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Via @godimsuchadyke on Instagram

How lesbian culture blossomed in the age of Instagram

Before we had dykey meme accounts and stan communities, our presence across pop culture was largely invisible

Cate Blanchett as Carol staring pensively into the distance. King Princess holding a cocktail while lounging across Amandla Stenberg’s lap. Kristen Stewart giving the paps the finger. Jodie Foster in a tight white vest. Anjelica Huston in a tight white vest. Whoopi Golberg in a tux. Jodie Comer with her arms wrapped lovingly but menacingly around Sandra Oh. Bette sobbing on Tina in a seminal still from The L Word. Gillian Anderson doing literally anything. 

If you follow lesbian Instagram you will know what I am talking about. And when I say lesbian Instagram I mean the endless accounts that have sprung up over the last five years documenting our pop culture, history, and heroes. Or else proliferating memes that play on the endless stereotypes about lesbianism; that we govern our every life decisions on the basis of our astrological charts, that we exhibit restraining order worthy levels of premature emotional attachment, that we spend all day thinking about our exes, and that we only like people who are bad for us, are in love with our best friends, and have zero chill

All of these stereotypes are of course 100 percent true, but only when we claim them for ourselves. If a straight person joked about any of these things, it would not be OK. But they probably wouldn’t, because by and large straight people know very little about lesbians. As the people behind the Instagram @butchcamp point out: “The mainstream stereotype about lesbians is that no one thinks lesbian culture exists at all, let alone a lesbian high culture, low culture, popular culture, camp culture, and corny culture.”

The sad thing is, this stereotype exists for a reason. Yelena Moskovich, a novelist who is based in Paris, has written about her search for a lesbian canon across literature and pop culture – an exercise that required quite a bit of effort. I ask her where she saw lesbian culture as a teen, growing up as a Ukrainian immigrant in the Midwest and she takes a minute to think. “ was a big go-to,” she recalls, “or else the good old scavenger hunt at my local Blockbuster, library, or bookstore for any promising lady-lady leaning or eye-contact on a book or VHS cover.” What she was looking for wasn’t always obvious: “There was a lot of playing detective with lez or dyke signifiers, physical and lyrical attitudes in literature, TV, film,” she explains, because historically, in face of prejudice, our representation had to be coded, covert.

As for more obvious visibility, the main calling cards for our culture until recently were confined to The L Word, 2013’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and 2015’s Carol – fairly white and femme representations of lesbianism, and on top of that, for the most part, they don't even star lesbians. Wendy, from Southern California, who runs the genius lesbian meme account @gay_girl_inc, started the account in January 2019 precisely because of this problem – remembering that the extent of lesbian representation she saw as a teen was limited to Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell. “Being Latinx made seeing someone I could relate to or identify with from the queer community even less probable because I grew up in a time where social media wasn’t as prominent as it is now,” she says. The founders of @butchcamp, @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, and @godimsuchadyke express similar sentiments: starting these accounts was about making the invisible visible. 

When @godimsuchadyke started posting in March 2017, she would post images from homoerotic films like Cracks with Eva Green or The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve, alongside photographs of Susan Sontag or Gladys Bentley, or that weird period where Sandra Bernhard and Madonna were best friends. Having come out at 25 in the fairly conservative state of Georgia, where she didn’t know any lesbians, the account’s creator was using Instagram as a way to explore lesbian history for the first time. But as she posted more and more, placing side by side lesbian moments and figures from history (or at least moments and figures that could be read as lesbian), she noticed that a lesbian canon was consolidating itself. In making decisions about what to post, the curators behind these accounts were not just discovering a lesbian aesthetic, sensibility, or culture, but shaping it themselves.

