Nearly 80 years after the demise of the genre, the lesbian pulp fiction phenomenon that gripped the mid-20th century seems now both ridiculous and sad. The overbearing melodrama of the novels, rife with love, heartbreak and reconciliations, appear almost comical in retrospect. However, the thought of these women-centric novels being written for a largely male authorship with a view to denigrate its very subject-lesbians- invites a careful scrutiny of the same.
Emerging in the 1950’s the ‘lesbian pulp fiction’, refers to a very specific type of novels centered around lesbian relationships. These books were very cheaply produced and sold, and were generally marketed from newsstands, drugstores and other roadside counters.
THE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE STEREOTYPES OF THE PULP NOVEL
Some of the novels were pro-lesbian, and promoted positive ideas about the women-loving-women(WLW) culture. Most, however, catered largely to the myths surrounding lesbian deviancy and used stereotypes to tell their stories. The novels worked prescriptively, offering readers markers to detect a lesbian and hints of why a woman may have been forced to stray from the heteronormative path: “athleticism, bad relationship with parents, no parents, sexually abused, depression, short hair, alcoholism, ugly, victim of incest, and having a unisex name.” (Autostraddle)
Several novels centered around sexually independent, frankly admirable characters. Often, however, the scandalizing cover art of the novels would undermine their feminist value. The covers would contain women in sexual or near-nude poses along with titillating art suggesting that the content stowed within would be sensational or scandalous. These women were mostly always “white, femme-presenting, able-bodied, and cis, with a side of butch- and transphobia.” (Autostraddle)
THE HETEROPATRIARCHAL GAZE IN LESBIAN PULP FICTION
THE WOMAN AS AN EXHIBITIONIST
The covers of the lesbian pulp novels had little to do with the story that the pages contained. Instead, they expounded the existing notions about female homosexuality in the 1950’s – as a disruption against the traditional family unit; as a corrupting influence among women, a gender dysfunction, or a sinful temptation and so on. Yvonne Keller in her work AB/NORMAL LOOKING, condemned the lesbian pulp covers to establish system of “harshly pro-hegemonic voyeurism and surveillance”. In fact, most of these covers promoted ‘ways of looking’ that were essentially demeaning, objectifying and denigrating towards lesbian culture.
Take the cover of the first Beebo Brinker novel, Odd Girl Out (Fig.1), as an example. The first edition showed a woman on her stomach, while another perched on her back, gazing lustfully at her hair. The prostrate woman, appearing vulnerable, lies helpless to the blonde’s gaze, who then becomes a surrogate to the viewer. The voyeuristic covers reiterate the notions of the corrupting powers of lesbian seduction.
For those new to the genre, Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker chronicles were one of the most popular lesbian pulp series. Written in the 1980’s, the books focused on the 18-year old Butch dyke Beebo, and her romantic and sexual forays. Bannon, though appreciative of artist Robert McGinnis’ work, denounced the novel covers to be an elusive “gonad-stirring” representation of her work, which attracted men with the images of half dressed women.
The cover art of the Brinker novels that followed kept reinforcing the reader’s role as a voyeur. Take for example, the second in the series: I am a Woman (Fig.2). A major part of the cover is occupied by the looming figure of a semi-nude woman. Clad in blue, she haplessly tries holding herself together as clothes attempt to come undone. Poised immediately behind her, another woman looks on at the figure in blue. Although the woman in focus has her eyes closed, the spectator matches their eyeline with the secondary figure. The gaze carries to the half-clad woman, positioning her as the center of focus.
THE BUTCH DILEMMA
Other covers operated on divisive representation of femme/Butch identities. The representation followed heteronormative ideologies, imaging the Butch, or the ”manly’ lesbian in a more dominant position- as a looker or a doer- while the femme receives the gaze or the action. The representation reiterated prevalent 20th century notions of the butch as the dominant aggressor, luring innocent, feminine victims into a lesbian trap.
Peggy Swenson’s Queer Beach (Fig.3) offers a good example of this. On the cover, the femme counterpart sprawls on a beach, scantily clad in a bikini, while a butch in man’s clothes trickles sand on her body. A teaser below the main title announces: “It is like a beautiful spider’s web: waiting to lure innocent strangers into the perverted world from which there is no escape!”, clearly indicating the nature of content. The ‘manly’ butch dominates the frame as she poises over her femme, trapping her as a spider would trap a fly.
THE MAN AS A SURVEYOR
Lesbian pulp fiction often featured men on the covers. These men were in charge of the gaze, and reiterated the ideas of surveillance and voyeurism. The man in the background was usually imaged as a ‘looker’, gazing at the two women. The covers suggested that although lesbians could remove a man from the traditional heterosexual unit, they could be controlled and used as a source or visual pleasure for men.
These covers generally sought to highlight the shame and stigma that surrounded homosexuality in the 1960’s. Take for example, the cover of The Fear and The Guilt (Fig.4). The foreground is occupied by the dominant figure of the lesbian couple, while the diminutive figure of a man in the background looks behind his shoulder to gaze at them. Quite literally, the novel broods on the fear and the guilt associated with female homosexuality.
The lesbian pulp art, although superior in quality by its own standing, tended to use hegemonic representation to appeal to an audience of men. Although pro-lesbian stories did exist, it was the more popular ‘virile stories’ about taboo lesbian tendencies tended to rule the newsstands, and remains in memory as standalone representations as what could otherwise be called a milestone era in queer literature.