by Edith Becker, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, B. Ruby Rich
Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 17-21
It sometimes seems to us that lesbianism is the hole in the heart of feminist film criticism. We have been working in this area for a number of years. And while we believe that feminist criticism has developed new theoretical tools with which to examine cinematic images, structures, and themes, nevertheless we see a failure to confront lesbian issues. An attention paid to lesbian perspectives could both point up some inadequacies and mistakes of previous critical writing and suggest new directions of thought.
It is important, and possible, to begin this work now. The space for such a discussion has been made possible by the evolution of the lesbian movement, both as an autonomous development and in conjunction with feminist, left and gay male struggles. The intellectual and political groundwork has been established, within the lesbian movement, which we can now draw upon for its application to film. Furthermore, there is now a clear audience and support for such film criticism. The creation of a lesbian film criticism is particularly urgent, given the intensified use of the lesbian as a negative sign in Hollywood movies and the continuing space assigned to lesbians as gratification of male fantasy in pornography and a distressing number of male avant-garde films. Equally important as an impetus for a new criticism is the rise of an independent lesbian cinema, under-acknowledged and in need of attention.
The idea for this Lesbian Special Section has been germinating for more than two years. At first, we carried out large-scale mailings and informal outreach within the lesbian and feminist communities. But there was little response, probably for two reasons. On the one hand, we faced the suspicion that many lesbians have toward contributing to a mixed left publication, and on the other hand, the mystification of film criticism due to its lack of visibility in the women's press. Still, word of mouth built. Through personal contacts and conferences (particularly the Alternative Cinema Conference and the National Women's Studies Association Conference) and a lot of hard work, the articles found in these pages were inspired, solicited, and produced.
The Special Section has been edited by the women on the Chicago JUMP CUT staff, both lesbian and heterosexual, all white. Our collective experience encompasses a wide range of contexts: work on feminist projects including both straight and lesbian women; work within lesbian groups focused on broad-based political projects such as health care organizing and South African support work; living within a lesbian cultural community to build lesbian organizations; working in totally mixed groups (gay/straight/lesbian, male/female) on left and Third World political projects. None of us is currently working in Chicago's political lesbian community.
We've undertaken this Special Section out of our commitment to synthesize left and lesbian perspectives into a comprehensive approach to film. JUMP CUT's audience, in fact, is disparate. Our readership includes people whose main interest is film as well as those interested primarily in radical and feminist cultural politics. Editing this Special Section within these confines presents the contradiction of trying to contribute to the discussion of lesbianism and film inside the pages of a mixed publication.
JUMP CUT has analyzed film practice in our society and its role in reinforcing oppressions based on race, sex or class. Acknowledging connections between the individual psyche and social history, we find it useful to examine film as a cultural institution which excessively promotes as a norm the single option of heterosexuality. The articulation of sexuality is neither natural nor inevitable. It is shaped and determined by a given society within a particular historical moment. (See, for example, Weimar Germany or 5th Century Greece for notable examples of difference.) This historically-determined sexuality may be expressed personally between individuals or enforced publicly through institutions, always disguised as "natural" to mask its ideological function. What we consider entertainment depends in large part upon our expectations of sexual identity and its depiction in film. Yet, film's role in enforcing heterosexuality has hardly been challenged.
Feminist film criticism has analyzed film texts and film reception to explicate women's place within male culture and hopefully to extricate us from it. Unfortunately, such criticism has too often accepted heterosexuality as its norm. The refusal to deal with a lesbian perspective has warped film criticism as well as its larger political and intellectual context, including discussions of ideology, popular culture, and psychoanalysis. A lesbian perspective, however, can connect in new ways our views of culture, fantasy and desire, and women's oppression. The lesbian perspective can clarify how these replicate a patriarchal power structure and how that, in turn, finds expression on the screen. The seemingly simple replacement of the subject "woman" with the subject "lesbian" radically redefines the parameters of feminist film criticism. When the topic is the "image of" the lesbian in film or the "function of" the lesbian in the text, then whole different issues have to be approached and whole new critical methodologies must be found to deal with these issues.
