Triumph of the Lipstick Lesbians

The glamorous power lesbian conquers Manhattan

Lustful "lesbians" have been a perennial favorite in male porn, of course, since the advent of naughty French postcards. The difference now is that women have taken the traditional sexist imagery and tweaked it so that it suits sexy, powerful women who don't need men.

"A lot of women really like what men like," Warner says. "A lot of women like Maxim magazine; a lot of women are getting Playboy magazine. Women—and this is no secret—have always loved that beautiful glamour-girl look. But it wasn't accessible to us; it wasn't achievable." Now it is.

The glamazon look varies by region. The L Word's Angelenos are all flashy designer style and disposable wealth. In p.c. San Francisco, the femme, transgressive goth/punk aesthetic incorporates tattoos and brightly colored hair. Chicago ponytail girls bring a healthy Midwestern athleticism to their girl-next-door good looks.

Here in New York, it's all about the power lesbian. "If there is a signature lesbian style for New York, it reflects the general qualities of the city itself," Bolcer said. "It's brash, it's competitive, it's cosmopolitan." That style includes jeans, boots, thick belts, and chunk silver rings, worn with long hair and makeup.

This New York mashup of masculine and feminine burst onto the public consciousness thanks to lesbian stylist Patricia Field's work on Sex and the City. Field brought such dyke touches as doo-rags and newsboy caps into the mainstream. When The New York Times reported that "lesbians are a powerful presence in fashion," it was as revolutionary as saying that gay men have taken over the steel industry.

Cynthia Summers, The L Word's stylist, described the show's signature look as pretty, strong, and slightly dangerous: "It's not mannish, but you want to look at it a second time and say: 'That looks really hot, but I don't know why.' " This duality is exactly what distinguishes glamazons from the stereotypical gorgeous-but-ditzy straight women (e.g., Paris Hilton) and the competent-but-plain lesbians (e.g., Mrs. Hathaway). The new lesbian takes something from each, and is attractive to both straight and gay audiences as a result. "I'm a stereotypical femme lesbian," Collier said, "but I know where my tool belt is at the end of the day."

Some lesbians, however, are distressed by all this emphasis on raw sexuality and attractiveness: "Straight people are getting a bad impression," said Dahlia Dallal, an Eden regular. "They think that lesbians are promiscuous and always hooking up."


Malinda Lo, managing editor of AfterEllen.com, fears less attractive identities like the butch lesbian will be further marginalized: "I'm shocked by how many times on AfterEllen we get comments from lesbian readers who diss women who are gender-queer," Lo said. Celesbians like Warner have given lesbians "something to point to and say, 'We look like this, not like these horrible, ugly butch women,' " she added. "It's one step forward, two steps back." (Full disclosure: I work for 365Gay.com, owned by LogoOnline, which also owns AfterEllen.com.)

At the same time the mainstream straight world idolizes glamazons, however, some lesbians are transitioning to men, or dressing like them, and calling themselves "bois." Outside the lesbian community, bois and female-to-male transsexuals are almost invisible, unless they appear pregnant on Oprah. In New York, "Boi culture is certainly not as pervasive here as it is in San Francisco," Bolcer said. "I think the East Coast in general is more conservative."

Glamazons, on the other hand, are everywhere. Academics call this the dilemma of the "consumable lesbian"; that is, the most palatable lesbian comes to represent all lesbians. This consumable lesbian is pretty, wealthy, stylish, influential, and feminine—but post-feminist and definitely not gender-transgressive.

Sociologist Jane Ward, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, sees what she calls "an echo effect": The media prefers images of beautiful women, so lesbians put energy into being pretty, and then the media reports that image as the new ideal. "It's the same way that heterosexual femininity is packaged and sold to female consumers," Ward says.

Some progressive scholars see glamazons as a move to the right. Or perhaps it's that more conservative women now feel more comfortable being out. Would Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary have been openly living with her partner just a few years ago?

But for Chaiken, the godmother of the glamazons, "it's all good. I think that we all need representation, we need aspirational figures, and it's a positive thing for girls growing up to look at a TV show and say: 'Oh, so that's a lesbian, and she can be successful and wear glamorous clothes. Feeling that I might be gay doesn't relegate me to some dark corner of society.' "

Meanwhile, the girls of Eden are too busy having a good time to debate the finer points of gender expression. It's already 1 a.m., and women are still streaming through the door. They shake their long hair back over their naked shoulders, refresh their lip gloss, and press their gym-built bodies against each other on the dance floor. The music's too loud, and they're too close together to be discussing anything at all.

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