The person to best articulate what this looked like is Mikaella Clements, in an article for The Outline written in 2018. While it might not immediately seem like Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart, and Whoopi Goldberg have a lot in common, the images of them across lesbian Instagram share a kind of confidence, one that seems to stem from a refusal of the male gaze. Clements called it, or at least a certain strain of it, “dyke camp” and described it as not just the inverse of traditional, Sontagian camp – so like, a woman in a suit (although, it can be that) – but rather, a naturalised style mixed with exaggerations of lesbian desire. 

“Dyke camp is not camp as we know it, the aesthetic sensibility derived from the gay community that glorifies kitsch and irony; the camp of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, and RuPaul,” she wrote. “Rather, it’s a movement directed, for the first time, not by the tastes of gay men but gay women: a specific brand of humour, manners, and sensibilities guided by lesbian identity.” 

Reflecting on the essay, Isa Toledo and Rosie Eveleigh, the founders of @butchcamp, feel it fairly accurately describes the brand of lesbian camp that they post about – appearing physically in gestures and movements, where self-assurance is a vital quality. They didn’t invent “butch camp” or “dyke camp”, but you do have to know it to see it: “We’re sharing, sharing, pointing, pointing, and then adding contextual information,” they tell me. “The act of sharing contributes to the culture, the shared understanding. We always talk about how camp is, on the one hand, a discoverable quality, an adjective. Still, the camp moment is only complete in the moment of recognition of that quality, in the feeling of having discovered it and shared it.”

Essentially, “the more you look for it, the more it shows up,” they say, adding that this is where Instagram comes in. As a medium, “it is well suited for that cycle of seeing, recognising, and sharing” because it allows you to search for content and recycle (or repost) it, to place certain images next to one another to tell a story, and also to disseminate images easily, to a large number of people who might not be able to access this information otherwise.

Crucially, for lesbians, who have historically been forced to live out our desires in private, it is also a way to take the power of representation back into the literal palms of our own hands. It means that we don’t have to encounter cultural gatekeepers, like the movie producers who tell gay or bisexual women to diminish their queerness if they want an acting career. In a world that is still patriarchal and homophobic, it is a cost-free and DIY mode of production within the mainstream. Moskovich sums this up well: “Since Instagram is this anyone-everyone platform, it feels nice to have the dissemination of cultural content done through these individual and personal contributions – which makes lez culture as a whole feel more personal, a shared proximity – rather than waiting for the Gods of the press or media to ‘inform’ or ‘define’ us. It’s like working from within, inside out.” 

If these accounts, which popped up in the early days of lez Insta, were there to make the assertion that “we’re here, we exist, and have done forever” over the last year or two, once that basic statement had been made, we started having more fun with it all. In early 2019, @godimsuchadyke transitioned from an archival account towards more of a meme account, joining the likes of @gaygirlinc and @hotmessbian. Part of this shift was about the algorithm – fun, shareable posts seemed to perform better and grow the audience quicker, says @godimsuchadyke – but it was also that she had laid a lot of the groundwork when it came to educating herself and others about lesbian history. The next step felt like changing the face of lesbianism from something outdated and austere to something more contemporary and humorous.

“I think that when other people don’t accept your basic right to be alive, to love who you want to love, or to walk down the street just being who you are, you have to take yourself very seriously because no one else does,” explains @godimsuchadyke, of where this idea came from.

Moskovich feels similarly, suggesting that lesbians often get “the worst rep of the rainbow”, in terms of style and sense of humour: “We are still seen as these bland, overly serious, ‘unsexual’ and dopey women. It’s kind of infuriating. So it’s nice to see a lesbian identity emerging that is on point with our own humour, aesthetics, and eroticism.”

“I was tired of looking at heteronormative memes about relationships and dating, which is why I wanted to make my own memes that I could tag my queer friends in” – @gaygirlinc

Scroll through @gaygirlinc for five minutes, and as well as laughing, you’ll see what @godimsuchadyke and Moskovich are talking about: lesbian memes, while funny, often have a political undercurrent. Jokes range from the comfort of boxer briefs to subverting familial homophobia. Wendy sees a meme like a Trojan horse, a light and distracting way to package up visibility around lesbian relationships for straight and queer audiences alike: “I was tired of looking at heteronormative memes about relationships and dating, which is why I wanted to make my own memes that I could tag my queer friends in,” she explains. “I hope my memes have helped to normalise experiences we all thought we were alone in having – what it’s like to hesitate before holding your partner’s hand in public or how the queer dating world is so small we’ve all dated the same people.”