Lesbians are nearly invisible in mainstream cinematic history, except as evil or negative-example characters. There is the lesbian as villainess, exemplified in films such as WINDOWS and examined in its contemporary version by Winer/Charbonneau's discussion of the lesbian "threat" in recent Hollywood cinema (in this section). There is the lesbian as vampire, both metaphorically (as in Claude Chabrol's LES BICHES or Rossellini's OPEN CITY) and quite literally, as in the genre of lesbian vampire movies examined by Bonnie Zimmerman (in this section). There is the brutal bull dyke, a type identified by Richard Dyer in his "Gays in Film Noir" in JUMP CUT 16. This character ranges from the TOUCH OF EVIL dyke, who just wants to watch, to the FAREWELL MY LOVELY dyke, who insists on action. We should pay attention to these negative images as feminist critics because they are not only about lesbianism but, in fact, are about the containment of women's sexuality and independence.
Furthermore, negative stereotypes about lesbians have a lot to teach us about the limitations of any "positive image" approach to the depiction of women in Hollywood film. These limitations come from the fact that positive images, like negative images, suppress contradiction and are thus static. For example, JULIA does not develop the complexities of being a writer, nor the contradictions of being a political organizer and mother, nor the complexities of being lesbians (if in fact the main characters are) in such a situation. We are just asked to admire the female protagonists. Another limitation could be demonstrated by imagining the substitution of lesbians into most of the stories we have on television or in film. For example, if one of Charlie's Angels were a lesbian, this would probably not change the blatant sexism of the show, the bourgeois ideology of the show, or its emphasis on individual solutions to social problems.
There are instances in which we could imagine the progressive nature of substitution. For example, the substitution of a lesbian couple for a heterosexual one could in fact substantially alter the narrative structures of film romance. Yet, the economic pressures of marketing and film production guarantee that in a homophobic society, any authentic "positive image" of lesbian romantic love will remain too great a risk ever to find direct expression on the screen. WINDOWS, for instance, displaces lesbian attraction, turning its expression into violence. Mainstream cinema employs a traditional dichotomy of positive/negative, using allegedly lesbian villainesses to punish those characters who deviate from the norms of domesticity or romantic love. Heterosexuality is the positive, lesbianism the negative.
Ironically, then, the most explicit vision of lesbianism has been left to pornography, where the lesbian loses her menace and becomes a turn on. Men maintain control over women by creating the fantasy images of women that they need. Pornography "controls" and uses lesbianism by defining it purely in terms of genital sexuality, which, in being watched, can thereby be recuperated into male fantasy. As long as lesbianism remains a component of pornography made by and for men, that will affect the "positive image" of lesbianism. This is because lesbian sexuality will be received by most sectors of the dominant society as pornography. Still, pornographic codes are not omnipresent. They cannot be granted so much power that the depiction of sexuality is no longer an option for lesbian filmmakers. (See below for distinctions between lesbian sexuality, eroticism and pornography.)
If the love relationship between women is taboo, then it would seem logical to look to cinematic portrayals of women's friendships as an alternative. However, female friendship is itself limited in cinema. In the multitude of buddy films, pairs of men get to act out their adventure fantasies. Women's friendships in film, on the other hand, bear comparison with the types of sisters in patriarchal literature as described by Louise Bernikow in Among Women. Like those sisters, women friends are shown as one of the following: They are either trying to get "the man's something" and fighting over who gets it (ALL ABOUT EVE), turning against each other (THE WOMEN), sacrificing self to familial devotion (LITTLE WOMEN), or accepting the Judgment of Paris that splits women into narrowly defined "I'm This/You're That" sets of roles (THE TURNING POINT). In cinema, even women's friendships revolve around men. Just as the supposed visibility of "woman" and "lesbian" in film has turned out to be fraudulent, so cinematic friendships between women are equally illusionary (with the exception of rare token scenes in such films as MILDRED PIERCE or COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER). None of the richness of women's real relations appears.
It is revealing to chart the pairings that are either acceptable or unacceptable in popular films:
Both extremes of the spectrum — authentic portrayals of lesbianism (#1) or gay male (#6) relations — fall out of bounds for the dominant cinema. In categories #2 and #5, we begin to see a discrepancy at work, idealizing male friendships and debasing female friendships. The only honorable categories left to the skewed middle of the chart are predictably male/female friendship (#3), male/male friendship (#5), and male/female coupling (#4). Women don't fare very well in these three categories either. Women may appear as a momentary diversion in the buddy films (#5). Women have traditionally been kept in line through family ties and romantic love (#4).
And in the films which depict male/female friendship (#3), women form an alliance with men that mirrors the power balance in the larger society. In other words, the friendship is a mentor/student model (as in NORMA RAE). Or the friendship may simply provide the foreplay for eventual romance (as in THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN). Even worse is the male/female friendship which women form at the expense of their friendships with other women, whom the man now replaces (as in KRAMER VS. KRAMER).
