What Is a Slutty Power Lesbian?

How to define the woman of Jennifer Lawrence’s dreams.

The many flavors of the power lesbian (clockwise from top left): Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth in Jessica Jones, Cara Delevingne and St. Vincent, Jennifer Beals as Bette Porter in The L Word, Abby Wambach, and Robin Roberts.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images, Netflix, Showtime.

Jennifer Lawrence, Glamour’s February cover model, is a modern-day fashion icon, a Christian Dior “ambassador” who’s inspired multiple tribute blogs to fawn over her every earring and vest. Who is her style muse? Inside the magazine, in an interview with editor-in-chief Cindi Leive, she confessed:

CL: So how would you describe your style now?

JL: “Slutty power lesbian.” That is literally what I say to a stylist. [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s offensive—

CL: But that puts me in a tuxedo frame of mind, which I don’t feel like I see you in.

JL: Well, first of all, Dior is its own house that’s very feminine and beautiful; this past press tour every dress was just phenomenal. So you don’t see me as a slutty power lesbian on the red carpet a lot, because I’m embodying the Dior woman, which is an honor.

Jennifer Lawrence, a would-be slutty power lesbian! “Just like what you tell your stylist privately, because you are unsure about whether or not it is offensive,” wrote Kelly Conaboy at the Cut. A slutty power lesbian—so, like, in a suit with no shirt on underneath? Carhartts with a rip down the butt? Keens and lingerie? A button-down shirt, tailored trousers, and a pocket full of dental dams? Thick-rimmed glasses, a fauxhawk, and booty shorts? A woman typing furiously on a Blackberry while striking a come-hither pose in the back seat of a Subaru? What specific lesbian stereotype is Lawrence trying to evoke when she asks her stylist to dress her this way?

There is no one notarized definition of a power lesbian, but popular interpretations of power lesbians and their corollary, lesbian power couples, seem to conjure up some combination of these qualities: conventional power in the form of money or fame; ever-present poise and control; excellence in a specific industry; a cutthroat, no-nonsense, demanding attitude; and a circle of equally powerful, well-connected friends or lovers. Power lesbians can be either slutty or not—I’ve always imagined the archetypal power lesbian as a hypersexual supertop. (In an episode on Season 2 of Sex and the City, the queen bee of Manhattan’s power lesbian clique excommunicates the very-straight Charlotte from their friend group because she doesn’t actually “eat pussy.”) Narrative representations of power lesbians often portray them as brusque and career-centered, not flirtatious in the traditionally feminine sense—and then there’s the galling, sexist myth of lesbian bed death to contend with. Lawrence wants to sexify this indeterminate class of women like a Halloween costume: slutty ladybug, slutty Donald Trump, slutty power lesbian.

We can find further cues in one of the most bewitching fictional power lesbians of all time: Bette Porter, The L Word’s take-no-shit art-world big shot. In cuff links, suspenders, or cleavage—and sometimes all three—Jennifer Beals as Porter exuded professional competence and sexual dominance in equal measure. Her wardrobe played an important role in getting her into character. “I had spent six years playing Bette and flirting with women and being with women as this character,” Beals said in a post–L Word interview with AfterEllen. “So when I got to Lie to Me, being on a set and being in a power suit, my brain thinks I’m playing a lesbian character.”

In the world of television, Porter is joined by Jessica JonesCarrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth, who knows from angular haircuts and neutral-toned lawyer wear. There’s also Marisa Tomei’s Mimi Whiteman on Empire, as slutty and powerful a lesbian as any, who’s all about the patterned blazers. In real life, there are Abby Wambach’s exposed, rippling arm muscles and Suze Orman smirking in a popped collar and deep tan. Kara Swisher and her aviators are textbook power-dyke material. And, of course, there are the leather jackets of Wanda Sykes and the bespectacled swagger of Rachel Maddow. But slutty!

If these classic examples are any indication, the power lesbian’s apparel power seems to rest in a blazer, leather jacket, or other menswear. Leive’s response to Lawrence’s statement was telling: She thought of a tuxedo. But then there’s the bold-as-anything Robin Roberts, who’s prone to statement necklaces and brightly colored shifts, and the potent duo of St. Vincent and Cara Delevingne, who favor matchy-matchy Burberry cutout dresses. Kristen Stewart has a withering stare to rival Medusa’s, and she’s excelled in her field, but she wears cut-off sweatpants. And what to make of Samira Wiley, who emanates enough soft-butch energy on Orange Is the New Black to give liable viewers a case of the vapors, but rocks gowns and makeup when she’s off screen? Though she used “feminine and beautiful” as a foil to “slutty power lesbian,” Lawrence surely knows that lesbian is not a synonym for masculine, and power often comes dressed in feminine garb. If asked to dress up as a slutty power lesbian—in other words, just another night on the town—I’d wear double-winged eyeliner, my late great-aunt’s old mink coat, and white Doc Martens.

Even if there were some kind of universal power-lesbian school of fashion, would a sexual orientation or identity be a valid style shorthand? Queer identities are marginalized in part by their reduction to tropes that are fetishized by men and women alike. It happens in fashion (the commodified looks of “lesbian chic” and “butch chic”) and it happens in sex—think silly car and clothing ads and Katy Perry’s grating “I Kissed a Girl.” Consider how Lawrence’s comment might have read if she’d replaced lesbian with another marginalized demographic or identity.

Or maybe Lawrence just meant that she wants to be slutty and hip. Heterosexual women have long followed in the tracks of the queers. Flannel? We did that. Side-shaves? Hello. Yes, it’s irritating that a celebrity might reduce a variety of female sexuality to a fashion descriptor. But there’s some comfort in the knowledge that no one’s ever asked their stylist to dress them in slutty straight-girl clothes.