One of our writers compares a new lesbian magazine from Amsterdam to the UK’s own version. She asks: what should a lesbian magazine look like? Should a lesbian magazine be feminist? How can lesbian magazines avoid being prescriptive about what it means to be queer or female?
Ok, so Girls Like Us isn’t a British magazine – it’s from Amsterdam – but following on from other articles on this site about the current meagre state of British journalism on lesbian life, I think Girls Like Us helps to illustrate what’s missing from our own popular cultural representations and offerings and suggest what, hopefully, we might be able to create for consumption in the future.
What they say about themselves:
Girls Like Us (GLU) is a new magazine by Jessica Gysel and Kathrin Hero for women who are seeking a contemporary representation of lesbian identity. We focus on successful, creative, outspoken women who are not afraid to take risks and have a sense of humor and a playful take on lesbian identity. No attention is given to coming out stories and related matters – as there are plenty of magazines dealing with these issues. We are not interested in labeling – it’s all about people with stories to tell and who transcend medium or scene. GLU features a European design sensibility – modern, fresh and cutting. Graphic text and full color photo will update the traditionally text heavy black and white lesbian publications. GLU interviews are personal and engage with the style and interests of the subject.
What’s in it?
GLU is a simple but sophisticated A5 sized mini-book magazine, seventy or eighty pages long with good design and contemporary graphics. Its content is divided into three subsections: conversation; archive; gallery.
In the two copies I have, conversations include Leisha Hailey (of The L-Word / The Murmurs fame), Katie Sketch, singer from The Organ, a Swiss professor of Gender Studies, a world champion kick boxer and two forty-year-old female filmmakers in a long-term relationship with one another. Dialogue is presented as it happened – question followed by answer, rather than being written up into an opinionated article.
The archives at the back of the magazine make up a mini-history of different representations of women’s loves, lives and interests, across the decades, in magazine images, articles and film stills. A great idea, I think – the materials eerily capture echoes from the past, of the struggles for representation that always need to be remembered and which help us to reflect upon where we’re at now.
Then there’s the gallery, interspersed throughout, of images and photography from different contributors – and it’s this that most starkly illustrates what’s good about GLU. Combining imaginative images that question gender role distinctions and typical expressions of love; pictures of couples in different moments of intimacy; and ‘real-life’ pictures of normal dykes and queers around the world, all allows readers to see for their own selves the various fashions and self-representations of different women. In one issue there’s a feature called ‘Barely Straight’ – photographs of girls who ‘look’ gay, but who aren’t – throwing into question the whole idea of what it is to look like any particular sexuality in the first place.
That’s just it – in trying to carve out a space for lesbian culture in the medium of magazine, the images in GLU don’t make the mistake of trying too hard to find a definite or fixed identity to hang on to, of defining their ‘ideal prototype reader’. Instead they open up the magazine to a much wider audience, gay, straight, whatever, with pictures that are bright, fearless, undetermined and unconventional – the very things about queer lifestyles that should be celebrated, and the very things that are not celebrated, in my opinion, in our own popular lesbian magazine, Diva, which clings on to singular and predictably prescriptive models of identity, despite claiming to do otherwise. I think Diva is out-dated, still too much in dialogue with hetero-normative representations of identity and, in my mind, it doesn’t make any real attempt to think beyond simple dichotomies.
What’s wrong with Diva?
Diva does have a market; it provides printed information – scene listings, advertisements, personals, articles on ‘issues’ like ‘coming out’ and overcoming the mental problems that are sometimes associated with being gay. But there is a big inner conflict at the root of the magazine that is hard to resolve. While Diva claims to be all for sexual fluidity and life beyond labels and convention, it assumes too much about its readers to live up to the ideals it champions. It projects ideas about what gay people are like – what they are interested in, what their fashions are, what their opinions are, what their lifestyles are – with headlines like ‘What’s the most popular lesbian cocktail?’ ‘What does a lesbian tourist look like?’ ‘Lesbians and binge eating – the uncomfortable truth’. It’s patronising – with columns on ‘how to flirt’ and spiels about why it’s good to ‘come out of the closet’. It’s conventional – with information on where to get commitment rings and where to buy your sex toys. And there was me thinking the only certain commonality between lesbian women was a love for other women.
How all this content is any different from other women’s magazines, I don’t know. Sure it’s ok to want the same things as heterosexual people, and it’s ok to promote those things, but get it right – if a person is bold enough to realise that their sexuality is not defined in any mainstream or standard way, aren’t they bold enough to feel that their lives don’t have to be defined in any standard way either? They may want the same rights but do they want the same restrictions?
On the whole, Diva has never really helped me to think about women or sexuality in new ways. Some words from interviewees have been interesting but they don’t seem to be the things the editors pick up on in their write-ups. The editors of Diva just jump on the rhetorical bandwagon. Take the Camille Paglia interview in the latest issue, as an example. Paglia says “stop trying to push young gays back into the ghetto; let them out, let them think of addressing and speaking to a general audience. That’s the true mission of gay intellectuals of the 21st century – yes, they’re gay, but they’re intellectuals first.” Switch ‘intellectuals’ for ‘women’ and you’ve got the problem with Diva. While its editors might agree with Paglia’s comments, their magazine is guilty of creating the kind of ghetto she is talking about, with its haircuts, holidays and happy endings, with its constant definitions of gay culture and what it is to live a gay life all within the structure of a heterosexual one. It comes as no surprise when Diva choose to ask Pink how she identifies herself – bisexual or queer – and she comes back with the reply: “I don’t like labels, they’re too easy.”
GLU doesn’t do this. Its editorial stance is much more impartial. It presents different ideas, images and representations and lets its readers – whoever they are – make up their own minds about what they might mean. It doesn’t assume a given community. The result? Diva tries to be the same and ends up being exclusive. GLU doesn’t try to be the same and ends up being inclusive.
A lesbian magazine – A feminist magazine?
I believe Diva is not feminist. A magazine that puts limits, however subtle, on what it is to live life as a woman, can’t be called feminist. But does a lesbian magazine have to be feminist? Do the two necessarily go hand in hand? After all, you don’t have to be a feminist to be a lesbian and you don’t have to be a lesbian to be a feminist.
Different interpretations should be welcomed – I accept that Diva does have a place in our culture, and it does fulfil a certain role. But it can’t be enough. While a lesbian magazine doesn’t have to be feminist, surely if you identify yourself as someone whose sexuality is not based on rigid heterosexual norms – and you are a woman, then that presupposes some conflict between how you view yourself and how you feel you are represented in culture and society. Any decent magazine for gay people, lesbians or queers needs to address that perspective from the inside, not just superficially. If that means taking a step back editorially and letting the words and images speak for themselves, so be it.
So while GLU may not perfect – the questions in the conversations don’t always manage to be interesting or imaginative and the content could be beefed up – what position are we in, in this country, to criticise? GLU remains a solid publication, a model and an inspiration for the kind of print media we should be aiming for. A women’s magazine that advocates getting on with whatever kind of life you’re happy living, opens up and explores new possibilities, has exciting things to say, and lives up to all of those things it advocates – is a magazine that feels good reading, whatever your sexuality.
Girls Like Us is printed in English. It is available from www.libertas.co.uk and costs £5.99 and is released quarterly. It’s website is www.glumagazine.com. Diva is sold in most newsagents for £3.15 and more information is available at www.divamag.co.uk
[This post was updated in February 2019 to remove the writer’s name]