There is a man looking over my shoulder while I write.
I am alone in the room, but he’s right there, pressed in close, his exhale too hot and damp on my ear, my neck.
“Hot,” he says. “I like it.”
I delete the whole paragraph and start over.
I am burdened with the constant awareness of how I look from the outside at any given moment—walking down the street, eating, lying in bed. I am never without it; it hums in the back of my mind, and this internal voyeur is always judging my performance. Are my lips painted on perfectly? Do I hold my wineglass just so? Have I angled my posture to show my silhouette to the best advantage?
Implicit in this judgment is that I pass muster when I am attractive. And we all know what “attractive” really means by now, don’t we? We try to define it for ourselves but it takes years and years to unlearn the male gaze that’s been trained into us. It’s not our fault; it’s so prevalent, and it seeps into us before we have the tools to identify or fight it. I was nine years old the first time someone told me I was sexy. “You have great legs,” she explained. “That’s how you’re gonna get a guy.”
She was nine, too.
So I suppose it’s perfectly natural that there’s this imaginary man inside me, an inescapable voyeur examining me from every angle, and that he’s also privy to my writing. It’s an exhausting thing to deal with every day. I am constantly worried that any femslash I write is tainted by male-authored depictions of lesbianism. Most of the lesbian porn I’ve ever seen was produced by straight men for other straight men. Most of the fandom content I’ve consumed, while written by women, was usually about men. It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve been able to find stories that resonate with me, that don’t leave me feeling like the author is exploiting female relationships for a cheap thrill.
And even the “good” stuff has its flaws, of course. Last month I went to see The Handmaiden with a friend. It’s probably the most respectful and sensitive depiction of a lesbian relationship I’ve ever seen onscreen, but as soon as we were out of the theater we both burst out laughing.
“Does anyone scissor? Seriously?”
“I bet straight people wrote that part.”
Lived experience has helped narrow the gap; the push for #ownvoices stories in the last few years has helped too. But some days I don’t feel like it’s enough, like nothing can erase everything I grew up consuming. So I reread every scene I write obsessively, wondering whether I’m really depicting a relationship between women, or just a male fantasy of a relationship between women. I cut whole scenes, I fade to black or fast-forward, I second-guess myself. Am I writing what I want to read, or am I writing something to titillate some faceless monolithic Man? Am I capable of telling the difference, when the media I grew up consuming filtered through a male gaze?
A worse, darker thought: we learn how to be from what we read and what we see. What if even the way I behave in my real-life relationships with women has been dictated by all these male portrayals of lesbianism?
I’m learning to make my peace with these questions, but it’s slow going. Even if I don’t emulate the media I’ve consumed, the fact that I’m always pushing back against it shows the scars it’s left behind. But I can let those fetishistic, voyeuristic depictions show me what not to do. I can write to my own experience, and hope that it lets other women see sapphic relationships that aren’t filtered through a male gaze. And I can talk about this pressure in hopes of opening up a dialogue around it. What can we do to create the stories we deserve?
About the Author
Iori Kusano is an Asian American writer and traveling grad student specializing in classical Japanese literature. Her fiction has previously appeared in Apex Magazine. Find her on Twitter @IoriKusano and Instagram as iori_stagram.