Ann Kaloski works at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. Her teaching and research interests revolve around contemporary culture and fiction. She is co-director of Raw Nerve Books.
I want to chew over an idea that at first glance may seem quite perverse - I would like to think about David Bowie as a feminist icon. While for some readers this may seem, at best, an odd statement, I know there will be many women out there who understand this juxtaposition. I've had plenty of pub conversations with feminists who were in their late adolescence or early twenties in the seventies, and for many of us Bowie is our open secret: his performances weren't read by us, then, as primarily gay (male). He mutated, flaunted, pushed buttons and boundaries, and yet it was all played out on a man's body that did not primarily desire men.
This joyful destabilizing of sexual and gender norms was for many of us the precursor to ideas we would later term 'queer'. Whatever our sexual identities - and a few of the women I am thinking of here are, in fact, het - Bowie helped to queer not only our dreams (sexual, creative, authentic) but also our sense of ourselves as gendered beings, as women.
But he's just a white boy driven by a need to make successful records
And I'm just a white girl driven by a need to generate links that help make sense of the world.
Alison Hennegan argued in her lovely piece about lesbian reading that, as a young and unknowing dyke in the 1960s, she forged connections between her own developing desires and those of gay men's fiction as well as 'high-brow' and sensationalist writing, connections that she might never have made if she had had easy access to lists of 'appropriate' lesbian books (1988).
So I too, as a working class girl in a conventional family with dreams at odds with her fate, took inspiration where I could. In the fifties my magic texts were fairy tales, and though the princess always ended her life with the prince there were numerous escape routes, and many a doppelganger heroine visited my humble bunk bed. In the sixties, The Beatles and the pop art culture of my Merseyside home hinted at a life (and not only for the boys) that didn't end in the factory or the grimy offices that sustained them. And as the sixties ended I joined the hippy boys in wanting hippy girls (and sometimes we wanted each other).
And then came Bowie. Magnetic, beautiful, not-a-woman but not-a-man either, at least not like any man I had seen. As he flashed his ambivalent sexuality and androgynous body I caught glimpses of a process that not only exposed but unlocked gender.
But he was glamorous and rich, you were ordinary and poor
Mmm. But I'm not talking about the talented, sexy, sometime fascist Bowie the man but I am, rather, alluding to Icon Bowie, and a successful icon (unlike, say, a role model) doesn't so much pave the way as agitate the senses. Icon Bowie pilfered our desire and represented it back to us, made palpable. There was something incredibly feminine about Bowie as Queen Bitch, Ziggy, Aladdin et al, and the kind of ironic femininity he exuded disturbed our connections between women and liberation and movement.
In the end, we took 'our' icon away from the man and attempted to spawn a politicised, desiring feminism, negotiated between power, gender and bodies. Without Bowie queer feminism would still have emerged, of course. But, for many of us, it wouldn't have been quite the same …