DIVA IN RETROSPECT
FROM “LESBIAN CHIC” TO #GIRLCRUSH, ROXY BOURDILLON DISSECTS THE MEDIA REPRESENTATION OF LESBIANS AND BI WOMEN THROUGH THE 90S AND 00S, UNTIL NOW...
Roxy Bourdillon looks back at 23 years of lez/ bi progress
Ah, the 90s; the era of double denim, the Macarena and £1 mood rings that changed colour to reflect how sweaty your soul was. It was the decade that “lesbian chic” officially became a thing and when the first issue of DIVA came out in April 1994 (pun totally intended), there was something sapphic in the air.
Madonna had just released her discreetly-titled coffee table book, Sex, a raunchfest of softcore sadomasochism and same-sex sensuality. (It’s a real page-turner, but you might want to slip it down the back of the sofa if your nan pops round for a cuppa and a Hobnob.) Singer KD Lang and supermodel Cindy Crawford had posed as a butchfemme couple with a shaving fetish on the cover of Vanity Fair and, here in Blighty, 1994 marked not only the birth of DIVA, but also the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on TV, when Brookside’s Beth and Margaret locked lips.
But being visible isn’t the same as having power. The very phrase “lesbian chic” suggests a disposable fashion fad; “Hey consumer, why not accessorise your outfit with a
Gucci backpack and a trophy dyke?” It’s utility chic with added handholding and just as much comfortable footwear. And although Anna Friel playing soapland’s first lesbian was a landmark moment, she was killed off within a year of coming out, proving that TV’S Bury Your Gays epidemic is nothing new.
While magazine articles hailed the rise of sapphic chic, we still didn’t have equal rights. Instead of same-sex marriage and adoption rights, we had discrimination and hate crime. We were good enough to titillate the public, but not worthy of the same basic liberties most people take for granted. In truth, homophobia was more prevalent than women wearing plaid overalls because Vogue told them lezzaluxe was all the rage.
Fast-forward to the 00s and faux lesbianism was rife. Russian girl band TATU’S sole PR strategy was to dress like schoolgirls and lez it up for the camera, despite the fact that one of the singers was straight. This staged lesbian eroticism was the music industry equivalent of two women necking on to get slack-jawed blokes to pay for their drinks. Britney, Madonna and Christina pulled a similar trick with their three-way snog at the 2003 VMAS, and in 2008 Katy Perry’s sugar- coated suggestiveness made her an overnight sensation when she sang about kissing a girl and – oh, how edgy – liking it.
More recently, in the video for Can’t Remember To Forget You, Shakira and Rihanna writhed about in bed and stroked each other’s thighs provocatively, but once again it was pure straight male fantasy. They even took turns singing the line, “I’d do anything for that boy,” in case we were in any
doubt about who this display was really for. Now, I have no problem with empowered straight women fondling each other – hell, that’s how some of the best lesbians I know started out – but when it’s all so patently aimed at turning men on, I can’t help but feel disappointed.
On the plus side, at least we’re seeing our sexualities represented more frequently. Last year, Juno Dawson became Glamour’s first transgender columnist and in 2014, Cosmopolitan published an online sapphic sex guide, “28 Mind- Blowing Lesbian Sex Positions”. It was well-intentioned but who were they kidding? You’d have to be Stretch Armstrong to pull off “The Erotic Maypole”. Why so much hair-pulling? And what self-respecting couple wears matching floral garlands to make love? Actually, that last one does sound kind of fun…
The increase in queer representation is exciting, but it doesn’t signify total acceptance. The same media that declared us the height of fashion in the 90s went rabid for an outing, and not the fun kind to IKEA. It was the tabloid equivalent of dragging someone into the town square and shoving them in the stocks to sling horrible, homophobic mud at them.
In 1994, to avoid being outed, comedian Sandi Toksvig went public about her sexuality in an interview with the Sunday Times. Far from being praised for her “lesbian chic”, she received multiple death threats and had to go into hiding for two weeks. She later revealed on Desert Island Discs, “I was terrified that I had done a terrible thing to my children. It was truly, genuinely frightening.” In 2003, broadcaster Clare Balding’s sexuality was exposed by the Mail On Sunday. Nearly 10 years after the Sandi scandal and the tabloids were still salivating.
