TV's kissing lesbians leave Jennie Bristow cold
'God, I can't stand another lesbian sex scene', exclaimed my mother as we
were watching the omnibus edition of EastEnders. I could see her
point. The day before we had seen Beth and Chris snogging outside the nightclub
in Brookside. Now we were being subjected to Della and Binnie having
surreptitious sex in the Queen Vic. All we need now is for Phoebe and Gaby
to get it together in Neighbours.
Lesbian chic has become the fashion statement of the nineties. From the
Madonna/Sandra Bernhard affair to the Vanity Fair cover of Cindy
Crawford shaving kd Lang, from best-selling novels like Oranges Are not
the Only Fruit to Anna Friel's fame as Brookside's nubile lesbian,
dykes and their life stories are everywhere in the media. But while I'm
all in favour of having more gay sex on television, I can't agree with the
idea that this new approach to lesbianism shows that gays are finally becoming
accepted. Not only do the media lesbians have little to do with real dykes,
but there is nothing positive about any of these images.
All the trendy media lesbians have three things in common: they don't look
like dykes, they don't act like dykes and they all have problems with being
dykes. The Sunday Times pretty much summed it up when it referred
to the era of the 'lipstick lesbian', with the traditional image of the
butch, sex-hungry dyke with pierced nipples giving way to a more sensitive,
feminine image of the modern lesbian.
Beth in Brookside is the model lipstick lesbian: a young, pretty
girl abused by her father and mistreated by her boyfriend who finds a new
female best friend to share her most intimate secrets. It's enough to make
the nicest of girls-next-door turn to women. She can't help being lesbian,
the scriptwriters seem to be saying, and only old bigots like David 'Bing'
Crosby or hysterical parents like Mandy Jordache could disapprove.
Lesbians are trendy - but only up to a point. A lesbian snog - whether in
Brookside, EastEnders, Roseanne or LA Law - is
good for the ratings. But, while the soaps might try to pull in the punters
with a bit of titillation and controversy, they are only allowed to go as
far as suggestive dressing gown scenes and fully-clothed cuddles. Even Beth
and Margaret's first kiss on Brookside was censored for the omnibus
edition, apparently because more young people watch it. Imagine the censor's
reactions if Beth had shaved her head, or actually had sex, or if it had
been two men having an affair.
The lipstick lesbian is a fantasy figure. In Brookside and EastEnders,
the relationships of Beth and Della are presented like other teenage love
affairs of which others disapprove. The emotional consequences of young
love are sketched in detail. The social problems of lesbian relationships
are never discussed.
But in reality lesbians are different. It does not really matter what you
look like, or how normal you appear on the surface, lesbians today are no
more acceptable than they have ever been. When Jean Crosby in Brookside
admitted that her best friend had been expelled from nursing college nearly
30 years ago for being gay, the implication was that things are different
today. But when it comes to real, everyday issues like applying for a job,
fighting a child custody case or even walking down the street with your
girlfriend, lesbians are still treated differently from straight women.
Casual anti-gay prejudice is as widespread as ever in the media. Just listen
to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments about Brazilian footballers holding
hands before World Cup matches, or the innuendo about Jason Donovan or Michael
Jackson. The fact that Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford had to spend £20
000 taking out ads in national newspapers to 'prove' their heterosexuality
shows just how problematic it is to be seen as gay in real life, however
many 'positive' images of lesbian lovers there are on TV.
Lipstick lesbians are not just fantasies, they are reactionary fantasies.
What is common to all these relation-ships is that they are so studiously
conventional. These are lesbians who conform to traditional family
values. In contrast to the bed-hopping, unfaithful men in the soaps, the
lesbian characters are generally monogamous, deeply in love with their partners
and would never dream of screwing around. The old image of lesbians, which
turned accepted ideas of femininity and respectability upside down, has
been replaced by a culture of normality. In this sense the portrayal of
the lipstick lesbians is entirely in keeping with the puritan culture that
now pervades popular entertainment. It goes hand in hand with the censorship
of video nasties, the toning down of sex and violence in soaps, and the
promotion of wholesome values.
What the soaps give us is the PC version of 'Back to basics' with a bit
of titillation thrown in. As Mizz magazine's Guide to Love, Life
and Sex puts it, 'Lesbians are like everyone else' and 'the most important
thing is to have loving and fulfilling relationships with someone - whether
that someone is a boy or a girl'.
The portrayal of the gay relationship in the hit film Four Weddings and
a Funeral shows this well. For a change two gay men rather than lesbians
are involved. But they are not simply gay, they are rather more conventional
than all of their straight friends. As one of their friends remarks after
the funeral, they were married all along without anyone realising it.
