The Lesbian Rural Gaze (Before the Men Got Here)

Recently, a friend of mine started a discussion about art and lesbian depictions of women’s bodies. She’d seen work by a lesbian artist, which aimed to ‘reset the concept of the male gaze on the female form,’ but the result seemed uncomfortably close to objectification. Is there such a thing as a ‘lesbian gaze’?

I was all set to write something searching and profound. I was leafing through Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and linking it up to the recent debates about Anne Lister via Gentleman Jack, and it was all going to be very thoughtful. But as I was mulling over the question, I came across this article, which allowed me to convey almost all of the points I’d intended to make through the form of snark.

The title, promisingly, offers a list: Top 10 Queer Rural Books. The premise is that The Queers naturally gravitate towards the freedom of escaping the rural and getting to the sexy sexy big city. Thus, the rural narrative gets left out.

Cynic that I am, I think you know without reading further in this article, ‘queer’ is performing its usual function, as a rainbow-stripe figleaf for carrying on concentrating on The Menz. There’s a nice range of books about men doing men, a couple of honourable mentions for trans fiction (do transmen even exist?), and a distinct feeling of anticlimax. In a short article, author Mike Parker twice concludes a whole passage describing a gay male experience or text ending with a bored afterthought ‘… and his female equivalents too’ or ‘the lesbian equivalent …’. Six out of ten of Parker’s novels are about gay men (although he gets points for including any bisexuality at all also for the men, in the seventh, and points for female writers). Two more are trans narratives. The only lesbian-orientated novel to get a full billing is Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, with Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah shoehorned awkwardly into the bottom two lines of the entry dedicated to something else.

That choice in itself is a bit weird. Waters doesn’t immediately strike me particularly as a ‘rural’ writer (or a writer on ‘rural’ themes). It’s yet more of a stretch to call Fingersmith a ‘rural book’. Yes, some of it takes place in the country house of Briar, but rather more of it doesn’t, and it’s pretty difficult not to notice that Sue and her scheming guardian Mrs Sucksby are products of a quintessentially urban and gritty Victorian London. However, Waters crops up with regularity on LGBT reading lists, so no doubt she must fit here, too.

The same laziness permeates Parker’s treatment of stereotype. Discussing Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, he concludes ‘We all need our cowboy/girl stories’. I am well aware that, as the man sang, ‘cowboys are frequently, secretly, fond of each other,’ but I’m obviously far too innocent to have noticed a big cowgirl stereotype in lesbian subcultures. In fact, Desert Hearts aside (which isn’t, not really), I’d venture to suggest it’s not a thing. With Parker’s list dominated by texts by and about men, and lesbians persistently situated as an afterthought, it’s hard to avoid the implication that lesbians are the Ginger Rodgers of LGBT literature: following where the gay men lead, doing what they do only ‘backwards and in high heels,’ and receiving rather less than half the credit or attention.

It’s easy to pick holes in the list, to cite old favourites of the lesbian literary canon such as The Color Purple or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, which are far more deeply embedded in a rural setting and rural way of life than Fingersmith. It’s easy to query the underlying assumption that ‘gays’ escape the rural for the city by citing real-life women. Nearly two hundred years before the publication of E. M. Forster’s Maurice  – Parker’s ‘gay grand-daddy’ of ‘queer’ rural lit – Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby rejected marriage and eloped together to the Welsh countryside, where they lived together for the following fifty years in a deliberately ‘rural’ idyll. Their marriage-like partnership inspired Anne Lister, who built a cottage retreat in the gardens of her country house for the purpose of romancing her conquests. Lesbians – from Vita Sackville-West to Alys Fowler – build gardens and wax lyrical (yep, Sappho too) about the romance of outdoor spaces. There’s even a charming late medieval English poem called the Assembly of Ladies, where a group of women gather in a beautiful garden to express their disgust at men, and casually reframe heteronormative assumptions at the same time.*

Why such an affiliation between women desiring women, and rural, outdoor spaces? We could trace it back to the medieval imagery of the goddess Nature herself, who (as the medievalist Susan Schibanoff demonstrates) is frequently imagined as a lesbian-like figure; we could trace it forward again to Alice Walker (again), who constructs her broad-reaching imagery of a feminism incorporating women who love women in the image of a garden in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. It’s far too big a subject to cover in a blog post – but that’s sort of the point. The problem with Parker’s article isn’t that he should have represented the entire LGBTQIA, queer spectrum in neatly statistical proportion rather than writing about gay men with a few ‘others’ crammed in. The problem is that he presumes gay male experience as the blueprint for everyone else. If gay men idealise city life as the emblem of freedom, so must lesbians. If gay men’s literary love affair with the rural begins with Maurice, it’s impossible women could have been writing rural same-sex erotics centuries (or millennia) before that.

And here we come back to the question about the ‘lesbian gaze’. One of the reasons we’re not geared up (as a society) to recognise what lesbian desire might look like is that it’s so often presented as the quieter, take-it-as-read, inverse image of male same-sex desire. We all need our cowboy/girl stories.

Note

*Thanks to Liz Herbert McAvoy and Diane Watt for writing on this text!

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