Now let’s look at one of the most famous coming- out stories, that of comedian, actress and our rightful leader, Ellen Degeneres. After years of batting away questions about her personal life with the expertise of a pro tennis player, in 1997 she came out in an exclusive interview with Time magazine. People lost their proverbial. When the character she played on her self-titled sitcom came out shortly after, the show was axed within a year. You know the saying; if you can’t bury the gays, cancel their sitcoms.
The case of Ellen illustrates how damaging revealing your sexuality could be to your public image, but it also shows how far we’ve come. In 2017, Ellen is back on top as reigning queen, not only of the lesbians but of the TV talk show, with 66 million Twitter followers and legions of loyal fans. Last year, Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, acknowledging how her personal bravery and unfailing warmth and humour helped change public perceptions.
In the old days, gay and bi people hid their sexuality, but now some straight, fame- hungry female celebs pretend to be bi in exchange for column inches and cold, hard cash. Take reality TV stars du jour Jemma Lucy and Chantelle Connelly. They’ve behaved like the typical new couple – publishing nude photoshoots online and sharing romantic naked selfies on Snapchat. Ah, young love. Although Jemma is bi, Chantelle has since confirmed on social media that their whole relationship was faked, declaring, “I ain’t a lesbian,” adding a few heartfelt pound- sign emojis. Gay stars used to have beards to conceal their sexuality in public. Now straight ones have lesbian beards – beanies? – to attract rather than deflect media attention. I get that a girl’s gotta make a living, but does she have to exploit queer female sexuality to do it?
Another example of the casual commodification of our identities is when glossy mags and smug straight women on Twitter giggle over their “girl crushes”. This brand of lezzy-lite allows heterosexual women to play with the fashionable side of lesbianism that’s attractive to men without the stigma of actually being gay or bi. Ok straights, we get it; we’re cool and exotic and you want some of our mystique to make you seem more interesting. But listen up ladies, it’s not a real crush unless you’re limbering up for some Erotic Maypole action.
And then there’s the disturbing way the gutter press start licking their chops when they discover that a criminal happens to be LGBT. If a murderer is also lesbian or bisexual, it becomes a key part of the narrative, despite being completely irrelevant. When I was outed to my adorable 90-year- old granny (I can’t blame the tabloids for this one, it was my mum who blew my cover), she was seriously concerned because she’d read so much about lesbian serial killers. I advised her to cancel her subscription to the Daily Mail, but to keep me away from sharp objects just to be on the safe side.
Of course, we can’t discuss lesbians in the media without taking a moment to swoon over the dearly departed L Word. However much the theme song grated and Jenny got right on your tits, it was truly special to have our own gloriously gay drama, featuring actual LGBT people in the cast and crew. Since then we’ve binge- watched our way through shows like Lip Service, Orange Is The New Black and Wentworth. With so much more representation on TV than in 1994, it’s easy to think everything’s rosy, but the reality isn’t quite so simple. While it’s better for white, able- bodied people, there’s still nowhere near enough representation for people of colour, disabled, bi, trans and non- binary folk. And yes, there are more queer women on TV than there were in the 90s and 00s, but 2016 was a low point as we were killed off in droves. Is it really so hard to come up with a storyline for a gay character apart from “tortured coming out, fleeting moment of happiness, sudden and pointless death”? All these sub- standard on- screen portrayals make it more important than ever that we tell our own stories in queer web- based dramas like Different For Girls and Her Story.
So much has changed since 1994 and yet nothing has changed at all – discrimination is still rife and hate crime is on the rise, only now there are some who see our sexuality as something to be cashed in on. But it’s our birthday so let’s try and be positive. Over the last 23 years, things have definitely improved and DIVA’S been here to document it all. Just think of all the celebs who came out last year – Amandla Stenberg, Lauren Jauregui and Saara Aalto, to name but a few. And if you still need cheering up, go and watch the Youtube video of Kristen Stewart hosting Saturday Night Live and telling Donald Trump, “I’m like, soooo gay, dude”. It’s guaranteed to make you like, soooo happy, dude.