A Friendly Kiss: Lesbian Exploitation Under the Guise of Friendship
by Gabby Paisner
Two beautiful girls stare seductively into each other’s eyes as they lean towards one another and their soft, lip-glossed lips collide. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, in some TV show or movie, usually followed by whooping or cheers from any men in the surrounding area. Maybe you’ve been one of the girls kissing; maybe you’ve been the guy watching. But regardless of your own personal opinions or past involvement, it can’t be denied: girls kissing girls is hot… or at least that’s what most people seem to think. Men have a long history of lusting after women engaging in sexual acts with each other, and considering the interest that it generates, girls have a long history of playing into this male fantasy for their own social and economic benefit. As technology has developed, this lucrative exhibitionism has been continually adapted for consumption on ensuing media platforms. Thus, what started in frat basements became the subject of TV shows, movies, the porn industry, and most recently: Instagram. But as queer voices are being given more weight in society, lesbian acts openly performed for male benefit have become more and more distasteful. As traditional lesbian exploitation has gone out of fashion, and homosexuality has continued to be normalized, a new trend has developed among the young, straight, and beautiful women of social media. Straight girls have taken to kissing each other and posting about it.
In my progressive hometown of Portland, this behavior is commonplace. Embroiled in a staunch “cancel-culture,” there is a zero-tolerance policy for homophobia, especially among the youth community. At the all-girls high school I attended, being straight was considered the minority. Against this backdrop, it would be easy to conflate this new social media trend with allyship; straight girls taking an active role in de-stigmatizing homosexuality. But this sugary sweet behavior isn’t as innocent as it seems. Even though it’s branded differently, these displays actually replicate the exact same behavior that has been plaguing the queer community for decades. As traditional outlets for this lesbian performance have steadily disappeared, these posts offer straight women an opportunity to circumvent criticism by framing their actions instead as radical and supportive of queer communities, when they capitalize off of queerness just the same.
The distinction between classical lesbian exploitation and this exploitation reframed can be seen by comparing the content and subsequent public reaction of two different videos of celebrity straight girls kissing. In the first video, a Calvin Klein advert, Bella Hadid is filmed kissing digital influencer Lil Miquela, for the brand’s 2019 #MYTRUTH campaign. In the second video, Kendall Jenner kisses Bella Hadid and posts it to her Instagram story, with the title “happy birthday sexy”. While the Calvin Klein ad was promptly discredited as a tasteless attempt to appeal to the male gaze without making any meaningful effort to represent queer women, the Kendall Jenner/Bella Hadid birthday clip is acknowledged for its sexual nature but portrayed as a youthful expression of platonic love and engenders no backlash, though the videos essentially consist of the exact same content. I argue that even if lesbianism is performed under the guise of friendship, it reinforces latent homophobia, promotes a reductive view of lesbianism, and is just as damaging to the queer community as outright exploitation.
LESBIAN PORTRAYAL IN THE MEDIA
Our culture’s long-standing history of producing sexualized faux-lesbian content is derived from the nearly universal conception of women as passive objects designed to fulfill the active male desire. As Laura Mulvey describes in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly” (4). While this male accommodation is simply inherent to the female gender role, it has a particular eminence within the scope of female sexuality. Indulgence of the male fantasy can be seen to varying degrees in female beauty and grooming standards, normative gender presentation, and standardized sex acts, ultimately forming the basis of a heteronormative society’s attitude towards lesbianism.
To understand how appeasing the male gaze has fully influenced the mechanics of performative lesbianism in the present day, it is necessary to examine the development of queer portrayal in the media. While there have undoubtedly been allusions to, or fleeting instances of homosexuality in film since its advent, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that queer people really began to see explicit representation. This came in the form of the homosexual villain, wherein “homosexuality was used primarily to establish an additional level of deviance for such characters,” a trope which generally only involved male homosexuals, leaving lesbians once again in the shadows (Bonnie Dow 129). Media representation continued to grow into the 70’s, in numerous movies depicting queer protagonists forced to overcome their problematic and subversive sexualities, keeping with the still largely negative societal attitudes towards homosexuality (Idib 129). From there on, as the queer rights movement developed and culture became more tolerant, representation, though it was still often unflattering, continued to increase through the 80’s until the 90’s when lesbian representation in the media exploded.