The suppression of categories #1 and #2 suggests the reality of the very continuum between lesbians and other women that the dominant cinema usually takes pains to deny. Perhaps the real taboo is not sexuality between women, but the affirmation of any associations between women which are primary and exclusive of men. Or, perhaps the potential for sexuality between women is itself so strong a threat that it blocks the depiction of even female friendship.
The world of women is banned from film. Female associations could include intellectual relations, work projects, emotional exchanges, etc. Presumably lesbians deserve visibility in these contexts. But mainstream cinema makes that impossible by separating off the "lesbian" as a being not only defined by, but limited to, her sexuality. Films don't show lesbians working together because that provides no voyeuristic interest for the male viewer. Straight women working together provide just as little interest. Traditionally women are represented in cinema almost exclusively as sexual objects for the use of the male character within the film and/or the man in the audience. Therefore, the depiction of women in primary association with each other (whether heterosexual or lesbian) would be profoundly discomforting. It would likely provoke the use of "lesbian" as a derogatory label, because women are acting as self-defined beings, not reacting to men.
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Given the absence of any real lesbian "image" on the screen, the lesbian audience over the years has had to make do by identifying with portrayals of strong woman characters, adventurous male characters, or occasional women's friendships (see the Whitaker interviews in this section). It's often a case of settling for crumbs. One source of pleasure has been the rare scene of an actress with a cult reputation acting out that rumored sexuality on the screen, such as Marlene Dietrich's kissing another woman in MOROCCO.
The most important viewing strategy has been to concentrate on the subtext, the "hidden" meaning, of commercial films. The nation of the lesbian subtext depends upon the knowledge, suspicion or hope that some participants in the film (director, actress, screenwriter) were themselves lesbians, and that their perspective can be discerned in the film even though disguised. Subtexting, then, depends for its cues upon gossip.
Gossip provides the official unrecorded history of lesbian participation in film. Actresses and directors have had to hide their identity in order to preserve their careers in a homophobic society. For actresses, the star system has depended upon a vast public's fantasy identification with the glamorous woman; the knowledge that the star was a lesbian would have ended her career. With the advent of the sound film era and the massive industrialization of film production and distribution, a time when most women directors were drummed out of the field as a financial liability, being openly lesbian was obviously out of the question.
Knowing a director's sexual identity does not necessarily provide a formula for interpreting the work. A film by a lesbian director or a writer may or may not advance "positive" lesbian characters; it may have no lesbian content at all. On the other hand, not to know details of lesbian participation in film production is a problem in constructing any solid lesbian history. One example is the case of Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood's one woman career-director of the 20s through the 40s, whose style of dress and attention to independent woman characters in her films has prompted the search for a lesbian subtext in her work. This is despite the careful absence of any statements by Arzner herself that could encourage such an undertaking.
In the case of directors whose work isn't specifically feminist, whose lives are strictly closeted, or in the case of lesbian actresses enacting prescribed roles, the burden of proof for a lesbian analysis frequently depends upon the interpretation of style. One example would be the silent film SALOME, produced by its star Alla Nazimova, whose own lesbianism is discussed in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and caricatured in Ken Russell's VALENTINO. SALOME's mannered acting, Art Nouveau costumes and set design, and all-homosexual cast combine to evoke the homosexual aesthetic of the Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley circle. The lesbian viewer may also pay attention to the frequency of disjunction between actress and role within a film. That is, an actress with a lesbian reputation may act "out of character" and seem to address the audience from the standpoint of her off-screen persona despite her supposed on-screen heterosexuality. A glance, a costume, a gesture, is enough to give the cue.
Gossip feeds into audience expectation and interpretation. Long denigrated in our culture, gossip nevertheless serves a crucial purpose in the survival of subcultural identity within an oppressive society. If oral history is the history of those denied control of the printed record, then gossip is the history of those who cannot even speak in their own first-person voice. While gossip transpires at the private level of conversation, subtexting is the route by which dominant cultural products can be used to serve subcultural needs, by annexing a mass product (movies) alien to lesbian identity.
Given the importance of subcultural identification, much lesbian film viewing and criticism depends upon subtexting. Such readings can be valuable and accurate. They can resolve ambiguities otherwise inexplicable in the film text, as in Rich's article on MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM (see this section). (See Parker Tyler's chapter "Five Homosexual Mystery Stories and A Very Queer Non-Mystery Story" in Screening the Sexes and Richard Dyer's "Homosexuality and Film Noir" in JUMP CUT #16 for two gay male readings of resolved ambiguities.) Or they can construct alternate explications entirely, as in Lesage's CELINE AND JULIE article (in this section). Lesbian criticism casts a jaundiced eye on self-important heterosexual rituals. In so doing, it can illuminate the psychosexual structuring of cultural production with the particular clarity of the outsider.
