Postmodernism and the pink pound
White queer media in Britain have tended largely to accept and to take up a 1990s marketing approach to 'identity.' The circulation of queer signifiers through mainstream media has indeed generally been celebrated by queer communities. Surveys conducted by The Advocate magazine in the US between 1977 and 1980 initially indicated a 'pink pound' effect (Clarke, 1991: 187). Advertisers wished to reach this new market but without risking any 'negative association' by heterosexual consumers which might limit their products' appeal to the gay niche. The solution was to utilise the very codes traditionally deployed by gays to communicate with one another without being readable to potentially punitive heterosexuals. This technique is known as 'window' advertising.
Gay 'window' ads avoid explicit references to homosexuality by depicting only one individual or same-sexed individuals within the representational frame [...] But 'gayness' remains in the eye of the beholder: gays and lesbians can read into an ad certain subtextual elements that correspond to experiences with or representations of gay/lesbian subculture. If heterosexual consumers do not notice these subtexts or subcultural modes, then advertisers are able to reach the homosexual market along with the heterosexual market without ever revealing their aim. (Clark, 1991: 188)
Male gays have never been strangers to conspicuous consumption but the socio-economic context of this practice has also changed. For male homosexuals, pleasure in consumption was, initially, an offshoot of the camp re-appropriation of the feminised conspicuous consumption of commodities signifying possession or aspiration to (heterosexual) white, middle-class, status. These would be re-arranged to represent a gay environment through ironising the feminising aspects of middle-class conspicuous consumption — the legendary camp obsession with interior design, chocs, and frocks. The resignification of capitalist commodities through gay culture was effected by gays themselves by reference to a covert discursive field of meanings shared, if also contended, by all participants. Gay consumerism has recently been resignified, however:
The gay media is currently burgeoning, not only with advertisements for gay goods and services, but also with articles on the phenomenon of conspicuous gay consumption. (Woods, 1995: 148)
Woods argued that the new conspicuousness of a once clandestine gay consumption is predicated on the need to establish and project a gay identity through the purchase and display of 'lifestyle' goods and services. The commercialisation of the gay sector has meant that items are now purchased as 'gay' commodities rather than re-appropriated from the (capitalist) circulation of heterosexuality and resignified as queer.
Consumerism had never been a recognisable convention of any lesbian discourse. Ironising a feminising construct of consumerism would be difficult for lesbians to do, since a woman performing feminising activities hardly has any 'denaturalising' effect. Lesbian style had been constituted instead in resistance to the imposition of the passive and sexualised appearance of heterosexual femininity through cosmetic alteration of appearance and restrictive clothing. In this sense, it has been anti-consumerist. In any case, lesbian feminism avowedly opposed consumerism in consistency with its "countercultural, anti-capitalist roots" (Clark, 1991: 189). Lesbians were not targeted by marketers as a specific consumer group. This was partly because their relative lack of visibility made them difficult for advertisers to identify and address, partly because lesbians were seen as economically disadvantaged, but mostly because of fears of 'negative association' for their products. 'Lipstick lesbianism' has been characterised as reactive to radical feminism — whether the observer interprets this as a healthy rebellion against feminist limitations or a reactionary reinscription of heterosexual femininity resisted by a previous generation of feminist lesbians (Strega, 1985; Stein, 1989; Blackman and Perry, 1990). There may also be an economic explanation, however. A survey in OUT/LOOK (a US lifestyle magazine) at the start of the 1990s indicated that lesbian income was higher than had previously been thought (Clark, 1991: 189). This new fascination for 'lifestyle' among lesbians, which has made them so much more attractive to marketers, might even be an effect of the marketing of queer identity. The lifestyle of the 'Yuppie' which proved an exceptionally profitable consumer group was created by the format of marketing research in the 1980s (Clark, 1991: 189).
The recognition-coding (verisimilitude) of lesbian identity which made it available for recirculation was taken to be either a 'butch' figure appearing alone or a role-play between two women. Advertisers also incorporated coded reference to lesbian-iconic films which were also liked by 'independent' heterosexual women (such as the reference to Thelma and Louise in the Renault 5 ads). Clark pointed out that the lesbian reader of such advertisements is aware of the duality built into the representation in that it is designed primarily to appeal to heterosexual women. Thus, lesbian readings incorporate not only the "duality of its hetero/homo-sexual appeal but also the multiplicity of lesbian interpretations made available through the diversity of lesbian reading formations" (Clark, 1991: 194). "The metaphor of the window [...] posits an active reader" (Clark, 1991: 188). The activity of the lesbian reader of window advertising thus problematises feminist claims that advertising invariably represents 'the woman' as passive object of the gaze. The appropriative attitude now "cuts both ways" (Clark, 1991: 195). At the same time, commodities are also increasingly produced for the lesbian market by lesbian-owned small enterprise:
[...] [L]esbian identity functions as the means for defining the specificities of both production and consumption. While this relation - of lesbian made, sold, owned materials - approximates in the 1990s a tamed separatism, it is more than disturbing that the commodification of the lesbian as a category of identity is often what passes, inside and outside the lesbian community, for evidence of political progress [...] if political power means a cultural visibility framed by the commodity aesthetic, what kind of position of power — and empowerment — are we claiming? (Wiegman, 1994: 3)
A constructionist approach to identity lends itself more easily than an essentialist one to a dual strategy of assimilation and denial. "Because style is a cultural construction, it is easily appropriated, reconstructed, and divested of its original political or subcultural signification" (Clark, 1991: 196). The commodity advertised is in no way signified as having particular relevance to lesbians. Lesbianism is re-presented as a style of self expression, as much a consumer choice as any other style. Furthermore, the recuperation of lesbian styles to mainstream femininity also opened out the choice of 'passing' where it is advantageous for lesbians to do so, whilst still retaining a lesbian lifestyle. These effects forced a reassessment of lesbian subcultural practices themselves, since their oppositional meanings must undergo transformation in the process of 'mainstreaming.'
