This discussion was set in motion by the arrival of this copy of Esquire on my doormat.
My initial response, like any good lady gay, was FNARGH THIS IS BEAUTIFUL, but this soon developed into a deeper consideration of how a photo of a naked woman on the front cover of a men’s magazine may be problematic.
If we consider the photo itself, it is clearly a femininely-signified sexualised image in terms of a normative male/female dichotomy; not only is Rihanna nude, but she has also adopted a submissive pose; she is looking up at the photographer, and therefore the viewer; she has her hands clasped together in almost a supplicatory manner; she looks as though she is pulling backwards rather asserting dominance by moving towards the camera lens. Should I, as a gay woman, feel comfortable finding that attractive?
Of course, we understand thoroughly how normativity places women in a passive, submissive role when subjected to a heterosexual male gaze, and it goes without saying that this is undoubtedly problematic, however, what happens when the sexualised gaze comes from a gay woman? Does this remove the normative dichotomy? Or does it simply reinforce it by becoming part of the problem?
By stating that no matter the gender of the viewer, if the object of a sexualised gaze is feminine then the viewer automatically becomes masculinised, we begin to erase the autonomy of intention of the subject. A male viewer automatically assumes a dominant role in terms of a sexualised gaze; after all, there is no escape from physical sexual signifiers, yet when we use pure physicality as a guide for dominance and submission, we are left with women only able to be passive, which of course is not true. This is where intention comes into play. Is it enough to say that, as a woman, I do not wish to subjugate other women unintentionally (something which unfortunately unavoidable for heterosexual men in a normative society), and therefore I cannot possibly reinforce the masculine/feminine dichotomy?
Perhaps not, but at the same time, by removing the physical markers of dominance, we go some way to removing the normative dominant/submissive problematic. A female object and subject of the sexualised gaze are equal in terms of physical signifiers of sexual submission, and so a dominant woman can find a submissive woman attractive without any of the historical, socio-political and cultural baggage that a man in a similar position would have. This is not to say that a woman has any more or less right to subjugate other women, sexually or otherwise, than any man, but the doubling of femaleness does place the object of the gaze on the same level as the subject, thereby removing the social and cultural normative dichotomy of dominance. In the absence of physical sexual signifiers of dominance, the dichotomy of sexual dominance/submission is destigmatised and deproblematised, invoking only personal intention and causality as the deciding factors how the gay female gaze should be understood when directed at other women.
In conclusion, my finding this photograph attractive is not without its concerns; after all, the kind of publication that Esquire is always evokes a sense of unease when it comes to the subjugation of women; however, if we consider this purely as a photograph, and the gay female gaze as one developed on purely sexual terms, then the problematics of dominance and submission are significantly lessened, and, depending on personal intention, can be cast aside, leaving only sexual attraction as the defining issue for the gay female gaze.