Female Homosexuality in a Heteronormative Narrative. From "The Bell Jar" to "Sex and the City"

Term Paper, 2017

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Franziska We (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Homosexualit:y a Threat to Heteronormativity?

2. Maria, Joan, and their Clash With the Norms
2.1. Samantha’s and Maria’s Relationship
2.2. Esther’s and Joan’s Friendship

3. Time Frames and Heterosexual Struggles with Homosexuality
3.1. The 1950s and “Compulsory Heterosexuality”
3.2. On Joan’s Death and the Lesbian Threat
3.3. The 1990s, 2000s, and Gay Rights
3.4. “Compulsory Heterosexuality” in Sex and the City

4. Lesbianism and Femininity
4.1. Lesbian Stereotypes in The Bell Jar
4.2. The Impossibility of Lesbian Relationships in Sex and the City
4.3. Defeating the “Lesbian Threat”?
4.4. Heteronormativity in the 1950s and the Early 2000s

5. Female Identities in a Heteronormative Society..10 Works Cited

1. Homosexuality: a Threat to Heteronormativity?

Gender and sexuality are historically intertwined in several ways. Often, the legitimacy of “real” male- or womanhood has to be proven by heterosexuality. Hence, homosexuality can threaten those concepts of a stereotypical gender identity. According to Judith Butler, gender is something that is constructed rather than something we simply own (45); thus it is not ensured and can be dismantled either by oneself or someone else. Focusing on female homosexuality as a perceived threat to heteronormativity and femininity as well as femaleness, I will predominantly discuss two lesbian characters and two straight, female characters in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and the HBO series Sex and the City. Both the novel from 1963 and the TV show which ran from 1998 to 2004 are mainly concerned with women and how they deal with the society they live in. However, in particular the heterosexual protagonists depend on men and their relationships with them to define and back up their own femaleness. Once they are confronted with female homosexuality, they find their femaleness and femininity endangered. In consequence of this menace Joan and Maria, the women who represent lesbianism in The Bell Jar and Sex and the City, cannot persist in the storylines of Esther and Samantha who only get to win (back) their full womanhood once they have turned their backs on homosexuality. While the respective time frames of the stories do not only differentiate the women in the choices they are offered but also in how the relationships with Joan and Maria are allowed to develop, they both fall victim to heteronormative standards of femaleness and relationships.

2. Maria, Joan, and Their Clash With the Norms

2. 1. Samantha’s and Maria’s Relationship

Both in The Bell Jar and in Sex and the City, overt homosexuality can only be found in side characters such as Joan and in SATC’s case, Stanford and Anthony and at

one point even Samantha Jones, one of the four protagonists. Samantha engaging in a romantic relationship with another woman in season four of the show and referring to herself as a lesbian, however, their romance remains Samantha’s and the whole series’ only lesbian affair. Also, as Kim Akass and Janet McCabe observe in Reading Sex and the City, the show made a point in presenting a couple that still is as heterogeneous as possible: “The lesbian artist Maria (…) is Brazilian, establishing the classic blonde/brunette opposition so often used to figure sexual difference in the face of its apparent absence.” (56) After all, it also is their differences that make them break up after three episodes when it becomes more and more apparent that Maria cannot overcome Samantha’s sexual history and Samantha cannot deal with Maria’s stereotypical femininity which Akass and McCabe describe as “the supposed lesbian preference for warm baths over hot sex.” (57)

Instead of further exploring at what could be interpreted as Sam being bi- or pansexual (To quote Samantha, “This is not about being gay or straight. Maria is an incredible woman.” (4: 4)), her relationship with Maria is being treated rather as her “trying out” lesbianism which she later decides is not for her. The narrative of Samantha’s sexuality being directed not merely at men is not that odd, considering how Samantha once calls herself “try-sexual” (3: 4) earlier in the show. As the actual storyline suggests though, homo- or bisexuality departs from the norm too much to be equally an option as heterosexuality. Samantha is the only one deemed suitable for even just dipping into something as, apparently, absurd as homosexuality not because she actually is lesbian but rather because she is the sexually adventurous one of the women

2.2. Esther’s and Joan’s Friendship

As for The Bell Jar, the circumstances given for being openly homosexual are very different from the ones in Sex and the City. While Joan Giddings’ homosexuality is not portrayed as a phase or an experiment, Esther is repulsed by it initially nonetheless. Samantha may not be taken as seriously as she should be by her friends when she tells them about Maria — to quote Charlotte, “I don't think she's a lesbian, I think she just ran out of men.” (4: 4) — but she is also not marginalized for her non-heterosexual experience. As Joan tells Esther she likes her, Esther responds “(…) I don’t like you. You make me puke, if you want to know.” (Plath 211) and leaves the room. However, Joan is the one to take care of Esther after she then goes and has sex with Irwin, leaving her bleeding strongly and, nevertheless, initiated into real womanhood as defined by heterosexuality. Pat MacPherson discusses heterosexuality as a condition for mental health and a stable gender identity in her work Reflecting on the Bell Jar:

