I have taken part in, and watched, my fair share of sexy pole performances. They are my passion – I love the costumes, the themes, and characterisation. But, as the performers get braver, the performances more outrageous, I have noticed a trend in our sexy performances, competitions and doubles pieces… The use of the quasi-lesbian girl-on-girl trope.
Now, this trope is nothing new, which is precisely why we are seeing them on our pole stages. They play off a very common trend that was particularly popular during the 00s, with Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, the infamous girl-on-girl snog between Britney and Madonna, the short lived popularity of t.A.T.u. (OK, that might just be the UK but check it out below for oddly mainstream erotic school girl fantasies)…
In a media world where lesbianism, queerness and bisexuality are used to make nominally straight female characters appear a little bit ‘wild’ and ‘out there’, or to explore a character’s dark side™, and where girl-on-girl is a regular aspect of the sex entertainment industry where lesbianism is performed for titillation, I wanted to ask –
Why are we using these tropes?
Are we contributing to the fetishisation of female non-hetero sexualities?
How can we represent non-hetero sexualities in an effective way?
Can these tropes serve a positive purpose in the sexy pole scene?
The Male Gaze
I spoke to dozens of women and femmes who identified on the spectrum of lesbian, bi, pan and queer for this post, and the phrase that they independently uttered again and again was the concept of the ‘male gaze’.
Whilst the majority of people I spoke to didn’t have a problem with girl-on-girl tropes being used in performances, they all felt uncomfortable when these performances pull from cultural examples which are specifically catered to male sexual fantasy. Performing for male pleasure isn’t intrinsically negative, after all a lot of us seek to be desired by men. However, the issues surface when this performance undermines authentic queer expression, or could be seen to reduce it to a fetishised stereotype (in the same way that race or Trans* identities are also fetishised in the sex industry).
Cis-gender women who present in a conventionally feminine and attractive manner, and are for all intents and purposes 100% straight, kiss in a strip club champagne room, or two women with impractically long finger nails are hired to do a lesbian porn shoot. (*Of course, this is not to say that non-hetero women cannot present in a conventionally feminine manner, many do and that comes with it’s own issues of invisibility and erasure.) Most of these don’t feel ‘real’, and that’s kind of the point, because at any moment the male can insert himself (excuse the pun) into the scenario and his masculinity is not threatened. These are expressions of non-hetero female sexuality that are designed specifically to cater to male desire and not make him feel as though he is ‘missing out’. He knows it is a performance and that ultimately they will need him and his ‘superior’ appendages.
You see these examples again and again, in movies, on TV, and in music videos. And we can’t escape that they impact how we view queer, lesbian and bisexual identities.
And LBQ+ women are more than aware of this… when straight men ask them if they want a threesome, or tell them they just haven’t had the right dick yet, they know exactly what is happening. Queer women are used to having their sexuality undermined by straight people, or used like some kind of cute costume for profit.
This is why there’s a subtle difference between performing queerness and actually representing queerness on stage.
I understand why these tropes exist in the sex entertainment industry, these women are doing their hustle and this is one of the ways they exploit male sexuality (in just the same way they seemingly encourage racial stereotypes for example). But, the pole world is an entirely different beast. Most of our audiences are made up of women, most of these women are straight. So, why are we basing performances around tropes that are specifically catered to the male gaze?
Of course, you can argue that we all pull from all sorts of aspects of culture, and considering we are a ‘Stripper Style’ niche we will sometimes use aspects of strip club culture in our performances as a homage or tribute. I totally understand this. But, I also feel that it is a good idea for us to distinguish which aspects are pretty harmless to borrow (making it rain for example, or throwing on a school girl outfit), versus those that probably aren’t a good idea in isolation. For example, as a white women it would be wholly inappropriate for me to explore aspects of the SEI which exoticise non-white bodies. Sexuality is no different in this regards.
It really does boil down to two things:
- Appropriateness of the girl-on-girl trope
- How this trope is handled in the performance itself
If you identify as a straight woman, tread carefully. Think about your motivations for including a lesbian or bisexual aspect to your performance. Is it just for the ‘cheer factor’, or because it fits your theme and character?
The second most common feedback I got as a result of my conversations around this was based on ensuring that lesbian expressions of intimacy such as kissing actually fit your routine. They felt that routines where a girl-on-girl kiss appears to have been ‘shoe horned’ in just to get some audience screams came across as insincere and gratuitous.
If the theme, character and song call for it, then girl-on-girl can work extremely well, regardless of the performer’s own sexuality. And this is really the crux of it.
Take for example Leah Rose’s 2016 Pole Theatre piece. Her theme of the snake tempting Eve was the perfect framing for a little cheeky girl-on-girl implied choreo. It was thought out and executed well. It doesn’t matter what Leah’s sexuality is, because her characterisation worked for this specific performance.
How can we present these identities effectively?
Well… with variety and colour and nuance. Non-hetero relationships are just as rich and complex as straight ones. Reducing them down to a single stereotype does them a great disservice and ignores the fact that like any other relationship they come in a variety of forms, and should therefore be represented as such in our culture, media, and yes, our pole performances.
There’s room for the performative male gaze stereotype, but there also needs to be room for all of the other wonderful ways that women express their sexuality. When the majority of girl-on-girl is performed by thin, white, straight women it can feel a little bit like ‘when do the queer women get to represent themselves?’ Some of the women I spoke with said they had been afraid to perform their own sexuality on stage because they felt the audience and judge’s may react negatively to it, precisely because it would be authentic and would not be filtered through the prism of the ‘male gaze’. And the fact they feel that way isn’t OK.
These tropes can be used positively to represent a specific type of sexual expression, because performative lesbianism is real, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be desired by men. But, it can’t be at the expense of LBQ+ women, so there has to be a couple of other things happening:
- There has to be openness to other types of sexual expression.
- Straight women who use these tropes need to be vocal allies for the LBQ+ women in the industry.
Queer sexuality should be allowed to be as random, shoe-horned and purposeless as the next sexuality (straight people have random sex on TV all the damn time, but gay people require a 3 season story arc and even then get accused of fan service). We should be allowed to have any type of queer performance on stage, because as one person I spoke to argued, all types of sexual expression are legitimate, regardless of how you self identify. And anything that helps to deconstruct heteronormativity can serve a constructive and positive purpose. So yes, straight women have every right to explore girl-on-girl tropes, but all I am asking is that it is done with care, and that it isn’t the only version represented.
But, what are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments below…