Evans and Gamman (1995) analysed the contingency and contextual specificity of the lesbian 'gaze' onto popular culture, noting a distinction between the film-studies construct of 'the gaze' as phallic signifier and a more general use of the construct within radical feminism as 'shorthand' for patriarchy (15). Rejecting the feminist conflation of the activity of looking with masculinity - which they argued is produced as an effect of this confusion, Evans and Gamman took the view that such a negative inference denies lesbian visual pleasure. Furthermore, feminist models of 'the gaze' have conferred a monolithic status upon it which "privileges gender inequalities over all other forms of inequality, including that of race," and denies specificities of "[w]ho is viewing, as well as the context of viewing" (24). Evans and Gamman differentiated between a lesbian gaze onto a cinematic image which "cannot look back" and a lesbian context in which "individuals cruise each other on the street, or in clubs, the mutual exchange of glances is sexualised and often reciprocal" (Evans and Gamman, 1995: 15).
However, while there may be no such thing as an essentially 'lesbian' gaze, there is certainly lesbian imagery in circulation. As Suzie Bright has observed, lesbian porn videos featuring butch/femme relationships [...] are experiencing a consumer boom in the USA. Evidently, many lesbians enjoy these videos which eroticise women for women. Some would argue that this is because there is a different gaze at work within them. We would argue, however, that there is no essential 'lesbian gaze' at work here, but that lesbian film-makers and lesbian audiences bring different cultural competencies to bear on the production and consumption of lesbian imagery. (Evans and Gamman, 1995: 35; with reference to Mayne, 1991; Boffin and Fraser, 1991; Every Conceivable Position, roughcut made by Clare Bevan and Mandy Merck but never broadcast by the BBC, 1991; Ellsworth, 1986)
Lewis (1997) noted that the techniques deployed by lesbians to re-appropriate mainstream cultural representations differed from the techniques used to decode texts produced in what was perceived as a lesbian context.
In contrast to the polysemic free-play of fashion fantasy by which readers produce lesbian pleasure in the consumption of mainstream magazines, responses to the fashion content in the lesbian magazine Diva suggests that in a subcultural context readers deploy a realist mode of reading that demands a monosemic positive images iconography. (Lewis, 1997: 91)
From conversations with Diva's Editor and the responses of lesbians within her own circle, Lewis differentiated two broad, but overlapping, reading techniques:
One regards lesbianism as an authentic identity based on lived experience outside the magazine which readers expect Diva to properly reflect and represent [...] The other constructs identity through reading and then seeks social spaces in which that identity can be lived out and recognised, often through the appropriation of mainstream women's fashion. (Lewis, 1997: 101)
Whilst the former group would seem to represent the persistence of a lesbian identification with radical feminism, the latter appears to support Clark's speculation that lesbianism(s) might actually be produced in the format of marketing address. Lewis noted that the latter type of reader is "able to deal both with the swift changes of style and fragmented identifications associated with postmodernity" (102) and is primarily associated with young people.
As queer and ethnic identifications become increasingly recuperated to the mainstream, and a multicultural model is applied to marketing demographics, it becomes increasingly questionable just how threatening such counter-identifications or the acts which they reference might be to 'power'. Indeed, it becomes difficult, actually, to demarcate subcultural practices from dominant (capitalist) practices of identity production.
During the single reading experience of flicking through a lesbian or gay magazine, viewers are engaged in reading dominant representational codes which may be more or less overtly open to same-sex pleasures [...] and in reading editorial images that have an overtly gay 'meaning'. To consume a lesbian or gay lifestyle magazine is thus an experience of reading simultaneously with and against the grain. (Lewis, 1997: 98)
To what extent can such reading practices be construed as produced in or productive of a resistant mode of identification?
Can we unproblematically herald the consolidation of the lesbian as a category of being when this being is increasingly signified by our saturation in commodity production, both countercultural and, to a limited but growing extent, 'mainstream' as well? (Wiegman, 1994: 3)
As the 1990s progressed, 'countercultural' and 'mainstream' became harder to differentiate. Feminism and lesbianism, on the other hand, tended to diverge as lesbian identity depoliticised.