Perceptions of Sapphic Media by Young and New Adults || by M. Hollis

A Short Intro

Around the beginning of November, I decided to make a research on how young and new adults are perceiving the Sapphic (femslash) media these days. Since I had a fun time doing the Sapphic Stories Around the World post, I thought I could go a little deeper now. This research proved to be much more interesting and also a lot more work than I thought at first. But I believe the results you’ll see here are worth it.

My idea was to leave a Google Form open for around a month and let people who identify as Sapphic up to 25 years old to answer a few questions that we are going to discuss next. I wanted to know if they think the representation we are receiving is positive, enough, what is lacking, and where are they finding this representation? I’m focusing on numbers here more than going further into discussing the representation. As in, how many times certain themes and books are mentioned by the random people who answered the questionnaire.

My goal is also to form some bridge between creators and consumers of Sapphic media. Recently, I’ve noticed we have discouraged creators who don’t believe anyone is going to care about their stories on one side, and a screaming audience who is desperate to find representation for themselves on the other side. I hope people who are reading this post realize that we can all work together to make Sapphic literature more inclusive and that their stories matter.

By the beginning of December, I had received answers from 48 people. They could all answer anonymously because I believe this gives them more freedom to be as honest as they could on their opinions and to keep their identities safe.

The Questions

I asked seven questions for the people who participated:

What are your 5 favorite books with LGBTQIAP+ rep?

What are your 5 favorite movies with LGBTQIAP+ rep?

What are your 5 favorite TV Shows/Webseries with LGBTQIAP+ rep?

What was the last sapphic rep you consumed? Was it a positive or negative experience for you?

Where do you learn about LGBTQIAP+ media to consume? Social media, friends, doing your own research?

How do you feel about the sapphic media you consume in general?

What would you like to see more of in sapphic representation?

Most of these were open questions where the person could write as much as they wanted, with the exception of Question Nº 6 where they had to choose between Satisfied, Unsatisfied, Indifferent, or Other. I also asked them to tell me what countries they lived and how old they were.

The Results

Let’s start with country and age. I was a bit worried at first that only people from the U.S. were going to see and answer the questionnaire, but I was actually glad that we had some variation.

Out of 48 answers,

Country Nº of people
USA 24
Australia 4
Canada 3
United Kingdom 3
Netherlands 2
Brazil 2
India 2
Norway 1
France 1
Egypt 1
Algeria 1
Philippines 1
Sweden 1
Germany 1
Russia 1

The age was balanced enough between teenagers and new adults.

Out of 48 answers,

Age Nº of people
15 3
16 2
17 5
18 5
19 5
20 8
21 2
22 4
23 4
24 6
25 4

The choice of asking people under 26 was just because I believe representation for LGBTQIAP+ people had a rise in the last years and young people tend to be the most vocal on social media. This doesn’t mean older people don’t participate in huge numbers, but that I wanted this to be my focus on this particular research.

Now, onto the questions.

1) What are your 5 favorite books with LGBTQIAP+ rep?

This seems to be the easier question for the participants. More than 100 Sapphic books were mentioned here, with only 2 people saying they didn’t have any favorite LGBTQIAP+ books.

Out of these, 20 books were mentioned more than one time.

Book Nº of times it was mentioned
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour 9
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour 7
Ash by Malinda Lo 5
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie 5
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst 4
Carol/The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith 4
How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake 3
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth 3
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera 2
Dreadnought by April Daniels 2
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel 2
Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh 2
Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee 2
Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde 2
Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen 2
The Engelsfors Trilogy by Mats Strandberg 2
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters 2
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg 2
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman 2
Wildthorn by Jane Eagland 2

I didn’t have any surprises on these titles since they are the ones I’ve seen mentioned more times on social media. Most of them are also by bigger publishers and have more chances to get exposure.

2) What are your 5 favorite movies with LGBTQIAP+ rep?

This was the harder question for most participants. When I read the first messages, I was already preparing myself for the bad numbers. Most people couldn’t even name enough movies or they didn’t enjoy the few they watched.

