I am a huge book nerd. And I like to make lists of my favourite characters and speak about them as if they were real people. Sooo without further adieu…
Five Iconic lesbian characters in literature
Lesbian women are outrageously underrepresented in the media and when they are these are often two dimensional depictions. This is particularly true within television culture where they are often used as comic foil , or an overly dramatic plot device. However, within literature there is a rich tradition of lesbian women with strong and unique personalities. Lesbian literature has become a genre in its own right, widely seen as beginning with the Poet Sappho in the year 630 BC. Lesbian literature has often been used as a tool for the author to explore issues of their own sexual identity, often bringing personal traits and attributes to their characters. Lesbian literature can offer us a unique insight into the private struggles that the writer faced at the time and are a vital resource for LGBT history. It is therefore unsurprising that the genre has birthed so many vivid and wonderfully relatable female protagonists (and antagonists).
At number one is outdoorsy tomboy Stephen from “The Well of Loneliness” (1928). Radcliffe Hall’s novel caused a moral outrage when first published due to its depiction of a lesbian relationship and the subtle suggestion of (Pass the smelling salts!) the existence of the female orgasm. This was despite the novel being a relatively tame affair compared to many heterosexual love stories at the time. Stephen is sometimes criticised as a character due to her periods of self loathing throughout the book. How can a reader look up such an overly self deprecating character as a lesbian role model? But this is missing the point. Stephen was never meant to be a role model. She is a gut wrenchingly realistic portrayal of a woman who understands all too bitterly the life that she has been dealt and is all the more beautifully real for it.
At number two is vivacious yet jaded night club singer Shug Avery from Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982). Her infectious personality transforms downtrodden Celie’s outlook on life and sex, both previously seen as chores of drudgery. Shug is glamorous and witty and refuses to be diminished by her negative experiences. I love Shug, despite her selfishness that sometimes borders on cruelty, for her hidden warmth, her wisdom and her enduring energy. She has a way of empowering others despite often being shown to be vulnerable and lonely herself. Walker is often critically praised for creating a black female character who is both sexually assertive and relatively empowered. Thanks to this, Shug is widely viewed to be a feminist character.
At number three is the funny and feisty Molly Bolt in Rita Mae Brown’s coming of age novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). Based on Browns own adolescent experiences of discovering her sexual identity, the novel is also a fascinating insight into the early creative development of the novelist, screenwriter and political activist. Molly’s conflicted life mirrors Browns turbulent youth, including being kicked out of university for protesting during the civil rights movement. Furthermore, Molly’s
creative fulfilment through filmmaking holds parallels with Brown’s screenwriting. However, Molly Bolt has gone beyond being merely the literary incarnation of the author to become an iconic symbol of the free thinking lesbian intellectual of the 1960s and 70s. Published in a decade where lesbian sexuality was portrayed in coming of age novels as a “phase”, this character of Molly as being a full out-and-out Lesbian from a young age was a particularly bold move.
At number four is Nan, the star of Sarah Waters petticoat strewn raunch fest Tipping the Velvet (1998). Nan’s transformation from naïve oyster restaurant worker to liberated theatre loving city dweller through her romance with cross dressing Kit is thrillingly Dickensian and has more genuine erotica on one page that fifty shades has in three volumes. As a historical novel, Waters has a unique perspective on the Victorian era through a clever reimagining of a London lesbian presence. Her love for the city is evident through the changing character of Nan. At the beginning of the novel, Nan describes herself as “unremarkable” with “colourless” hair. However, a zest for theatre, for London and for her new found sexuality quickly reveals Nan’s passionate personality within.
Perhaps the best depiction of strength in the face of fire and brimstone homophobia is through the character of Jeanette in Jeanette Winterson’s semi autobiographical Oranges are Not The Only Fruit (1985). Set in an ultra religious evangelical community, Jeanette has the truly heroic qualities of tolerance, intelligence and open heartedness. Her curiosity and ability to question the world around her sets Jeanette apart from her family and the rest of the dull yet dutifully obedient congregation. Jeanette’s story is chiefly about intellectual development and forming your own opinions despite significant hurdles. An important lesson for any young woman regardless of sexuality.