How many lesbians does it take to sell a t-shirt?

Girl-on-girl action may be marketing gold, but has little benefit for actual lesbians, argues Joanna Whitehead

J Whitehead, 4 November 2007

How can I be out and proud when both mainstream and LGBT society are unable or, worse, unprepared to acknowledge me because of the length of my hair?

My femme-tastic appearance does not conform to western society's limited blueprint of 'lesbian'. The long, blonde hair and occasional penchant for dresses, make-up and heels do not sit comfortably with the stereotype of shaved heads, dungarees and biker boots. As outdated as such stereotypes may be, there is no denying that such myths still exist today: I know because people react with confusion and mirth when they discover that I have - wait for it - a girlfriend.

What I find most disturbing is that such responses are not confined to conservatives or older generations. I'm increasingly confronted by educated colleagues, friends and acquaintances in their 20s, whose faces glaze over with a 'brain-cannot-compute' expression that belies their high-pitched, hurried words of acceptance. The unspoken message here seems to be that if you are gay, play by the rules. Don't fuck with our heads by dressing 'femme'. We need to know where we stand, goddamnit - stop being so inconsiderate! To me, such responses are a direct result of the mainstream media's omnipresent messaging that dictates how we should look and what we should think.

An article in this month's Diva magazine reported on the relatively recent trend to show 'girl-on-girl' action in advertising campaigns to sell clothes, shoes and consumer goods. Opinion was varied, ranging from indifference to excitement, cynicism to humour - all valid arguments in their own right - but what struck me was the failure to recognise the immense power these adverts have on popular opinion and wider politics and the subsequent knock-on effect for people like you and me. Yes, progress is being made, as evidenced by the simple fact that we're debating such imagery at all. However, as Jenny Kitzinger, professor of media and communications research at Cardiff University, so eloquently states: "We shouldn't celebrate visibility for its own sake."

I make no attempt to speak for, or on behalf of, any particular sub-group. I self-identify as 'queer' to those familiar with the parlance, but also fall under the category of 'femme' to many in the LGBTQ world. Attempts at 'glamour' come and go but, essentially, I look 'straight', as does my girlfriend, who happens to be a knock-out (lucky me). When we walk down the street, holding hands, we invariably experience some hassle. This happens almost every time we hold hands, touch in a non-sexual but familiar way, embrace or, on occasion, kiss. What differentiates the grief we receive from that which some of my more butch friends are unfortunate enough to experience, is that, rather than lambasting us for our behaviour, although this happens too, the general response from guys - unfortunately, it's invariably guys - is that of encouragement, delight, titillation.

I find the fact that I 'pass' as straight to be a mixed blessing. It's true that I've never been 'bashed', never experienced explicit verbal abuse or been mistaken for a man like many of my peers have. However, the assumptions that are frequently made as a result of my apparent heterosexuality do nothing less than invalidate my entire identity.

The prospect of the tame public affection (and not-so-tame private activity) between my girlfriend and me being reduced to the stuff of male wank-fantasy, subject to an all-pervasive and oppressive male gaze, is infuriating, frustrating and, most significantly, fucking upsetting

Femme-tastic girl-on-girl action is a staple of made-for-men porn, graces the covers of most of the 'lads' weeklies and is frequently practiced by adolescent girls as a quick-fire way to distract the boys from their Xboxes. This frivolity, however, does not extend to my life. I am in a loving, committed, serious relationship that is constantly assumed, by both men and women, to be part-performance, part-experimentation. The jeers, cheers and pulling of dicks that tend to accompany our begrudingly vanilla affection towards each other in public spaces reduces our entire relationship to that of public spectacle.

As someone who actively avoids male attention of any description, yet who is constantly assumed to be flattered by it, the prospect of the tame public affection (and not-so-tame private activity) between my girlfriend and me being reduced to the stuff of male wank-fantasy and subject to an all-pervasive and oppressive male gaze, is infuriating, frustrating and, most significantly, fucking upsetting.

So maybe I need to toughen up and get real: red-blooded males are always going to enjoy seeing girls making out, right? This may well be true, but in my occasional moments of wild optimism, I like to think of a time when I can walk to the end of my street, holding my girlfriend's hand, without being subjected to the catcalls, whistles and leers that currently accompany our ventures into the big, bad world. The very fact that such an ideal seems unrealistic speaks volumes to me about the distance left to run. But, call me crazy, I'm an idealist.

