The concept of the "male gaze," a term first coined by Laura Mulvey, dictates that when a man is behind the camera, the lens capturing his point of view, the audience, therefore, sees the world through a masculine, typically heterosexual perspective. The ubiquity of the male gaze is often understood as the reason that women subjects in film are presented as simply sexual objects, only there for the pleasure of the (presumably male) viewer. The male gaze's counterpart is nominally the "female gaze," as utilized by women directors, and known to depict women as more than mere sexual objects, because—as with the male gaze—the female gaze is presumed to be heterosexual. Where, then, does the lesbian gaze fit in?
The album cover for Hayley Kiyoko’s Expectations features her sitting, fully clothed, in a chair, gazing at a naked woman lounging on the floor. The singer, who has quickly risen to the top of queer culture and has been christened “lesbian Jesus” by her fans, has a sexually fueled visual history of lusting after other women, and her album cover builds on that history, showing Kiyoko asserting implicit power over the other woman. It’s reminiscent of the cover from TORRES’ 2017 album, Three Futures, which shows the singer, also fully clothed, staring at the camera in front of a mirror, which shows an almost-naked woman in the foreground. Both women portray themselves as dominant, sexualizing the anonymous women with whom they share the cover; those women are just bodies, objects to behold. But somehow, it doesn’t feel exploitative—instead, it feels subversive and thrilling.
When men objectify women in music, progressive women recoil. And rightfully so: Men have held institutional and domestic power over women for centuries, in almost every culture. But when a woman shows herself sexualizing another woman, every queer girl’s head simultaneously explodes with excitement. On one level, this excitement is inextricably tied up with the joy of having increased queer representation: We all like to see our identities reflected in the culture-at-large. But more than that, a woman sexually objectifying another woman is a re-coding of the objectification we all face daily at the hands of men. There’s something electric, still, about a woman’s body being appreciated by another woman. Women have been subject to objectification by men for centuries; it's a nearly universal experience. When a woman looks at another woman with lust or fantasy, she does so with an inherent understanding of what it is like to be sexualized against her will. Because of this, female objectification of women comes with a vastly reduced possibility of unwanted dominance, harassment, or institutional power imbalance, making it possible for women to appreciate being dominated by someone who actually understands what it means to consent to submission.
In the music video for her song “Skim,” TORRES wears a suit with no shirt underneath, strumming a guitar while she looks directly at the camera. Throughout the video, a woman’s disembodied hands and legs wrap themselves around TORRES, and one scene even reenacts the album's aforementioned cover art, in which she holds a woman wearing only underwear on her lap. The nude women circling a fully clothed TORRES are almost entirely shrouded in anonymity, with only rare glimpses shown of their faces: Their bodies are the main event, while the singer's clothing remains firmly in place. She stares at the camera, almost daring watchers to look. The power (big dyke energy?) that TORRES has in this video, and in her album art, is drastically different than if a man were to be in the same position. Power held by a woman is still revolutionary, even when it is power over another woman. And though she is seen as the dominant person in the scene, there is a tenderness in her interactions with the other woman on screen. She's not powerful in an exploitative way, but rather in a way that acknowledges the position of her lover.
Queer women do not always position themselves in dominating roles: Some lesbian gaze videos show the singers opening themselves up to their own objectification by other women. In shots from Kiyoko’s video for “Curious,” she lies with three other girls while they touch her (touch her touch her touch her touch her touch her). And the plot of the song and video for “Sleepover” is about Kiyoko wanting to be wanted by a girl who is unable to share those feelings. So, too, does Zolita put herself in the same sexualized positions as the women she puts in her music videos. In her video for “Come Home With Me,” a gorgeous Renaissance-inspired visual, the singer is just as sexualized and vulnerable as the object of her advances. She lies naked in bed, holding the girl that she’s asking to come home with her (guess it worked!), and also recreates the painting "Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses sœurs" wearing nothing but flowers over her nipples. Kiyoko and Zolita place themselves on an equal playing field with their subjects, showing that they don't want to be purely aggressive, but rather, they want to be desired too. They're looking for reciprocation, which men’s objectification sometimes lacks. Catcallers are not looking for reciprocity, they’re looking for power.
When men objectify women, they are diminishing women to the worth of their physical appearance. There's nothing wrong with appreciating women's physicality, but when it's all that's valued, it's hopelessly reductive. When women desire other women, there's the implicit understanding that we are not simply valuing each other for our bodies, but instead appreciating the woman as a whole person. With representations of women objectifying and sexualizing other women, queer girls are reclaiming the right to look at a woman's body and redefining lust to include appreciation. When Janelle Monáe writes a song about vaginas, then, it feels celebratory, not exploitative, not least because it comes from a place of shared experience.
There’s something to be said, though, about the authenticity of the objectification. Simply because a woman is depicting another woman, that doesn't make it automatically revolutionary. There's a reason so many queer girls completely reject songs like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” or Rita Ora’s “Girls,” and it's because both Perry and Ora publicly identified as straight at the time of their songs' releases, and because the music made it seem like same-sex attraction was something done on a whim—or even for male pleasure.
There’s still something new and exciting about women being seen as sexually powerful completely outside the context of men. The power narrative that you see in heterosexual pairings cannot be divorced from the history of institutional power, and unwanted domination that women have faced at the hands of men. It cannot be separated from the daily objectification that women face when they walk down the street. It’s not wrong to want to be want to be seen by men, but it is amazing how good it feels to have a woman's eyes on you, and know that you are really being captured.