I Spy With My Little Eye

The cover of the "Yellow Book" Volume 12 where Ethel Reed's illustration of a woman in profile can be seen. The woman appears to be holding a fan but we cannot see her hand. Her dress blends in with the back background as does her hair. She has two flowers in her hair. It also appears as if she could be kissing another woman, though this is ambiguous.
Front Cover Design by Ethel Reed, January 1897, Volume 12 of the “Yellow Book”

When I first saw the front cover of The Yellow Book Volume 12, I immediately saw two women kissing.

From the way the white space touches the parted lips of the woman, there appears to be a second figure who is upside down facing her. I personally see the woman kissing this figure’s forehead given the position that the figure is in. As well, it could be argued that the fan that the woman holds seems to try and obscure this figure, whose dark hair blends into the negative space of the image.

In closely looking at the woman’s eyes, which are side-long and suspicious, I can only presume that this figure is a woman and there is some homoerotic tension happening. This theory holds more credit when you take into account the function of this glance, which is directed at the reader of the magazine, almost as if she is tempting or challenging them.

Given the culture of the 1890s and how Oscar Wilde’s suspected homosexuality created such an uproar, I suspect that this kiss was not intended or even noticed by the public. However, despite knowing this Wildean context, it’s still very hard for me to look at this cover WITHOUT seeing two women kissing. The ambiguity that Ethel Reed includes into her poster art speaks to the emergence of the New Woman, who resisted traditional roles and sought independence. Whether or not this image was intended to evoke homoerotic tones, its ambiguity does subtly challenge conventional norms about femininity and sexuality. It would be interesting to learn more about the flowers in the woman’s hair and whether or not there was any intention for this particular flower to end in the middle of the woman’s parted lips.

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