AFTER DECADES of invisibility in this nation's overwhelmingly straight male culture, lesbians are caught dead center in the kleig lights of American pop culture.
There on the August cover of Vanity Fair is the Amazonian model Cindy Crawford ecstatically "shaving" ambisexual singer k.d. lang, who is dressed in a man's three-piece suit. This comes only weeks after a Newsweek cover with the big fat headline "LESBIANS" and a New York magazine cover, again with lang as lesbo poster girl, called "Lesbian Chic: The Bold, Brave World of Gay Women." Rolling Stone's recently released annual "Hot List" even named lesbians "The Hot Subculture," gushing, "You're in if you're out."
Wait, there's more -- like television segments from "20/20" 's report on "Lesbianville" in Northhampton, Mass., to hot new lesbian comic Lea DeLaria on "Arsenio Hall"; a clatch of movies with lesbian characters; and even a couple of popular lesbian-oriented books selling well in mainstream bookstores.
The message? America, come say hello to lesbians -- they're hot! sexy! out there! Many gay women, who have long watched their lives minimized and distorted, can hardly contain themselves over the newfound attention.
Right now, said Frances Stevens, publisher and editor of Deneuve, a glossy San Francisco-based lesbian magazine, "lesbianism sells." Witness the lastest story in Deneuve's August issue: "Lesbian Visibility: Pop Trend or Revolution?"
Or, perhaps, Dangerous Distraction? Because the trendy focus on lesbians may be just another version of the same misleading images that reflect little of real lives. The old lesbian stereotype, we know from countless depictions, is a hairy-legged, granola-eating, women's-music-festival-having, anti-man harpy, who preys on innocent girls at summer camps, in freshman dorms, at vulnerable moments. She is humorless, wears badly fitted mannish suits, cannot sustain relationships and is hopelessly unhappy. She got the way she is from bad dealings with the men in her life.
The new improved lesbian is a party girl of much sex, lingerie and sophistication. She looks like a combination of early Kate Hepburn and international model. Straight women trendsetters like Madonna flirt with the lifestyle and make it chic. Travel to Santa Fe, dance with wolves, be a lesbian! The new lesbian even winks seductively at men about the whole thing. She is as lightweight as the old stereotype is heavy.
It is true that younger lesbians are more willing, able and proud to come out and show themselves than in the old days. In recent years, they actually injected a bit of much-needed fun into the often highly serious lesbian community. But such a trend should produce a clearer picture of the widely diverse lesbian community rather than more cardboard cutouts. Worse still, the new stereotype may distract attention from the more long-lasting and toxic stereotypes of lesbians that maintain their grip on the American psyche.
Those enduring attitudes showed themselves in the recent reaction to gays in the military. While most of the focus has stayed on men, recent news reports say that women -- both gay and straight -- have been especially hard-hit by the threat of outing by military authorities. These attitudes are revealed too in the unsubstantiated rumors that have been floated in recent months that certain high-level women in the Clinton administration are gay. True or not, the attacks are employed to hammer down both strong straight women and lesbians alike. Listen, babe, they warn, don't think we don't know what it means when a women is a little too assertive.
Didn't Sen. Jesse Helms manage to call Roberta Achtenberg, Clinton's assistant secretary for fair housing, a "damn lesbian" in her confirmation hearings without too much censure? Imagine, if you will, the massive reaction he might have gotten if he called someone a "damn Jew" or a "damn African American" or a "damn woman."
That kind of nasty public take also occurred in the 1991 hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, when Sen. Alan Simpson salaciously talked about Anita Hill's "proclivities." Proclivities? The menacing intent was clear even to conservative New York Times columnist and language wizard William Safire, who called the use of the word a "low blow" and wrote in a column: "That is a code word for homosexuality; if Mr. Simpson has evidence that the accuser's sexual preference is related to her reluctance to bring a charge of sexual harassment, let him make his case or shut up."
But the attack by Hill's opponents was clearly aimed: If the love-crazed "Fatal Attraction" scenario (straight career-mad woman as desperate maniac) did not work, the man-hating lesbian image was a great standby.
And where did we learn this distasteful language? Why, from the same media and pop culture that has been touting lesbians in recent days. Using lesbians to sell things is more like it, because most of the depictions are used simply for titillation.
The movies, America's favorite reflections of itself, are the easiest -- and perhaps worst -- example. Even today, most U.S. feature films stay deeply in the closet about homosexuality in general and lesbians in particular. When homosexuals are portrayed, most films still show them as killers, victims, jokes or -- and this is considered huge progress for gay men -- dying of AIDS.
The old Motion Picture Production Code decreeing that movies have no hint of gayness at all died decades ago, but not its spirit. As Vito Russo chronicled in "The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies," through the decades the picture of gay women has not been pretty.
Not much has changed since 1931's "Maedchen in Uniform" (Herthe Thiele as troubled Manuela takes a leap to death) to "From Russia With Love" (1963, Lotte Lenya plays an evil lesbian man-hater and gets killed by the straight woman she menaced) to "Tootsie" (1982, yipes, Jessica Lange is attracted to a woman; phew, it's really a man in drag) to "The Color Purple" (1985, director Steven Spielberg guts author Alice Walker's pivotal scene where heroine finally finds love and courage with a woman) to "Switch" (1991, randy man becomes a woman, so who does she sleep with? A man, of course!).
