Sapphism for Fun and Profit

Pop lit discovers lesbian chic

My girlfriend is a babe. She has long blond hair, a sports car, looks great in leather. When we're out together on the street or seated in a bar--a beautiful blond beside a lanky, short-haired woman--a part of me winces when the thought crosses my mind: we are lesbian chic. It's not that I mind being seen with a beautiful woman, but I mind how I see us now. I mind the mediation of my intimate life.

Of course, it's been a few years since the press first declared that sapphism was no longer subversive but chic, and much of the fuss has subsided. New York magazine first coined the term in its May 1993 cover story; since then The Village Voice's Ann Powers has envied us our fabulousness, Rolling Stone has called lesbianism the new "hot subculture," and articles, advertisements, and sitcoms have cashed in on the supposedly glamorous lives of girls who love girls.

But just when you thought all the straights were clearing out of the Clit Club, the latest wave of lesbian chic has hit the culture in the form of pop lit. Three recently released books testify to the latest co-optation of so-called alternative culture in the service of consumerism, peddling sapphism as a literary commodity.

Cloth-bound, about five inches square, and chock full of colorful collages printed on heavy paper, Between Us: A Legacy of Lesbian Love Letters (Chronicle Books) is a highbrow lesbian literary object, an upscale rendition of the "niche market" title. The book comprises missives dating from 1852 to 1995, gleaned from the files of the famous and obscure. They're an uneven lot--an inconsequential note from Carole Maso to her partner of 20 years is interesting only if you want to glimpse Maso in an unguarded moment--but the book offers a number of satisfactions. For anyone who's ever wanted to read someone else's mail, this is heaven--especially the pleasure of reading a really scathing break-up letter, without the pain of having to pen it or receive it oneself. The book is framed by editor Kay Turner's elegant introduction on the seminal place of the letter in ecriture feminine; she also discusses some of the principle tropes of the genre as practiced by lesbians (e.g., cat stories). Best of all are the end notes to each epistle, which provide summary biographical accounts of both the letter-writer and its recipient (such as two women's meeting at a Winter Solstice gathering, or a detail on Emily Dickinson's love for the woman destined to become her sister-in-law).

At the other end of the spectrum of good taste is So You Want to Be a Lesbian (St. Martin's Griffin). A sort of Preppy Handbook for dykes, this slender paperback aims for humor, but ends up achieving only cliché. Reiterating hackneyed stereotypes about dyke life, Liz Tracey and Sydney Pokorny include sections on flirting, dyke drama, and how to dress, in addition to a wholly predictable Lesbian Aptitude Test. (The LAT assumes that real dykes will finish the sentence, "My ideal relationship is best embodied by..." with "Gertrude and Alice." If you answer Sartre and de Beauvoir--my personal fave--you score a zero.)

Mary Dugger's History of Lesbian Hair and Other Tales of Bent Life in a Straight World (Main Street Books/Doubleday) is another volume of lightweight lesbian lit, full of quizzes and anecdotes and lots of campy collage. It's smarter than So You Want to Be, but that's not saying a lot. Typical of its offerings are the Far Right Experts Trading Cards (featuring Limbaugh and Helms) and an analysis of "What You're Missing By Not Being Deaf," a send-up of the signing used at women's concerts (hand signals include "Cute Blond...Ninth Row Center" and "The Singer and the Drummer are Sleeping Together").

Like the larger lesbian chic fad, the trouble with these books is not that they're trivial, but that they're predicated on positioning somebody else as "the girl." Instead of challenging sexual hierarchy, they simply make some other chick (usually the straight girls) the butt of the joke. (History's chapter on "So You Wanna Be a Straight Girl" gives tips on how to be vacuous.)

And that's the real problem with lesbian chic and its literary progeny. If sapphism used to be a radical alternative to sex-as-usual under patriarchy, a countercultural kick to the groin, it is no more. Instead of challenging female subordinance, images of fashionable lesbians in the media re-create sexual politics as usual in the guise of same-sex love. The troubling question lesbian chic raises is not--as some would have it--whether lipstick is a sign of false consciousness, but whether style will usurp content, whether in a bid for visibility some women will traffic in others.

The commodification of lesbian culture, however, didn't begin with that flurry of press; it spread, perhaps not surprisingly, from advertising. As Danae Clark noted in a 1991 issue of Camera Obscura, the '90s ushered in a new wave of "lesbian window dressing": ads coded to appeal to sapphists without alienating straight audiences (see Versace's current spreads with Cindy Crawford and a butch pal for a recent example). By depicting only single or same-sex individuals within the frame and employing androgynous models, these ads--like the gay counterparts that preceded them in the '80s--allow the viewer to pleasurably read the images as a confirmation of queer desire.

But if such advertising allows for a secret sapphist reading--a private homo-hermeneutics, as it were--lesbian chic transforms this insider privilege into public spectacle; it replaces a subjective lesbian reading with an explicit, heterosexualized inscription of lesbian love. Time and again the media present stoic, short-haired women in suits being courted and swooned over by long-haired chicks in traditional girl garb: high heels, bikinis, short skirts.

Ultimately, sapphism in its chic incarnation becomes a basis for women to bond with men over babes. It's no longer an alternative to female subordinance; it simply lets some women traffic in others. (Writing in Esquire, self-proclaimed lesbian sexpert Susie Bright does just that when she offers advice to guys on how to make "lesbian-style" love to a woman. "Lesbians and straight men do have a lot in common," she effuses. "We are both hung up on girls.")

The desire to position somebody else as the babe is the dirty little secret of lesbian chic. Like "do-me" feminism and black conservatism, lesbian chic fronts for the status quo, robbing us of an incentive to change a sexist system for the benefit of all. It offers a place at the table for a privileged few members of a minority--that is, provided we don't pursue the question of why it is still the women who are serving while the rest of us feast.

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