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Where Are Political Fiction's Lesbians?

24/03/2014 11:32 GMT | Updated 23/05/2014 10:59 BST

Last week I gave a lecture as part of my final year undergraduate Fictionalised Politics course, which looks at how representative politics - let's just call it 'democracy' - is depicted in Britain and the United States.

The basic proposition is that fictional representations matter because they do more than (imperfectly) reflect how we imagine our our real democracy: they can also shape how we come to think about it. I develop some of the themes in the course in my new book A State of Play, which focuses just on British political fiction.

In the lecture I talked about gender as the 'social organization of sexual difference', the meanings of which may vary across cultures and time - that is, in exactly the way that Joan Wallach Scott does in her 1988 book Gender and the Politics of History.

There is, I think, an interesting story to tell here, not only in terms of how the representation of women has changed since the later nineteenth century - and also how it has not - but also the means by which men's relationship to political power has been sexualised. This is important for the real world of democracy because fiction provides normative gender models for our male and female politicians. There's a lot to say about this, but that's not the point of this post - and I touch on such issues in my book.

In the lecture I noted that there have been changes in the depiction of gay men, from being completely hidden to being sources of weakness within the political process (Advise and Consent), or even being threats to democracy (JFK), to now being exemplars, embodiments even, of how the political process should work. Watch the 2008 biopic of Harvey Milk and if you look beyond the gay politics, you'll see that it presents him as hero of American democracy. These are all American examples, but as I point out in A State of Play the process in Britain is similar.

But what story can be told about lesbians in politics? In the lecture I could only think of one such character, that being Libby Holden in Primary Colors. Libby is a political idealist but is also unstable and things do not end well for her. I've subsequently discovered that it is implied that Margaret Hooper, a minor character in The West Wing - eccentric and quirky - might have been a lesbian.

Are lesbians hidden from view in political fiction as much as it seems? Or have I just not been looking in the right places? It's interesting that if the paucity of lesbians is more than a reflection of my own inadequate research they are an exception to a general rule. For certainly in regard to heterosexual women, political fiction has been much more progressive than reality: there are more fictional female Vice Presidents, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Cabinet ministers than in real life. Yet, the position is reversed when it comes to lesbians.

I wonder why?