by John Ramirez and Larry Horne
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 66-68
The UCLA Gay & Lesbian Media Conference took place during the last weekend of January 1983. It had an urgent agenda intended to address the status of gay and lesbian representation in film and television studies. The three-day conference was preceded by a weeklong program of films presenting an historical cross-section of national cinemas, film movements, styles, and both independent and commercially acclaimed directors. This cross-section was designed to suggest possible parameters for critical inquiry. The combined events offered a valuable occasion for gay studies' contributing to the field of critical film studies, raising questions about the previous silence regarding the representation of "marginal" sexuality.
In recognition of this silence, the UCLA Gay & Lesbian Media Coalition had been established in the fall of 1981. The Coalition members, all graduate students in the UCLA Motion Picture/ Television Studies Program, are: Claire Aguilar, Chris Berry, Don Diers, Larry Horne, John Ramirez, together with the assistance of Robert Rosen, director of the UCLA Film, Television and Radio Archives. The conference was funded by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities and hosted by the UCLA Department of Theater Arts.
The circumstances that led to the conference emerged from Coalition members' shared inquiry into film studies methodologies. In relation to the analytical field comprised of Marxist aesthetics, Althusser, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, semiotics, post-structuralism, and feminist criticism, we asked, what are the possible positions of alignment and opposition, of contribution and variance posed by "homosexual" representations? What new challenges are posed to the field of representational analysis by the practices of gay and lesbian media critics?
In trying to address these questions, the conference sought to fill a void in existing critical practice. The conference was far more strategic than simply another pooling of gays and lesbians together, under the aegis of a "community celebration," for the purposes of self-edifying entertainment with gay themes, movies, and personalities. This event's uniqueness rested in the mandate to clarify what we mean by a gay and lesbian aesthetic and to establish appropriate critical categories.
Because of its unprecedented nature, the conference had a very broad scope and consequently an overburdened agenda. Without models to draw upon for its organization, the conference at times tended toward imprecision and generality in its attempts to map out a relatively uncharted terrain. Nevertheless, in providing a forum for the previously obscure, diffuse, and inchoate critical articulations about gay and lesbian representation, the conference set into motion a long-awaited dialogue, one that requires further refinement and reworking. With such intentions in mind, conference panels were organized to allow discussion of the widest possible range of visual modes and representational practices.
On the first panel, "The Politics of Kitsch and Camp", each panel participant brought a diverse contribution toward defining a gay aesthetic according to his or her respective discipline. Dennis Altman (author of The Homosezualization of America, the Americanization of Homosexuality, 1982), one of the first figures to emerge in the early 70s on behalf of gay politics, spoke about establishing categories of gay themes in commercial films. Remaining at a level of theoretical generality, Altman drew from a number of current films (i.e., VICTOR/VICTORIA, MAKING LOVE, ERNESTO). The system of gay authorial-text-spectator relations he proposed could hardly be extended beyond its implicitly "essentialist" approach. Vito Russo (author of one of the few books of gay film criticism, The Celluloid Closet, 1981) continued along essentialist lines. He offered a more informed body of historical film facts, though he had an even less specific theoretical framework. Panel chair Robert Rosen (UCLA) began a significant debate with these approaches by suggesting terms to use for an ideological investigation of the issue. Positing "kitsch' and "camp" as dichotomous and separable sensibilities, Rosen sought to distinguish their often confused and conjoined features of conservatism (kitsch) and radicalism (camp). In a similar vein, Horne (UCLA) considered representations of transvestism as discursive strategies which undermine cinema's pervasive dynamics of heterosexual representational codes and spectator positioning.
On the panel, “Gay Interest Groups and the Television Networks", Kathryn Montgomery (UCLA) moderated an amiable discussion among panelists: Newt Deiter (The Gay Media Task Force), Phillip Gerson (Alliance for Gay Artists in the Entertainment Industry), Paul Leaf (independent television writer, director, producer of SGT. MATLOVICH VS. THE U.S. AIR FORCE, NBC, 1978), and Dick Martin (NBC's Broadcast Standards Dept.). Twenty years ago, in the paranoiac wake of McCarthyism, the extent of gay presence on network television took the form of anonymous information leaks from within the industry to recognized gay community spokespersons. Since then, the language and functions of network practices have developed to accommodate an open relation between the networks and gay interests.
Informed by a history of community grievances and network resistance, a practice of "balanced programming" has evolved. With regard to gay and lesbian images on television, "balanced programming" supports a symbiotic relationship between networks and the gay community. They cooperate to achieve positive homosexual representations on the basis of the networks' need for profitable ratings and agreeable public relations. In this context, the channels for dialogue between the networks and gay interests lie in a series of formalized procedures which are usually insulated by an administrative protocol that wards off "controversy" at all costs.
