It was the winter of my televised technicolor wonder-pop glittery discontent, when everything in the real world felt cold and sad and I sought refuge in the unreal. Specifically, in soapy primetime dramas like Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five and campy movies about pretty people in warm climates like The Brady Bunch Movie, Clueless and Empire Records. I watched those movies and listened to their soundtracks obsessively while scouring my Delia*s catalogs for clothing that’d make me even half as cool and popular and — most importantly — normal — as Cher or Kelly Taylor. I wasn’t very good at fitting in and I needed help. This meant not only internalizing messages about what it meant to do womanhood properly but what to avoid, too, and those messages were far more subtle. Sometimes those messages were hopelessly brief, but nevertheless resonated eternally. The singular message that scared me away from lesbianism was delivered, it turns out, in less than six minutes, and I was laughing the whole time. It was during The Brady Bunch Movie.
It was 1995, you see, and my image of the modern lesbian was pretty stereotypical — dumpy, unstylish, short-haired. It’s a “type” I embrace these days (literally and metaphorically). But back then, as an awkward gawky teenager struggling to fit in, that image was downright petrifying and bore no resemblance to my own aspirational existence. The only famous lesbians I knew of were The Indigo Girls. So I was pretty vulnerable, you could say, to suggestion.
Which brings me to Noreen.
I’d forgotten about Noreen, except not really. I had this vague sense that there was a character, or more than one, I knew as a teenager who made lesbians seem really pathetic and gross. I knew this was real because I had this image in my head of that character who I’d decided was probably a compilation of many plaid-clad characters, maybe even some real people, too. But a few weeks ago when The Brady Bunch Movie was on television and I saw Noreen again, it all came back to me, and a lot more, too.
Noreen is Marcia Brady’s best friend. Marcia is beautiful but she’s not popular, because it’s the ’90s and she thinks it’s the ’70s, which makes people think she’s weird. So she’s stuck with Noreen. Marcia Brady’s strolls through school early in The Brady Bunch Movie is executed to the sound of Shocking Blue’s 1969 recording of “Venus,” a song which tends to pop up in pop culture whenever long-limbed short-skirted girls (or their razors) do. Her male classmates look on with slack-jawed awe as she summarily passes each one of them by in the hallway until reaching the final body in line to admire hers — Noreen, of course. Noreen’s clad in Lilith Fair Grunge — a plaid vest, a bandana, a white t-shirt — and immediately tells Marcia that her Mom approved a sleepover. (!!!) Marcia’s kinda excited, but not really, because she’s more excited that her crush Doug just said hi to her. Noreen’s face falls as Marcia lapses into thinking about Doug:
Marcia: He’s so dreamy, isn’t he?
Noreen: Yeah, I guess. If you like that sort of thing. So… can I carry your books to class?
At the aforementioned sleepover, the two girls lie in bed next to each other. Noreen’s clearly too close for comfort, as she clutches the sheets with intense anticipation. Breathlessly, she tells Marcia that she’s the prettiest girl in school. “I know,” says Marica, before deciding to go to sleep. Moments later, Marcia exclaims, “Noreen, is that your hand?” and Noreen nervously replies “Oh, I thought that was my own leg.”
Later in the film, Noreen delivers a winning punch to Doug’s face after he calls Marcia a “slut” at the school dance. But when Marcia returns from getting their coats to see Doug on the ground, she assumes it was her date, Charlie, who saved the day, and he’s glad to take credit. They jet, and Noreen starts sobbing until another tall blonde girl comes by to offer her Kleeenex. Noreen looks up at the new blonde, lustfully.
I watched this movie so many times. It was one of my favorites. The scenes I just talked about made me laugh at the time, and they make me laugh now, too. I still love it. But what I’m telling you is that I saw this movie so many times, I saw these scenes so many times. Noreen became almost everything I knew about young lesbians at the time and I didn’t even realize it.
