Alyssa Rosenberg has a fascinating essay on the complex relationship between female pleasure and perceptions of manhood, and how this relationship is expressed in media. Rosenberg touches on Twin Peaks, Skyfall, and OutKast’s “I’ll Call Before I Come” — read the entire piece — but, more topically, also references a scene from last night’s episode of New Girl. On the show, the male character Schmidt hides his deep insecurity, sparked both by his pervious obesity and working in a female-dominated workplace, in exaggerated expressions of masculinity and consumerism. Of course, an integral part of the modern American notion of masculine superiority is sexual prowess. When this perceived prowess is challenged, Schmidt’s perception of his own masculinity and internally-defined self-value is threatened. Rosenberg summarizes the scene:
“And Schmidt’s reaction was telling. ‘World shattered,’ he declared. And even when she suggested ‘We’ll try again. It’ll be better,’ Schmidt still insisted ‘The world I once lived in: shattered.’ The problem wasn’t that she didn’t feel good—it was that her not feeling good destroyed Schmidt’s sense of his own prowess.”
As Rosenberg goes on to note, New Girl doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with this challenge. Schmidt schedules an appointment with a pregnant, lesbian gynecologist for sex advice, who then becomes visibly aroused at his humorously-euphemistic and overly-detailed description of his method of getting women off. “It’s the baby hormones”, she explains. “They’re not as gay as me.”
This exchange is depressing. While American society has historically been more accepting of lesbian relationships than gay men, homosexuality among women is still perceived by huge portions of society as not real or a valid sexual orientation. While conventional wisdom suggests that female sexuality is more fluid than males’, popular culture denies female homosexuality by depicting it as less valid than heterosexuality or male homosexual orientation. In this trope female homosexuality is a phase or an expression of frustration with men, rather than a valid sexual orientation; lesbians are just waiting on a man to please them for their homosexuality to vanish. This trivialization isn’t just moralization against female homosexuality, but a denial that it even exists.
Of course, this line is a throwaway joke — the episode in question shows the gynecologist in question in a stable, homosexual relationship, and clearly does not seek to diminish the perceived validity of her sexual orientation. But it’s depressing that New Girl’s writers chose to utilize this demeaning trope, even briefly. This is especially true because New Girl has a strong track record: the pilot’s depiction of a sexually-confident male Asian-American douche was refreshing, and the show’s humorously inverted misogynistic tropes. Attacks of the validity of female homosexuality are out of character for the show, but that doesn’t make it less problematic. Throwaway lines matter, because the still bolster harmful narratives.