Last week, during a conversation about workwear, a friend of mine described her outfit as “lesbian chic”. At the time I didn’t say anything. We were in a group of long-standing good friends, who, like most people I choose to hang out regularly with, have an unconditional love for freedom and equality. To mock an old trope, they have “lots of gay friends” and indeed family members.
If I’m honest, I don’t actually think the expression is homophobic. It doesn’t come from a place of disgust or scepticism or fear. It’s lazy for sure and laziness can be damaging when it goes unchecked. As a rule I think we should question laziness just as we should question everything but on this occasion I didn’t. Judge that as you will.
But then this week up pops a story about Jennifer Lawrence and her quest to look like a “slutty power lesbian”. To recap, Lawrence told Glamour Magazine that this is the brief she gives her stylist. Cue all kinds of Twitter-based backlash from people accusing her of being regressive and “appropriating a sexuality” in order to look cool.
Again, I don’t feel that there’s any bigotry in her comments. Come on! We’re talking about one of the least malicious people in the history of Hollywood, surely. And I don’t think she’s “appropriating a sexuality” either. For one thing that’s not what that means. If she were in some way pretending to be gay, if she were partaking in some sort of Britney/Madonna-style publicity stunt then yeah, you might be able to say she was appropriating a sexuality. But here… well, at worst she’s appropriating a stereotype. If that’s even a thing you can do given that stereotypes are inauthentic in the first place.
Still, it got me thinking about why straight cis women see a lesbian stereotype as an aspirational look. Because however we might object to the terms used, we still know more or less what they’re talking about.
“Lesbian chic” is clearly referring to a tailored, more masculine aesthetic, often with flat shoes in place of heels. We know what that looks like; it is not a new concept in fashion although it’s fair to say the mainstream fashion mags would probably refer to it as “androgynous chic”, rather than “lesbian” (unless you’re a magazine for gay women, of course, in which case you can call it whatever TF you like).
While “slutty power lesbian” might be a little less obvious, it seems reasonably apparent that what J-Law is going for is, again, a sleek, no frills (seriously, when have you ever seen her in frills?) look but one that doesn’t deny her sexuality and femininity but instead makes it entirely her own (hence the “power” bit, I guess). No, “lesbian” is NOT a style but maybe, just maybe, I can see where she’s coming from.
It’s not a new thing either. It was Sex and The City’s 1999 episode “The Cheating Curve” which featured the so-called Power Lesbians of the art world that was my personal awakening to this fetishisation of “lesbian style”.
[Completely unrelated but while looking for a screenshot from that episode, I found this amusing piece in CLEO magazine: 11 Things SATC wouldn’t get away with today. A lot of people have re-evaluated their love for SATC since becoming what I like to call A Grown Up Woman who lives in The World but despite the fact that everything in that article is spot on, I stand by it. However that’s a whole other blog post which I will save for when you’ve been better behaved.]
So the question for me is less “Why is she stereotyping lesbians?” and more “Why does she want to look like a lesbian?” or, more accurately, “what she perceives a lesbian to look like.”
That said, some of the backlash to Lawrence’s comment has been about whether she is perpetuating stereotypes and I certainly have some sympathy for that. After all, that was my main (albeit not vocalised) objection to my friend’s “lesbian chic” comment. So the first thing to say is that OF COURSE not all gay women dress like this. One would hope that was a given, particularly for a reader of this blog, but you never know so let’s just quickly clarify: Some lesbians wear tailored trousers, some wear bodycon, some wear Doc Martens, some wear kitten heels, some rock an 80s Chrissie Hynde look, some are more into a Boogie Nights vibe, some wear Gucci, some wear Primark, some have absolutely no style or interest in fashion whatsoever… and so on ad infinitum because the thing with lesbians and the way they look is, there are no rules. Seriously. No rules. There are no approved haircuts or regulation heel heights. It’s kinda like being a straight woman except, y’know, not.
Oh, but hang on a minute… is it like being a straight woman? Because from recollection there are a LOT of rules governing the way straight women dress. And of course when I say “there are no rules” for lesbians, that isn’t strictly true either but perception is the key to the puzzle here and that’s what I want to talk about. You see, I think on some level straight women perceive lesbian women as having more freedom.
In the 1960s many new wave feminists argued that identifying as gay was the ultimate expression of feminism and a key tool in breaking free from sexism. The idea behind political lesbianism, as it was termed, was essentially that heterosexuality was part of the patriarchal ideal and by sleeping with men women became complicit in their own oppression. It’s actually one of the key reasons why the myth about feminists being “man-haters” persists. And although straight women no longer feel that have to “give up” men in order to fight for freedom and equality (although the struggle to figure out where our own personal desires and choices fit in with our politics is an ongoing one), the notion of the lesbian as somehow freer and more empowered, fetish though it is, endures.
Julie Bindel once wrote: “I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality and rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud, and see it as a privilege.” No wonder straight women were inspired. This sentiment, surely, is the very definition of what it means to be a “slutty power lesbian”?
Of course, despite the promise that “all women can be lesbians” not all feminist women desire to love other women and fewer still want to abstain from sex altogether (another option proffered by the Political Lesbianism movement). So what do we do? We dress like them instead. Or how we perceive them at any rate.
(I have already acknowledged the fact that not every women who is gay chooses to dress in an androgynous or “powerful” way so let’s not get into that again. However, I do recommend THIS Bustle article and the links within it if you’re interested in reading more on whether and why lesbians “dress like men.”)
It’s hard to deny, is it not, that choosing looser, more androgynous clothing, shunning high heels, opting for more simple styles and potentially minimising make up offers you some freedom. This can be literal freedom in the sense that flat shoes are more practical and eschewing make up buys you time, but also freedom from having your body on display, freedom from the “male gaze”.
This is not an original idea. Ever since those bras were demonstrably *not* burnt in Atlantic City in 1968, rejecting the accoutrements of traditional femininity has been a symbol of empowerment for women. And wearing clothes traditionally worn by men, yet still looking stylish, sexy and, in some cases, feminine has been fashionable for longer than I’ve been alive.
The idea that gay women are somehow the epitome of this is of course ridiculous but it’s not hard to see how the leap was made. Rightly or wrongly, when straight women say “lesbian” in this context what they mean is non-conforming and thus personally empowered. They’re tapping in to something they see gay women as enjoying: freedom from normative expectations.
It’s lazy, yes. It’s naive and in some cases downright erroneous. But it doesn’t come from a malicious place so much as an aspirational one. Don’t we all aspire to be free?
As a final note, Ruby Rose was totally chill with Jennifer Lawrence’s comments which is definitely relevant and not in any way something I’ve crowbarred in as an excuse to post a picture of her…