Researching Magical Lesbians

by Penelope Dane

SuccubusIn mythology, a succubus is a woman demon who seduces men and sucks away their vitality. On Lost Girl, a Canadian supernatural drama, shown on Syfy and Netflix in the US, the heroine Bo is a succubus who belongs to a magical race called the Fae who often exploit humans. However, Bo uses her powers to protect other women from rapists, to fight for the rights of humans, and to restore life.

Currently in its fifth and final season, Lost Girl had enormous queer-feminist potential to tell a different story about women’s sexuality: one where women’s sexual appetites were celebrated instead of feared and reviled. Bo’s commitment to social justice and to experiencing sexual pleasure – with both men and women – challenged North American tendencies to “conflate sexuality and morality constantly.” Yet, as is so often the case with mainstream television, Lost Girl’s feminist potential falls flat. Trans* women and women of color play minor roles and are often vilified. Their bodies, sexuality, and caring labor are used as stepping stones for white liberation.

Lost Girls TVThis type of appropriation is not new; in novels, film, and television, minor characters who belong to oppressed groups often use their survival skills to help major characters who have more racial, class, ability, age and/or sexual privileges than they do. Character tropes — clichéd predictable personalities — in film, TV, and fiction are everywhere. For example, Netflix’s recent series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015) married two tropes — the Gay Best Friend and the Sassy Black Friend — into one minor character. Tropes are so common, some viewers might not think about them when kicking back to watch some television, but researching character tropes can provide insight on the ways narratives can trivialize the systemic oppression of people of color, women, queer folks, the poor, the disabled and the elderly.

Writers have pushed back against the Gay Best Friend trope, and feminist Julia Serrano has done amazing work on damaging tropes of trans* women, but lesbian tropes (both cis and trans*) also need feminist attention. My research argues that many minor lesbian characters fall into a trope that I’ve named the Magical Lesbian. When paired with woman protagonists, Magical Lesbians perform feminine carework (childcare, housework, and emotional support) as well as heal and protect both cis and trans* women from male violence.

Often denied sexual pleasure or lasting relationships, Magical Lesbians pay a price in narratives for their lesbian desire. Even if a Magical Lesbian seeks happiness, she ultimately fulfills a woman protagonist’s deepest needs instead of her own. Whether it be childcare, protection from men’s violence, or self-acceptance, when a Magical Lesbian appears in a story, she provides a protagonist with what she desires most. Although my current book project, Lez-being: Magical Lesbians, Carework, and Temporality is limited to North American media case studies from 1980 – present, I have noticed this trope emerging across the globe: from contemporary Australian and Israeli movies to recent Nigerian and Somali literature.

In the case of Lost Girl, Nadia, a Magical Lesbian, helps Bo, the white protagonist, live out her desires for romance and self-acceptance. When Bo develops a crush on Lauren — a white, lesbian doctor who serves the Fae– it turns out Lauren already has a girlfriend, Nadia. A lesbian woman of color, Nadia has been in a mysterious coma for years that Dr. Lauren cannot cure. Instead of seducing Lauren while Nadia is unconscious — which would be easy for a succubus — Bo risks her life to cure Nadia. Thus Bo uses Nadia’s body to demonstrate her ethics. Although Bo might be queer, sexually liberated, and have deadly powers, she is “good” because she saves Nadia instead of luring Lauren away.

DemonBut Bo’s rescue actually serves Bo’s needs and not Nadia’s. Soon after Nadia regains consciousness, she is possessed by a man Garuda demon who is trying to find a way into Bo’s world. When the demon causes Nadia to become violent, at Nadia’s urging, Bo murders her. Nadia’s dying words to Bo are thank you, and the demon, with no host body, returns to his realm. This scenario demonstrates how problematic the Magical Lesbian trope can be: in Lost Girl, lesbian desire combined with racist stereotypes about women of color means that Nadia’s role in the narrative is self-sacrifice in order to fulfill Bo’s needs. Not only does Nadia’s demon possession let Bo protect her community — one of Bo’s deepest desires — but Nadia’s death gives Bo access to Lauren. With Nadia gone, Bo soon starts dating Lauren.

What are the consequences when fictional women protagonists use minor lesbian characters for self-actualization or even just to help them with the cooking and childcare? This question is one I’m currently investigating as I theorize ways Magical Lesbians simultaneously disrupt heterosexual narratives and buttress heterosexual institutions. As my brief analysis of Lost Girl demonstrates, the Magical Lesbian trope deeply intersects with race; in fact it often functions in tandem with the magic Negro trope, which sociologists argue “convinces Whites [that] racial problems only exist in the minds of Black people.” When minor characters are minorities who work to liberate the majority instead of themselves, stories are not what Dorothy Allison calls “the lie that tells the truth.” Instead, narratives with Magical Lesbians and other tropes end up reproducing oppressive social structures. Even though there may be more out lesbians than ever in novels and on television, as troped characters, our needs and desires — our very humanity — remains ignored.

Penelope Dane works at Hamilton College with students from the Hamilton College Opportunity Program and the ESOL department. She designs workshops using embodied pedagogy to teach writing, diversity, and about lesbian lives. Her current research focuses on representations of lesbian caregiving in North American media.

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