The 90’s gave us a new lesbian: young, hot, and marketable, laying the foundation for the rampant fetishism we see today. This lesbian was “designed within cultural norms of feminine attractiveness and stamped with sex appeal, commonly referred to as the ‘luscious’, ‘hot’ or ‘lipstick’ lesbian,” notably skinny, middle to upper-class, and white (Sue Jackson and Tamsyn Gilbertson 201). This glorified lesbian appeared everywhere, from magazines, to music, to TV, to film, in a way that became defined as “lesbian chic” from the title of a 1993 issue of New York Magazine (Swisher).
These femme lesbians, distinguishable only as lesbians because they were indicated as such, allowed the media to appease queer audiences craving representation, without estranging heterosexual audiences in the process. In fact, rather than threaten heterosexuality, this watered-down portrayal created the impression, as Diane Hamer elucidates, that lesbianism was “at most a passing phase, resulting from seduction by a predatory butch or a temporary retreat from men after some damaging experience” (Ciasullo 599). Even media ostensibly created for and with queer audiences, made efforts to appeal to the male gaze with overt hyper-sexuality, like the infamous 1993 Vanity Fair feature of gay singer k.d. lang in which she is photographed being suggestively shaved by Cindy Crawford. While on the other end of the spectrum, media geared blatantly towards heterosexual audiences like Wild Things and Cruel Intentions went as far as “encourag[ing] women to ‘act lesbian’ in order to attract men” (Tricia Jenkins 495).
The hetereosexualized lesbian firmly cemented in pop culture by the 2000’s, “lesbian chic” of the 90’s ultimately gave way to today’s “fad lesbianism”, fueled by celebrity lesbian dalliances and college party culture. Katherine Wirthlin describes “fad lesbianism” as “the heteronormative appropriation of lesbianism as a fleeting performative act” (107). Recognizing the attention it would generate, in the 2000’s a host of straight female performers began kissing during televised performances or award shows. Famous examples include: Madonna and Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards, Sandra Bullock and Scarlett Johansson at the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, and Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep at the 2010 Critic’s Choice Movie Awards (the list goes on and on). These kisses, enacted on live television by iconic heterosexual sex symbols firmly established the efficacy of engaging in lesbianism for attention that had been illustrated in films during the “lesbian chic” era. However, the all-time greatest bastion of “fad lesbianism” would have to be Girls Gone Wild. While celebrities and the media popularized fad lesbianism, it was Girls Gone Wild that cemented this behavior as a bargaining chip for social collateral among young people.
When people talk about now-frequent instances of straight girls making out at parties for the benefit of a male audience, it is typically referred to in context with Girls Gone Wild. Girls Gone Wild was a media franchise of the late 90’s/early 2000’s in which “young women in bars or at resorts for spring break from college [were] encouraged to strip and engage in sexualized behavior on film” (Megan Yost and Lauren McCarthy 7). Depending on how well they performed, the women could win Girls Gone Wild merchandise, or even money. Simulating lesbianism proved an effective way to garner positive attention and was therefore a common occurrence on the show. This atmosphere, which promoted a tangible link between performance of lesbianism, and social and monetary gain, also solidified associations between lesbianism, and promiscuity and drinking.
In recent years, this exhibitionist culture has come under fire as queer people have been given a greater voice in the media. Celebrities, TV shows, and movies have adapted by transitioning to “queer-baiting,” in which one makes the coquettish implication that they’re queer (when they’re not) in order to gain LGBTQ+ support without estranging heterosexual audiences. Though queer-baiting is just as problematic, it’s generally more difficult to discern because it involves actively promoting uncertainty around your sexuality. Some celebrities thought to be queer-baiting have actually been forced to come out, like Rita Ora (Ritschel). While others, like Ariana Grande, deliberately fuel publicity by basking in self-perpetuated ambiguity. But while the waters of queer-baiting are often intentionally muddied, when someone or something has confirmedly queer-baited, reproach is swift. Now unable to cater to the male gaze overtly or covertly without some sort of backlash, straight women have adapted by rebranding.
FAD LESBIANISM IN THE PRESENT DAY
This transition from outright queer-baiting to exploitation marketed as friendly affection is typified through Calvin Klein’s 2019 #MYTRUTH ad campaign, and Kendall Jenner’s 2019 birthday tribute for Bella Hadid, respectively.
