Jill Gutowitz’s Girls Can Kiss Now Is Lesbian Scripture For The Just Jared Era
Jill Gutowitz’s essays celebrate and untangle the late aughts' queer pop culture and how it affected her own life.
If I could make a mood board for Jill Gutowitz’s debut essay collection Girls Can Kiss Now, it would include but not be limited to many of the major lesbian pop culture moments she chronicles: paparazzi photos of Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson making out in Miami; the Disney Channel teen star gossip blogs Just Jared and OceanUp; Ashley Tisdale wearing an inch-wide sequin scarf on a red carpet; Taylor Swift holding hands with Karli Kloss, and a 2009 Terry Richardson’s Rolling Stone photoshoot featuring Blake Lively and Leighton Meester feeding each other lollipops; Joe Jonas, full stop.
But as much as Gutowitz’s book is about untangling lesbian representations in pop culture (i.e. calling Missy a “d*ke” in Bring It On) and celebrating the influence queer women have always had on what’s cool (i.e. being feral in the woods), it’s also an intimate look at how pop culture has affected her life. You might come to Gutowitz’s book to celebrate lesbian pop culture – but what you’ll stay for is her vulnerable coming-of-age story, and for the way she expertly untangles how late 2000s pop culture representations of queerness affected her own coming out journey.
“I hope that lesbians for decades will annotate this book and pass it down like it’s scripture,” Gutowitz tells NYLON. “But smooth brain scripture.”
It’s not just about her very funny lists like “The Ten Most Important Sapphic Paparazzi Photos In Modern History” as much as it is about how Perez Hilton’s outing of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan personally affected Gutowitz and other young queer people.
“We all remember that era of Lindsay as like her being written off as crazy and a drug addict and wild, when really, she was just battling addiction and dating a woman,” Gutowitz says. “Her queerness got swept into this. It just became part of the narrative of how she’s insane. That was obviously really harmful to people our age consuming this being like, if you’re queer, you’re insane.”
And it’s less about the beauty of films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and more about how the trope of yearning in lesbian romances contributed to her own feelings of acceptance around yearning for her best friend she was in love with.
“Lesbians, in general, live in the yearn. We’ve been taught to,” she writes in the book. “In 2014, I was in love with my best friend, and I didn't need to actually act on it or kiss her or be with her to feel alive. The little propaganda aliens controlling my brain transmitted this message: it’s not about the destination. It’s about the spark, the yearn and the roadblocks that exacerbate the yearn.”
Gutowitz has been a Very Online Writer for years, so much so that the FBI once knocked on her door after she tweeted a Game of Thrones meme that mentioned some conservative lawmakers, which she details in the book’s first essay. She’s amassed a massive Twitter following for tweeting about all things gay and for writing about things like how Orange Is The New Black revolutionized queer TV or how much she wants the cast of Big Little Lies to step on her or an impressively close reading of Taylor Swift for places like Vulture, Elle and Time. But the book is the first time Gutowitz has gotten to flex her writing long-form.
“I think that getting to write in a long form was very freeing and let me go to places I hadn’t before, so I think that’s why it does feel like maybe even sometimes these jarring switches between light-hearted lists of lesbian items to my traumas,” she says. “In everything I write I want to include that dichotomy, that things can be really funny and really heartbreaking, because that’s being alive.”
And along with the book’s release, Gutowitz also just started production on her first short film The Ladies, which enters around Emma, a “depressed, one-outfit lesbian” whose hiding an affair with her grandma’s best friend from her grandma and cousin. It will star Lisa Ann Walter, Jaren Lewison, Alexis G. Zall, and Annie Korzen, which will be produced by Katie Schiller of Shiva Baby and Roger Mancusi.
Ahead, NYLON spoke with Gutowitz about late 2000s Perez Hilton-era online culture, how the queerness of celebrities like Lohan and Miley Cyrus has been dismissed as mental health issues, and how straight women are finally liking things lesbians have been doing for years.
Your book was laugh out loud funny, but also sad and intense. I didn’t expect it to be so vulnerable for how funny you are on Twitter. How did you figure out that tone and striking that balance?
I think the tone came naturally with the circumstances of world events. I had sold the book in February of 2020 and was supposed to start writing in March 2020 and everything got really heavy really fast. The original intention for the book was to be more along the lines of stuff I’d been writing online, so a good mix of cultural commentary infused with a little bit of the personal stuff. I think we all were forced to grapple with what we invest in celebrities when celebrities were truly losing their minds in front of all of us.
I was sitting there tasked with writing this book I really wanted to write about pop culture and feeling my own interest wavering. I think that the tone came from the stuff I was naturally going through and thinking about and feeling in the early months of the pandemic. I'm glad that it did affect me in that way because I like this version of the book better. I think that getting to write in a long form was very freeing and let me go to places I hadn’t before, so I think that’s why it does feel like maybe even sometimes these jarring switches between light-hearted lists of lesbian items to my traumas.
That’s life, right?
Exactly, and I think that in everything I write I want to include that dichotomy, that things can be really funny and really heartbreaking, because that’s being alive.
I think that really comes across. It also feels very of this time and very timeless, too.
It’s a snapshot of that moment and also zooming out, it feels like my own coming-of-age story of learning how to be an adult and have self-worth and be in a relationship and fall in love – all the things in a coming-of-age movie.
It’s like, come for the lesbian pop culture, stay for the coming-of-age story.
I actually wish that was what was on the back of the book.
I hadn’t read a book that referenced [the celebrity gossip blogs] Just Jared or OceanUp before. It felt like the first time a piece of contemporary media squarely brought me back to the 2007-2009 era. Do you feel like that’s an era we have excavated? Or is it only now that enough time has passed that we can revisit it?
