On Burchill’s “Sapphism for Her Benefit”

I read Julie Burchill’s piece entitled, “Let’s get this straight, guys. We’re not exploring sapphism for your benefit” (Observer 2.9.12) with some curiosity as to how she might contribute to the critique of lesbian fetishism or even expand upon Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze.”  Sadly, I was disappointed to read  an article that was as incoherent as it was anachronistic.  To snigger at the suggestion of sexual fluidity today is akin to Tea Party members in the USA who ridicule the idea of same-sex marriage and evolution.  Similarly, reducing such discussions to “fancy language” is an affront to intelligent conversations about opening up the traditional limitations to sexuality, one of the fundamental desires of the gay rights movement from its inception.

Burchill seems to have an issue with female stars who announce their attraction for the same sex as she writes these declarations off as a publicity stunt which I find curious given that some of the stars she cites (ie. Rihanna and Rita Ora) have made no secret of their attraction to women.  So one must wonder what Burchill’s motives are here in attempting to smear these public figures who are either having fun or arehaving fun. It would also not be incorrect to read this kind of journalism as being homophobic as Burchill’s manner of “accepting” sexuality mirrors that of the heterosexist matrix of years ago when wewere being told how to behave sexually.  Burchill’s slant is just a new addition to this opera homophobia which remains convinced of its own validity mainly because of the interlocutor’s (Burchill’s) belief that her own intractable sexuality it the only valid sexuality.

While I cannot judge what is or what is not authentic regarding public declarations of affection, I can state with some certainty that people of all sexualities make such public comments of affection for both real and theatrical purposes—to include members of the so-called “lesbian community” right here in London.  On many many occasions in London’s lesbian bars and clubs, I have been witness to these kinds of scenes among younger lesbian and bisexual women who flaunt their sexuality as a means of garnering attention from others. It is not atypical of humans to use their sexuality to promote themselves in social or media circles—rather, it seems to be more common than many of us wish to accept.  Likewise, there is a strong desire in the lesbian community today for women to feel accepted both by society at large andby other lesbians so the body as a political and somatic structure does come into play for many of these women.  In the past few years, London has seen a surge in private women’s parties where women go to connect with other women in for both social and sexual purposes and these are the new sites where sexual boundaries are being questioned.  Popular magazines such as DIVA and G3 are also pushing this envelope running pieces such as “Top 10 Women We Wish Were Gay” and interviews with heterosexual stars such as Drew Barrymore, flirting with the fantasy of her being gay. And the exploitation of women’s bodies for lesbian events is as common as within the heterosexual community with images of women scantily dressed in bikinis, stilettos and I have seen fliers where straight celebrities are the central icon.  Even during this year’s Pride after hour events, I noticed how many women and men were flirting with and expanding their sexuality in public forums to the point that it was unclear what, precisely, their sexualities even were.  But then the greater lesson here might be that today sexuality really no longer matters.

Adriana Karembeu, heterosexual Slovak fashion model on advertisement for lesbian party

In essence, Ms. Burchill misses an opportunity to understand that the once-upon-a-time stereotype of lesbians kissing each other “for the benefit” of men is not just a trope within straight culture.  For better or for worse, this is a trope within lesbian culture as well.  Problematically for Burchill, she also exploits women in the very same fetishist style of what she accuses men of doing.  For after Burchill’s husband divorced her for “unreasonable behaviour” given that she left him for “a ravishing 25-year-old heiress” (her words),  Burchill tells her solicitor: “Look at her! It would have been unreasonable not do it.”   In attempting to show how “times have changed”, Burchill has not only co-opted the typically heterosexist and macho language of “acquiring the hot new bombshell” but she has imperfectly attempted to separate herself from this very problematic discourse of describing lesbians and accepting a sexuality that is not clearly “straight” or “lesbian.”

The fetishism of flesh and youth does not stop with the variance of sexual preferences and Burchill proves to us that such representations of sexual displays of affection between women do not really implicate the “guys” to whom Burchill addresses her article but instead implicates herself and those lesbians who censor such representations while remaining stubborn to accept that sexuality and its representations are actually quite fluid.  The question remains as to what we ought to do with such deeply sexist and homophobic narratives within the lesbian community that seek to normalise sexuality.