The first time I saw a woman engaging sexually with another woman on screen was in the 1998 classic- sorry, “classic”- Wild Things. I put classic in quotation marks there because, despite showing Kevin Bacon’s entire penis and spawning three sequels, Wild Things is a complete catastrophe, albeit a hugely entertaining one.
In the woman-on-woman sex scene in question, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards kiss and bump into each other in a swimming pool, looking very much like two sexy otters. They take off their tops, bump into each other a couple more times and then...next scene.
It left me with very little idea of how women might actually have sex (beyond a vague impression that it had to take place in water). A still from that scene was used in the marketing material for the film, making it clear that, in this case, queer female sexuality was only being used as a drawcard for straight men, as no woman who has sex with women would ever have directed that scene.
Many years have passed since I saw Wild Things and in that time I’ve had enough sex with women to confirm both that doing it in water is rarely advisable and that films and TV still get queer female sexuality pretty wrong. Which isn’t surprising, given that those films and TV shows are still mostly created by men. Wild Things had a male director, writer and cinematographer - of course they would view two women having sex entirely through the lens of the male gaze. “Make sure both sets of breasts and in view and that they’re both damp and beyond that? Eh, look, who cares, the breasts are basically the whole story."
It is less clear, however, why entertainment created by queer women, for queer women still feels the need to pander to the male gaze in this way. Take, for example, the long running American drama series The L Word, which followed the lives and relationships of a group of gay and bisexual women in California.
The L Word, which ran from 2004 to 2009, featured fun, overblown drama and a few steamy sex scenes (between the slim, conventionally attractive cast) and was obsessively viewed and recapped on queer female focused sites such as Autostraddle.
However, the marketing material for the show seemed to be focused entirely on drawing in male viewers. The press images released by the network always featured the cast in various states of undress but heavily made up (including Shane, the show’s most androgynous, and in this writer’s opinion, attractive character).
The characters’ few easily identifiable markers of queerness were removed and replaced with the soft lighting and open mouths of bad 90s porn. Was the network’s marketing department focused on attracting a wider audience? Or were they just so unused to creating content aimed at women- particularly queer women- that they didn’t have the tools to pull it off?
This question has been raised again with the (otherwise exciting) launch of Starting from...Now! on SBS 2. The web series turned television show follows the lives of 4 lesbian women living in Sydney and has earned itself a huge online fan base. However, the photos that have been made available of the cast primarily show them in lacy lingerie, their hands draped suggestively on each other’s breasts.
Is it likely that some women also like looking at fancy bras containing attractive women’s boobs? Sure. But these images feel designed to draw in straight men, perhaps assuming that queer women will care enough to go looking for the show without a campaign aimed at them.
Contrast this with the promotional materials for another female-centric show, Orange Is the New Black, which has been hailed as groundbreaking for its nuanced treatment of women’s sexuality. The characters (and performers) run the gamut of sexualities and gender expressions (and, not for nothing, feature racial and body diversity of a kind I’ve never seen on screen before).
The press images for OITNB feature the characters in their prison uniforms, usually staring straight ahead, confronting the viewer. They embrace the visible queerness of these women, rather than sanitising them in order to pander to a fetishised idea of female sexuality.
All marketing, from TV to pet food, has long defaulted to the male gaze (those cat food commercials featuring a slim pair of women’s legs stalking towards a bowl creep me out no end). Obviously, this is a broader problem that needs fixing given that women are consumers just as much as men. That’ll take some time.
But until then, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the small percentage of pop culture that focuses on queer female sexuality is actively marketed to the very people who see themselves reflected in it.
Starting from… Now! season 4 premieres on Monday 7 March, 9.15pm on SBS 2. Seasons 1-3 are available on SBS On Demand.