by Martha Fleming
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 59-61
Some sixty-odd pages into his book, Vito Russo comments on Leontine Sagan's classic MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM. Here, my growing frustration with his book crystallized into an understanding of what was wrong with it. MÄDCHEN, made in pre-war Weimar Germany, concerns the tortured relation between a student and her female teacher at a private school for the daughters of Prussian army officers. Of it, Russo says:
Is a film inherently lesbian because lesbians make it? More generally, can women in our society relate to women "on their own terms"? The filmmakers in their collaboration may have partially achieved such a relation, but they did not necessarily intend to portray a "dynamic of women relating to women on their own terms" in the film. Quite the opposite, given that the student in the film suffers a breakdown at the hands of the school principal, herself a woman and equally subject to patriarchy’s ideological exigencies. Nor did the filmmakers themselves entirely escape that grasp. As Russo himself points out, they made the film with two endings, one in which the student hurls herself to her death in a stairwell and another in which her friends – all more or less similarly enchanted by their teacher — save her. (1)
Perhaps Russo wishes to make up for his fundamentally gay male analysis by writing "positively" about the few lesbian-made films he discusses. He makes the briefest of references to Dorothy Arzner, only to dismiss her.
But Russo romanticizes relationships between women in MÄDCHEN so much that he seems to turn a regimental girls' school into an amazon utopia. This is not enough to excuse the fact that Russo has ignored a lesbian perspective in the fundamentals of his analysis. This lack cripples the whole book, not just scarring the pages which refer to lesbians.
To start with, saying gay and intending to include lesbians under the umbrella roughly parallels saying mankind and presuming to include women. It's surprising behavior from someone with Russo's credentials in the gay and lesbian liberation movement — credentials that make straights and not-yet-politicized gays and lesbians listen to him as if he knows the whole score. Without lesbian feminism and the women's movement's ever-changing tactics in general, the gay and lesbian liberation movement would not even have gained the meager ground which we are all trying desperately to keep dyked up against the submerging waters of an ever-mounting right. The ground women gain for themselves also means ground gained for homosexuals, no matter what the antagonisms or hostility between the two groups may be at any given moment.
On another level, Russo confuses filmmakers and their films in an equally alarming way. Confusing film life and real life, he pulls us even further back than the antiquated camera obscura model into the stone age of ideological theory where art imitates or "reflects" life. In just the two-page introduction and the first three pages of Chapter One, variants on the word "reflection" appear five times. (2) The problematic attitude isn't confined to the use of certain words:
Here he combines sexism with a rather simplistic notion of the relation of "life” to "art." Certainly the total lack of lesbians in feature fiction film indicates that lesbians are much more socially terrifying than gay men. Representations of relations between homosexual men can include, however maliciously and misrepresentationally, questions of patriarchal power and male supremacy. Such treatments of these questions are less culturally challenging than depicting the radicality of a member of society attempting to define herself completely outside of its central institutions.
Even if the relation were so blissfully simple, MÄDCHEN would never have accurately ”reflected" the lives of German lesbians during the Nazis' rise to power as merely the antiauthoritarian metaphor which Russo misleadingly types it as:
Given lesbianism's track record as an effective "means of rebelling," I can't understand why anyone would "use" it. But to consider its use in these two films, since lesbianism inherently challenges the status quo, "authoritarianism" and "lying" are narrative elements which might represent that status quo and the way it perpetuates itself. If anything, authoritarianism and lying are used by the filmmakers to evidence the society homosexuals are up against.
