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[Guest Post] On Tatler’s “Lesbian Issue”.

2012 July 23

We’re pleased to welcome Libby of TreasuryIslands back to our soapbox today. If you have a guest post brewing in your brain, pitch us at
[email protected]

Cover of Tatler's Lesbian issue showing Alice Eve in closeup holding an aqua plastic telephone receiverWith a history spanning three centuries, Tatler is Establishment to its very core. It sells itself to advertisers as having ‘the wealthiest readership in the UK’ and accordingly peddles luxury goods and the accompanying lifestyle to Society dahlings and their postulant doppelgangers. The magazine worships the higher reaches of British class structures, fawning over those who through their money, their fame or their postcode can be considered ‘society’ and celebrating an incongruous, archaic social order.

Tatler seems an unlikely champion of diversity. The world it represents is one of deep privilege in which abide the casts of Jilly Cooper novels: men of title or profession and their charity-supporting wives; women in Jaeger gilets and and twentysomethings who order £19 martinis; the worst upper class caricatures made flesh for their own amusement and forwarded as role models for the aspirant gaggles. But editor Kate Reardon has noticed a problem: gay men, she says, are widely represented in Society but gay women are not, and she’s going to do something about it.

Her reasoning is thus: lady-lovers make people ‘either titillated or a little bit frightened’ – a conclusion I can only assume was arrived at with a sense of deep profundity at 3am and through the bottom of a cocktail glass – and claiming that parents are thrilled when their sons come out but embarrassed when their daughters do. Lesbians, she says, have never been accepted by High Society, a fact that Virginia Woolf, Natalie Clifford Barney and Betty Carstairs apparently missed the memo on. The way to address this problem, obviously, is to find some sapphic sisters and do a feature on them. Choose wisely, though. None too butch, none too… y’know… dykey, and if they’re over a size 12 then headshots only.

The fact is that she may well be right, but the issue is not one of sexuality but of gender – lesbians don’t have the status and visibility of gay men because women don’t have the status and visibility of men. A magazine which targets an overwhelmingly female audience (around 80%) is a routine place to celebrate women, and putting a handful of queer ladies in the spotlight is never going to be a bad thing.

Vanity Fair cover showing Cindy Crawford in a low-cut bodysuit covering a besuited KD Lang's face in shaving foam.We shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging lesbians and lesbianism, claimed Reardon in an interview on Woman’s Hour, and with this effort she’s ‘just bringing it up’; it’s up to us to talk about it. Noble enough, I suppose. The problem is that Tatler isn’t exactly bashful when it comes to creating a sensation when sales are falling (Anthea Turner naked but for a python, anyone?) and according to Janet Street-Porter in the Daily Mail that’s exactly what’s happening right now. With a drop in readership of more than 20% in the last year, and 25% within its target demographic, it’s easy to believe that Tatler is just trying to pretty up the sales figures. And why not? Vanity Fair saw a boost in audience with its infamous KD Lang/Cindy Crawford cover in 1994 just as defunct soap Brookside did with its Beth/Margaret kiss the same year. The mid-nineties may have been the height of lesbian chic, but the same trick might well work today. However easy it is to think that we’ve moved on in this post-Queer As Folk, post-Ellen world, the promise of a bit of girl-on-girl still sets the collective knees of the nation a-tremblin’.

The feature in Tatler is fluff, but what else did we expect? Seven fashion-plate photographs and an ad for a Belgravia-based lesbian and gay introduction agency make what the cover assures us is the definitive portfolio – though seven is not the definitive portfolio of anything, unless it’s colours of the rainbow – and takes up fewer pages than cover star Alice Eve. Whoever sent out the press release dubbing this ‘the lesbian issue’ was clearly overstating things a bit. Each photo is accompanied by a brief, soundbitey blurb in which such insights as favorite colour are revealed. It’s an exercise in mediocrity. I mean, they’ve managed to make Sue Perkins dull. How is that even possible?

Screenshot from the Brookside 'lesbian kiss' - two caucasian women, one with blonde wavy hair and one with straight brown hair, about to kiss. Tatler’s website offers ‘behind the scenes at the lesbian shoot’ – a startling prospect given the physical magazine features a what to wear to a [game] shoot guide. As well as vaguely hinting that Tatler staffers get their jollies shooting wild lesbians in the Home Counties at the weekend, the dodgy syntax in this headline treats the women in the same terms that it does its fashion: the Marc Jacobs shoot; the unfathomably expensive sarong shoot; the lesbian shoot. These women are modelling an accessory, and it is lesbianism. Instead of celebrating gay women, Tatler has narrowed the playing field – as this sort of faux-diverse tokenism often does – by offering a blueprint for acceptable lesbianism, a whitewashed ideal for the rest of us to not quite live up to.

A black tie dinner (dubbed the ‘lesbian ball’) hosted by Tatler in celebration of this barrier-smashing seven-pics-and-an-advert brought 200 women, of all sexualities, together for an evening of networking and masturbatory self-congratulation which, while undoubtedly productive for those involved, did precisely nothing for the women (generally) and lesbians and bi women (specifically) who could actually do with a leg up. This was not a benefit for LGBT charities. It was not the launch event for a campaign seeking to address actual inequality. No speeches were made about why the event was held. It was a party. Just a party. For the most privileged group of women in the UK and with a guest list so diverse that knicker obsessive Mary Portas was invited even though she’s trade. According to one nameless attendee over on themostcake, a spiffing time was had by all, and though the photos don’t show it, I like to think the evening ended with a load of drunken women kicking off their Louboutins and singing ‘I am Woman’ at high volume in the taxi queue.

Tatler had an opportunity to do some grandstanding and they nibbled on canapes instead. Radical.

  • Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN , the UK’s only 100% bisexual publication. Her latest project, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature.Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.
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