Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and no one in the lingerie blogosphere is talking about it, which is weird. Also, barely anyone is talking about queer visibility in lingerie, but that's just par for the course. So Rose Wednesday, LGBTQ columnist for The Lingerie Addict and contributor here at Bluestockings, and I decided to talk about All The Things. At the end of the day, it gets down to patriarchy smashing and more explicit (but not tokenizing) queer representation. And Rose and I both wanting more advertising that looks like FYI by Dani Read.
"Bang Baratta Gloves," $80 fyibydaniread.myshopify.com
If that excites you, read on.
Jeanna: I’m just excited to chat because no one is talking about V-Day at all—all the blogs are quiet. I know it’s still twelve days out but no one has posted anything. TLA has that one post on full bust brands and that’s like, it.
Rose: I wonder if as a culture we've finally gotten over Valentine’s Day. “It happened all at once... one year, we just all collectively agreed to stay home and watch TV.”
Jeanna: I feel like it’s this tension in the industry, with it being the one day that's still relationship-oriented while the industry is simultaneously trying moving towards lingerie being about the individual rather than something that's done for the male gaze. So it's like, how do you advertise for that? How do you talk about it without alienating people? It seems like people are just being quiet.
Rose: And yet, Valentine's Day is still a huge day for lingerie. The industry has to acknowledge it somehow.
Jeanna: Exactly. Sales wise, this is one of the biggest times of year.
Rose: I’m looking at TLA right now and trying to do a close reading on some of the ads. They're fairly subtle but there's a shift toward saying things like "wow him" or "send these custom-message-printed panties..."
Jeanna: So, on the subject of queer visibility—I think this is a really powerful time to be talking about it, actually, because of V-Day. I think this issue of advertising being so weird right now in the industry is making queer visibility an interesting subject because, as you say, the advertising is registering so subtly.
Rose: And maybe "lingerie for the individual" is a way of avoiding making assumptions about what kind of couple someone is in. "Feel confident on Valentine's Day" as a marketing message doesn't have to imply any kind of partner at all.
Jeanna: On the one hand, I feel like brands and boutiques have accidentally stumbled into something that's remarkably queer friendly. But I also think it's an accident because of the tensions of V-Day and wanting to affirm the individuality of their (presumably cis hetero) customers.
Rose: But on the other, it allows people who are not queer friendly to not be confronted with queerness.
Jeanna: That’s such a great point. I remember even this last Christmas, all the gift guides, etc. on these websites were "for him." Right now, I'm seeing all this accidentally queer-friendly language, but because of just how recently these same websites were addressing their customers as straight, I can't help but think it's accidental.
Rose: That’s so interesting that at Christmas it was framed so differently.
Jeanna: I was so frustrated. And now, all these e-tailers—herroom, figleaves, Journelle—aren't using pronouns AT ALL or even relationship-y language.
Rose: It may have something to do with the cultural weight of Christmas that ties it back to every Christmas in the past. We get more nostalgic and therefore our values overall become more conservative, perhaps.
Jeanna: That's a great point. Christmas has a cultural weight that Valentine's Day doesn't. And there's a frustration around Valentine's Day.
Rose: Valentine's Day is an annoying holiday, lets say it.
Rose: If you're not in a relationship (queer or otherwise), you're excluded automatically.
Jeanna: Even if you're in a relationship -- even a straight one! -- it's so frustrating, how to navigate the pink and red and cards and expectations.
Rose: If you are in a relationship, you and your partner are competing in a three-legged race against all the other couples for restaurant seating and flowers and gifts.
Jeanna: So true. And lingerie is, unfortunately, an industry intimately associated with V-Day. Because sex.
Rose: And the lingerie marketed explicitly *for* Valentine's Day is some of the worst, most heteronormative lingerie of all time.
Jeanna: That was something I wanted to ask you about--the lingerie you see featured for V-Day is super femme. It really shoehorns everyone into the same box.
Rose: No wonder designers aren't advertising for it--they'd like customers to buy their designs, not the Archetypal Valentine's Set. So, as someone on the brink of entering the industry, how are you imagining yourself navigating these big-sales periods while avoiding harmful narratives about relationships? What's your ideal Bluestockings Valentine's Day ad?
Jeanna: Honestly, I didn't want to launch until after Valentine's Day. I couldn't imagine launching in the middle of this--hubbub, shall we say.