When we think about Lesbian Predator storylines, we tend to think about actual violent criminals in dramatic films — Rebecca in The Roommate, Diane in Mullholland Drive, Miss G in Cracks, any lesbian in any film during The Hays Code era — but there’s a different type of lesbian trope that really cut to the bone for me because it’s simply more realistic and often quite comedic: The Pathetic Lesbian. I don’t know a lot of homicidal stalkers, but awkward lesbian teenagers lusting after girls they can’t have? That feels honest. It never felt like me — I’ve never fallen for a straight best friend and am usually only attracted to masculine lesbian-identified women — but back then there was nothing more embarrassing than liking somebody who didn’t like you back, and that seemed to be par for the course when it came for women who liked women. So I never considered the possibility that I was one of them, just like I never considered lots of possibilities that would’ve made me a loser. Gay men seemed cool, but lesbians? Nope. Adolescence, oftentimes, isn’t about finding your true self. It’s about making conscious decisions to be a certain way in order to fit in with everybody else.
It wasn’t just that movie, either. In the 1994-1995 season of Beverly Hills 90210, Kelly Taylor became a target for unrequited lesbian attention after surviving a fire with four-episode character Alison Lash. Alison develops strong feelings for Kelly and even breaks up with her girlfriend for Kelly, totally undaunted by Kelly’s boyfriend and lack of interest. Kelly handles Alison’s love confession, in which Alison suggests that lesbianism is something Kelly can’t truly say she rejects until she tries, kindly and without homophobia, but the situation still left me uneasy.
Ditto for Tammy Metzler in the excellent 1999 film Election, who’s hopelessly in love with her best friend, Lisa. Like Noreen, she’s presented as an unstylish hanger-on. Tammy monologues, “It’s not like I’m a lesbian or anything, I’m attracted to the person. It’s just that all the people I’m attracted to happen to be girls.” When Lisa rejects Tammy after some innocent “experimenting,” insisting that she’s not “like [Tammy” because she’s ‘not a dyke,” Tammy becomes hysterical and even hides in a trash can to stalk Lisa and her boyfriend (Tammy’s brother). Luckily, there’s some redemption in store for her later on.
Were there more? Rachel’s sorority sister on Friends? When Rachel was thrilled to share her anecdote about kissing a girl in college but horrified when that girl confessed a longstanding crush on her? Rebecca confessing her love and laying a kiss to Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones? (A tip of the hat to Bridget, however, for her mature and light-hearted handling of that situation and her pledge to Rebecca that should she ever go that way, she’ll hit her up first.) All of these shows and movies were progressive in their own way, and many were incredibly gay-friendly. Election is smart, carefully crafted, and one of the best high school films ever made, and Tammy does end up at an all-girls Catholic School, happy as a clam at a clam-dive, after getting in trouble for her subversive campaign speech. The Brady Bunch Movie is dripping in gay campiness and features RuPaul as the school guidance counselor. Friends showed Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, in a lesbian relationship with her partner, Susan. I enjoyed, and still enjoyed, all of those movies. Which is part of why I didn’t question who was the butt of the joke.
I think Noreen would read very differently now, and probably does to anybody seeing the movie for the first time. Back then there just wasn’t a lot of lesbian content out there that you could access without intentionally looking for it.
There’s still lots of bad stories, now, but there are good stories, too. In 1999’s But I’m A Cheerleader, Megan’s got a hopeless (if unnamed) crush on her best friend, Kimberly, but she gets over that real fast when she falls in love with an actual homo at Ex-Gay Camp. I left that movie theater a different person then when I walked in. But ultimately, it wasn’t even a gay movie or a gay storyline that finally smashed this image to bits for me — it was, as so many things are, Mean Girls. Janis Ian is supposed to be an uncool loser, but the viewer is aware that she is actually awesome. Regina George, the most popular girl in school, is insistent that Janis isn’t truly repelled by her but that her aversion must mask a Pathetic Lesbian lurking beneath. But nope, Janis just hates Regina because they used to be best friends and then Regina started being an asshole and telling everyone Janis was a lesbian. She tells Cady how she couldn’t invite Janis to her birthday party, ” I was like, “Janis, I can’t invite you, because I think you’re lesbian.” I mean I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party. There were gonna be girls there in their *bathing suits*. I mean, right? She was a LESBIAN.” Janis isn’t a lesbian, of course. She really, truly, really honestly just doesn’t like Regina George, and tells her so:
Janis: Okay, yeah. I’ve got an apology. So, I have this friend who is a new student this year. And I convinced her that it would be fun to mess up Regina George’s life. So I had her pretend to be friends with Regina, and then she would come to my house after and we would just laugh about all the dumb stuff Regina said. And we gave these candy bar things that would make her gain weight, and then we turned her best friends against her. And then… Oh yeah, Cady – you know my friend Cady? She made out with her boyfriend, and we convinced him to break up with her. Oh, God, and we gave her foot cream instead of face wash.