As a consequence of the priorities and compromises required to maintain this relation, gay imaging on network television submits to the dubious position of "non-advocacy." The panel proceeded to describe television's current parameters for handling of homosexuality. On television, some gay and lesbian representations strive to offer role models and above all sustain popular "entertainment value.” Other characters "just happen to be gay," and their physical affections must never figure visually in the narrative's unfolding.
Chairing "Lesbian Images in Media," Andrea Weiss (programmer for the Living Cinema in New York and for the New York Independent Women's Film Festival) contributed her perspectives on the absence of lesbian images in current feminist avant-garde film. In characterizing the films DAUGHTERS OF CHAOS (Marjorie Keller) and EMPTY SUITCASES (Bette Gordon), Weiss identified their common lines of heterosexual feminist discourse. Although confronting issues of sexual difference and traditional feminine roles, these films primarily seek out "liberated" terms for cinematically representing heterosexuality. According to Weiss, a basic heterosexism informs feminist theory's tendency to disavow lesbian issues.
In contrast to DAUGHTERS OF CHAOS and EMPTY SUITCASES, Weis referred to Sally Potter's THRILLER as offering an exemplary decoding of the terms of women's powerlessness. THRILLER can imagine its two female figures‘ erotically bonding to the exclusion of its male characters — a scenario finally attributable to Potter's own lesbian sensibility. However, Weiss in introducing a contradictory assertion opposed heterosexual assumptions in feminist film practice with a lesbian essentialism. From a practical perspective, Barbara Martineau (filmmaker, teacher and critic) traced causes and results of lesbian absence in radical independent documentaries. Filmmaker Barbara Hammer offered a final challenge to current feminist theory by proposing a seven-point schema toward a lesbian aesthetic. Hammer's agenda, grounded in personalized sociobiological categories, delineated the dimensions of touch, nature, adaptability, vaginal configurations, mother-daughter bonds, isolation/alienation, and adventure/risk-taking. Each of these categories Hammer associated with the individual event of lesbian self-identification.
The issues raised by this series of critical lesbian positions generated a call for more precise parameters by which to define lesbian film practice. This call insisted upon an analytical agenda that would be more rigorous than merely referring to lesbian directors, and more historical than reducing textual components to metaphors of the body and erotic lesbian exchange.
Initiating this call was Janet Bergstrom (UCLA) who discussed Ulrike Ottinger's MADAME X. Using a broader historical approach, Bergstrom attempted to bridge feminist theory with social history by seeking specific cinematic and cultural categories with which to approach the film's design. Situating MADAME X in the context of postwar Germany, Bergstrom characterized that country's national division as informing a film practice in which sexuality is but one component within a range of factors affecting spectator identification. Bergstrom questioned the validity of a strictly lesbian reading by emphasizing specific historical moments and social movements that influence narrativity.
Lillian Faderman (Cal. State Fresno, and author of the influential Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, 1981) added an additional historiographic model. Presenting legal, cultural, and textual evidence, Faderman mapped the changes since events in the late 1800s which inspired one legal tract and Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and two subsequent film versions of Hellman's stage play. Faderman's analysis revealed the particular terms of the different socio-historical contexts out of which each version emerged.
Chairing "Ideology and Cultures: Case Studies," Bill Nichols (Queens University) joined Julianne Burton (U. CA. Santa Cruz) to propose a double narrative system in Hector Babenco's PIXOTE (Brazil, 1981). According to Nichols and Burton, in the film sexual marginality threatens to transgress bourgeois familial codes. However, given its depiction of femininity and maternal metaphor, the film also idealizes traditional heterosexual divisions and gender assignments.
Adding to this inquiry into Third World films and their impact on a gay sensibility, John Ramirez (UCLA) offered a reading of Octavio Cortazar's EL BRIGADISTA (Cuba, 1977) in which the narrative must place the film's central character firmly within the text's overriding rhetoric of masculinity — a rhetoric strictly codified in the terms of Hispanic culture. In EL BRIGADISTA narrative departures from this masculinity suggest that the film would align male homosexuality with the "feminine."
Attempting to redeem "classical narrative" from the fate of restoring the sexual status quo, Robin Wood (York University) presented a Freudian reading of the homosexual subtext in Martin Scorcese's RAGING BULL (USA, 1980). Characterizing the film as representing "constitutional bisexuality," Wood decoded its terms of homosexual repression and the resulting neuroses of paranoia, misogyny, and violence. Although Wood's approach seemed locked into a social reflection model, he provocatively characterized the film as affirming the social order but as uncompromisingly critiquing the human costs and social inequities required to maintain that order.
Claire Aguilar (UCLA) investigated the signifying process in high fashion advertising for the way it makes a narrative out of social and sexual conventions. Through describing iconography, formal elements, and promotional strategies, Aguilar's analysis pointed to the need for studying other media to understand the ideological issues pervading our culture's representational apparatuses.