Russo's book is about the mainstream Hollywood cinema, in which gays and lesbians have been used and from which our real lives have been excluded. Chapter One lists early, ostensibly preconscious representations of homosexuals in U.S. film. It's called, "Who's a Sissy? Homosexuality According to Tinseltown." Chapter Two ("The Way We Weren't — The Invisible Years") provides a litany of what the U.S. censor boards excerpted in the thirties, forties, and fifties which might have indicated homosexual activity. Chapter Three ("Frightening the Horses — Out of the Closets and Into the Shadows") enumerates how filmmakers themselves qualified and censored gay and lesbian content after the lifting of the bureaucratic tip of a much more institutionalized censorship iceberg. Chapter Four ("Struggle — Fear and Loathing in Gay Hollywood") seems to include whatever was left of the seventies in the card index that Russo hadn't already scantily embellished in the earlier chapters. The book ends with startlingly uninformed praise for major U.S. television networks' approach to homosexuality.
We cannot approach self-definition within the black hole of the Hollywood institution, which makes homosexuals impossibly other. And as feminist film critics have pointed out over the past several years, the film apparatus — with its physical, social, economic, and narrative trappings — may not be able to depict women's physical body and actual lives. In a different way, such limitations in the cinematic institution may affect homosexual men and lesbians as well.
Loving members of our own sex, we are socially defined as homosexual by patriarchal capitalist society's oppressive interests. In capitalism, sexuality has become an organizational tool for social regulation. As Jeffrey Weeks outlines it:
As we are defined, among other things, we are charged with delineating heterosexuality in relief. As a category our presence asserts the negative, which safeguards heterosexuality and heterosexual privilege. This is further problematized by the relative invisibility of gays and lesbians. Russo says at the end of his introduction, "We have co-operated for a very long time in the maintenance of our own invisibility. And now the party's over" (p. xii). But the invisible years referred to in Chapter Two's title are far from over, either on the screen or in the street.
We don't have "distinguishing characteristics." We aren't all one color. Or race. Or nationality. Or age group. Or language group. Or religion. Or class. So we can never know, any more than our opponents, just what constitutes our numbers and our community. We have a highly manipulable image which the "interested" tailor to suit their needs. But what if the tables were turned and we began to define ourselves in the ways in which we become visible? This is one of the central tenets of the gay and lesbian liberation movement. The movement provides support for homos coming out, who then in their visible presence add to our understanding of what it means to be homosexual at this historical juncture.
But whatever else we are, as gays and lesbians we are only visible when we make the choice to say we are — verbally or by consorting with others of our kind in homo-identified places like bars or demonstrations or through public sex or dressing funny. This choice to cross the line into some level of visibility is perhaps the only "choice" that we have. We have no choice in being or not being homos. We have no choice in how those around us react to whatever choice about visibility we make. More overt social disadvantages exist for those of us who are "out." But the problem no less damages the closeted homo who in his or her silence remains isolated from others gays and/or lesbians.
But Russo doesn't seem to understand the revolutionary potential of turning the tables on our artificially constructed responsibility to maintain heterosexual sovereignty. On page xii he says,
Politics and sexuality are far from mutually exclusive terms. Quote for quote, I retort with the words of film critic Jacquelyn Zita:
Simply, our sexuality's existence can pose a contradiction that creates a fissure in patriarchal capitalist ideology, a fissure along which to analyze and dismantle that ideology.
From his regrettably "satellite" location of being homosexual now in the United States, Russo has taken up a disturbingly passive monitoring position for examining "our" image. He does little to challenge our exile from the production of our own meaning. Thus the book devolves into a roster of screen kisses. Spotting someone else's, Hollywood's, idea of a faggot or a dyke basically validates a misconception. That misconception may come from conscious bigotry or from the dominant ideology as it works through and with popular culture industries and products. But the relation of ideology to oppression is another question, as is the question of the relative efficacy of this presumed ideological function of Hollywood cinema. This possible further investigation is roadblocked by Russo, who keeps busy supporting Hollywood's images of homos by gleefully pointing them out to the exclusion of alternatives
He means well, and probably wanted to help people know how to look at mainstream images, but it's frustrating that he hasn't taken his own advice. Of BOYS IN THE BAND he says:
And he goes on to ignore them and the implications of their characterizations, which he himself has outlined.