Both videos consist of the same content: two straight girls fulfilling a lesbian male fantasy. The Calvin Klein video begins with Bella Hadid standing in the middle of a white room, her shadow reflected on the wall behind her, accentuating the curves of her body. She looks up from the ground into the camera, with a sultry, deliberate stare. Lil Miquela’s shadow crosses the wall behind her, but she maintains eye contact with the camera as if to say “look what I’m about to do” before turning to the side and kissing her. After they kiss, the two pull back and stare into each other’s eyes as the camera pans out to show them in their Calvin Klein athleisure. Over the course of the video, dreamy music plays in the background as Hadid’s disembodied voice says “life is about opening doors; creating new dreams you never knew could exist”.
Every element of the video is crafted to give the kiss a surreal, dream-like quality. As the video begins, you can see the edges where the white backdrop behind Hadid ends, establishing the artificial nature of the kiss from the get-go. Though there is nothing visible in the room besides Hadid, the shadows of what look like signposts appear behind her on the white backdrop. The sterile while background seems to divorce the scene from reality, while the out-of place shadows that glide across the screen imbue it with a classical dreamlike nonsensicality. This impression is cemented when Hadid explicitly says “—creating new dreams you never knew could exist” right as she and Lil Miquela kiss. The cherry on top, of course, is that Lil Miquela is an AI model and therefore not real, herself.
By portraying Hadid and Lil Miquela’s kiss as a dream, Calvin Klein reinforces the trope of lesbianism as a fantasy geared towards male viewers. Though Lil Miquela is allegedly bisexual (which is basically irrelevant since she isn’t real), Bella Hadid has never identified herself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and was reportedly dating The Weeknd when the video was taken. This fact in and of itself, delegitimizes displays of lesbian affection by portraying them as unthreatening to heterosexual relationships. Though the ad campaign operates under the pretense of trying to “challenge conventional norms and stereotypes,” as Emma Allwood writes, instead it “borrows sexuality for clickbait, othering queerness ‘surreal,’” effectively pigeonholing lesbianism as a sexy performance made neither by or for lesbians (Petrarca).
The Jenner-Hadid video is similarly geared towards male interest. From the framing, to the body language, to the caption, every element of the video screams “sex”—though, again, Hadid hasn’t identified herself as queer and Jenner is reportedly straight. From start to finish, the person filming is walking towards Jenner and Hadid. Similar to the Calvin Klein ad, visually this has the affect of inviting us in, and fostering a subtle sense of intimacy as the video goes on. The girls’ positioning itself is blatantly sexual. Not only does Jenner kiss Hadid, she does it while straddling her, grounding the already seductive act in a firmly sexual context. After the kiss, Hadid flops back down to the ground, putting them squarely into the missionary position. Even though lesbian couples might use the missionary position in some contexts, it largely calls to mind heterosexual intercourse. And though this move probably wasn’t explicitly calculated on Hadid’s part, it only further invites men watching to insert themselves into the fantasy. As if the kiss and body language weren’t enough to convey sexuality, Jenner also captions the vide “happy birthday sexy”. By referring to Hadid as sexy, Jenner verbally expresses the feigned sexual interest shown throughout the video and once more compels the viewer to think of her and her friend in a sexual context.
Though both kisses are highly performative and catered towards the male gaze, they are treated very differently in the media. While the queer-baiting in the Calvin Klein ad is easily recognizable, the exploitative quality of the Jenner-Hadid video is obscured by a smokescreen of friendship. Though the subtext is obviously sexual, the overt messaging is that this is just a platonic display. So on the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit the bill for fad lesbianism or queer-baiting. But even if the context of the kiss would seem to pass it off as casual and platonic, the public reaction illustrates that whether Jenner and Hadid verbalize it or not, American audiences have been conditioned to recognize fad lesbianism.