However, at other times, subtextual readings can be erroneous. This is a problem, not only for lesbian criticism, but for feminist film criticism in general. For instance, sometimes feminist readings exceed the subtextual and become fantasy-projections, as in one woman's reading of STAR WARS as a matriarchal vision. Other times, heterosexual elements of a film are ignored to preserve a lesbian reading, as in one reading of LITTLE DARLINGS as little dykes. More serious is the practice of praising films as indictments of the evils awaiting women who engage in heterosexuality, without recognizing to what extent such films actively further the oppression of women. Seeing LOOKING FOR MR. G000BAR, for example, as a warning against heterosexual dating games, fails to take seriously the real misogyny and degradation of women central to the film. Subtextual readings are important to the formation of an alternate criticism but, to be convincing, must remember to keep the film in sight.
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Some feminist filmmakers have rejected the rigid sexual roles presented in commercial and documentary films and shown a great flexibility in depicting women's lives, desires, and fantasies. The weakened boundaries of sexual definition in these films mark an advance. For example, French director Nelly Kaplan in her earlier film A VERY CURIOUS GIRL assigned a lesbian character the same traits as an exploitative man. In her recent film, NEA, however, she has a mistreated wife reject her patriarchal husband in favor of a more satisfying lesbian relationship with his sister. The film is fascinating for its attempt to take on the issue of sexuality without hedging, though the sensationalistic aspects of some of the treatment is perhaps questionable.
In a recent German film, THE SECOND AWAKENING OF CHRISTA KLAGES, Margarethe Von Trotta traces the revival of a friendship between a woman fugitive and her high school friend at a time of need. The heroine shifts in the course of the film from hiding out with her male sidekick (who gets killed) to running off to Portugal with her high school girlfriend in a relationship that is suggested as a lesbian one. Also, Hungarian director Marta Meszaros has consistently made films devoted to the rich friendship between women. Because of her very pessimistic depictions of heterosexual relations and her visual attention to the sensuality of women's bodies, the dynamic between women retains a sexual potential even though such a development is never played out within the films themselves.
Occasionally, in documentary film as well, there has been a lessening of censorship regarding the lesbian presence. WE'RE ALIVE presents women prisoners collectively shaping their own film and offering their combined left, lesbian and feminist analyses of their own conditions. The film doesn't separate out the lesbian experience into a separate category. Such fluidity of sexual boundaries is an encouraging sign in feminist filmmaking.
Most feminist films, however, try to challenge male dominance without being self-conscious of their own suppression of lesbianism, or in some cases, homophobia. In GIRL FRIENDS, the lesbian character is a negative cartoon introduced only to be rejected (for reasons discussed in the Winer/ Charbonneau article). Overt homophobia is rare in comparison with the more subtle suppression — total absence. For example, weren't any of the women in the Women's Emergency Brigade documented in WITH BABIES AND BANNERS lesbians? Lesbianism is not a subject of interest to New Day Films, the single largest feminist distributor of documentary films in the United States. Lesbian issues are not addressed in the New Day films, the word does not appear in their catalogue, and only rarely does any woman even appear to be a lesbian in the interviews and portraits that form their film treatments of social issues. It would be foolish to expect heterosexual feminists to produce lesbian films. But if New Day's films are meant to describe the reality of women's experience, then they must include lesbians as a part of that reality.
It is to the lesbian filmmaker we must look for consistent lesbian visibility and the political and aesthetic questions such a visibility poses. What is the context of production for lesbian filmmakers? Independent lesbian filmmakers have problems that:
Production problems confronting lesbians have both external and internal sources. The risk of economic blacklisting is an ever present one for the lesbian filmmaker, who may lie on a grant application only to find that, once the "real" film is made, she is cut off from funding sources for a future project. Or she may never know, when rejected for money for an accurately described script, whether homophobia was the reason for the lack of funding. Also, existing distribution markets for 16mm independent films can hardly be seen to constitute a receptive environment for lesbian films. Libraries, schools, cable television may be able to absorb broad-based feminist works, but screen out lesbian work, either because of their own homophobia or a conservative response to their constituency.