Rose: That does give you a year to think about tackling it! And to get a feel for what your audience is and what they respond to.
Jeanna: Exactly. But you're right, if we make it a year (fingers crossed!), it's something we'll have to deal with. Off the cuff, my inclination is to do a V-Day sale, but to avoid features, because what’s special is so individual. But it’s also important to me to have a link to women’s shelters on the Bluestockings website and to do a simultaneous charity event. Domestic abuse rises at this time of year.
Rose: That's a good point. Valentine's Day is not only normative in terms of gender, it's normative in that it assumes every relationship is a happy one.
Jeanna: Well put. So here's a question that tacks on to our earlier discussion: is language that eschews pronouns enough, for brands to be queer inclusive?
Rose: Well, if people are serious about "lingerie isn't for your partner, it's for you" then it would be enough. But I think that there's dogwhistle phrases that creep in that indicate that it's for-you-sort-of.
Jeanna: But there's also the question of who the "you" is.
Rose: As in, is your optimal you the person who just happens to be you at your most gender-normative?
Jeanna: I think that this particular style of advertising that's been adopted -- "lingerie for you" -- is incredibly valuable. However, when it's backed up by stores that exclusively stock feminine, gender normative lingerie, that's quite telling of who the "you" is that they're addressing.
Rose: Ah, yes! "For you, not your partner. As long as you're still ultra-feminine and shaped correctly.”
Rose: In some ways that eliminates your partner from the equation only to replace them with a vague social pressure. In contrast, dressing for your partner (especially if your partner is a woman, or non-normative) might be a more radical act.
Jeanna: Can you say more about that?
Rose: Well, I don't think that the very act of dressing for your partner is a problem; I think it's the feeling of obligation. My girlfriend and I shop for lingerie together and we definitely influence each other's purchases. I think the problem begins when you feel that you have to perform a role in order to be acceptable to your partner, and in some ways, pleasing a vague notion of what a company thinks femininity looks like is harder (and more sinister) than pleasing one other human. Especially if they repackage their desire as your own desire. "YOU want to feel good. YOU want to wear this bra. You are getting sleepy..."
Jeanna: And of course, the extent to which our own desires are created inasmuch as we can collect and curate from what is available -- that's a hard line. It's hard to be what you can't see, as the saying goes.
Rose: So maybe our question is: how do couples that aren't composed of one strongly masculine person and one strongly feminine person deal with how polarizing the lingerie narrative is? Especially because there's this idea that in order to be a "fitting" couple, people have to be in stark gender-contrast. You see it in straight relationships, and you definitely see it imposed on queer relationships even when the participants don't think of themselves in that light.
Jeanna: Exactly. Queer couples have to be composed of some kind of binary (e.g. "who's the guy?" to a lesbian couple), and of course, straight couples are always presumed to operate one specific way in the bedroom.
Rose: It's so easy to buy into! For a long time in my lingerie purchases specifically, I felt like I wasn't going to "achieve" the most feminine prize (or something), so I defaulted hard into very masculine underwear that didn't quite feel right either.
Jeanna: There's also an eschewing of lingerie altogether. I've had former partners just say, "lingerie isn't for me," because they don't feel that either option suits them, either the very masculine or the very feminine.
Rose: I did avoid wearing underwear between the ages of 18 and 21. It was just too confusing, really.
Jeanna: And obviously, neither of us can really speak to straight couples who experience this gender role dysphoria within lingerie, but it definitely exists.
Rose: True. Although I feel like I hear some of it when I talk to men who cross-dress. There's a sense of "my wife would never be alright with this, she needs a real man"--as though someone has to be the man and it's not going to be her, so he has to fall on that sword.
Jeanna: That also speaks to the issue of androgyny within fashion that has recently been getting a lot of coverage, from you at TLA and from the people at Qwear, for example -- about how androgyny is readily accepted as "menswear for women" but it's far less accepted as when we think about cismen and genderqueer people adopting traditionally feminine items.
Rose: Yes! Why is femme so taboo for men (or more masculine-presenting people)? I think it's because femininity itself is such a high bar.
Jeanna: I think that's true. The answer I tend to go to, when I'm teaching, is misogyny. And I think femininity is a high bar because of misogyny.
Rose: Women are held to such a high standard of performance that all it takes for a woman to be "androgynous" is for her to put on a white button-down shirt.
Jeanna: Exactly! I think of the kind of celebratory culture around actresses who "dare" to put on a suit.
