Dr. Carman Fung discusses the transformation of tomboy identities

They examined how The L Word informed the perceptions of lesbians in the Sinophone world

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By: C Icart, Staff Writer

Dr. Carman Fung is a lecturer in the department of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at SFU. They “study the lesbian secondary gender, ‘tomboy,’ across the transnational Sinophone world encompassing contemporary China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.” This is the topic of their upcoming research article “The L Word as a Tomboy Text: Transnational Viewership in Sinophone Lesbian Communities.” The L Word was a 2004 American TV series that centred the lives of a group of lesbians living in LA.

Fung highlighted that across Asia, the term “tomboy” is used by queer women to refer to masculine lesbian expressions. Through their study, Fung followed queer Asian women who “make the transition from identifying as a tomboy, to sort of embracing a newer lesbian subjectivity.” What they found was “a lot of them have gone from wearing very masculine clothing, so kind of like butch lesbian, and going from that, to the exact opposite side — so like wearing their hair long, wearing makeup, wearing dresses.” 

More specifically, Fung analyzed the original run of The L Word. They found many of the women they spoke to engaged with the show and “informed their decision to embrace a different kind of gender presentation.” 

At first glance, there wasn’t a clear link between a show of white, American lesbians from the early 2000’s and the lives of contemporary, Asian, queer women in the Sinophone world, explained Fung.

“There’s really no lesbian masculinity whatsoever in the majority portion of the show.” This led to a lightbulb moment that became the basis of their upcoming work. “In writing that thesis, it then occurred to me that that was the point. It was that there’s no tomboy on The L Word and that’s why it created this alternative kind of lesbian representation that the people that I was talking to were not familiar with.” For these women, watching the show represented “this moment in their lives where they were like, ‘Oh actually you can be a lesbian without being a tomboy.’”

In fact, it’s a connection they stumbled upon accidentally when interviewing women for their PhD thesis. At the time, they were looking “exclusively at how Asian tomboy representations inform Chinese-speaking women’s identification with the word tomboy. But then when I was doing the actual interviews, everyone just started talking about The L Word.

Fung also identifies as a part of the Asian lesbian community they are studying. “I’m very much writing from the perspective of an insider. So I know for a fact that people do draw on available queer representation, queer media representations to articulate how they think about tomboys and other kinds of lesbian identities.”

They highlighted, “It’s not just [that] we have particular identities that get reflected on screen. It’s very much the other way around as well.” Identities portrayed in media can play a role in the language, gender, and sexual expressions adopted by individuals in the real world. This is an idea that they explore with their students in the Queer Fandoms course they are currently teaching at SFU.

Fung warned this does not give any weight to the argument that one becomes queer or trans because they saw it on television. Instead, “We have personal experiences when it comes to gender and sexuality that we need to make sense of.” Fung added, “I think media actually plays a much bigger role than what is often assumed,” when interpreting our identities. Queer media representations can provide language and showcase alternatives that can be helpful to queer individuals in understanding themselves. 

For more information on Dr. Fung’s work visit their bio on the SFU website. Their article is a forthcoming publication but Fung’s thesis can be found in the University of Melbourne library.

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