Additional presentations described the textual workings of MAKING LOVE (USA, 1982). Joseph Janangelo (NYU) was concerned with the film's attempt to align itself with dominant ideology by its reliance on allusions — all with marked degree of gay sensibility — to classical prose, poetry, and Hollywood film. Chris Berry (UCLA) focused on MAKING LOVE's marketing and promotional strategies and consequent intra-textual workings of ideological cooptation.
Chairing "Dimensions of Pornography," Thomas Waugh (Concordia University) presented "Gay Pornography as Cultural History." Here Waugh argued for the political significance of gay male porn. Amassing male pornographic photographs from 1885-1954, Waugh demonstrated how they had been historically situated at intersections of art, commerce, and law. Thus such photographs serve as highly encoded sites for analyzing the production of gay male culture in 20th century capitalist society. Mapping pornography's shifting course from suppressed private consumption to its current public market space, Waugh questioned whether gay male porn's inclusion in public space renders it complicit with that space's patriarchal agenda, e.g. the exclusion of women's sexuality.
Richard Dyer (Warwick University, and editor of Gays and Film, 1977) also contributed an essay on pornography, read in absentia, suggesting that expressions of male sexuality in pornographic film inform a narrative context that basically upholds the exigencies of capitalist ideology and culture. Dyer's work seemed to suggest that representations of male sexuality, whether gay or non-gay, proceed within an ideologically privileged domain.
Jan Oxenberg and Lucy Winer (independent filmmakers working together on a project dealing with issues of pornography) touched on this problematic of male sexual privilege. Oxenberg and Winer questioned the prospects by which lesbian filmmakers may seize the means to look at other women within a representational order characterized by the masculine power to gaze at and possess women. Ultimately, the issue that prompted the most debate on the panel concerned gay men's ability and need to reassess their "masculine privilege" as they allied themselves with the lesbian community against sexist forms of visual pleasure and sexual objectification.
The panel "Production and Distribution Practices“ did not use the kind of theoretical language heard elsewhere. Practical concerns of finance and distribution strategies and options were the principal issues here. Panel chair James Boyle (USC) coordinated an impressive gathering of gay and lesbian film workers. Greta Schiller, currently directing BEFORE STONEWALL for the Public Broadcasting System, spoke on the benefits and limitations of federal funding and television affiliation which had affected her film's production and distribution. Screenwriter Barry Sandler (MAKING LOVE) assured the audience that his career has been well rewarded since his "coming out" with MAKING LOVE, allowing him both the means and encouragement to pursue independent production.
Donna Dietsch, presently working on an independent production of Jane Rule's novel Desert of the Heart, elaborated on the public relations and administrative complexities involved in raising adequate funding for a quality product, while at the same time preserving personal, political, and artistic integrity, Joe Gage, best known for slightly-better-than-average feature-length gay male pornography, spoke on the advantages of economic independence, which he gained by investing in more popular genres, such as low budget martial arts films that his New York company is recently promoting.
In its struggle to evaluate existing histories, the panel "Approaches to a Gay Film History" grappled with the various models on which historians may base their works (i.e. feminist, ideological, personal, popularist, assimilationist, gay essentialist). Although we had anticipated that the panel would clarify the functions, uses, and ideological underpinnings of such historiographic models, the panel gave way to an explosive argument about disparate priorities and academic standards. Discussing how covert gay readings could be made of conventional narratives, panel chair Al LaValley (UC Santa Barbara) credited directors such as Cocteau and Murnau for possibly having injected a gay sensibility into the historical development of narrative forms and styles. John Greyson (National Association of Lesbian and Gay Filmmakers) presented an essay on gay independent video; he dealt with the parameters of the video apparatus and situated the emergence of gay and lesbian video artists within their field, one that is not yet as rigidly codified and conventionalized as film.
Using Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet as a point of contention, Martha Fleming (critic, whose essay was read in absentia) characterized Russo's book as a quasi-subjective chronicling of gay characters lacking both methodological rigor and attention to lesbian specificity. Then Vito Russo made a heartrending self-defense. A consensus emerged from the audience urging that Russo not be held answerable for the problems his book inadequately addressed. Russo argued that such divisive energies would be more productive if they were properly directed to writing other works that took up neglected issues or ones needing historiographic citation.
Since each speaker drew from a different method, the conference offered a spectrum of approaches. The terms of these debates shifted. There was a range of perspectives which located the fundamental issue either at the level of the image or at the level of analytic language. Repeatedly, the presentations and responses differed about the appropriate analytical frameworks for gay and lesbian representation. Such articulation of difference became a measure of the conference's significant contribution to the field of critical inquiry.
How are we to talk about gay and lesbian representations? There's an urgency in our claiming the “homosexual's" stake in the prevailing academic critical paradigm for determining the course of our future investments and contributions. The variety of people and interests represented at the UCLA Gay and Lesbian Media Conference means we have begun a landmark initiation of this task. Considering the multiple issues raised by gay and lesbian media representations and valuable dimensions and categories to film and media studies. It is an approach which can no longer remain peripheral to the field.