In Carla Rice’s article, “Exacting Beauty,” she discusses the male gaze and it’s impact on the way women perceive themselves. She notes “the cover image [on a magazine] operates not only as an object of vision for male but also for female audiences. As viewers we might imagine ourselves to be a male or female looking at the model with envy or desire…the model becomes an object of desire for imagined spectators who want her and who want to be like her.” In associating the “wanting her” to be the position of male spectators and “wanting to be like her” to be the position of female spectators. Rice seems to imagine all parties to be heterosexual, or at least opposite-sex attracted. This strain of thought is very prevalent in straight feminism, and alienates LBPQ (lesbian, bi, pan/polysexual, queer/questioning) women from feminist discourse.
Straight women often unconsciously harbour a lesbophobic bias and see sapphic women as participants in the male gaze because they mistake attraction to women as a position of power. As Tumblr user theomenroom so aptly noted, “‘lesbians have the male gaze’/’lesbians can objectify women too’ is a very convenient way for straight women to dress up ‘I’m uncomfortable with lesbians’ in feminist language.” That is to say, demonizing sapphic attraction is a way for straight feminists to be homophobic in a way that allows them to feel as if they’re actually just being really good feminists. The result is that sapphic women are alienated from feminist spaces. In a world which consistently tells sapphic women that our attraction to women is wrong and predatory, it is beyond disheartening to also be marginalized within a movement which would not exist as it does today without the contributions of lesbians.
In “Body Beautiful/Body Perfect,” Francine Odette discusses disabled women in relation to beauty, and talks about the fact that “women’s bodies are objectified for the purposes of male pleasure and domination.” Whether Odette was thinking about sapphic women or not, this statement emphasizes that the male gaze is not just about who is looked at, but who is doing the looking. For this reason, women who desire women subvert the male gaze rather than participate in it. When a woman looks at the sexy model on a magazine cover and says “I want her,” she is making a radical rejection of everything the patriarchy teaches women about their sexuality.
In suggesting that sapphic women do not participate in the male gaze, I do not mean to suggest that ableism in relation to beauty (as Odette discusses) never occurs among sapphic women; we do not live in a world cut off from ableist standards of what constitutes “the body perfect,” nor are we magically exempt from colonial and racist beauty standards such as the ones Rice discusses. However, I think, in considering the issue of beauty from an intersectional perspective, it is crucial that the axis of sexual orientation be considered alongside those of disability, race, and gender (to name a few).
Image: screencapped from Carmilla Season 2, Episode 16: “Old Habits”
The Omen Room quotation link: http://theomenroom.tumblr.com/post/123858673580/lesbians-have-the-male-gazelesbians-can
Odette, Francine. “Body Beautiful/Body Perfect.” Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain. Comp. Margaret Hobbs and Carla Rice. Women’s Press, 2013. Print.
Rice, Carla. “Exacting Beauty: Exploring Women’s Body Projects in the 21st Century.” Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain. Comp. Margaret Hobbs and Carla Rice. Women’s Press, 2013. Print.