Homosexuality as disease is the necessary Other in the organic medical model of mental health. If heterosexuality is the natural culmination of psychic development signaling adulthood and the end of adolescence, homosexuality is the corrupt and sickly wrong-turn (…). Lesbianism threatens the whole project of female adolescence: to secure gender identity irreversibly, by heterosexual initiation into womanhood. (81)

Not only is Joan a threat to Esther’s sexuality; she also endangers Esther’s coming of age as a “real” woman. As Gretchen Therese Junglas points out, the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which was established in 1952 classified “same-sex attraction to be a mental disorder,” (17) and is “indicative of the culture in 1950s America, which held strong taboos against nonprocreative sex.” (May qtd. in Junglas 18) Joan’s homosexuality is a threat to Esther, to herself, and to 1950s gender identity as a whole.

3. Time Frames and Heterosexual Struggles with Homosexuality

3.1. The 1950s and “Compulsory Heterosexuality”

The 1950s were a time in which McCarthyism and the cold war dominated life in the US; the fear of a weaker patriarchy was as existent as the fear of communism.

Patriarchy itself can only exist if “strict gender distinctions” are maintained (Butler qtd. in Junglas 24) and is furthermore dependent on what Adrienne Rich refers to as “compulsory heterosexuality.” (Rich qtd. in Junglas 24) These social rules about gender distinctions and the definition of women only by their relationships with men are standards Esther struggles with throughout the whole novel. She has to adapt to a society in which “if a woman feels unfulfilled, she has to find fault with herself and see wherefore such abnormal feelings are disturbing her.” (Ghandeharion, Bozorgian and Sabbagh 68) Esther is constantly second-guessing herself, for instance in analyzing why none of the boys she went on a date with invited her to a second one: “I just didn’t have any luck. (…) After all, I wasn’t crippled in any way, I just studied too hard, I didn’t know when to stop.” (Plath 54) It is as since her dates with men do not lead to romance, surely there must be something wrong with her. Her dependence on men to define her own identity and femaleness also leads to Esther sleeping with Irwin. The incident certainly lacks the “tenderness” Doctor Nolan mentions when talking about what a woman could possibly see in a woman she does not see in a man (210). Not once does Esther find any tenderness let alone a fulfilling romantic relationship in any of the men she encounters; in fact most of the men in her life have either left (her father), disappointed (Buddy Willard) or hurt her (Irwin). Still, she accepts the compulsory heterosexuality as a means for her to be a woman.

3.2. On Joan’s Death and the Lesbian Threat

This heterosexuality is evidentially threatened by Joan whose otherness is so menacing it has to be resolved somehow. Esther describes Joan Giddings as “the beaming double of [Esther’s] old best self, specially designed to follow and torment [Esther].” (197) Joan as Esther’s double represents Esther’s homosexual or rather non-feminine side, challenging her womanhood. Joan’s death therefore enables Esther to become what is considered a whole and well woman. Macpherson concludes that “Esther’s rebirth, at the cost of Joan’s suicide, simply retells old mother-daughter sacrificial victim story (…). The despised woman (…) has her neck wrung and her body buried. She’s bound to haunt.” (97) Esther’s masculine side has to be killed before she can perform as what is conceived a full woman fit for a heteronormative narrative. As Rich finds, “Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of the taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life.” (649) Thus Joan’s lesbianism cannot coexist with Esther’s perception of herself as a (heterosexual) woman. After all, it is a common trope (not just) in literature and on television for lesbian and bisexual characters to be killed off (Jackmann). Maria in Sex and the City who, staying true to the overall mood of the show, does not literally die but instead has to leave and make room for the revival of Samantha’s heterosexuality. Her character therefore also gets sacrificed for the sake of the old and not as uncomfortable narrative of Samantha going out with men.

3.3. The 1990s, 2000s, and Gay Rights

While the 1990s and early 2000s for certain lacked the 1950's McCarthyism and Red Scare, they still had not overcome the heteronormativity that also surrounds Esther Greenwood at all times in The Bell Jar. Even though Sex and the City is mostly read as a post-feminist series, it clings to heterosexuality as the central pillar of gender distinction nonetheless. Sex and the City premiered on HBO in the year 1998. It was the same year Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi compared homosexuality to a condition "just like alcohol...or sex addiction...or kleptomania." (qtd. in Franke-Ruta) in the face of James C. Hormel, a gay man, being nominated as an US ambassador to Luxemburg. How far removed is a statement like this, made by a public figure without any hesitation whatsoever, from a 1950’s categorization of same-sex attraction as a mental disorder? Certainly not as far as it should be.


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Female Homosexuality in a Heteronormative Narrative. From "The Bell Jar" to "Sex and the City"
University of Regensburg
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female, homosexuality, heteronormative, narrative, from, bell, city
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Franziska We (Author), 2017, Female Homosexuality in a Heteronormative Narrative. From "The Bell Jar" to "Sex and the City", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/412054


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