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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.3 (2001) 417-423
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Lovely Lesbians; Or, Pussy Galore
From Sharon Stone's ice pick-wielding high jinks in Basic Instinct to Ellen DeGeneres's earnest self-revelation to Ally McBeal's vapid experimentation, fictional lesbians have gotten a lot of press over the past few years. The preponderance of lesbian themes may well be the fruit of a discovery on the part of entertainment executives that lesbian plotlines represent the only erotic configuration more or less guaranteed to appeal to all sexual demographics. Lesbians themselves, no matter how indignant over exploitation and inauthenticity, will never be able to resist taking a look at exactly how they are misrepresented; straight women are notoriously curious about such matters; straight men will line up in any weather; and, finally, gay men can generally be counted on for at least a token modicum of solidarity and identification.
In any case, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a heterosexual man in search of entertainment will want to watch women have sex. I began to ponder this phenomenon seriously some years ago while watching Roseanne. In one memorable episode Roseanne and her butch-but-straight sister, Jackie, get into an altercation about Jackie's decision to join the police force. They end up, in that over-the-top Roseanne way that I still miss, wrestling violently on the couch. Roseanne's husband, Dan, comes in, watches his wife and sister-in-law flail together for a moment, and finally asks: "Is this a sex thing? Because if it is, I'll go get my camera." The force of the joke depends on a peculiar assumption pushed to its limit: a heterosexual man finds the idea of women having sex together more compelling than any other conceivable contingency; this image somehow trumps all others. Faced with the spectacle of two women grappling, Dan is so distracted by the possibility that he is witnessing some arcane form of lesbian sex that he is prepared to ignore the scene's more likely implications: that Roseanne and Jackie are engaged in hand-to-hand combat, which is in fact the [End Page 417] case, or, for that matter, that if what he is seeing actually is "a sex thing," it means that his wife is embroiled in adulterous homosexual incest.
What exactly is the appeal of lesbianism to the straight male mind, and what are the narratives of lesbianism that our culture gives us? Common wisdom suggests a twofold representation: the tragic, repellent, mannish lesbian of Sister George fame, on the one hand, and, on the other, the girlish, comely faux lesbian familiar from those preposterous Penthouse spreads that I'm sure you can imagine even if you've never sullied yourself by examining them. In other words, butch-fem writ large. This is not, however, the whole story. I propose to approach these questions by taking a look at the depictions of lesbianism--or, to be more precise, the depiction of male relations to lesbianism--in two bodies of work that surely offer the most impeccable straight male credentials: Henry Miller's writing, and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and the immensely popular films made from them.
On the second page of Tropic of Cancer we find the following stream-of-partial-consciousness musing:
Dozing off. The physiology of love. The whale with his six foot penis. The bat--penis [sic] libre. Animals with a bone in the penis. Hence, a bone on . . . "Happily," says Gourmont, "the bony structure is lost in men." Happily? Yes, happily. Think of the human race walking around with a bone on. The kangaroo has a double penis--one for weekdays and one for holidays. Dozing. A letter from a female asking if I have found a title for my book. Title? To be sure: "Lovely Lesbians." 1
It is clear, I think, that the sequence of thoughts in this paragraph does not represent quite the dreamy non sequitur it might at first glance seem to offer. Coming after...