the public as well. As a friend of mine so eloquently stated it "It seems to me that when a woman defies the law she is impudent; when a man does it, he is a rebel." While the antics of Robert Downey Jr. or Lil Wayne or Eminem (or even more famously men like Kurt Cobain or Tupac Shakur or James Dean) are romanticized as the behavior of sexy but troubled outsiders at war with a hostile society, Lohan and other women like her are seen as frivolous, selfish, and incompetent. While men like Michael Jackson or Gary Coleman are rightly seen as being exploited by uncaring parents, thus leading at least in part to their adult troubles, Lohan is solely responsible for her myriad personal and professional shortcomings despite the crass and opportunistic way in which her parents have exploited her looks, money, fame, and talents over the years.

Of course, Lindsay Lohan is an adult who is responsible for her own actions, especially when she recklessly risks the live and health of others. Of course driving under the influence of alcohol or any other drug is often a dangerous and poor choice. But the vitriol leveled against Lohan is unique and has its roots in the sexism and heterosexism at the heart of much of society. And we do all of us a disservice when we pretend otherwise.

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