The near absence of positive lesbian film depictions is stunning, while evergreen characters tend to be pathetic suicides, evil vampires, nasty dyke gym teachers, vulturish prison chicks, emotionally crippled couplings and tons of lesbians saved by a man's love.
There have been some better portrayals, of course, such as those in John Sayles' "Lianna" (1983, a bit humorless, but at least with developed lesbian characters), Donna Deitch's "Desert Hearts" (1986, finally -- realistic sex scenes!) and "The Butcher's Wife" (1992, well-dressed, likable professional woman abandons well-dressed, likeable professional male lover for another well-dressed, likable professional woman). But movies like these come rarely and go easily without much marketing support.
"Lesbians are still seen as exotic and that's why they are there, not realistically but in ways that might sell," said Michael Lumpkin, co-producer of the upcoming "Celluloid Closet" documentary. Today, film depictions of lesbians have certainly gotten foxier and more sophisticated, but strip away the trendoid outfits and dishy hairdos and it's still a pretty grim picture.
Take last year's small hit, "Fried Green Tomatoes." The film -- chronicling the Depression-era lives of two women who struggle with a Southern cafe, the Ku Klux Klan, a murder trial and cancer -- had an easy charm that made it a surprise success. Most observers thought its appeal -- especially with women -- lay in the movie's theme of supportive family-style relationships, about the importance, as one of its actresses put it, of "best friends."
That may be so, but what the makers of "Fried Green Tomatoes" ignored was the women's lesbian relationship that was integral to the Fannie Flagg book on which the movie was based. You could almost hear the moviemaking minds clunk along: "Hey, why not just make the women real close pals! Most women are pretty tight with their women friends, so what's the big difference?"
Well, a lot. Still, even lesbians, desperate for any hint of their sexual choices on-screen, seemed happy with the film, which got excellent reviews in gay publications. So with non-lesbian lesbians as box-office gold, Hollywood moved back to that longtime favorite, the homicidal dyke. Unlike the chaste women in "Fried Green Tomatoes," those babes in "Basic Instinct" liked sex so much they killed for it. And, best of all, you learn from it that lesbians don't wear any underwear! The movie has done $300 million worldwide so far with the help of its racy lesbian titillation and that age-old idea that lesbians hate men. The reality -- that most lesbians do not and are simply women who love women -- seldom gets expressed.
It could have in the recent, well-meaning "Three of Hearts." In the film, a lesbian hires a male prostitute to get back her girlfriend. The scheme: He'll break her heart and send her scurrying back into a woman's nurturing arms. With its glamorous leading man and two women intertwined on the movie poster, the tag line reads: "Just your average Girl meets Girl. Girl loses Girl. Girl hires Boy to get Girl back story. With a twist." The twist? Despite the lesbian marketing come-on, it's your traditional love story, as the boy toy (William Baldwin) and girlfriend fall in love. And so what audiences will walk away with is something that they have heard since the dawn of time: All a lesbian really needs is a good man.
That stereotype has been changing in other artistic mediums where lesbians are enjoying more complex portrayals. While it has had its share of whoppers, television is probably the furthest along with intelligent depictions, from the sexy and sharp-witted C.J. on "L.A. Law" to well-adjusted Nancy on the top-rated "Roseanne." Shows from "Designing Women" to "Picket Fences" deal with the issues head on, treating lesbians as they would other characters.
Still, it didn't take long for "L.A. Law" and "Roseanne" to cave. Both the lesbian characters on those shows found men to snuggle up with. And despite today's multitude of offerings, there is still no ongoing and relatively well-adjusted lesbian character on any regular TV program.
That status has improved somewhat for gay men since the days when they were mostly used as swishy comic relief or villains. But for lesbians, the stereotypes continue unabated, even in this new batch of attention. The k.d. lang-Cindy Crawford pictures may be celebrated as pro-lesbian but they are not much more than basic male-fantasy number 101. That is, guys, if you can't have Cindy Crawford seductively shaving your face with a straight-edged razor, then watching her doing it to another woman is pretty hot.
New York magazine's "Lesbian Chic" seems to put lesbians on the same what's-in level as the latest tapas bar or place to have your skin peeled. Newsweek's article even had definitions for lesbian chestnuts like "butch" and "femme" that have no currency in lesbian society today. In short, the pop culture attention to lesbians smacks of zoo-going -- an outing to view the latest kind of exotic animal on display.
Even Cindy Crawford seems to have had second thoughts on a recent talk show, minimizing the Vanity Fair pictures. The pictures, she said, are "this week's sensation. Last week they were all talking about Julia Roberts' wedding, now it's this cover. Next week it'll be something else."
Yes, something else, as it always happens. But even with the welcome warmth of the spotlight, lesbians shouldn't allow anyone to exploit them for their trendiness. If they do, they will inevitably be left behind on the fringes of cultural acceptance with new and damaging stereotypes to counter. More than a decade ago in her poem, "The Images," Adrienne Rich warned as much. "Two women sleeping together," she wrote, "have more than their sleep to defend."
Kara Swisher is a Washington Post reporter.