Politically, how can Russo disregard the problematic of film's representational apparatus abutted against the literal invisibility of most homos? Granted, a list of gay and lesbian screen images is still, unfortunately, a bold event of visibility in itself. But he is wrong to presume that merely to publish this list of the kinds of homos already on screen can bust up the "party" of hetero-ideology. And a list is certainly not information on which to propose a radical cultural practice for gay media — or rather, since Russo seems to consider gay media nonprofessional, gays in the media.
Filmmakers, and consequently their audiences, identify faggots and dykes in the film usually through the characters' extreme dress or behavior. Such cinematic codification is a sort of exaggerated version of our own limited choices for visibility. In fact, film theorists long since should have taken up the image of homos in the movies as a perfect example on which to develop a prototypic theory of ideology and representation. If society has all kinds of homes who are mostly invisible, then whatever "identifiable" image of them that exists must be perfectly ideological. The gay and lesbian community does have the sound beginnings of a body of information for such a project — The Lesbian Herstory project, Lesbians of Colour, Le Regroupement des Lesbiennes de Classe Ouvrière, magazines like The Body Politic, Gay Asian, and so on. Meanwhile, what idea does the public (straight and homo) have of our lives and our numbers if they think only drag queens are gay? Russo gives extremely limited references to the lives real gays and lesbians were living through the three-fourths of this century during which were produced the screen images he calls up. On what basis are readers to make comparisons so as to evaluate the function and effect of the screen image?
The premise of Russo's book does not confront the fact that the misrepresentation of gays and lesbians in film correctly represents our social predicament. That is, we simply do not get the opportunity to present ourselves. There is an unresolved tension in the book between what Russo rightly claims is film's representation of homosexuality by sex acts alone and the lack of filmed representation of real homosexual life, of which sex is a part in a similar but obviously more socially complex way to that of heterosexuals. Claiming that gays are looking for homosexual "sensibility' and not homosexual characters, Russo also bitterly complains when "obviously" homosexual or lesbian don't overtly give evidence to this fact by sexual contact. Russo does not realize that in this apparent contradiction, the real political problem of sexuality and representation lies. For that reason, his book fails to leave anything behind it but a smoke that obscures the fire it indicates.
What is the sensibility I have that Russo thinks I want to see twinned in a Hollywood film?
I question that only "some" lesbians and gay men can tell. After all, the images go through the straight-machine of Hollywood before reaching their consumers. Whatever film may be, it is far from unintentional. There are no accidental home images or allusions that just happen to slip in, waiting to be noticed by those of us wearing rose-colored glasses. They all have a reason and a function, not always bearing a constructive message.
Russo's romantic assumptions about intuition also ignore at their peril important film questions about audience identification, project, and desire. And the viewers' bricolage is here reduced to a kind of furtive activity of underdogs instead of one that film invites itself. Russo's zealousness in "reclaiming" imagery tells more about these questions than does his articulation of the process. Is it reclamation or stealing to talk about Katharine Hepburn's male drag in SYLVIA SCARLETT solely in terms of gay male sexuality? A surprising number of Russo's "faggot heroines" such as Elizabeth Taylor, Dietrich, Hepburn, and Garbo are women all the same, no matter what they may be "forced" to wear on screen. Russo discusses the subtly ambiguous relationship between the two male leads in GILDA. But he doesn't explore where this leaves the characterization of Gilda herself — especially in relation to women in the audience. Even straight men win out in this book before lesbians do:
Throughout The Celluloid Closet run recurring themes that should have been dealt with much more intelligently. One is the chorus of filmed bars, the kind you drink at rather than the kind you spend time behind (though both understandably haunt the book). Russo lists appearances of gay bars in films as varied as CALL HER SAVAGE, ADVISE AND CONSENT, THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE … , AND CRUISING.