When Jenner and Hadid kiss, the surroundings erupt into screaming and cheering as they are peppered with flashes from photos being taken. Jenner and Hadid kissing is a spectacle, sexy, and alluring, meant to catch the attention of everyone around them. Much like in college party settings or on Girls Gone Wild, this is an interaction which happens only when men or cameras are present, and is intrinsically reliant upon observation. So while Jenner and Hadid attempt to pass its off as a 21st century way of showing love for your friends, the audience is expected to pick up on what the girls are doing and view the kiss in light of previous associations of lesbian kisses. Examining headlines about the post, one can see that these intentions were obviously successful. E News and Cosmopolitan articles dedicated to the clip are titled “Kendall Jenner Gives ‘Sexy’ Bella Hadid a Birthday Kiss” (Heller), and “Please Enjoy This Saucy Video of Kendall Jenner Fully Kissing Bella Hadid on the Lips” (Bowenbank). An article by StyleCaster refers to the kiss first as “fun and silly,” but later as “provocative” (Wong-Shing). Criticism of the video itself is practically impossible to find, if not entirely non-existent.
This behavior is extremely problematic. Even though girl on girl encounters might seem like they would de-stigmatize homosexuality, they actually reinforce latent homophobia. As Tricia Jenkins remarks in her essay “‘Potential Lesbians at Two O’Clock’: The Heterosexualization of Lesbianism in the Recent Teen Film,” the continuation of the luscious lesbian ideal in media and social settings reinforces the attitude that “lesbianism is acceptable to mainstream audiences as long as it is heterosexualized” (493). Thus, a dichotomy of acceptable and unacceptable lesbian affection is created, wherein lesbianism is acceptable only if it is inclusive of men. By this standard, genuine lesbian encounters are relegated right back to the domain of stigma which they have always occupied—the only difference being that now there is a culturally vindicated heterosexual appetite for lesbianism that sees it simply as a means to the end of male sexual fulfillment.
Even though this new-age fad lesbianism is branded as an act of friendship, because the viewer is expected to code it as performative and fantasy fulfilling, it engenders the same negative effects. Establishing lesbian affection as a feature of platonic relationships is further problematic because it sterilizes the lesbian relationship, diminishing the importance and sanctity of lesbian love. Making girl on girl affection commonplace in platonic relationships will destroy any romantic connotation for female kissing over time. So while traditional fad lesbianism reinforces latent homophobia, fad lesbianism under the guise of friendship seeks to obliterate lesbianism itself.
Straightforward fad-lesbianism has also been condemned for the reductive view of lesbians that it promotes. In their essay “‘Hot Lesbians’: Young People’s Talk About Representations of Lesbianism” Sue Jackson and Tamsyn Gilbertson remark on how the “heterosexualization of lesbians reifies the ‘femme’ and obliterates the political, feminist ‘butch’” (201). Just as the femme is reduced to a one-dimensional sexual plaything for men, the butch is seen only as a threat to those who ogle the femme, and is consequently written out of the narrative. This taxonomy is not only objectifying to the femme and discriminatory to the butch, but fails the take into account the vast spectrum of lesbian expression. As we continue to grow culturally in our understanding and presentation of both gender and sexuality, the tired butch/femme dichotomy and the fad lesbianism that fuels it must be deconstructed.
However, some scholars argue that the heterosexualized context of fad lesbianism is a vital outlet for questioning women. In their essay “Straight Girls Kissing,” Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor posit that “experimentation in the heterosexual context of the hookup culture and college party scene provides a safe space for some women to explore non-heterosexual possibilities” (30). Since this lesbian performance is tacitly approved by the male audience, kissing another girl seeks to reaffirm the participant’s heterosexuality, rather than challenge it. Therefore, questioning girls in otherwise homophobic environments are able to explore their sexualities in a way that paradoxically reaffirms their outward heterosexual status. Assuming that the same logic applies to girls kissing platonically, any iteration of fad lesbianism or queer-baiting should at least have some merit.
But according to research by Megan Yost and Lauren McCarthy, instances of genuine sexual exploration, at least in college party settings, are neither overwhelmingly common, nor so straightforward. In a survey of girls who had reportedly engaged in girl-on-girl affection in a party setting, less than a quarter cited experimentation as an impetus. Even then, Yost and McCarthy contend that the public setting which Rupp and Taylor identified as a key component of enabling this “exploration,” really serves as an indicator that it’s “not as open-minded as some of the women purport” (Yost and McCarthy 17). Ultimately, only the women who partake in this behavior know their own intentions and sexualities, but like Yost and McCarthy explicate, the public setting itself is counter-intuitive to genuine exploration.
