Is all visibility good news? Or are we faced with faux queerness that solidifies dominant patriarchal norms – all whilst pretending to dismantle them?
Two women embracing in bed wearing next to nothing, with a caption that goes something along the lines of “love knows no boundaries.” These types of ads used to sell everything from push-up bras to high-tech sneakers and have been flourishing for a few years now, all the more so in countries that have legalized gay marriage. Suddenly, adjusted wedding offers are being promoted, ad campaigns for deluxe wedding rings featuring two men (who both look suspiciously like Ryan Gosling) appear on giant billboards on the glitziest of avenues, all promoting what looks like an unchanged Western middle-class life with the same markers of success, albeit the presence of a same-sex couple.
All of this contributes to a new wave of LGBT marketing, that at first blush appears to introduce a non-heteronormative narrative into the very old-school world of advertising. Good news, one might think. It’s definitely images I longed for as a teenager, where femininity was synonymous with passivity, finding a prince (or rather, having him find you), and eventually, motherhood, were the only options. And, to be sure, on one level, such images can be read as an efficient campaign for a cause and for a wide community, as well as a way to question ancient patriarchal laws.
Lesbians for men, and commodifying sexuality for the straight eye
Yet the aforementioned image is highly sexualized, in a way that applies a very “male gaze,” to quote John Berger, onto these women: young, frail, midway between virginal and naughty, just the way the dominant system intended. In the case of lesbians particularly, this is the case throughout history: cisnormative (or when one’s gender is aligned with the sex assigned at birth) women kissing, to sell just about anything labeled “lesbian chic” are “a must” according to fashion magazines ever since Katy Perry released her dubious track “I Kissed a Girl.” This is a tradition more ancient than it looks, as the book “Gay for Men” by Dian Hanson retraced. “Straight men have always had a thing for lesbians, or more correctly, for essentially straight women willing to do other women for their viewing pleasure. When a man sees two women together there’s no jealousy that another man’s getting the woman he can’t, as with heterosexual porn, just the joy of everything he likes times two, and the unshakable fantasy that women that wild would surely invite him to join in,” the author explains.
Where to draw the line, knowing that lesbian porn remains one of the top hits, and is frequently acted by heterosexual women? What it boils down to, in the end, is simply that most of the representations of queer life have been out of the hands of the people concerned. “This visibility is important in its reach, even if it's not accurate, it can be enough for some kid in some remote town to accept or discover their sexuality. On the other hand, it's a very one-faceted image, one that is not true at all to lesbians. Two girls standing intimately together in a kissy pose does not make them lesbians. It’s such a narrow definition….you can see that it's not a lesbian who art directed these shoots; there is absolutely no intimacy or chemistry between the models and they're styled in very ‘straight’ codes,” says Rain Laurent, founder of lesbian fashion magazine Dyke_On.
Involving people who are actually queer would mean that “we wouldn’t be fetishized, a woman's masculine side will be portrayed as desirable (rather than shunned as so often in standard beauty criteria). The focus would probably also be more on the women themselves rather than their bodies, and would exude real tension.” And this is even more so the case when representing trans-women in advertising: although featuring women like Andreja Pejić in makeup campaigns is a powerful move towards inclusivity, how does one ensure the iconography doesn’t delve into ancient exoticising – that is more dangerous and worrying than helpful? To what extent do they sustain a (dangerous) fantasy referred to on some dating websites as “trans-amorous” or “trans-attracted,” suggesting an inherently trans-misogynistic difference between trans women and “real” women?
Homonationalism and the pink dollar
Beyond appropriation, therefore, we are confronted with this other danger, often referred to as pink-washing, or homo-nationalism: the idea that a group of gay people have gained financial access to the higher spheres of consumerism and now represent their own marketing segment. The “pink money” or “pink pound” in Britain, also led to the expansion of luxury boutiques throughout the “Gay Marais” in Paris, not so long after the vote for gay marriage in 2013.
“This is known as DINK, ‘double income no kids,’ an enormous buying power that vaguely adapts the dominant offer for an upmarket gay customer,” says Pascal Monfort, a French fashion consultant: a market estimated in the States at a staggering 790 billion dollars in 2012. And this may well be the core issue: a privileged gay man who somehow feels less oppression than queer groups with lesser access might strengthen other systems of oppression: “An ad featuring a gay, white, heteronormative, successful Western couple means it is shutting out any question of intersectionality, all notions of race, gender. This type of gay visibility betrays its own because it claims to represent by reinforcing every other dominant norm,” says Ari de B, Paris-based queer militant specialized in questions of intersectionality.
The bottom line is that gay doesn’t mean queer. Gay is a sexual preference, queer is the questioning of a system and choosing to think around it: around means of production, utilization, gender. Precisely what advertising – which thinks in terms of buzz, trends, and, ultimately, in terms of success measured in sales (most certainly not politics) – can never achieve. Or, to put it more bluntly, one might say that the term “queer marketing” is essentially an oxymoron.
Model: Raya Martigny
Photographer: Justino Esteves
Stylist: Nicolas Dureau
MUA: Cyril Laine
Hair: Paul Duchemin
Photographer's Assistant: Eleonore Chellini