Hollywood's bars depict the ghetto as a physical fact rather than the amorphous, cross-cultural culture that it is. Of course, film makes us less frightening when it can encage us in what looks like self-enforced captivity. The camera becomes a zookeeper of sorts, both privileged and protected by cinematic and social architecture. This in part derives from the representation/ invisibility problematic I described before. The bar represents the epitome of "becoming visible by consorting." (5) In ignoring the problem of the relation of representation to gay and lesbian (in)visibility, Russo himself falls into the trap of conflating bar and ghetto. Here he explains a scene in the 1932 film, CALL HER SAVAGE, in a Village gay and lesbian bar (it's a rare enough mix in real life and uncommented upon by Russo):
But not just organized crime does the controlling here. The state profits, too, though its profits are not directly financial. On the grounds that bars and baths create crime around them (classically, the crime of blackmail), many laws are created, enforced, and stretched to close these places, further marginalizing and segregating homosexuals. This puts us in even further jeopardy. When the state can make most of our social activities criminal, this assures the invisibility that makes possible the manipulation of our image and the further ideological equation of homo desire and criminality.
This constructed ambiguity of the relation between homosexuality and criminality makes films like CRUISING, which Russo rightfully deplores, possible and plausible. In it, "a New York City policeman, assigned to capture a psychotic killer of gay men, becomes aware of his own homosexuality and commences murdering gays" (p. 236). The film has as a premise the contagion theory par excellence. In rubbing shoulders and other things in New York leather bars, the cop not only "catches" homosexuality, but he catches crime and violence as well, twin viruses that Russo's microscope hasn't focused on. Russo's background information for CALL HER SAVAGE serves only to entrench the more believable — or shall we say more representable — conception of the ghetto ending at the (illegal) bar door.
But the ghetto doesn't end at the bar door, regardless of how few film homos would be recognizable outside its walls. In fact, the bar is where it really begins. As Ken Popert has written:
Even Russo's two allusions to the 1969 riots outside the Stonewall Bar neglect to mention this aspect of life in the bars. And his commentary on CALL HER SAVAGE does anything but naysay the image the film itself projects.
Life behind bars is a whole other question. There we are literally put in our place. Another dog-eared myth about homosexuality is the notion that confinement makes biologically imperative a replication and division of sex roles. The man-the-animal approach compares gays in prison to male rats stuffed together in small cages and thereby sees them as driven to homosexuality. Russo comments that FORTUNE AND MEN'S EYES’ producer Persky launched an ad campaign with lines like, "What goes on in prison is a crime." And Persky backed up his lurid directorial approach with interviews saying, "It's true. Homosexuality is still a crime in 45 out of 50 states." In this way of thinking, homosexuality is punished with isolation from the opposite sex and society in general because it is a product of isolation from same. Another brick in the architecture of homo-criminalis.
Such circular logic always provides a clue to the interests that produce this kind of ideology in order to protect themselves, here to maintain the negativity of homosexuality against which is built the positivity of heterosexuality. But Russo neither sees nor interrupts that circle. Rather, he cribs from Stuart Byron's ten-year-old review of the film to say that FORTUNE's violence stands as a lesson to gay men to confront their assimilation of heterosexual role posturing. Throwing the onus back on gay men, he closes in quoting Jack Babuscio's review of FORTUNE and Gênet's CHANT D’AMOUR:
Both prisons, within and without, are equally real in regulating our actions. The celluloid cage is exactly that. Gay and lesbian characters are figments of a director's socialized imagination. And figments do not have the power to either act on or "resist" whatever the desires may be which an audience might project upon them.
Compare the four and a half pages of what could best be called compassionate discussion about sex and gender in FORTUNE with what Russo had to say earlier, in the book about CAGED, a 1950 film set in a women's prison:
I get it. Russo doesn't think that Byron's call for an analysis of the straightjacket of sexual roles applies to women. At least, not if they're in prison. Or rather, not if they're in a different film than that which inspired Byron's plea.
