As a decades-long fan of The Golden Girls, I was saddened to learn of the death of Rue McClanahan last week. In fact, I think I genuinely shed a palpable, detectable tear, which is something I can’t remember ever doing on the death of a celebrity, with the exception perhaps of Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty. It sounds rather homosexually cliché, I know, but my partner, Juan, and I have gotten into the habit of watching an episode of The Golden Girls every night before bed. And along with the other “girls,” as we call them, Rue’s character Blanche Devereaux—the libidinous southern belle with an insatiable appetite for rich cheesecake and rich men—has become something of an imaginary, smile-inducing friend in our home. Fortunately, Blanche’s carnal spirit is burned forever on our DVDs. But the news of McClanahan’s death inspired me to read more about her in real life—well, at least to expend enough finger energy to flitter over to her Wikipedia entry. I knew she’d been an outspoken advocate of gays and lesbians, as well as animals, but I didn’t realize that her support for the former went all the way back to 1971. Just a few short years after the Stonewall Riots, she co-starred in a movie set in a Greenwich gay bar called Some of My Best Friends Are … as a “vicious fag hag".
And then my mind switched gears, leaving the inimitable Rue and the issue of gay rights behind and instead focusing my attention on this term, “fag hag”. Now I’ve never seen myself as a “fag”—although I’m sure many other people do see me this way and unfortunately nothing more—but more importantly I’ve certainly never regarded my many close female friends as “hags.” So I was curious to learn more about the unflattering stereotypes lying at the etymological root of this moniker, which describes straight women who tend to gravitate toward gay men. Enter Mount Saint Vincent University psychologist Nancy Bartlett and her colleagues, who just last year published the first quantitative study of fag hags in the journal Body Image.
These researchers, too, found the term “fag hag” intriguing. There are plenty of other colorful expressions that capture this distinct demographic rather vividly, some less insultingly so than others, including:
• Fruit fly
• Queen bee
• Queer dear
• Fairy godmother
• Fag shagger
• Queen magnet
• Hag along
• Swish dish
• Homo honey
• Fairy collector
• Fairy princess
But it’s “fag hag” that resonates in the public consciousness. The researchers note that both in popular media and everyday expression, the term conjures up the image of an unattractive, overweight, desperate woman who seeks out the company of gay men to compensate for her lack of romantic attention from straight guys. Sorting through anecdotes from previous interview studies, television depictions and cheap romance novels, the authors find that other common stereotypes paint the fag hag as being notoriously camp, overly emotional, unstable and as craving attention (e.g., Megan Mullally’s character Karen Walker from Will & Grace). What’s especially fascinating is the authors’ observation that this social category of women who like men who like men may be “cross-culturally robust.” The French refer to such women as soeurettes (“Little Sisters”), the German brand them as Schwulen-Muttis (“Gay Moms”), and the Mexicans know them as joteras (“jota” is commonly used for “fag”). In Japan, these women are called okoge, translated literally as “the burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot.”
According to the investigators, the “hag” component is essentially the common belief that these women “do not feel good about their bodies, and as a result, take refuge in the ‘gay world’ to avoid the harsher judgment and emphasis on female physical attractiveness inherent in the heterosexual social scene.” The comedienne Margaret Cho, a well-known and self-proclaimed fag hag, states:
The gay man in your life is not concerned with your youth and beauty. He wants to know your soul. He loves you for your courage and intellect. Whether you are lovely or plain, you are beautiful to him for these qualities—and many more.
As “the gay man” in many women’s lives, I’m not sure Cho’s got it entirely right about us—she seems to be idealizing gay men. Trust me, there’s no shortage of superficial gay men out there. She’s also apparently never heard of biologist John Maynard Smith’s “sneaky f*cker” evolutionary hypothesis for male homosexuality, which posits that gay men in the ancestral past had unique access to the reproductive niche because females let their guards down around them and other males didn't view them as sexual competitors. We’re not infertile, after all, just gay. (By the way, another aside: Is it my imagination, or are lesbians and bisexuals strangely overrepresented at the top-most rungs of the female comedy ladder? In addition to bisexual Cho, there are also lesbians Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres, Lilly Tomlin, Rosie O’Donnell, Sandra Bernhard and—one of my favorites—Jane Lynch.)
But what Bartlett and her co-authors were especially interested in with their 2009 study was if there’s any truth to the negative stereotypes surrounding fag hags.
So, they invited 154 heterosexual women to participate in an Internet-based survey on fag-haggery (my term, not theirs). These women ranged from 17 to 65 years of age (with an average of 28 years) and had a varied history of romantic relationships. Some were married, some single, still others divorced, widowed, currently dating and so on—and most were reasonably well-educated, having at least some college education. Each woman was asked to provide certain quantifiable information that would allow the authors to test several key hypotheses about the myth of the fag hag. First, women simply gave the total numbers of gay male, straight male and female friends they had. Also, on a scale of 1 (not that close) to 5 (extremely close) they were asked to rate their degree of “closeness” with their closest gay male, straight male and female friend. Next, the women completed a commonly used instrument called the Body Esteem Scale (BES), a 24-item questionnaire measuring a woman’s self-perceived sexual attractiveness and her weight concerns. Finally, each of the participants provided information about their romantic history over the past two years, including whether they’d been the “dumper” or the “dumpee” in recent failed relationships.
The results were analyzed to test the common assumption that women befriend gay men because they have poor body esteem and feel unattractive to straight men. If this were true, the authors reason, then there should be a meaningful statistical association between a woman’s number of gay male friends and her body esteem and relationship success—in other words, the more pathetic a woman’s romantic life and the more she sees herself as being undesirable to straight men, the more she should seek out gay men as friends. But the data revealed otherwise. In fact, with this sample at least, there was absolutely no link between a woman’s relationship status, the number of times she’d been on the receiving end of a breakup, or her body esteem and the number of gay male friends in her life.
Debunking common assumptions in science is nothing new, and that goes for the myth of the fag hag too. But there were also some unexpected findings in this study. For example, the more gay male friends that a woman had, the more sexually attractive she found herself. Now, obviously, this is a correlation, so we can only speculate on causality. It could be—as the authors suggest—that women with gay male friends actually are physically more attractive than those with fewer gay male friends. Perhaps being around gay men offers these women some relief from the constant sexual overtures of straight men. (Bartlett’s study only measured perceived self-attractiveness, not actual attractiveness, so this is an open question.) This may be more plausible a causal explanation than simply noting that a woman’s body esteem is enhanced the more that she’s around flattering gay men. On the other hand, interestingly enough, the longer that a woman has been friends with her closest gay male friend, the lower her perceived sexual attractiveness. On interpreting this unexpected finding, the authors suggest that this may actually reflect some core, but nuanced truth of the “fag hag” stereotype: “Perhaps women who perceive themselves as less sexually attractive develop closer relationships with gay men.” The others just go for superficial attachments.
To my own favorite fairy princess, Ginger: This one’s for you. I love you. For the rest of you, here’s a final thought to scratch your head over. It occurred to me while writing this article that the social category of straight men that like to socialize with lesbians is astonishingly vacant in our society. Sure, you may hear about some random “dyke tyke” or “lesbro” (two terms that, unlike fag hag, are hardly part of the popular slang vocabulary and actually required me to do some intensive googling), but their existence is clearly minimal. Do you have any good guesses on why there’s such a discrepancy in frequency between the two cases?
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Sign up for the RSS feed, visit www.JesseBering.com, friend Dr. Bering on Facebook or follow @JesseBering on Twitter and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.
Image ©iStockphoto.com/Galina Barskaya