External and internal problems cannot be artificially separated. Sometimes, self-censorship occurs as a pragmatic handling of political goals and market realities on the part of a filmmaker. For example, THE POWER OF MEN IS THE PATIENCE OF WOMEN is a German film dramatizing the problem of battered women, the importance of women's shelters, and collective alternatives. Director Cristina Perinciola decided to show clearly the double-headed axe (a symbol of lesbian identity) worn by one of the women in the film as a code for lesbian viewers. At the same time she omitted any other reference to lesbianism as a deliberate move to ensure the film's being televised. This is an interesting solution for how to maintain a visibility for the lesbian community, given the political urgency of maximum exposure of the issue of wife-beating. (She thought it particularly important to work through the medium of television, to reach women who may in fact not even be able to leave the house.) Still, this is a stop-gap measure and not an ideal solution.
There is a persistent dilemma in lesbians' internalizing the societal homophobia with which all our lives are saturated. Such an internalization may result in conscious or unconscious self-censorship, self-denial, or in extreme instances, self-hatred. The issue of inhibition is part of the ongoing struggle in forging a lesbian identity, and as such, it is part of an ongoing discussion within the lesbian community.
The lesbian independent filmmaker has not found the worlds of left political filmmaking nor of avant-garde film hospitable, regardless of what her own concerns politically or aesthetically may be. In the "political" camp, lesbianism has been rated a low, "personal" priority not high on the political agenda. The left has too often given a clear message that lesbianism isn't important. In the "avant-garde" camp, lesbianism isn't treated any better than in Hollywood or pornography. Werner Nekes' T(WO)MEN, Steve Dwoskin's CHINESE CHECKERS, and Jim Benning's 11x14, all use the depiction of lesbian sexuality (usually a fraudulent one) as the hook to hold audience interest through their formal experimentations. Moreover, innovative lesbian films will most probably be marginalized or discounted within avant-garde film circles because of their charged content. With "content" still more or less a modernist taboo for avant-garde filmmakers, the lesbian (and often the feminist) filmmaker is likely to find her formal contributions made invisible. Moreover, avant-garde filmmaking remains one of the last strongholds of the "sensitive artist" tradition which, by definition male, still mitigates strongly against all feminists trying to make films within this context and certainly against lesbians. Because lesbians' films don't fit into the existing distribution networks for independent left or avant-garde films, there is still a large body of lesbian work which has yet to break out of its local audience into visible distribution (see filmography at the end of this section). Iris Films (Berkeley) and Women Make Movies (New York), the two major sources, both have brand new catalogues and expanded titles — and may well take up more films if their chronically limited finances permit.
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At this point, the paucity of lesbian visibility in films has made the presentation of a "positive" lesbian subject a serious priority for lesbian filmmakers. Earlier we talked about the problems in seeking "positive images" of lesbians in Hollywood films. This becomes a very different issue when discussing lesbian filmmakers and movement films. Affirmation has been and remains vital. The most common form this affirming of identity has taken in lesbian filmmaking is the coming out film. Coming out has been a central ritual of the lesbian movement, and the films by lesbians quantitatively reflect this (see filmography). Such films offer a public expression of personal experience. They are one component of a lesbian culture that shapes, supports, and politicizes personal change and self-definition. It is impossible to underestimate the need for films to affirm all aspects of lesbian identity, given the virulent hostility against lesbians in our society. Films are required to reclaim history, offer self definition, and create alternative visions.
The expression of self implicitly includes a struggle against the dominant ideology. An oppressed group, once able to make films, will create positive images both to offer the new self identity and also to combat the negative stereotypes promulgated by the dominant culture. Therefore, positive images cannot be cut off from the societal pressures that created the original stereotypes or the conditions that maintain them.
A positive image of lesbian motherhood is constructed in IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN, a documentary film made by Liz Stevens and Frances Reid (see interview and review in JUMP CUT #19). Such a portrayal of lesbian mothers cannot be cut off from the societal context, i.e., the legal battle by lesbian mothers to retain custody of their children, which custody suits the film was made to serve. For this political reason, the filmmakers also chose to film in a traditional documentary mode for maximum credibility, accessibility, and persuasiveness with the particular audience (lawyers, juries, social workers) for which they intended the film. In this sense, the film has been very successful. It has also provided a boost in morale for many beleaguered lesbian mothers caught in the same legal traps. On the other hand, the documentary can be criticized for precisely this positive approach. That is, criticized for presenting lesbian mothers as perfect, for not articulating their anger, and for leaving an overly optimistic impression of the current situation. However, this film should not have to bear the weight of our entire expectations of what a film on lesbian motherhood might be. Other films can, and should, be made.
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