But film presents different forms of confinement, and their gradations are the gradations of class. Class is something that Russo doesn't talk much about, presumably because the films don't. But that's the best reason to do so. If the imprisoned in SCARECROW, CAGED, FORTUNE, and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS represent the criminal underclass, then the army, military schools, and private boys' and girls' boarding schools all stand for rungs up the class ladder of confinement, varying as they do in their relative voluntariness and their relation to criminality and guilt. The difference between faggots and dykes in prison and adventurous girls in school dormitories implicitly indicates that the former are depraved and the latter, by dint of affording a private education, are merely decadent.
This is not to ignore the hierarchies within these situations — who are the confined without their jailors? But although in MADCHEN IN UNIFORM the headmistress locks Manuela up, both of them are equally kept by the army officer fathers who hired the former to keep the latter a virgin till marriage. Here the film gives evidence that the jailor is not the one we see. In other films, the jailor is a scapegoat of class interests, which require prisons to give weight to the laws enforcing money's power, even in a film. Evelyn Harper and Elvira Powell are not the camp celebrations of butch and femme that Russo sees.
Another important and ill-explored theme in The Celluloid Closet is that of the homo murder and suicide. Such a fate is much in evidence and well documented in the book — Russo has compiled a necrology as an addendum. However, film's x-ing out of homos has a more complicated genesis than Russo's assumption that the antigay hostility of life finds wish fulfillment in film. Only those things signified in the symbolic order that film represents exist on film. Invariably in narrative features, murder or suicide and the sudden "coming out" or making visible of the homosexual coincide. Let's presume that the character seems to stand as self-determined and no longer has an admissible place or function according to dominant ideology (as opposed to within dominant ideology, where he or she asserts the socially necessary negative). This character can literally no longer be represented and must be done away with. Perhaps we should look at this phenomenon in terms of the demands of most Hollywood films' narrative structure. Often a character will embody an "evil," of which other characters (and perhaps the audience) are implicitly guilty. To absolve this guilt, the film disposes of the personification of the evil. These are important issues for all of us to be discussing, whether or not as propositions they prove adequate for homos and film, whether or not Russo thinks they're too "academic" for a "mass" audience.
Russo skims the issue in outlining the plot of THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE:
Between the title and action of this film, in which George does not physically die, a relation of great importance is posited between homo visibility and representation. This relation is elaborated on the plane of a metaphoric murder in which representation proves itself unequal to that which exists, exposing its ideological nature. Since this is lost on Russo, he can't very well take director Robert Aldrich's proposition and apply is to other films. Aldrich even pressed the point in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE: George has the job of a character actress in a BBC-TV soap opera, where she exists (is significant) as straight until her off-camera lesbianism threatens to make real press headlines, at which point her BBC producer has her soap opera character killed off. What could be a more evident paradigm?
Russo ends the book with a grim foreboding that television can do the trick that film apparently can't, regardless of Sister George's predicament. Here Russo even more unquestioningly accepts the medium under observation. Gay director Rosa Von Praunheim is mentioned and lesbian director Barbara Hammer is not. Russo glosses over independent gay and lesbian production and its importance. He claims instead that television is "more vulnerable" to "activist pressures than was the motion picture industry" because it is "subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission and to the reactions of its advertisers and vocal public opinion" (p. 221).
Given the overwhelming swing to the right, the extraordinary illogic of this statement amazes me. The Federal Communications Commission is the Reagan administration. Advertisers are the multinationals which profit most from the economic base of the nuclear family. And vocal public opinion is most strongly heard from the heavily financially backed Moral Majority. "A film may have to be a hit, but when a television show flops, there's always next week and another subject" (p. 221). Above and beyond the naiveté about the Neilsons, Russo ignores the fact that a weekly show also has more possibility to reinforce given social roles.
With the exception of the documentary about Quentin Crisp's life, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, all the television programs commended by Russo are fiction — scripted, manipulated, charmingly complicated fiction. THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT does not have a much better form. A biography of sorts, it depicts the life of a man who, as Russo admits, "makes public hay of the fact that he is not a gay militant, but he may in fact have been one of the first gay activists in his own passive way" (p. 224) (italics mine). Crisp is a pretty queeny character — for the producers of entertainment, visible is risible. That is why Crisp rather than, say, Walt Whitman gets the dubious honor of televised immortality.