Out of 48 people,

Nº of People Nº of movies mentioned
14 5
4 4
4 3
4 2
9 1
8 Don’t know any/don’t have a favorite
5 Don’t watch/enjoy movies

Many answered that they just aren’t into movies or weren’t happy with the representation:

“I have not watched a movie where I was completely happy with LGBTQIAP+ rep.”

“Unfortunately I really don’t have a good answer for this – the only one I can think of is atomic blonde, which was not the best rep. I don’t watch a lot of movies though. “

“Carol, no others because I don’t watch many movies.”

“I don’t believe I’ve seen or enjoyed five movies with LGBTQIAP+ characters.”

“I’ve watched one, but didn’t like it.”

“I don’t really watch a lot of movies.”

“Not sure I have any – good ones are hard to find on Netflix :(“

“I don’t really watch many movies 😦 Carol is one tho.”

“Honestly I don’t watch that many movies.”

I wonder if the people who answered they didn’t watch so many movies aren’t watching movies because of this lack of representation. I know that I personally don’t like to go to the movies sometimes just because I know I’ll feel alienated. Of course, most of these can just be people who like books or TV shows more. But the difference between books and movies was glaring for me and it made me question this a lot.

There were around 50 movies mentioned across all kinds of LGBTIQAP+ rep. Compared to the 100+ Sapphic only mentioned in books, that says a lot about the state of representation in movies. Only 11 Sapphic movies were mentioned more than one time, and one of them (Bend it Like Beckham) isn’t even canon representation.

Movie Nº of times it was mentioned
Carol (2015) 13
Imagine Me and You (2005) 9
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) 8
Saving Face (2004) 7
The Handmaiden (2016) 5
Kyss Mig (2011) 4
D.E.B.S. (2004) 3
I Can’t Think Straight (2008) 3
Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) 2
Pride (2014) 2
Bend It Like Beckham (2002) 2

I’m adding the years these movies came out so we can have an idea of how little movies with Sapphic representation are reaching their audience recently. Half of these movies came out more than ten years ago. The young people who participated in the questionnaire couldn’t even name most of these movies probably because they are outdated for many or don’t have a story that interests them. There aren’t even variations of genres for people to choose since most of these are dramas.

3) What are your 5 favorite TV Shows/Webseries with LGBTQIAP+ rep?

Around 70 TV Shows/Webseries with LGBTIAP+ representation were mentioned here. Better than movies, but still bad compared to the number of Sapphic books.

Out of 48 people,

Nº of People Nº of TV Shows/Webseries mentioned
22 5
5 4
8 3
6 2
4 1
5 None/Don’t watch many TV Shows

24 TV Shows/Webseries were mentioned more than one time.

TV Show/Webseries Nº of times it was mentioned
Brooklyn Nine Nine 12
The Bold Type 11
Wynonna Earp 11
Carmilla 9
Sense8 8
Orphan Black 7
Legend of Korra 7
Supergirl 6
Black Mirror/San Junipero 6
Shadowhunters 5
Steven Universe 5
Person of Interest 4
Doctor Who 4
Buffy the Vampire Slayer 3
How To Get Away With Murder 3
Lucifer 3
The Fosters 3
The ‘Other’ Love Story 3
Faking It 2
Friends 2
Please Like Me 2
The Shannara Chronicles 2
Skam 2
One Day at a Time 2

You can see that almost all of them are recent shows where the LGBTQIAP+ characters are still alive and/or had some kind of happy ending. Including Webseries also allowed for a better number on this question since many people have shifted to Youtube where they can find the LGBTQIAP+ representation that TV Shows rarely take on.

I’d like to add some interesting answers too:

“I can only think of two shows because I’m pretty unsatisfied with wlw rep in tv. Stopped watching several shows I was into because they’re mostly white and/or unhealthy.”

“I have not watched a TV Show/Webseries where I was completely happy with LGBTQIAP+ rep. Even if I watched the show to the end I find too many harmful and problematic elements, or I simply can’t relate to the personalities and mindsets of the characters.”

After asking their favorite books and shows, I shifted to their opinions on the representation they have been consuming.

4) What was the last sapphic rep you consumed? Was it a positive or negative experience for you?

