Lesbian Culture Has Had a Major Update
Is this how straight people feel all the time? I'm surprised they're even functioning.
Collage: Marta Parszeniew (credits at the bottom of article)
I don’t know what lesbian culture looked like in the 2000s because I was busy cosplaying a heterosexual, but if you’d asked me to draw it, I might have done a woman with short hair, dungarees and Birkenstocks (I know, but bear with me). As the years went on, maybe I would have quoted The Real L Word or shown you a photo of Ellen and Portia De Rossi, or flung you a copy of something by Sarah Waters. There was obviously more – so much more – but you had to look for it, or at least I did. It didn't feel as though there were so many cultural hallmarks to cling onto. Lesbian culture wasn’t exactly mainstream.
Lesbian culture today, though, is something else entirely. Or, more specifically, lesbian culture in the past year or so has updated and expanded into something tangible, rather than only existing in niche factions. Lesbian culture today is Villanelle threatening Eve with a knife in her own home. It’s the glove from Carol. It’s the entire cast of Ocean’s 8 and their outfits. It’s Rachel Weisz's spit. It’s Cara Delevingne's exes. It’s Janelle Monae's videos. It’s Chloë Sevigny brandishing an axe and walking slowly down the stairs in Lizzie. It’s cheekbones and vests and monochrome and slicked back hair. It’s Blake Lively’s suits. It’s inviting your exes over for vegan food. It’s comparing Venus placements before you meet. It’s reenacting Duck Butter. It is obviously Cate Blanchett.
It can be neatly summed up via the "reimagined Coachella" tweet below from Jill Gutowitz, which was doing the rounds last week, and which includes references that might look random to Steve down the road, but have an invisible lesbian thread tying the whole thing together, just like Hideko was tied up in The Handmaiden.
First, just in case you are for some reason not a lesbian, I’m going to explain a few of these references:
Rachel Weisz's spit
Disobedience (2018) is a depressing, grey film that somehow makes north London look even more drab than it already is. There are, however, lesbians in it, one of whom is Rachel McAdams (Regina George coming back as a repressed London lez is a brilliant and astonishing occurrence that nobody talks about enough), and the other is Rachel Weisz. Not much happens, apart from this one sex scene, in which Rachel spits into the other Rachel’s mouth and immediately becomes iconic.
Sandra Oh sobbing
Because Sandra Oh played Eve in the BBC Drama Killing Eve, and I would sob too if I was being stalked by that murderous sociopath Villanelle, just not for the reasons you think.
Blake Lively’s suits
Ally in 'A Star Is Born'
I can’t explain why Ally in A Star Is Born is lesbian culture. She just is. Maybe it’s because she wears brown biker boots and bootcut jeans and she’s played by Lady Gaga, who we know is not straight. Or maybe because the film is camp as fuck, and as I will get into, lesbian culture and camp aren't the same, but they are definitely best mates.
In an exceptional piece for The Outline, published last spring, Mikaella Clements writes about lesbian culture and the ways in which it overlaps and diverges from that of gay men. She calls it "Dyke camp" and points to it as a burgeoning aesthetic movement in music, film and fashion. "Dyke camp overlaps with camp in some areas, certainly," she writes. "But in others it is completely different; it has its own electric vision. If camp is the love of the unnatural, dyke camp is the love of the ultra-natural, of nature built up and reclaimed, of clothes that could be extensions of the body, of desire made obsessive, of lesbian gestures or mannerisms maximised by a thousand."
Clements goes on to explain that what makes "dyke camp" separate from straightforward lesbian eroticism – like, say, Madonna, Britney and Christina snogging on the VMA stage in 2003 – is that it is entirely devoid of the male gaze. "Dyke camp is explicitly dominated by women who know just how to touch and want other women," she points out. "If straight women put on public displays of lesbianism for male attention, dyke camp takes private lesbian contact and makes it public – for other women. Dyke camp is less about having a hot body, and more about knowing how to use it."
That piece from Clements arrived in May last year, just as Janelle Monae had dropped Dirty Computer, two months after Hayley Kiyoko released her debut album and a handful of months after St Vincent's Masseduction. In the time since, we’ve seen the release of Killing Eve, Lizzie, The Favourite, Disobedience, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Rafiki. What all these things have in common is that they centre queer experiences for the female gaze specifically. Rachel Weisz marching towards Olivia Colman in an 18th century trouser suit and choking her against the bedpost in The Favourite, for example, is a such a queer movement that, in the space of three seconds, it became an iconic moment for lesbian culture.
What I mean to say is that the sheer amount of high-tier lesbian action and storylines that have graced our screens, timelines and headphones over the past year has watered the gardens of a culture that needed it – just like all cultures do. Sure, lesbian iconography has existed long into the past (if you haven't seen the 1981 film Liquid Sky, or trawled through the archives of cult lez mag On Our Backs then stop what you're doing immediately and do that), and it will exist long into the future. But arguably, until now, it has never been so mainstream, so accessible, so delivered with a wink and a nudge, rather than presented as niche, underground or almost shameful.
If Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart – two of the most well-known actresses of the 21st century – can have lesbian sex in a literal horse barn in a film that is projected onto cinema screens across the entire world, I'd say that things are looking up. Here's to 2019.