Earlier this year, I received this text message: “My friend is on set for a commercial where she plays another woman’s wife. This is the shot she sent me.” The picture attached was of two women, one with loose curls spilling down a basic tee shirt, the other wearing a business casual shag and a flannel shirt. A lesbian couple. Get it?
The wardrobe choice certainly could have been a coincidence, but it’s far more likely it was meant as a strategic wink, one that does the heavy suggestive lifting for a primetime American audience. Above all, I felt it was a haphazard stab at “inclusivity” meant to make the brand look good. But whatever the creative team’s intent, it ended up perpetuating a tired lesbian stereotype—the queer woman in flannel—that I can barely believe has survived all the way to 2018.
According to noted queer author and Slate editor June Thomas, the association between lesbians and flannel likely began at the advent of women’s trousers. Because jeans were once the only acceptable trousers women could wear in public, and lesbians spearheaded the trend, the flannel-and-denim look was a natural fit given how well they coordinate. And besides, there are more important reasons. Flannel is “practical, it’s warm, it’s cheerful, it’s comfortable—like lesbians,” as Thomas put it. “And yes, it is a sensible, durable fabric, and my people are known for their practicality.”
The trend likely peaked in the 90s, and has mostly come and gone since then. The fact that the lesbian flannel stereotype has survived this long and become as strong in the public mind as it has is disheartening. It’s tied with U-Haul trucks and guitar-driven female singer-songwriters as the top lesbian stereotypes. And that bond is so tight that movies, TV, and other media still constantly lean on flannel as lesbian shorthand. For more than a quarter century, television and film crews across the country have been thinking to themselves, “How will we let the viewer know that this woman is GAY? Might they need a REMINDER?” By now, I think we’ve got it. Officially speaking, we’re good. Let’s take a cursory look at how deeply the cliché has penetrated our cultural consciousness to judge exactly how far the association has been drilled into our minds.
From the very first episode, flannel was a perpetual presence on Ellen, Ellen Degeneres’s 1994 sitcom, far before her eventual coming out. She wore it during a season four bait-and-switch cold open, in which viewers were led to believe she might be about to come out—"The first time, I was, um, I was with a man," we see her say to an unidentified other, “and, uh, and then I was with a woman for a little while”—before the camera pans out to reveal she’s talking about therapists she’s seen, and that she “can’t keep going from therapist to therapist like this.” Though flannel was ubiquitous in the 90s, we rarely see other women wearing it on the show—and given how often Ellen was seen wearing it, it became a strong, repeated signal to viewers that, if not explicitly lesbian, Ellen’s character was perhaps queer.
Even before Ellen eventually came out, you could catch the lesbian flannel in movies like Claire of the Moon (1992) from gay screenwriter Nicole Conn, who would go on to write lesbian classics Elena Undone and A Perfect Ending. Or movies like Bar Girls (1994), Go Fish (1994), The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995), Everything Relative (1996), and Better than Chocolate (1999), all of which center on plaid-clad women loving women, and most of which have the lesbian flannel front and center on the movie’s cover. It’s here where lesbians were our own worst offenders, either producing, writing, or starring in the movies that drove this stereotype into the new millennia.
The trend died down in the 2000s, partially due to the 2004 premiere of The L Word, with its series-long rebranding of lesbian fashion, but the trend picked up again in 2010. That year was when The Kids Are Alright was released, with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening donning flannels and vests to really drive the point of their queer marriage home for a mainstream, straight audience. Then there was Elena Undone, a classic lesbian flick released in the same year dripping in flannel, and 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan, where Anne Ramsay seems to exclusively wear flannel.
And today, in the golden age of television, the stereotype rages on. In 2017 alone, we saw flannel padding Jo’s and Chase’s lesbian storylines on Netflix’s Easy, in Karolina’s on Runaways, and in Danver’s on Supergirl, with a side-mulleted Aidy Bryant in SNL’s Wonder Woman/Themyscira lesbian-island sketch rounding out the group as the year’s most cartoonish offense.
And now, more than 20 years after Ellen Degeneres finally revealed what her wardrobe director was really trying to tell us, a newly out Elena, may God bless her and keep her, sports a good amount of flannel throughout season two of Netflix’s One Day at a Time, and a flannel lesbian commercial—likely not the first or the last—is apparently on this year’s horizon. Please, my family and I are tired.
Lesbian flannel is such an easy mark that it itself became a throwaway joke on shows from Roseanne (“Lesbians are big old truck drivers who wear flannel shirts and faded jeans”) to Queer as Folk (“Flannel. Isn’t that lesbian lingerie?”). At this point, is it even a joke? Where am I? Is this hell? If that’s the case, it’s hard to call to mind a stereotype attributed to another minority used outside of its own community with such impunity, and why, after decades of use, people aren’t embarrassed to so publicly copy and paste their efforts.
Do lesbians still wear flannel, and will we continue to until the ashy skies of nuclear war cloud our collective vision? You bet. And long may it reign! But it’s 2018. To still have this be a lesbian signifier in media is at best extremely corny, at middle lazy, and at worst offensive.
Anticipating this burnout in 2004 was a New York Times article entitled “The Subtle Power of Lesbian Style.” The writer states: “If same-sex unions have proved anything, it is that the old stereotypes are looking frayed. Homosexual social identities turn out to be as plural as those of any other group. And the day seems not far off when gay style, like gay radar, will go the way of any other artifact of minority status.”
While a shift in aesthetics and cultural norms have proven our gay radar to be be more important than ever, the lesbian flannel is well and truly frayed. Let her rest.
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