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We see the ‘crazy lesbian’ stereotype everywhere in TV and movies, but it’s harmful to queer women

Daisy Jones is a journalist and author. In her book, All The Things She Said: Everything I Know About Modern Lesbian And Bi Culture, she paints a vital and insightful portrait of what it means to be a queer woman in 2021, including the harmful stereotypes many still contend with. 

The following is an extract from All The Things She Said: Everything I Know About Modern Lesbian And Bi Culture, by Daisy Jones.

For as long as I can remember, the ‘crazy lesbian’ trope has endured throughout pop culture. Even the phrase ‘crazy lesbian’ has a certain familiar ring to it. They are two words that hold hands, two words that seem to find each other constantly. If a woman is crazy, the trope implies, a lesbian is crazy times two.

This ‘craziness’ has appeared in multiple, overlapping iterations. There’s the ‘obsessive, unhinged’ lesbian, prone to delusion and paranoia (see: Black Swan, both leads in Mulholland Drive, Single White Female). There’s the ‘jealous psycho’ lesbian, usually driven completely insane by her unrequited love of an unsuspecting straight woman (think: Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, Eve in All About Eve.) Right at the top of the pyramid of course is the ‘murderous lesbian’, who we see time and time again in film and TV (see *takes a deep breath*: Daughters of Darkness, Basic Instinct, Bound, Windows, Heavenly Creatures, Monster, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Lizzie, Women Who Kill). 

These tropes are impossible to escape. Even one of my favourite TV comedies – Julia Davis’s Sally4Ever, in which Davis plays the exciting and then frightening new girlfriend of the main character – feeds into the stereotype of the lesbian lover as demented, obsessive, a deranged figure who ultimately drives the main female protagonist back into the arms of a safe (read: heterosexual, male) lover.

All The Things She Said Jacket (1)
All The Things She Said: Everything I Know About Modern Lesbian and Bi Culture, by Daisy Jones

Bisexuals are often portrayed similarly, though not completely. If the ‘crazy lesbian’ is driven insane by jealousy and delusion, the ‘depraved bisexual’ is usually a little more sociopathic. Think Margaret in Liquid Sky. Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body. Kimberly in Pretty Persuasion. Villanelle in Killing Eve. Chloe in Chloe. These characters don’t care which genders they sleep with because they don’t care about anything other than themselves. 

The ‘depraved bisexual’ will often use women as pawns in a wider game, or else just for the thrill of it. Crucially though, the ‘depraved bisexual’ is incapable of true love and inevitably fucks up the lives of other, more empathetic characters. They overlap with the ‘murderous lesbian’ sometimes for sure – although the bisexual is more likely to be driven to kill by boredom or for attention than passion (Chloe might profess her love for Catherine in Chloe, for instance, but she seems much more wrapped up in ruining her life).

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These tropes have been around for decades – centuries in fact – and they haven’t just existed on the screen. One of the first pieces of vampire fiction – Carmilla, written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1872 – tells the tale of an evil sapphic vampire, obsessed with consuming young women. ‘With gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one forever”.’ 

Elsewhere, in Djuna Barnes’s 1937 novel Nightwood, same-sex love between women is described as an ‘insane passion for unmitigated anguish’, with the main character perceiving her own desires as ‘something evil in me that loves evil and degradation’. In Susan Swan’s seminal 1993 novel The Wives of Bath, one girl is driven so insane by her love of another girl that she murders a man, chops off his dick and sticks it to herself with glue.

Daisy Jones
Daisy Jones, author of All The Things She Said: Everything I Know About Modern Lesbian and Bi Culture

It can be hard to pinpoint why these ‘crazy queer’ narratives persist, but they nearly always smack of homophobia and misogyny. They paint the queer woman as the ‘other’, as an entity to avoid and escape like a haunted house in favour of a safer, more family-orientated home. If straight relationships symbolise security and comfort in pop culture, queer relationships symbolise the antithesis: chaos, deviancy, occasionally even murder. In fact, what could better represent the danger queer women present to the status quo than a literal loss of life? The ultimate warning. The ultimate punishment. 

None of this is to say that writers and directors necessarily believe that queer women are insane or bloodthirsty – I’m sure many more recent writers and directors would be mortified by the idea. It’s more that the stereotype has endured for so long that it’s become embedded into how people write in their queer characters, embedded into how we consume them.

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The ‘psycho dyke’ trope is so prevalent that it’s long become a wry in-joke among queer women themselves. Like a lot of ridiculous stereotypes pertaining to queer people, it’s one we’ve swivelled around and adopted. I’ve lost count of the number of stories my friends and I have shared about the ‘crazy lesbians’ in our past, the times in which we’ve behaved like ‘crazy lesbians’ ourselves. 

I remember a friend once telling me about two lesbians at high school who became so obsessed with each other that they refused to leave each other’s side, even to use the toilet. They ended up using a crisp packet in the corner of their bedroom instead. I’m 80 per cent sure this story is total bullshit, but I just mean to say that the ‘crazy lesbian’ stereotype might have originated in pop culture, but it’s trickled outside of that, become a myth within the queer community too.

All The Things She Said, Daisy Jones’s debut book, is out now, published by Hodder & Stougton.

Main Images: Getty/Author image by Jo Kiely

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