On Jennifer Lawrence and what a “slutty power lesbian” looks like

Jennifer Lawrence raised eyebrows last week in an interview with Glamour in which she described her personal style as “slutty power lesbian.” While her remark has inspired both praise and criticism online, some feeling that it was in poor taste, what Lawrence said raises a question that invokes the aesthetics of lesbian culture past and present: what exactly is the “slutty power lesbian” look, or any lesbian look for that matter?

73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards - ArrivalsPhoto by Steve Granitz/WireImage

The hard-jawed lesbian who has a buzzcut and exclusively wears flannel and comfortable shoes is no longer the only kind of lesbian in the public imagination. Thanks to the increasing number of high-profile women coming out, we can now easily spot a wider range of lesbian and bi styles that includes the soft femininity of Portia de Rossi in her princess wedding gown, the classy awards night looks of Sarah Paulson, and the T-shirt and skinny jeans sensibility of Tegan and Sara. The classic butch look can still be found out there, with Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria as a frequent representative. The 21st century has, thankfully, opened the general public’s eyes to the dynamism and versatility of queer women’s fashion choices—but it has also complicated them.

I was single and newly 21 the first time I was going to a gay club. As I was getting ready that night, I wasn’t thinking about hookups or drinking or whether or not I’d be able to learn how to dance after only five minutes on the floor à la those extras in Footloose. What mattered most was what I was going to wear. I was a college student in a rural, economically depressed area where nobody was expecting McQueen, but it mattered. I wanted to look like myself, a lipstick-wearing femme, but I also wanted to Look Like A Lesbian.

In the days when same-sex relationships had to be concealed even in sexually diverse metropolitan areas, visual clues were what our queer predecessors had to go by. Often these clues invoked heteronormative gender binaries and roles. For women, this could mean a conspicuous lack of makeup, cropped hair, men’s shirts and jackets, and/or trousers or jeans in a casual setting. Take a look at pictures from some of the old lesbian hotspots and you’ll see scores of queer women living it up in full tuxes.

But today this is hardly unique to queer women. Popular fashion is increasingly rejecting gender binaries. Trans model Andreja Pejić has modeled in conventionally masculine and feminine clothing throughout her career, as has lesbian fashion icon, Jenny Shimizu. Lady Gaga mixed her feminine high fashion look with drag in 2011 with her male alter ego, Jo Calderone, and again last month when she paid tribute to Frank Sinatra by dressing and performing as him at Sinatra 100. Last week, Jaden Smith appeared in a Louis Vuitton ad wearing a skirt.

Of course, the rejection of strict aesthetic binaries doesn’t just happen on the catwalk or in front of the camera. The plaid flannel shirt, once a stereotypical mainstay of the lesbian wardrobe, has found a comfortable and unquestioning home in the closets of non-queer women. The so-called lesbian haircut, which has ranged from the aforementioned buzzcut to the pixie cut to the mullet-esque coifs of the Quin twins, has also passed into the non-queer populace. Sure, jokes are still made, but nobody could seriously pinpoint Anne Hathaway as gay because she rocked that short cut after Les Miserables. Similarly, while Jennifer Lawrence’s pixie cut made plenty of headlines in 2013, few could have argued it was a subtle way of announcing she was actually queer.

Are we then in danger of losing the lesbian “look”? We can’t, after all, claim a copyright on a particular style, nor should we when women-loving-women now vary so greatly in their self-expression. But there is still a sense of loss. Gone are the days when you could tell just by looking at her. Even rainbow belts and suspenders, I’ve learned from awkward experience, do not signify queerness. True, many of us do want and even need to feel a fluid connection to our heterosexual peers. But when we consider the loss of lesbian spaces that is also happening, we might wonder if the concept of a queer women’s community is declining.

But let’s go back to JLaw. Though she is not (as far as we know) a queer woman, her remark places her in the context of queer aesthetics. It is understandable that her comment has been divisive, yet I feel that the traditional significance of personal style in queer culture adds an interesting layer to it. Semantically, “slutty power lesbian” combines two stereotypical female images: the “power slut,” a femme fatale-style woman who uses her sexuality to work her way up the industrial ladder (though in recent years the term seems to simply describe a woman with a voracious sex drive), and the “power lesbian” (aka the “power dyke”), a suit-wearing lesbian who commands authority. The first is usually imagined as highly feminine; the second is typically seen as more masculine, even if the suit-wearing woman is also wearing feminine makeup and jewelry. Both terms have been popularly used as insults. However, it is clear from Lawrence’s interview that she is not invoking this usage. Instead, she applies this strange near-portmanteau to herself in a way that affirms agency as a woman.

Hear me out on this. Lawrence has shown time and again that she is acutely aware of the control that is often wielded over women in highly visible positions (in fact, she discusses this somewhat in the same interview). She also has a complicated relationship with fashion. In a way, she is a paradox: she has modelled throughout her career yet still seemed quite genuine when she misunderstood a journalist’s question about the “pieces” she wore at the 2013 Academy Awards. When she took her infamous tumble on the stairs that night, she lay in her Dior gown in an accidental but seemingly perfect image of “classic” femininity. Conversely, her irreverence for the male gaze in Hollywood beauty and behavior standards and  makes her transgressive. Her alignment of herself with an image of lesbian style, however that style is imagined, may hearken back to initially transgressive nature of lesbian fashion.

Jennifer Lawrence conceives of herself as looking lesbian. Fine. Lesbians and other queer women may or may not see themselves as looking lesbian: to some, the issue simply isn’t important in their self-expression while to others it is key. The history of lesbian style is a rich one that can both uphold binaries and shatter them, as we certainly see nowadays. The Glamour comment invites us to consider the role personal style has played in queer women’s history and to recognize that there is more to our closets than we perhaps realize.

(And for the curious, I chose a green cocktail dress for my first night out.)