You go out dancing with the gay boys. Afterwards, you all decide to get pancakes because only sugar can soften the blow of leaving with the same people you came with. At the diner you settle easily into a purple vinyl booth, place your orders, and take solace in the vast blue light horizons of your phone screens. The table goes silent as it always does when gay men re-enter the visual ecology of their natural habitat, mollified by pixelated rivers of naked flesh, retouched ass cheeks as firm, sweet, and stale as a bag of Haribo gummies, luscious trunks dripping with boughs of cheap leather and tacky lace, marbled cerulean skylines sculpted by modernist mansions, and white lily petal buttons of friends, lovers, mentors, baristas, and “that guy” at the gym, each waiting to be plucked.
A Breakfast at Tiffany’s print is hanging on the wall above the booth across from you. It is shaded in red and black Andy Warhol Pop Art style. The print is so cheap that the outline of Audrey’s hand merges with her cigarette. There must be at least one of these images posted in every nail salon, dental office, Thai restaurant, dorm room, souvenir shop, and Etsy home decor shop on earth.
Audrey Hepburn’s interpretation was an exercise in refinement, a My Fair Ladyed reproduction of a rough around the edges sex worker. Holly Golightly as played by Audrey Hepburn swathed sex work in Tiffany’s silk and ____ molestation behind Art Deco dressing screens. Capote so objected to the film’s powder room polishing that it’s as though Hepburn invented a new character, a reproduction with no original to sanction it. Hepburn, who died of lung cancer, smiles while sucking on an infinite cigarette, and we feel the expansive luxury of basking in the glow of her auraless image.
An image will remain immortal as long as it may be redeemed for sex. You assume this is the biological law that powers the gay boys’ ecology, but you cannot know for sure. For you this Eden in reverse will always be impenetrable, a utopia where every punishment has been revoked except Eve’s banishment. Flicking again through the soft-cornered cells on your home screen, you consider that it is not their paradise you resent so much as the hypocrisy of its conditions—they revel in the pride of their nakedness while you are punished for revealing it.
You do not remember why you learned that Roland Barthes was gay at the same time you learned that he lived with his mother, but perhaps it is obvious when he begins Camera Lucida with an act of matriarchal resurrection. The narrative voice is not so different from that of Carson Kressley or Hilton Als or any of the gay men given sartorial authority over the female text. In this trope the mothers often play the role of the first novel, the earliest source material for their sons’ powers of rhetorical styling.
“What’s your opinion on this?” your friend waves his phone in front of your nose, and RuPaul stares out from the screen. Dressed in a daffodil yellow dress and a lavender wig, she is a proper southern dominatrix, a parody of your mother and grandmother’s Sunday best. You think often about her catchphrase “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else,” and how much she reminds you of the women in your family who would probably resent being given permission to feel good from a caricature they did not copyright wearing a costume they can never remove. You wonder what happens when the only acceptable form of femininity is drag.
“What’s the name of the girl in Spy Kids?” your partner asks you while mining for digital nostalgia one night. You type “Alexa Vega aged 12” into Google and scan through the pictures, playing the game of “self-growth” where you evade responsibility for your current fucked upness by blaming it on the fucked up early 2000s. As you gaze down at the stained-glass windows of your adolescence, paparazzi shots of the Kids Choice Awards and shirt-vest crop tops with nothing underneath, you start to develop that sinking feeling that happens when your therapist asks you a question that you didn’t even know you could get wrong. That feeling that means: “Your entire symbolic system is based on being a sexually mature teenager who wears low rise jeans to accentuate her hip bones and won’t make it past 18.”
When you try to research precedents for your own image, all you learn is what the New York Times, the Guardian, Dazed, and Fox News want to tell you: young women become unhappy when they see pictures of themselves on the internet. They want you to know that women body check themselves when making videos in Soffe shorts. They’ve hired two separate writers on 3-month contracts to research what specific meal delivery service is most frequently advertised in connection with pro-anorexia video content. There will be one Hulu 2-part documentary series that documents the development of DIY apple cider laxatives, and NPR is making a Pulitzer Prize winning special (they know in advance) about a group of exercise bulimics who started a photography camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They want you to consider all of this when you take a selfie, or when you’re in your bathroom brushing your teeth and suddenly realize that you have a face. They want you to experience the plight of your own image and then experience it again when you process it. They think more content is the cure to your lack of content, and they want, above all else, to remind you that historically private images of women have never been publicly available to this extent, and the only thing you have to fear is yourself.
You think you can predict just when the moment will come that they leave Eve for Eden. When the first order of pancakes will be cancelled. When will the first phone ring and be answered with “Two minutes? Thanks!”When the gay will explain, “40 minutes downtown is worth it if this is what he looks like in swim trunks.” This is the sound of the medium enacting its message. This is the dog whistle of obligation that orders the bodies to serve as the stabilizing currency of representation. You can’t help but wonder what the server thinks when at 5am, after a rush of pecked cheeks, one-armed hugs, and rapidly emptied coffee cups, you’re left at the table alone to eat a plate of pancakes and scroll through a blank-faced phone.
There is no photographic tradition for women in love. We are the movie star posters that continue to hang because the expectations may change, but the ideal never does. We are the mothers whose lives exist only in the biographies of our sons. We are the teenaged girls who turn their bodies away from the camera lens, as though we have not yet learned what to expect from it.
We go out dancing with a gay boy. The main floor of the bar is crowded with bearded gay men in T-shirts jostling for beer, so we walk down to the near-empty basement where pink and yellow lights aimlessly cut through a muted haze of smoke. As we sashay to medleys of slap happy disco, drunk on our private wine of public freedom, our friend trails us with his cell phone held high. The pictures from that night—a music video fantasy we’ve never seen—mark the beginning of a history, reveal the image we want to be seen, and the photographer who helps us hope.