That’s really interesting because there’s a chunk of years in the mid-to-late aughts that we have turned a blind eye to. We’re like, “it’s cultural trash, we’re not going to talk about this.” Those were the years I was in high school, so it was the most formative. But I feel like on TikTok there’s a nostalgia for the 2011, 2012, even 2015 Taylor Swift kind of vibe, but we have truly skipped over this moment in time. A lot of it was truly rotten, but it was really important to me.
I want to talk about the essay about Perez Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. We as a culture have been having a reckoning around how stars like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan were treated poorly, but there hasn’t been a reckoning specifically around celebrities who were outed during this time.
I had actually written a lot of that essay a long time ago before the #FreeBritney stuff was happening. When all of that started coming up, I was like, “Oh it’s happening, we’re finally having a reckoning over the way we treated Britney and Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan.” And we kind of stopped at realizing that we all were calling Britney a trashy whore or whatever horrible thing that we were doing without really examining these darker – I mean, that was dark, but these dark undertones that had to do with outing queer people.
I think with the Lindsay and Samantha [Ronson] stuff, I had such big heart eye emojis for Lindsay that I almost turned a blind eye to the Samantha Ronson of it all. A lot of that chapter was me researching and remembering all of this for the first time. We were horrible to Lindsay Lohan and the Britney Speares of the world, but the people who were visibly queer like Samantha Ronson or Lance Bass, who was more feminine presenting, they really bore the brunt of this cultural bullying that Perez really spearheaded. It really harmed their careers and their lives. I always talked about how the queer speculation around current celebrities like Taylor Swift and Harry Styles and a core difference between those moments in time are that if they came out it, it certainly would not ruin their career.
“For someone like Lindsay Lohan who was visibly queer and dating a woman in the tabloids, Marissa Cooper, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” all of it had this narrative that it was under the guise of doing something wild and crazy.”
A lot of people would be really excited if that happened.
People would die. People like me! But back then, Lance Bass was outed by Perez Hilton and it really harmed his career. Samantha Ronson dealt with a lot of that tabloid blowback and battled addiction and her own demons. When I was writing the book, I was grappling with a lot of this because I knew that we did bad things to Lindsay Lohan, and I love her and I feel very strong justice for Lindsay. It was almost like I had this revisionist history of what happened.
Lindsay’s queerness has kind of been erased. Like you say, because she’s more femme presenting she wasn’t going to be bullied as much.
And it’s also a different kind of bullying. We all remember that era of Lindsay as her being written off as crazy and a drug addict and wild when really she was just battling addiction and dating a woman. Her queerness got swept into this. It just became part of the narrative of how she’s insane. That was obviously really harmful to people our age consuming this being like, if you’re queer, you’re insane.
That’s also what happened with Miley. The queerness gets swept up in the story of them being wild. Marissa Cooper in The O.C. is famously unhinged and dating a girl and that’s part of her unhinged-ness.
Totally. Speaking to this era of the 2000s that we pass over a lot, I feel like the narrative for queer women was that was we were just starting to have barely some representation. For someone like Lindsay Lohan who was visibly queer and dating a woman in the tabloids, Marissa Cooper, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” all of it had this narrative that it was under the guise of doing something wild and crazy, like ‘f*ck you, mom.’
And with Marissa Cooper, that is part of the subtext. You’re like, is she just hooking up with Olivia Wilde to spite her mom and not because she’s gay?
Or because Olivia Wilde is hot?
Exactly. That’s the most sane thing you could do is hook up with Olivia Wilde. Do you feel like your book is the first lesbians in pop culture guide, specifically for people of our generation?
I think the book is unique because it kind of chronicles a specific moment. I think it’ll really resonate with Millennial queer women and the older Gen Z generation, people who are super online who have participated in fandoms and been on Tumblr. I think in that way it really speaks to a niche market, but when I was writing that first chapter, I tried to be careful about making sure that I am not an authority on this stuff. I am not a scholar. I did not study this in school. I am not citing things in a bibliography here. This is more about my experiences and chronicling the pop culture that was really important to me, which I think ends up being relatable to a lot of women my age. I don’t want to boldly claim that it’s like the definitive book on Millennial queerness, or whatever. But I also don't know a ton of books like it.
When I was preparing to write and consuming as much as I could, there were people who I admire and whose essay collections I pulled from and stuff. I love Samantha Irby. I love Heather Havriskely. I almost feel like Jia Tolentino’s book is a definitive snapshot of a moment in online culture. For my book, my hope is that it’s similar to that, but funny and super gay. And she’s really smart, I wouldn’t say that mine is as smart. Mine is more for the smooth brain crowd.
Gay smooth brain Jia…I think a lot of people want that book.
That’s what I am!
I also think your book is actually just a really good index for just how gay women have inspired what’s cool in pop culture. Do you feel like that’s something that doesn't get enough credit?
Totally. I feel like so much of what is cool right now amongst straight women is stuff lesbians have been doing for truly decades. Now that straight women have been freed from patriarchy a little bit more each year, it’s like, “Oh we can wear overalls and baggy t-shirts because that’s comfortable!” and “I’m gonna learn how to season this cast iron skillet and become feral in the woods!” We’ve been doing this.
I don’t know, it’s both really cool to watch to see stuff that is kind of visibly queer be mainstream adored, but also there is something that’s frustrating about it that makes me feel spiteful. I’m sure older generations are like, “Oh, when we were doing this sh*t in the ‘90s and you called us d*kes or bull d*kes,” and now straight women are prancing through Everlane in the outfits that used to draw slurs. I do think that for queer people so many of us, especially our age, grew up in a time when we were told we have no value, so there is something that does feel good in a human way to be told that you have value.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.