PRINT October 1994


Poster Girls

BILLED AS THE FILM you want to see but never will, Straight to Hell looks like a composite of afternoon talk shows and action, made-for-TV, and B movies: quintessential sailors in dress whites, so clean you could eat off them, parade around, a slender collection of almost heroes. But in an expansion of the arena for heroics, vigilantism on a par with Charles Bronson and Sly Stallone replaces the restrained gays-in-the-military debate between mostly-gay-white military poster-boys and sympathetic TV hosts. “She came out. So the army kicked her out. Now she’s out for blood,” the slogan runs. The purging of homosexuals from the armed forces becomes the last perfect plot.

Straight to Hell, the film you want to see (or may not, depending on your tolerance for violence) but never will, is part of a wider campaign created by Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!) to challenge the compulsory heterosexuality of most media campaigns. DAM! debuted as a lesbian arm of Queer Nation, a group whose embrace of the umbrella term “queer” didn’t necessarily equal “action” when it came to the issues of the lesbian community. As an activist group, DAM! was short-lived, but members Sue Schaffner and Carrie Moyer continue to use the acronym, producing and distributing spoofs of Gap, Calvin Klein, and Family Circle ads that focus on lesbian visibility. Straight to Hell, their latest effort, exists only as a slick satirical movie poster and a reminder of the dearth of lesbian images in Hollywood films.

Following in the agitprop tradition of ACT UP, Gran Fury, and Queer Nation (and of other, not specifically gay activist groups like the Guerrilla Girls, WAC, and WHAM), Schaffner and Moyer flood their images over the landscape of wheat-pasted commerce. Their reworked popular advertisements capitalize on recognizable logos but feature “lesbian” faces and loaded slogans in hijacked typefaces. By packaging a lesbian esthetic and personality profile (under 30, working to middle class), the team creates adverts for a reverse marketing strategy, one that casts them as barkers hawking a consumer to the product. DAM! capitalizes on the recognition factor of the spoofed corporate logo, attracting even larger numbers of viewers, many from the straight sector.

It was Gran Fury that began the recent rewriting of public-awareness ads, supplementing certain neighborhoods’ heterogeneous expanses of photo- and print-covered construction facades and windowless walls. Art that looks like advertising that looks like art that looks like activism that looks like advertising has in effect created a crowd of like images, some vying for your patronage and others for your presence at a demonstration. The hyper-co-option of identities via design has led to a melding of messages, and to a slew of commercials that read like actions that read like ads: a poster portraying Ronald Reagan as a PWA, for example, is easily confused with the sickly Day-Glo AIDSgate Reagan poster designed by the Silence=Death Project in 1987, but is actually by United Colors of Benetton. And the inclusionary politic of DAM!’s work also appears in Banana Republic’s American Beauty spreads, cornucopias of age and race featuring “real-life” celebrity-lesbian Ingrid Casares. As bovine ad agencies discover and detail homosexuality, gay spoofs of their ads compete with their token portraits of airbrushed gay men and lesbians.

In this context, DAM!’s hit-and-run spoof Gap posters are not as conspicuous a coup de main as one might wish: they look a bit too much like the Gap’s own ads, user-friendly and generically white—“Samantha, pink panther, wears an antiviolence whistle.” In the end, these unshocking images look like the Gap’s gay ghetto, and act as a further enticement to their own target audience to patronize a store that has yet to feature lesbians (or the sort of lesbianism that DAM! would like to see) in its ad campaigns. Like Art Club 2000, who somewhat abashedly admit to wearing clothes from the store they spoof, DAM!’s political edge is softened when it is dressed in the ideology of a pretty mundane clothing store.

Ironically, the DAM! version of the Gap is even more homogeneous than the ads it spoofs. Like the Lesbian Avengers, DAM! promotes a gay face that is young and butch. It pumps the term “dyke” with a clichéd dose of bravado: the butch dyke is the foot soldier, the muscle, the heterosexual’s homosexual model. She is a ridiculous stereotype—but one that makes for an easily identifiable lesbian face. This parody dyke, neither too hot nor too cold, is crucial to DAM! because her otherness makes her recognizable but never extreme.

For all that DAM! stresses the term “dyke” (meaning butch), though, the group falls short of delivering the sort of exotic macho woman found recently in Catherine Opie’s photographs. DAM!’s “butch” is boyish, sweet, and sullen by turns. Nowhere is there a large-size biker, a transgendered person, or a leather king. Like former Gap model and politically conservative New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, DAM! seems to be passing the message that the gay community best represents itself at the bargaining table in a more-than-slightly-pared-down semblance. Plastered all over town, these Gap im-posters announce their desire to be catered to by merchandisers—to be included in the “gay dollars” pocket that has lately been courted so publicly.

The team’s latest project, the Straight to Hell campaign, is their most successful, because it adheres to their main goal of lesbian visibility, and underscores the existence of a ticket-buying lesbian audience, while also offering up an array of agendas within its slick comic-butch construct. The Straight to Hell poster is fueled by the idea that the least empowered pose the greatest threat. Its multiracial posse “out for blood” subtly retailors a score of B movies (notably Sweet Justice, starring Finn Carter) in which women, some quite butch, both turn on and shoot up a lot of men. The putative star of Straight to Hell is the epitome of the oppressed and underrepresented—the black lesbian. In a real B movie, her character would be the first to take a bullet.

To the white-male majority, DAM!’s Buff-Muff is a triple threat: the angry black, the angry woman, and the angry lesbian. Auguring the jihad to end all jihads, she suggests a coalition between black and gay, a resolution of the territorial rifts between two minorities. In army fatigues, she is as much Black Panther as Lesbian Avenger. She is the star of the film because her anger is righteous—because she is statistically more at risk of being discharged from the military than gay white soldiers and officers, and because she has the best outfit.

DAM!’s activism is more about presence than incitement. There is no sense of dire emergency, no meeting points or targeted officials. Their efforts are effectual reminders that k. d. lang is not the only lesbian in the world.

Collier Schorr