Surprisingly enough, I got 40 positive answers and only 4 negatives. The other 4 had mixed experiences on the last representation they consumed.

5) Where do you learn about LGBTQIAP+ media to consume? Social media, friends, doing your own research?

For this question, most people use social media or do their own research to find LGBTQIAP+ media to consume. This is no surprise since many marginalized young people need to use the internet as a safe place in a world where they feel alienated most of the times. And of course, this research was boosted on websites like Twitter and Tumblr, which tends to be their most common sources.

Out of 48 people,

Source Nº of People who mentioned source
Social Media 22
My own research 19
Tumblr 16
Friends 9
Twitter 8
Goodreads 3
Blogs 2
I stumble upon it 2
Instagram 1
Youtube 1

I’m also bringing some interesting quotes to help us understand better how these people do their research:

“Social media for tv shows. Books my own goodreads research, the anticipated YA with Lgbt+ themes list is a lifesaver.”

“There are specific tags on the social medias I use for my books and tv shows/films recommendations, some of my friends let me know about the LGBTQ media they enjoyed recently, I often look for those specifically (especially in tv shows and video games), and I also follow lots of LGBTQ people on Tumblr who post about their favourite films/tv shows/books with LGBTQ representation. It’s getting easier to find that type of media, but it used to take some effort so I’ve kept the habit of combining sources, looking everywhere, asking people around me, etc.”

“A combination of social media and finding them myself. There’s only so many really popular books and media. I have to dig to find some hidden ones.”

“With TV shows I usually stumble upon it–I knew Sense8 and Brooklyn 99 had LGBTQIAP+ rep going in, but that wasn’t why I watched them, and I was surprised by Jessica Jones. With books I seek them out. Usually I look for books published by queer publishers on said publisher’s websites and social media, because although it is also possible to find lists of book recs, they can be harder to sort through.”

“Mostly social media – twitter! All my queer friends are internet friends.”

“My own research a lot of times. Rarely from friends because I’m usually the first to watch something.”

“Tumblr blogs that are focused on sapphic content.”

“Varies. Most of the time I only consume sapphic media that I’ve had recommended to me, because I’ve been disappointed when I’ve tried to strike out on my own.”

“I honestly don’t hear about it and so when I come across it it’s like an early Christmas.”

“It is easier to find a lgbt+ movie on a whim, but the list fizzles out more shortly than that of lgbt+ literature that I would actually consume. It is always apart from one occasion independent research, due to the lack of being out to family and having few friends who identify as lgbt+.”

5) How do you feel about the sapphic media you consume in general?

This was the only question I asked them to answer specifically if they were Satisfied, Unsatisfied, or Indifferent toward Sapphic media in general. But most people preferred to give me their written opinion on it.

How do they feel about the sapphic media they consume? Nº of people
Unsatisfied 17
Satisfied 12
Indifferent 1
Other 18

Since so many people wanted to tell me their opinion, I’ve decided to include here all the ones who allowed me to use their quotes:

“Satisfied in books, unsatisfied in tv shows. Mostly it depends if it was written by wlw or by straight men, the difference is palpable.”

“I would say I’m satisfied by what I’ve consumed in the last few years, but it’s because I specifically looked for good LGBTQ representation. If we’re talking about general representation and sapphic media in general, from all decades and all types of work, then it’s a lot more unsatisfying. I talk more about the lack of diversity in my next answer, but there’s also a lot of times where sapphic people are badly represented, very clichés, and there are still some media that love to ‘turn’ lesbians into heterosexuals, or bisexual women into heterosexuals. It’s frustrating that, unless you actively look for it, there’s not much realism and healthiness and consistency in the way wlw are represented.”

“Sometimes pleasantly surprised by complex plot and avoidance of cliches. Mostly though, I find myself settling.”

“Good, but it could be so much better”

“I’m happy with most of what I’ve consumed but there’s just not enough of it in the speculative genres I love.”

“Somedays I’m satisfied, but other days I think about the straight media I’ve loved in the past and realize they have many elements that I still haven’t found in any sapphic media.”

“Mostly satisfied, but we definitely need more representation and more variety in representation.”

“Not enough good representation.”