God! I am so sorry Regina. Really, I don’t know why I did this. I guess it’s probably because I’ve got a big *lesbian* crush on you! Suck on *that*! AY-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI!
Riese I’m really glad you’re writing more because this article was 100% accurate to the childhood I’ve come so far from but am still transitioning out of
This articulates so well how some of the most harmful messages come wrapped in palatable (funny! entertaining! seemingly progressive!) packages. I was definitely affected in the same way. I was already awkward, shy, outcast – no way my subconscious was going to let me be queer too, so it locked that shit down for three decades.
It’s surreal to read about other women who watched and felt the same feelings as myself back when I was a young teen… I felt so deeply alone back then and the not so subtle making fun if lesbians gashed me but I was just grateful for ANYTHING. Scraps I suppose they were.
It’s funny how different things affect people in different ways. I always loved Noreen because I felt so happy with how her story resolved. She wasted so much time on her unrequited crush, but in the meantime there was another beautiful girl who liked her, but Noreen was so obsessed with Marcia that she didn’t even notice her. The tall blond girl starts the movie as either Doug or one of Doug’s friend’s girlfriend (I don’t remember which – it was a villain, though), but she sees how great Noreen is, and she’s the one who dumps the guy and makes the move on the girl. When we see them again at the talent contest, Noreen is looking cute, stylish, and much less “stereotypical frumpy lesbian,” and the blond girl seeks her out again, and they spend the concert looking happy and cute-couple-ish, with lots of shippy close-ups. Because of that, I always felt like Noreen’s story wasn’t making fun of lesbians (apart from the standard sexual jokes everyone in that movie was the brunt of at some point, like Peter with the busty sex ed teacher, or Greg chasing all those girls with his Johnny Bravo music), but more showing a story that pretty much everyone’s been through and can relate to – starting out with a hopeless crush that you’re too young and naive to see is going nowhere – but ending so happily with her finding someone who appreciates her for her, who’s not oblivious to her feelings and actually reciprocates them. And when she finds her, she comes out of her shell, becoming less awkward and more happy in her own skin. That was super affirming to me growing up, so Noreen is a character I always remember fondly as making me feel better about myself, rather than worse.
Oh, that’s interesting! I thought the blonde girl just wanted to be Noreen’s friend, because she recognized somebody else who didn’t fit in or liked weird things, and then Noreen would inevitably fall for her too. I don’t know why I read it that way, I guess I didn’t have enough faith in the movie to read it any other way. Also because then Noreen is still in Marcia’s square in the closing credits trying to kiss her, although I suppose that’s removed from the narrative anyhow.
Creepy non-con leg-touching aside, Noreen was actually kind of positively portrayed. The incident at the prom shows that she is the relatable undervalued one, while Marcia is a self-involved ditz who obviously has horrible taste in romantic partners. Both of Marcia’s dates that night are scoundrels, and Noreen ends up with a gem.
The “Noreen-in-Marcia’s-square” thing was always strange to me because of the blond girl, so idk. Maybe they just wanted to throw all the characters into the squares at the end? I always read the blond girl as bi and winding up with Noreen, so I hope I’m not wrong, lol. I want to believe in my ship!