Rose: Call me when George Clooney puts on a dress in a fashion editorial in a non-ironic way.
Jeanna: So, to switch topics... sort of. I have a question about homoerotic ads that clearly don't address a queer audience.
Rose: Let's talk about those lady-on-lady ads! Have you ever seen an equivalent gent-on-gent ad?
Jeanna: No, I haven't. At least not in underwear, though I feel like I should maybe take another look through Calvin Klein's oeuvre. So there's this constant barrage of homoerotic, girl-on-girl lingerie ads that clearly aren't for a queer audience. As queer consumers of lingerie, how do we handle that? e.g. through talking back to brands?
Rose: Well, I've said it before; I'd love to see some more genuinely queer ads, even if they were tongue in cheek. So: in most of these homoerotic lingerie ads, there are two women touching and some viewer-staring, yes?
Jeanna: Yes. Also I might have a pinterest board dedicated to homoerotic ads.
Rose: There's more diversity in here than I expected, though, in terms of what the two woman pairing is meant to convey. The "twinsies" ads are sort of disturbing to me, for example.
Jeanna: One thing I wanted to ask about was brands that use homoeroticism. RodeoH uses it to great effect. Explicitly queer brand. But other brands--Play Out, TomboyX--that we might think of as explicitly (or perhaps openly) LGBT-friendly definitely don't.
Rose: They avoid eroticism altogether and focus again on that idea of "identity,” as though identity is something separate from, rather than deeply intertwined with, how you would like to be seen by the people whose pants you want to be in.
Jeanna: That tension between negotiating identity/sexuality is also what we've been talking about with V-Day, and the struggle with how to advertise lingerie around such a relationship-oriented holiday. Is that something that underwear companies just haven't figured out? As you say, identity and sexuality are inextricably intertwined. Yet they are fundamentally separated in advertising.
Rose: I think that homoerotic ads get interesting when they manage to present a more complex sexual or romantic identity than what you often get in a hetero (or one-lady) ad.
Claudette ad, Spring/Summer 2013 loveclaudette.com
Rose: The RodeoH ad and the Claudette ad in this pinterest collection interest me because they're displaying dynamics that are interpersonal and private, rather than two women on display for the viewer (male or female). They aren't engaging with the viewer at all. Instead of inviting you to join them, they're...perhaps inviting you to be them. If I think about lingerie ads in the context of that, then most lingerie ads are geared toward a male viewer, which forces heterosexual women to...imagine themselves as men looking at themselves, rather than imagining themselves as consumers.
Jeanna: Right. So many lingerie ads -- screw that, fashion ads generally -- are unnaturally positioned and difficult to imagine yourself into. As you point out, the RodeoH and Claudette ads feature private, relatable, believable moments. That are, ironically enough I think?, easy for any viewer of any sexuality to imagine themselves into. Unless makeup isn't your thing.
Rose: And the "story" in those ads is "at least one of these women is a sexual subject. Probably both."
Jeanna: Subject, not object. Fundamental point.
Rose: I'd love to even see ads where the woman looks outward at the viewer in a way that's challenging or imposing.
Jeanna: That makes me think of -- not ads, but the images in FYI by Dani Read's shop.
Rose: ... oh my god there is implied cunnilingus in this picture. These are kind of shocking. In the best way.
Jeanna: This kind of intelligent, clearly challenging imagery is so rare and I just personally latch onto it and come visit the website whenever I see too much ... other stuff. It’s a breath of fresh air and reminds me that there are some people out there who are challenging the status quo.
Rose: I'd love to see more of these ads because they speak to me in a way that other ads don't. Honestly, part of my process of shopping now is avoiding eye contact with the images the store presents.
Jeanna: Can you say more about that?
Rose: Well, a lot of the ads I see in stores--for example, Victoria's Secret, are a vision of femme that doesn't interest me for myself and that wouldn't interest me in a partner, but they're always staring right at you! I feel like I'm turning down someone in a club. "Scuse me, no thanks, gotta go find my friends."
Jeanna: I've had more of my guy friends say they are so excited about Bluestockings because they want to be able to shop somewhere for their wives and girlfriends and “not feel like a perv” (direct quote).
Rose: Of course! But because it's so pervasive, those of us who are uncomfortable have developed mechanisms for avoiding or ignoring it while we shop. Maybe we need to get more vocally uncomfortable with it, if we want to make space for something different.