Making these memes is not without its challenges though. Wendy says that finding images can be difficult – applying words like “dyke”, “queer” or “lesbian” to an image, there’s a possibility this can mislabel the person in the image, or using the wrong term can potentially erase someone’s identity. She’s even had requests from people in stock photos asking her to remove their image because of the context of the meme. “As a POC, it’s not lost on me that many photos I reappropriate for gay memes are of straight white celebrities,” Wendy says, “but my hope is that people can separate the message from the photo because that’s really the premise of memes – the memes aren’t about the individuals in them, they’re about the relationships between different objects in a photo or about the reactionary facial expressions.” 

While some people might claim that jokes playing on lesbian stereotypes actually perpetuate them, Wendy rejects this idea: “I don’t have a responsibility to dispel myths or stereotypes about lesbians to straight people,” she responds, when I put this to her. “I make content for my community and my community is allowed to have jokes that are for us and that are based on our social realities. We are allowed to be imperfect and flawed just like everyone else.” 

A more positive function of capturing our shared experiences in memes is that it fosters a community – one that @godimsuchadyke has seen growing in her comments section. Just as the account made her feel less alone when she was coming out, from feedback, it seems to have done the same for others. “While lesbian bars have kind of died away, what we’ve done is we’ve moved to these sort of cultural watering holes online,” @godimsuchadyke argues. It’s worrying that these IRL spaces are disappearing, she acknowledges, but adds: “I think that lesbian Instagram accounts are incredible because you could be anywhere in the world, look down to your phone, and engage with this community.” 

For Alice, 25, from London, who has recently come out and hasn’t found a “real-life community” yet, lesbian Instagram has provided one: “Queer spaces can sometimes feel intimidating and scary to break into, especially if you are facing it alone. They are also often very much placed within a nightlife or partying context, which I have found makes it harder to make connections,” she says. “Online, those things don’t matter as much; there are no barriers to entry, geographical, financial, or your own social anxiety. You can find a sense of belonging, and with the shared memes and in-jokes, it’s like being part of a club.”

As for the future of lesbian representation online, @godimsuchadyke looks to TikTok. While Instagram is geared towards archive imagery and memes, TikTok is full of earnest speeches about coming out, POV or lipsync videos playing on what it’s like to interact at school or with your family as an LGBTQ+ person, and skits that – as with memes on @godimsuchadyke and @gaygirlinc – riff off lesbian stereotypes (think baby dykes giving us tours of their flannel shirt collections or doing caricatures of a stud). If Instagram is a place to discover and curate lesbian representation, on TikTok you become that representation yourself.

Meanwhile, offline, there are more and more places to consume lesbian culture in the mainstream, good and bad, from more queer characters on TV to queerbaiting ad campaigns. @godimsuchadyke wonders how this will affect the next generation of lesbians’ approach to self-representation, because “when your culture becomes mainstream, you’re kind of allowed to bypass that archival moment, where you’re waving, like, ‘Look! This is what we have!’” For now, it could just mean that increasing numbers of people will migrate to lesbian Instagram, wanting to discover more about lesbian culture – whether or not they find themselves laughing at the reads on our masochistic dating habits that ultimately result in hours of unnecessary crying remains to be seen. 

What was once “subversive, dangerous, risky” about lesbian culture is being represented in a different time, a different – and much, more mainstream – context, @butchcamp concludes. This visibility is undoubtedly a positive thing, but ”it’s important for us to remember that there are people very much alive behind many images circulating online: communities, loves, pain, experience.”