“rep is getting better no doubt but it’s quite inconsistent and there is still some of it that adheres to tropes or cliches that are harmful.”

“I would want more genres of sapphic media with positive endings.”

“Varies. Most of the time I only consume sapphic media that I’ve had recommended to me, because I’ve been disappointed when I’ve tried to strike out on my own.”

“It’s a mixed bag.”

“I am always more satisfied with the literature I read. TV show characters always end up dying and it breaks my heart.”

“While I have been satisfied with a lot of the sapphic media I’ve encountered recently, there are definitely still some issues I’ve noticed lately that I’ve personally had issues with (ex characters reduced to caricatures of their sexuality, bi erasure).”

“It depends! Sometimes it’s exactly what I wanted and sometimes it feels pretty alienating tbh.”

“Mixed. It’s limited, and because of that sometimes I struggle to find quality writing/stories, but when I do they’re fantastic.”

7) What would you like to see more of in sapphic representation?

I’m going to show here all the themes that were mentioned by the participants and you’ll see it’s quite easy to notice a pattern.

Theme Nº of people who mentioned
Diversity for WOC/Indigenous Women 18
Just more of it 7
Happy endings 6
Trans Women 6
Light/Comedy/Fluff 5
Not Coming Out Narrative 4
Using labels 4
Realistic Relationships 4
Butch Women 4
Fantasy 4
SciFi 3
Less Bury Your Gays 3
Less Subtext 2
Three dimensional/complex Characters 2
Acespec 2
Bi Women 2
More nice/soft girls 1
Fat Women 1
Teen girls 1
Casual representation 1
Intersectionality 1
Lesbian/Bi Women Supporting Each Other 1
LGBT friendships 1
Unsure/Doesn’t know enough media yet 1

Sapphic people want to see themselves and the world they live in reflected as it is. Diversity and happiness being the main theme they are looking for right now. Sapphic people are looking for intersectionality and stories where they can see people like them being happy.

I’m going to quote some answers here so they can speak for themselves:

“Lighthearted comedies. I hate how dramatic and tragic everything is, I want to be reminded of how lovely it is to love girls and happy stuff like that, not that I’m hated for who I am. I get enough negativity irl, I need sapphic media to be an escape from that.”

“Lesbian who use the word lesbian proudly and talk about the lack of attraction for boys. Also just more casual sapphic representation, all girls always having boy love interest is so isolating for me as lesbian.”

“More making it obvious instead of subtext.”

“I’d like to see more more sapphic women in TV shows, being treated as an equal to f/m relationships.”

“More varied stories and genres. I’d love to see more epic, adult fantasy as well as superhero/villain stuff, historical dramas, etc. I want more variation. And have them be written by women.”

“The representation has increased a lot in the 2010’s but there’s still a lack of sapphic couples from different ethnicities, or with disabilities / mental illnesses, different ages, different sexual orientations, etc.”

“Just generally more of it, especially in movies, I can think of multiple TV shows but no movies or books.”

“I want more softly girly girls (but not decked out with makeup all the time and swearing) with girls who have short hair and comfy jumpers on. I don’t like all the clubs and drinking and ‘bad/tough’ girl attitude a lot of queer women have in fiction. I also don’t like how all sexualities seem to be against each other. Or how gay males are seen as better in fiction. I’ve read a few books that focus on queer men, and they more often than not just poo all over queer girls, and it makes me feel bad. I want to see more ethnicities have rep. I want to see more masculine girls be with masculine girls. I don’t like how everything is so focused on the girls being angry or rebellious. Even girls who are ‘girly’ in fiction, they are always so crude and rude. It is isolating to have that image be the main one I see. Masculine girls can be soft and sweet. Girly girls can be soft and sweet. Everything doesn’t have to be so hard and rough.”

“I would like to see more stories where men are not involved at all as someone interested in one of the girls or their relationship or anything like that. Just supportive of them or out of the story.”

“I also want to see the struggles of being in a sapphic relationship portrayed realistically. It needs to be clear that queer relationships and the development of them is so much different than straight relationships.”