Meanwhile, in Manchester...
The Mineshaft is a men-only bar in Rockies, a popular night club in Manchester's
'gay village'. In recent months it seems to have become as popular with
the police as with clubbers. In the early hours of Sunday morning, on 24
April, two uniformed policemen walked into the club. Twenty or so other
officers, who had been mingling with the clubbers on the dancefloor, suddenly
announced their presence by turning on the lights, donning police armbands
and arresting many of those present.
Using rigid clamps they handcuffed men to each other and manhandled them
through the fire escape into police vans. Some were arrested for kissing,
some for abusing the police as they took others away. Many were not even
given the chance to fasten their clothing. The men were paraded in their
underwear through the public areas of Bootle St Station. Nine were persuaded
to accept cautions for gross indecency, two were charged.
The police attack on Rockies is part of a persistent campaign to censor
and drive homosexuality underground in Manchester. Typical is the story
of the man who was stopped in the street as he walked from one gay pub to
another. The police told him that they were looking for a man in blue denims
and a leather jacket! They searched his jacket and, finding a UB40 belonging
to his friend, arrested him for theft of government property.
Gay club owners face constant harassment. The owners of Equinox and Mineshaft
have been accused, under a 1751 law, of 'running disorderly houses'. The
Gaslight --Oldham's only gay club - has had its licence challenged.
But the most outrageous piece of police action concerns a clampdown on gays
visiting a local beauty spot, Worsley Woods, in Eccles. Greater Manchester
Police traced people who had visited the woods through their car number
plates. Each one was sent a letter, signed by Superintendent Arthur Reid,
which warned that 'the picturesque area of Worsley Woods and Bridgewater
Canal is being frequented by men engaging in overt and unlawful anti-social/homosexual
behaviour'. The letter asks for help in an 'intelligence-gathering operation'
to 'combat this problem'. Manchester's beauty spots, apparently, are only
for use by heterosexuals - preferably ones prepared to act as police informers.
Pee Wee Koons
Jeff Koons has become a parody of himself, says James Heartfield
What if there was no depth, if beyond the surface there was just more surface?
Someone once said of Doris Day that if you took her bra off, what you would
find is another bra. In Jeff Koons' world superficiality is grand. His retrospective
exhibition at London's Anthony D'Offay Gallery is a hymn to everything kitsch.
Koons' stainless steel JB Turner Train looks as if it is chromium plated,
and it is filled with Jim Beam bourbon. Its shiny surface and choo-choo
chunkiness is characteristic of the child-like, cutesy imagery of Koons'
Years ago Pee Wee Herman was a very adult alternative comedy act whose laughs
depended upon the tension between his child-like persona and his obscene
behaviour. Koons is a bit like Pee Wee. One of the earlier prints is a self-portrait
as a teacher, with a sickly grin and rows of beautiful 10-year olds, that
looks very like Pee Wee. Only the lessons on the blackboard 'Banality as
saviour' and 'Exploit the masses' tell us that this is not an advertisement
for the Moral Majority, but a sardonic attack on it.
Over time Pee Wee Herman honed his act into an ever more precise parody
of a children's entertainer, until one day he turned into the thing he was
parodying. He got a children's show on TV and made some excruciatingly bad
films - well-observed, but ultimately unwatchable.
Koons, too, is often on the verge of dissolving his work into the object
of his parodies. Some of the porcelain animals are so close to the My Little
Pony aesthetic that only the scale tells you that it is a joke. And that
is when his work is at its best, giddily tottering on the edge of the kitsch
world it refers to, as with his porcelain John the Baptist.
One thing that always kept Koons firmly within the realm of the sardonic
was his marriage to Ilona Staller (better known as La Ciccolina), the Italian
porn actress turned Radical Party deputy who protested against censorship
by taking her seat in parliament topless - a sort of 'Get your tits out for
the deputies' protest. Unlike Doris Day, La Ciccolina wore her nudity as
if it were a uniform.
Koons produced scores of portraits of his wife and muse in the eighties,
usually in some studio pastiche of a rural scene, dressed like Little Bo
Peep or Miss Muffet, except of course that her pose was pornographically
explicit. But eventually Koons and La Ciccolina split. She accused him of
wanting her to stay at home, like Phil Spector's treatment of his wife Ronnie.
In this exhibition all reference to La Ciccolina has been pointedly excised.