As a queer person, being forced to watch these displays is infuriating. Seeing a core aspect of my identity reduced to raw sexual fantasy fulfillment leaves me feeling like a piece of meat. It is especially enraging when you consider the fact that many women around the world are forced into conversion therapy, kicked out of their homes, or even killed for their same sex attraction—sometimes by the same people who choose to consume these fetishistic displays. However, it cannot be denied that this is an incredibly complicated and multifaceted issue.
By repackaging fad lesbianism as a progressive display of friendship, the women involved are not seen as reinforcing homophobia, but actively challenging it. They are lauded as free-spirited and non-conformist, rejecting the confining heterosexual norms of platonic affection, which would seem to promote respect for queer sexuality. Yet, there are obvious cracks in the facade. This affection is hyper-sexual, which would seek to undermine its “platonic” branding. Additionally, it always has an audience, which erodes its contrived genuineness. Sometimes this audience is in person, but since the impetus for this display is now implicit, (girls are satisfying heterosexual impulses because they know there is a market for it, not because they have been directly asked) these expressions are more attuned to social media. Further evidence of exhibitionist intent can be seen through the subsequent public reaction when such photos/videos are posted. Even though this affection is now branded as an expression of friendship, since it consists of the same physical actions as fad lesbianism, it garners the same response. But the final, and perhaps greatest evidence of disingenuousness comes from the fact that the lion’s share of people posting these kinds of pictures are straight women.
So even though these “expressions of friendship” may seem well-intentioned, they are just as damaging and perhaps even more sinister than previous displays of fad lesbianism, because they are not easily identifiable as such. At the end of the day, this social media trend is far less consequential than more violent forms of oppression, but significantly contributes to an atmosphere that is habitually exploitative, dismissive, and hostile to queer people, when compiled with other routine micro-aggressions. That being said, lesbian exploitation isn’t just damaging to queer women. As discussed in Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” lesbian commodification is just an offset of more general female objectification. Therefore, any woman exploiting lesbianism can’t do so without objectifying herself. So while it can be easy to direct animus foremost towards women who perform lesbianism for personal benefit, one must realize that they are also victimized by a culture that sees a woman’s worth in her sexual utility to men.
However, male involvement in the perpetuation of lesbian exploitation is not so straightforward either. Men invalidating the legitimacy of lesbianism is problematic, but you also can’t condemn someone for what they’re attracted to. So where do we go from here? How can we respect queer women without shutting down important avenues of sexual exploration, and denouncing people for natural sexual impulses? The answer comes, as it usually does, in the form of education. Outside of queer communities, fad lesbianism is still seen overwhelmingly in terms of the benefits that it can reap, as opposed to its consequences for actual lesbians. While the association is made between lesbian performance and social gain, the tendency isn’t to connect the final dots to fetishism and invalidation. Some women who kiss their friends and post pictures of it may even truly believe that they’re doing the queer community a service by normalizing “faux-mosexuality”. Initially, queer-baiting was probably seen as a positive development, too; a step up for the queer community from having no representation at all.
While there’s no clear path towards eliminating this social media trend, the course of action that is likely to be most effective is raising awareness towards the fact that it is exploitative and won’t be tolerated by consumers. As frustrating as it is, in a capitalist society, the most surefire way to force change is by interfering with someone’s ability to gain capital, which comes from shifting public opinion.
Ultimately, the media platform that has enabled this new trend will likely be its downfall. While social media encourages attention-seeking content like lesbian performance, an integral aspect of the platform itself is its capacity to generate viral posts. Sometimes, all it takes is one successful viral post to change the landscape of acceptable decorum and siphon away support from people who refuse to adapt. The shift likely won’t be immediate, but as queer women like me continue to speak up about our experiences, people will begin to catch on, and everyone taking part in or encouraging this sugary sweet behavior will get their just desserts.
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Gabrielle Paisner is a sophomore studying art and philosophy at the University of San Francisco. She is passionate about queer advocacy and suicide prevention, and loves to cook, read, and take film photos of her friends. After her first year of college was interrupted by Covid-19, she decided to take a gap semester and has spent this fall petting stray cats and griping about her queer grievances.”