Two documentaries which go unnoted are CBS's GAY POWER, GAY POLITICS and the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's SHARING THE SECRET. (I believe that the latter is being distributed in the United States as an independent film through the gay network and the advertisements in papers like The Advocate.) Much like narrative films, "documentaries" are only worth making to make a point. George Smith, a Toronto graduate student at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the chairman of Canada's Right to Private Committee, is working on a thesis analyzing the CBS production of GAY POWER, GAY POLITICS. To quote from an excerpt which appeared in Fuse magazine:
Smith later clearly indicates the way in which the program's editing and direction are virulently antigay. In the same issue of Fuse, John Greyson dissects SHARING THE SECRET. Called "Telling Secrets," Greyson's article omits one secret maybe he didn't know: one of the five men "interviewed" for the "documentary" was an actor. So much for television, Russo's great white hope.
Though it is important to know what was cut from films and what was originally scripted, which actors turned down parts or took them demanding certain cuts, The Celluloid Closet offers a peculiar mix of jumbled listing and half-baked analysis. It roughly follows a chronological order, but chronology does not make a history. The snippets of scenes to which Russo draws our attention have little meaning other than reiterative, since he enumerates one after another. The snippets are used independently of the scenes which surrounded them, the other films made at the same time, the straight images created in parallel with homo images, the situation of gays and lesbians in other forms of cultural representation, and the history of the liberation movement itself. We are also talking about a century in which women got the vote and there were two world wars, all of which involved an immeasurable upheaval in sex roles, and film has had an undeniable importance in mediating that upheaval. Russo mentions most of this, but he uses none of it as a way of looking at his material. Furthermore, he never mentions pornography, which is a major portion of Hollywood's film market production. Such a discussion might have afforded a clearer connection to the economic questions which play so large a part in the creation of film images. It also would have brought into focus a discussion of voyeurism.
The Celluloid Closet is not a materialist feminist book about sexual representation and ideology by a sexual liberation activist. It is a book about straight images of homosexual people by a liberal gay man. I don't know why I thought Harper and Row would publish anything else. The horde of information that Russo has carefully gathered is a primary stage of research. Let's hope someone else does something with it but quick. It's too bad we don't know yet what form of representation, if any, will take place after the radical reordering that is required to free homosexuality from the kind of marginality that necessitates both this book and a better one.
1. For an informative analysis of MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM including important historical references, see B. Ruby Rich, "MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM: From Repressive Tolerance to Erotic Liberation," JUMP CUT, no. 24/25. Russo's other continental diversion in the book is also to Germany, where he discusses, among others, Hirschfield's ANDERS DIE ANDEREN, released twelve years before MÄDCHEN in 1919. It is discussed mostly for its political importance since, unlike MÄDCHEN, it was not screened in North America. Hirschfield was a major and vocal opponent of homosexual oppression. Russo gives here an historical reference, but he gives a peculiarly one-sided view of the provenance and roots of a movement which has learned so much from the political activities of women.
2. These kind of statements recur throughout the book. See also quotes referring to prison films later in this text.
3. Jeffrey Weeks, "Capitalism and the Organisation of Sex," in Homosexuality: Power and Politics, ed. Gay Left Collective. London: Allison and Busby, 1980, p. 14.
4. Jacquelyn Zita, "The Films of Barbara Hammer: Counter-Currencies of a Lesbian Iconography," JUMP CUT, no. 24/25.
5. Russo points to this when he mentions that a doctor's secretary lost her job when she was spotted in a press photo taken on the set of THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE. The set was a lesbian bar, the Gateways Club, and the secretary an unwitting extra.
6. Ken Popert, "Public Sexuality and Social Space," The Body Politic, no. 85 (July/August, 1982).
7. George Smith, "Telling Stories," Fuse, March/ April 1981.