This is SO IMPORTANT. I just re-watched 10 Things I Hate About You and it was essentially a teaching moment for a girl not to be interested in feminism or have opinions on how the literature canon is dominated by men, or at least be quiet because otherwise she will be shut out and considered a “k. d. lang fan”. Ugh, I don’t even know where to start. I felt physically SO uncomfortable while watching, this old discomfort. And I remember liking the movie very much, too… This world is so difficult to grow up in.
I’m confused by this cos – the way I remember it – 10 Things really valorised Kat’s feminism; her interest in feminist literature and riot grrl music was part of what made her ‘cool,’ I thought?
Not saying the film was The Most Progressive Ever but I definitely didn’t take what you did from it.
It is ambigous I think – it does make her cool in a way too, but significant for me was that she has to give it away to get the guy (in the storyline) – hence the literature class where she does not contradict her teacher any more, etc.
Maybe most damaging to me was the sequence where the guys plotting try to get someone to go out with her, and one gross guy after another (like 7-8) is like “never”. That’s a pretty strong message regarding feminism or even just opinios and desirability.
“it does make her cool in a way too, but significant for me was that she has to give it away to get the guy (in the storyline) – hence the literature class where she does not contradict her teacher any more, etc.”
“maybe most damaging to me was the sequence where the guys plotting try to get someone to go out with her, and one gross guy after another (like 7-8) is like “never”. That’s a pretty strong message regarding feminism or even just opinions and desirability.”
I felt the same way. The movie thought she was cool, but the characters within it did not. I mean I was afraid of identifying as a feminist as much as I would’ve been afraid to identify as queer back then. It was definitely packaged as male-repellent and a one-way ticket to loserville.
NOW, however, I’d watch it and be like “FUCK THOSE GUYS!” but back when it came out? nope.
I’m a big comedy fan so it’s tiring to see this trope played out so often, particularly in sitcoms. In the past 15 years or so TV has gotten better at not making homophobic jokes at the expense of gay men, but lines with as much as an implication of being LIKE a lesbian are still presented as clever and mean retorts. ‘Lesbian’ is a catch-all for dressing badly, being clingy, being “too” political, and not being feminine enough. And god forbid if there’s an actual lesbian character who isn’t super-femme. Then the punchline is always how funny it is that a woman can be butch – rather than having the audience laugh at how archaic it is for anyone to think that women have to be femme.
Of course the stereotype of gay men automatically being fabulous and witty is fucked up, too. It’s just telling that lesbian characters never even get to be funny yet one-dimensional sidekicks.
Re: fabulous and witty gay men, one of my favorite pieces of stand-up is Patton Oswalt’s riff on the rom-com Gay Best Friend trope.
I would agree that is a pretty good piece, in fact all his sets are pretty excellent.
Speaking of which I think I need to watch to the Brady Bunch movie and Mulholland Drive again(and possibly David’s other film Inland Empire).
yeeeesss this: “being LIKE a lesbian are still presented as clever and mean retorts. ‘Lesbian’ is a catch-all for dressing badly, being clingy, being “too” political, and not being feminine enough.” i think sometimes people think those jokes are okay because, well, lesbians make those jokes ourselves! but it has a totally different meaning when it’s on the world stage coming from somebody’s mouth who isn’t a lesbian.
Even though these movies and shows didn’t give me any realizations, they fueled the teasing and harassment I started receiving when I was just 12 from family and my brother’s friends. All of these images are part of a systemic homophobia that is acknowledged, condoned, and encouraged. No wonder I hated myself and didn’t know why.
This is really interesting. I’m semi-obsessed with tropes in Terrible Lesbian Films but often forget about lesbian tropes in predominantly straight films. I wonder, though, in a lot of cases if the Pathetic Lesbian is just a chrysalis from which a Psycho Stalker Lesbian will eventually emerge.
In general, these tropes just seem to show how often film writers (and TV to a lesser extent) have trouble depicting female friendships. So many boil down to some kind of semi-sexual obsessive thing, or bitch vs bitch rivalry. The kind of genuine supportive female relationships tend to be the preserve of sisters, part of this larger weirdness that writers have that blood relations trump all.