Jeanna: So, is it about dismantling those mechanisms so that we directly address the issue? Is it about having conversations with brands/designers? What would non-exploitative queer representation look like, in stores, in ads from designers, etc.?
Rose: Well, one of my professors would always caution me to treat things like "exploitation" on a sliding scale rather than as a binary. But I think that optimally, homoeroticism has to be about the participants, not about the viewer. Or any eroticism, I suspect. If an ad is about "wowing him", for example, why not have him there, being wowed? Why does he get to be anonymous while the woman is vulnerable?
Jeanna: Essentially, you're talking about displacing the direction of the ad -- which is really revolutionary. And so very, very queer.
Rose: Haha, well, thank you!
Jeanna: I mean, all advertising is about addressing the audience. To make it about the ad itself, rather than the viewer, would be a huge shift.
Rose: Well, I think advertising is this very powerful expressive form. And when people take risks with ads, the response is often huge--positive and negative, everyone has an opinion. I think also that advertising forgets the cardinal rule of storytelling: the more specific you are, the more relatable you are.
Rose: You don't have to always offer us a blank slate. Humans are good at empathizing our way into situations.
Jeanna: Which is why I so wish that companies would use more queer imagery in their advertising. I mean, I'm not surprised that lingerie brands are skittish about using queer couples. I'm not surprised that explicitly queer brands are especially skittish about it. But, as you note, people are good at empathizing! Showing a playful couple is effective! It's just frustrating that we are on the verge of a Supreme Court decision about gay marriage, that so much of the fashion industry is on board with mainstream advertising to the LGBTQ community, and that lingerie is so behind. SO behind.
Rose: I think maybe because gay marriage is in some ways about respectability. And lingerie, by its very nature, is disreputable. Especially if you're selling gender-nonconforming underwear, I imagine there's a feeling of shame at the idea of showing it in an intimate context. Because “it's not about that.”
Jeanna: And because literally everyone buys underwear (even if not everyone buys bras), I imagine there's a desire to not politicize your company. Which I (obviously) find ridiculous since I don't see love as a political issue. It's very interesting how conservative the industry is, in comparison with other segments of fashion, but as you note, what we're selling is immediately suspect.
Rose: I mean, as a person who doesn't know when to quit, I feel we should lean into that.
Jeanna: Same here!
Rose: "Alright, we're disreputable? Have some really disreputable images. you'll be shocked, you'll be embarrassed, and you'll want everything we have in stock. Immediately."
Jeanna: I'm down.
Rose: I feel like FYI does that well. I'd love to see some other companies offering that.
Jeanna: So, it sounds like the issue here is that queer representation means actually showing visible queers and gender non-conforming people who will register with a straight audience -- not just a girl-on-girl ad, like Claudette's, that will make the queers perk up and go "Ooh?" but will probably go over everyone else's head.
Rose: I think that's definitely worth doing. But I also don't want ads that are preachy about queer acceptance; I want ads that just put it out there as a Thing. I think straight women are seeing something in queer subjectivity that's really powerful for them, at least some of the time, and I think that queer lingerie ads will resonate well with a LOT of women.
Jeanna: A Thing that happens in the lives of real people. To go back to FYI: lots of those images are super kinky, which doesn't necessarily resonate with everyone, but they’re incredible and striking.
Rose: And the thing is: if you're a niche brand, lean into your niche! You're not going to grab mainstream appeal.
Jeanna: Exactly! Embrace it. No one can be all things to all people.
Rose: And you might end up moving the center of what's normal if you do it impressively enough.
Jeanna: I take that as a personal goal. I've actually been called out by a few people for having the slogan "underthings for everyone," and it gives me pause for thought.
Rose: What's the critique?
Jeanna: That, like I said, no one can be all things to all people. That Bluestockings is explicitly feminist, explicitly queer, and saying "for everyone" might be misleading. Which is fair, I think. Especially in the beginning when I definitely won't have "underthings for everyone" -- even all queers. The spirit of the phrase resonated with me, which is why I latched onto it when I was brainstorming and just ran full speed ahead with it. But I do take what people have said (admittedly, only a few people) to heart. And I get that it could bite me in the ass.
Rose: "What about underthings for men over 60 who have prostate problems and need special padding on their spinal bases? Huh, Jeanna? Huh?"
Jeanna: If I ever get an email like that, you will be the first to know.
Rose: Well, I hope not!
Jeanna: Honestly, I do, too!