Donna M. Roberts
Like many queer folk, my gaydar goes into overdrive with the world of advertising. Of late I have been struggling to contain a flammable reaction to a very curious image at large in Helsinki. What could be more benign than a poster for an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility at the Helsinki City Theatre? And yet this poster causes me to experience a very uncomfortable semiotic short-circuit every time I see it.
On first encountering the poster, I stopped dead, my jaw dropped as I felt a surge of resentment and repulsion rising, knowing all too well that most people around me with a less finely tuned gaydar were oblivious to this grotesque apparition. As Miss Austen herself said, “angry people are not always wise”, and yet here’s my beef with the image of the “lovely Dashwood girls”, and I’m laying claim to being both angry and wise.
It’s rare to see in public such an undeniably erotic representation of two young women swooning together – especially without a man present. This poster, however, is unavoidable to anyone walking through Kamppi: it spans the entire breadth of the wall of Lasipalatsi. Clearly, this eye-catching image is intended to grab our attention through a very particular – and disingenuously perverse – erotic appeal.
The cultural and sexual unconscious of advertising is a constantly fascinating mirror to our times. The problem here, though, with the rosily orgasmic image of these two young women is that, as anyone familiar with Austen’s story is well aware, they are sisters. Sisters! I’m not projecting dirty lesbiania onto these dainty women – it is a manifestly sexual image.
So, what exactly is at play here? Personally, I find it disturbing that this giddily erotic image actually represents two young women who some of us happen to know are sisters. Who is this image aiming to lure in? Presumably not lesbian Jane Austen fans! The title of the play is conspicuously overshadowed by the gooey-looking women and the ambiguous strap line “the lovely Dashwood girls”, which, to those uninitiated in Austen mania, is less likely to reveal their sisterhood than suggest an erotic liaison.
Using a Saphically suggestive image to pull the punters into a theatre is one thing if the play is remotely going to deliver on its promise. But flagrantly using cup-cake-girl-on-girl imagery for a play about the marital vicissitudes of two sisters is down right stomach churning. Not only would it disappoint those bi-curious or just horny kids hanging around Kamppi, but it is completely offensive to anyone like me who happens to be both a lesbian and a sister, especially those with enough “sensibility” to realise what is suggested by some kinked-up image of the Dashwoods.
But really, sisters? What monstrously perverse abomination of Austen’s cloistered social world might be in store at the City Theatre? Austen-Sade? Austen-Argento? The truly perverse is not without radical value, and yet this is clearly not what is going down at the theatre, where a conservative adaptation of the Dashwood’s nuptial fate is being trotted out.
The shocking thing behind this image is that it reflects a very modern hypocrisy. The City Theatre and Jane Austen provide the hallmarks of “family values,” while the punters are actually lured in by something that, if they were actually aware of it, is utterly perverse. These people would probably be appalled to see an image of real lesbians in the heart of the commercial district; but they are not averse to a bit of unthreatening, coquettish girly quivering, especially if it is underpinned by a story about female subservience to men and the iron rod of social order. All the better that they are very clean and healthy looking, that they are wearing corsets and underskirts and look like very good girls; very good daughters; very good sisters. There is a grotesque conflation here of sex, innocence and female subservience – the goose and the gander of today’s Neo-Victorians.
Originally published in Voima, 03/14