“For television, I’d like to see more women falling in love over a long period of time, who then get to be together at some point and stay together and get to be domestic together! For movies, I want more lighthearted stories. And overall, I’d like to see more trans women and sapphic women of color in everything. Always.”

“More casual representation & more stories that have gay characters with gay storylines but also are fully fleshed out & get to go on cool adventures like all the Straights do.”

“Personally, I would like to see more diverse characters across the board, but specifically I would like to see more gender non-conforming or butch women represented, and I would like to see them represented outside the roles presented by the butch-femme dynamic. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t be represented within those roles too, but people outside this dynamic should be reflected in media as well.”

“Television wise my ultimate dream is to have a crime drama tv show that appeals to a mainstream audience such as castle or rizzoli and isles, where the main relationship of the show that is built up over time is between two women.”

“More poc representation and more sapphic shows for young teenagers. For example a show about a college going funny, clumsy sapphic. I would like wlw to be more normalized.”

“Most girls I see in sapphic media are able-bodied, cis, white and thin. I would like to see more diversity in that aspect.”

“Established relationships, older queer women in relationships, relationships that don’t just exhibit queer pain.”

“Intense fantasy stories w high stakes.”

“I want more of it in the mainstream.”

“I’d like to see more portrayals of bi/pan/other types of multi-attracted women, less ‘bury your gay’ tropes, more characters who are out and confident in their specialities, and more fluff.”

“I feel like it’s probably bc I’m demisexual as hell and maybe I’m just not looking in the right places but I’d love more relationship development and emotional intimacy.”

At the end, I asked them if they had anything else to add and some people brought more things to the discussion that I’d like to add here:

“Theater- particularly musical theatre, generally has more LGBT rep than other forms of media and they tend to be better at writing queer characters (ex. In Trousers, Falsettos, Cabaret, La Cage aux Follies, A New Brain, Bare, A Chorus Line etc. for eternity) and though sapphic characters tend to be represented less than queer men in the genre it has some real gems such as Fun Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

“It would be really helpful if sapphic media was easily available to all because paying for wlw shows is almost impossible if you’re closeted.”

“if i want to find myself some decent lgbtqiap+ rep atm, ESPECIALLY sapphic rec, a lot of wlw i know go to podcasts. there are LOADS of really high quality shows out there with really, really good rep for pretty much anything on the spectrum so heads up for that as part of your research i guess? (wtnv, alice isn’t dead, within the wires, mabel, the bright sessions, the penumbra podcast, the strange case of starship iris, eos10, lifeafter) also it is way, way easier to find sapphic media now than when i first came out. as a kid i had that one tatu video. that was pretty much it. i literally never, ever dreamed within my lifetime we’d have a STARRING, BEAUTIFUL black lesbian character on one of my country’s most iconic, whitest shows (doctor who) and it truly makes me so happy.”

Conclusions:

Reading the answers to this questionnaire was a surprise in both positive and negative ways. I was sad to see so many people who couldn’t name favorite books/tv shows/movies with Sapphic representation. As someone who only started reading Sapphic books at 22, I understand how hard it is to spend such a long time feeling alienated from the rest of the world. Young marginalized people need to see themselves in media so they can gain confidence in their identity and understand that they can have a happy life like everyone else.

But on the bright side, it was also good to read how most of these people who participated are trying to look for this representation and, more importantly, aware of the lack of intersectionality in what exists. I think we need to make this change together, always looking out for each other. Together, we can start bringing more stories to the audience that is seeking these books, movies, and shows. Creators and audience need to find each other because that will be the way that we’ll make this work.

If you are a creator of Sapphic media and you are feeling alone and like no one cares about your stories, I hope this post shows you that there are many people looking for you. And if you are a consumer, I hope you can check out some of the media mentioned in this post and reach out to the people who are making this happen.

About the Author:

M. Hollis is a Brazilian YA/NA writer with a focus on F/F stories. When she isn’t scrolling through her social media accounts or reading lots of femslash fanfiction, you’ll find her crying about female characters and baking cookies. She wants to write many stories for women who love other women with happy endings and hopeful beginnings.

Social Media Links:

Goodreads | Twitter | Website | Patreon | Ko-fi

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