Mainstream media's representation of women and girls is generally agreed to be limited in the extreme, with images of textbook tall, slim, doe-eyed adolescents being used to maximum effect in making many women, the majority of whom do not measure up to such fastidious specs, feel like shit. Images falling outside this narrow spectrum are few and far between. Aside from media which falls under the category of 'specialist' or 'alternative', rarely are women of size 12 or over used within popular culture, despite the fact that the average women's dress size in Britain currently stands at 16. Armed with this knowledge, it may seem somewhat foolhardy to expect the few images of lesbianism to be accurate reflections of wider womankind. In the face of such relentless adversity, however, what is essential is that the failures of designers, editors and CEOs to promote a more inclusive vision of femininity are not allowed to pass without protest, and that resistance and outcry continue in response to their propaganda.

Go into any newsagents for proof that faux-Sapphic love action is hot property in the minds of many men (and women)

"Whoah!" I hear you cry: "That sounds suspiciously like fighting talk to me, and I'm not in the business of rocking any boats!" In response, I beg the question: in light of the available evidence, can you afford not to object? Within Western culture, we are constantly saturated by seriously distorted images of 'femininity', or what we're told this mythological construct constitutes. Alternative lifestyles, politics, appearances and opinions are dismissed as irrelevant, immaterial, of minimal interest. Yes - 'frivoulous' images of lesbianism, or of women more generally, might make nice eye-candy, but it's an unfortunate reality that at our current evolutionary epoch, they're stunting our development as human beings, and killing the cause!

It must be noted, here and now, that I am far from immune to the raw reality that certain images of women in sexually provocative poses and minimal clothing have a certain effect on many men and some women - my blood is red and raging. But the key issues of the day are those of visibility and representation. Mainstream media's representations of Sapphic love are at best limited, and at worst, suffocating. Images of lesbians who are more 'butch' in appearance are rarely used in this way, but when they are, it's hardly ever with the flippancy that characterises more 'femme' representations. Such flippancy is both offensive and undermining to a sub-group that, like so many others, lacks a valid and visible platform to protest and challenge.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that, for many blokes, the sight of two pretty girls getting it on is textbook fantasy material. Go into any newsagents for proof that faux-Sapphic love action is hot property in the minds of many men (and women). However, the unfortunate truth is that such images occupy the narrow confines characteristic of media images of women more generally: slim, blonde and busty - a body-type that, in reality, is incredibly rare. Very few women have a 24 inch waist with a 38 inch bust.

Just because bikini-clad, spread-legged, 'Amy', 22, from Surrey, likes male attention, lap-dancing and 'sex doggy-style', does not mean that Alice, 22, from Leeds wants the leers, wolf-whistles and comments that some men assume women want as a result of such representation

So what - unrepresentative images of women, and other minority groups, are nothing new in society, right? This may well be true, but it doesn't mean we have to take it lying down, especially when such distorted public imagery starts to infringe upon private life. One of the major problems of misrepresentation is when people who possess a limited understanding and experience of particular groups or individuals, start to create a 'reality' that bears some resemblance to the minority of such groups, at the expense of the remaining majority. Those men and teenage boys who derive much of their knowledge and/or understanding of women and girls from these publications are not helping themselves, being, at best, an irritation to women, at worst, a threat. Just because bikini-clad, spread-legged, 'Amy', 22, from Surrey, likes male attention, lap-dancing and "sex doggy-style", does not mean that Alice, 22, from Leeds wants the leers, wolf-whistles and comments that some men assume women want as a result of such representation.

I'm not suggesting that we ban such publications, although I do think that, without naming names, any magazine that portrays women solely as sex objects, and advertises "50 ways to cheat on your girlfriend - and get away with it", is seriously stunting the cause. Instead, I'm suggesting that we even up the balance a little more by featuring a woman whose main objective in life isn't taking her clothes off, servicing men, or any of the usual shite we've come to loathe and expect from the mainstream media. Women - and men! - are diverse, complex and fascinating, in mind and body, so why can't we see a greater reflection of this in mainstream media instead of the predictable, generic and one-dimensional images that we're confronted with, day in, day out? Women have been marginalised, objectified and discriminated against since the dawn of time. The frivolity stops here: it's time to take some fucking responsibility - and to get serious.

About the author

J Whitehead

Joanna Whitehead is angry and uses too much bad language, but has a super-soft interior. She is delighted to be here

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