Yes, that’s so so very true about the depiction of female friendships. I wonder also what comes into play when men are writing about desiring a female from the point of view of a gay female. How much of that ends up being driven by their own fantasies or assumptions, even.
Also, if you’ve seen the show stalker, they totes did a lesbian falls in love with best friend, stalks her, and gets violent when she’s rejected, also murders best friend’ boyfriend. It was the lesbian stalker trope to the extreme, so gross as well as super stigmatizing of mental illness. Not all stalkers are mentally ill, and if they are, that’s not why they stalk, such an obnoxious narrative in that show.
Also, the character was straight, but Carrie from the movie and book carrie, was the sort of awkward loner, who becomes violent after being pushed too far. There’s parallels between all of these things.
Check out Alanna now!
holy shit that “patriotic bitch” thing sounds kickass
I remember internalizing how uncool it is to be a lesbian because of this movie and many others. Constantly feeling inadequate and convinced to not ‘be like that’.
It’s funny because I think I saw a lot of not so subtle gay girls in media, but because of heteronormativity, assumed they were all good friends, yet really enjoyed watching them. Like, I thought the gay couple in under the tuscan sun were just friends, even when they let their friend go on a travel tour they had planned on going on and the bus was full of gay couples.
what’s fucked up is that it is SO EASY for us to think that because gay couples aren’t allowed to do the same physical stuff on television and in movies as straight couples are. if you’re a kid, and all the couples you see on tv kiss each other on the lips and are physically affectionate and the two women who are always standing next to each other sometimes hug after a meaningful conversation or chastely kiss each other on the cheek… then what are you supposed to think?
Also, I still feel embarrassed to be queer in straight circles, yay internalized homophobia
it wasn’t until I’d spent a week on the r-family cruise (rosie’s cruise line for gay families, i went with my then-girlfriend who was a performer on it) that i felt comfortable walking into the LGBTQ section in the library. it wasn’t until a year or so into autostraddle that i felt comfortable just plopping my ass down and looking at the books without looking over my shoulder. WHICH IS SO WEIRD WHY
Was I the only person who was really annoyed that Janis Ian had to paired up with a dude at the end of Mean Girls? As much as I love Kevin G, it felt very much like the audience was being reassured ‘don’t worry she’s not gay because that would be unthinkable.’
Same feelings r.e. Stokely in The Faculty. Especially given that the actress was Clea Duvall.
I remember being about 14 and watching the Brady Bunch movie with my parents. In the scene where Noreen seems really excited to be sharing a bed with Marsha, I remember my mother saying “something’s not quite right there” and my dad nodding in agreement at Noreen being a creepy lesbian weirdo. Thanks Hollywood for helping keep me in the closet for longer.
yeah, except in my case it was the laughter of everyone in the theater. Oh, the confused, sexually ambivalent 90’s
Lol I had a very identical childhood moment! Except I was 10 and my parents had pre-watched the movie before me and my siblings got to watch it. When this scene came up, she wanted my dad to change the channel and he’s like “What? Nothing happens.” Sure enough nothing did happen because it went right over my head! Looking back, it explains a lot about my mom though… sigh.
I watched this movie a million times as a kid but had no concept of Noreen as a lesbian. But when I rewatched it recently I was really disappointed to see how terrible they made her character. It’s embarrassing. Great article Riese!
I feel this so much. I saw the brady bunch movie when I was 7 and watched it on VHS over and over again. When I was a teenager, before I came out, I spent so much of my time feeling like a creepy pervert for being into girls I knew, because I felt like it was pathetic and weird. I felt that if anyone found out I had a crush on one particular girl, then no one would talk to me anymore, because they would be scared I that I liked them too potentially.
I grew up in a really liberal and accepting place, but I still really struggled with accepting myself as gay. For a long time, I wondered why. But when I look back to all the horrible and pathetic ways that gay people were portrayed in the media, it makes sense that the tolerance/semi-laboured acceptance of gay people in my community didn’t really make up for it.