Without La Ciccolina to keep him off the straight and narrow, Koons wanders
inexorably towards the oblivion of a parody so precise that it is not even
parody any more. Koons' perennial capacity to descend into kitsch can be
seen in one chillingly glazed porcelain of a boy and girl - life-size, but
with twee smiles like those polio-crippled models of girls with the slot
in the head that you used to drop your penny in outside the newsagent.
The two are naked and he is handing her a bunch of flowers. But their sexual
organs are too well defined, like those anatomically correct dolls that
social workers frighten kids with, and the orchid the boy is handing the
girl is too flushed red not to indicate sexual desire. The tension is like
a Robert Crumb comic. The rendition is childish but the meaning is obscene - doubly
so because of the way it sexualises the child.
In fact it is Pee Wee Herman's old joke. Poor Pee Wee. A year or so ago
he was taking some time out from the ever-more demanding role he had invented
for himself, in a pornographic cinema showing some busty models in school-girl
uniforms. While enjoying a quiet wank Pee Wee was arrested and charged with
indecency. All over America sponsors demanded that the Pee Wee Herman show
be dropped. They did not even know that he was joking.
Wystan Massey on the surreal world of Iain M Banks
A Feersum Imadjinayshun
I met Iain M Banks in the lobby of the Berner's Park Plaza Hotel. I had
come armed with his latest best-seller, Feersum Endjinn, already signed
by the author a few days before in a book shop in Islington. I'm a fan.
In Feersum Endjinn Banks has created the most extravagant science fiction
novel this decade, using some familiar Banks devices such as overlapping
multi-narratives - 'it keeps people interested', he says - and new ones such
as phonetically written narrative - 'Bascule, he sed, u r so fik sometimes'.
It is a fast-paced, stylishly written, funny, surreal and sometimes shocking
story - a general description that in my opinion can be given to most of
Iain Banks has published 12 novels and a collection of short stories in
12 years. And don't be confused, Iain M Banks (SF writer) and Iain Banks
(mainstream novelist) are one and the same. The 'M' stands for Menzies (or
Mingis in his native Scotland), and he insists it is not meant as an ironic
snipe at Philip K Dick, Ursula K LeGuin or Arthur C Clarke.
I have been hooked, along with countless others, ever since reading his
first novel, The Wasp Factory. A novel which revolved around the
life of a sexually ambiguous child called Frank who murders other children,
has a mysterious brother who sets fire to dogs and who tortures animals,
it was bound to provoke an exaggerated reply from the moralists of the eighties
and so sell a lot.
'The Wasp Factory was accused very much of being the literary equivalent
of a video nasty', says Banks, 'and yet people would come up at SF conventions
and say, I read The Wasp Factory, quite liked it but I kept waiting
for the really nasty bits...so I think the controversy was a bit exaggerated'.
A writer noted for his substance as well as stylistic skill, Banks admits
that he consciously sets out to break taboos. In these conservative times
he has no shortage of material and it is no surprise that there is speculation
as to whether it is autobiographical. In Walking on Glass, for example,
he deals with incest in typically in-yer-face fashion, because, Banks says,
'it is a taboo', but adds that 'being an only child I never had much opportunity
for it myself and I didn't fancy my mother or my father'.
In another recent book, Complicity, to be released in paperback in
September, Banks has as the central story a serial murderer with a penchant
for torturing establishment figures. A personal fantasy?
'In a not particularly enlightening sense, yes', says Banks. 'I'm against
the death penalty, but at the same time it was very cathartic for me to
write about somebody doing all these horrible things to these, you know,
bastards. If I didn't get it out of my system by writing about it I'd start
probably torturing hamsters and rabbits, work my way up through killing
cousins and end up trying to do horrible things to judges and cabinet ministers.
But I'd probably be so incompetent I'd get caught.' Shame.
A sense of darkness prevails in most of his work and particularly in his
use of symbolism. Crows - 'mean little bastards' - feature frequently, for
instance. His explanation is simple: 'When the world stops being dark, I'll
stop writing dark stuff.'
And yet in Feersum Endjinn, the landscape of which is dominated by
a space elevator, Banks is unfashionably optimistic about technology. 'I
think it is very silly and short-sighted to be human and not to be optimistic
about it', says Banks. 'We can't really turn our back on technology, technology
is as much an expression of our personality as a species as our art is.
You can't turn your back on it. Radical greens and people who think like
that - I just think they're mad.'
Banks is a rarity, a writer who has achieved serious critical acclaim and
who believes in something and is still hopeful about the possibilities opened
up by human endeavour.
Feersum Endjinn, published by Orbit, 1994, £15.99 hbk
Complicity, published by Little Brown & Company, 1993, £15.99
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 70, August 1994