Triumph of the Lipstick Lesbians
At 11 p.m. on any given Wednesday, the lesbians at Eden are partying. They wear heels. They wear dresses. They're toned, taut, sun-kissed, waxed, and clothed in designer labels. And yes, they wear lipstick. After years of drought, New York is swimming in parties like these. Nearly every night of the week, women can attend sexy-chic parties with come-on names like Eden, Starlette, Stiletto, and Girl Nation.
Glamorous lesbians—no, that is not an oxymoron—have always been here, but they were invisible to mainstream culture until relatively recently. "Real" lesbians were the butches and tomboys.
"It is so accepted now that two pretty girls can get together. It's sexy and hot," said Cynthia, a Brooklyn high-school teacher lounging on a banquette at Eden, which is held in a Union Square club. "Is it bad for people to find you attractive? No. It gets your foot in the door and hopefully helps people realize that love is love."
Uncomfortable with the het label "lipstick lesbians," women within the cliterati refer to themselves as girls, or femmes, or just lesbians. They don't consider themselves part of a trend, a group, or a subculture—and certainly not a political movement.
I came out in the p.c. early '90s, when being a lesbian meant cutting your hair short and wearing rainbow rings and Doc Martens. Androgyny, or boyishness, was how lesbians recognized each other: If a woman had a crew cut and an Indigo Girls T-shirt, you could safely assume she was a dyke.
Today's middle-class and wealthy lesbians, however, look mainstream. "I've certainly noticed a more glamorous element among lesbians," said Julie Bolcer, the news editor of Go magazine, a monthly based in New York that is this group's bible. Bolcer can be seen many nights prowling hot-girl clubs for news tips. She's surprised by how many women wear long hair and how "flagrantly feminine" many of her peers dress.
Glamazons began emerging from their clothes closets when Showtime's The L Word premiered four years ago. Executive producer and creator Ilene Chaiken didn't have to invent the glitzy inner sanctum of L.A. lesbians; she just looked around her own social circle—and turned her friends into role models. Women have responded by buying the clothes and getting the haircuts they see on the show.
This new attention to style has given a sexier vibe to the once-dowdy lesbian-date scene. When furniture designer Christina Antonio arrived in New York from London a few years ago, she found that "it was pretty slim pickings." But, she adds, "it's not just about the butch stereotype anymore. There's more of a variety."
There are still butches, of course, but in new-lesbian society, even the butch is downright girly. The best-known femme butch is Jackie Warner, the star of Bravo's reality-series hit Work Out. She's pretty and buff. Straight women write her love letters. "Most of my fans are middle-aged women who are married," Warner told me. "I think it's because I've made it acceptable to them to explore their sexuality, because I'm delivered in a package that's easy to swallow—no pun intended."
The rare sightings of lesbian characters on network TV include the short-lived Sex and the City clone Cashmere Mafia, and a lesbian flirtation between major characters in Grey's Anatomy. These women might be heterosexual actresses, but there are plenty of real-life celesbians like Ellen DeGeneres and her luscious partner (and soon-to-be-wife) Portia de Rossi; Jodie Foster and her rumored new babe, Cindy Mort; Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter O'Donnell; and possibly Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson. Even one of the über-het Sex and the City quartet, redhead beauty Cindy Nixon, has come over to the Sapphic side.
Whether we're becoming more feminine in response to the media or the media is taking cues from real life, the result is that lesbians are letting out their inner femme. Maggie Collier, known as Maggie C., has produced Eden every week at the Union Square Lounge for the past year. She first lived in the city from 1998 to 2000, when the scene, she said, was "still cool. Not lipsticky cool— eccentric." Collier found something new when she moved to Los Angeles for a few years: There was a "totally lipstick scene. There was just a beauty aesthetic." When she returned East, she was shocked by the lack of options for women like herself, so she started Eden.
"For a long time, it was harder for lesbians to feel comfortable being feminine," she said. "We weren't represented in the community, and other women assumed we were just going through a phase. We felt a need to toughen up so we weren't hit on by men. But now, being a lesbian is more acceptable to the rest of the world, so if a man hits on me, I can just tell him I'm gay and he's fine with that."
Women seem to agree that growing mainstream acceptance means no longer having to fight to be visible. They don't have to be easily identifiable as lesbian to win their rights: "We're more acceptable. The lifestyle of tolerance has taken over, and there are more women who say, 'Who gives a fuck?' " said Courtney Hannans, who lives in Chelsea. "There are more fabulous women who are out."
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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