The Bell Jar. Julia. The Turning Point. Windows
Lesbians in "nice" films

by Claudette Charbonneau and Lucy Winer

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 25-26
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

One might chalk up WINDOWS, United Artists' "romantic thriller" depicting a psychotic lesbian killer, to free-floating homophobia and misogyny. After all, in a society as anti-gay as ours, we need never be surprised at an attack on lesbians — especially in a case like this which neatly joins an attack on lesbians with an attack on feminist aspirations.

The plot of WINDOWS features a lesbian who pays a man to rape her "best friend" with whom she is secretly in love. Because of the lesbian's machinations, the friend, who is just recently divorced, quickly learns to regret her one attempt to live independently. Not only does the lesbian hire the rapist, but that woman becomes sexually aroused by repeatedly listening to a tape recording of the assault. Such a plot's permutations present, full blown and with painful clarity, male notions of sexuality. It is men by and large who enjoy voyeuristic sex, as a quick check of your local porno district will confirm. It is men who connect brutality with sexual excitation, as yet another quick look at pornographic posters and paraphernalia will show. In real life, it is men who perpetrate violence against women. It is men who use rape as a weapon to keep women in a state of subjugation as Brownmiller has shown in her classic study, Against Our Will.

WINDOWS is transparently childish in its projection onto the lesbian of the despicable qualities and behavior women rightly fear in men. By dumping these qualities in an exaggerated form onto the lesbian, men absolve themselves of responsibility and induce women not to fear men but each other.

The film enforces a number of obvious anti-feminist lessons. Women should not lead independent lives, they should be wary of intimate friendships with other women, and they should by no means ever think of foregoing male protection. The image of the sadistic lesbian is as crucial for communicating this patriarchal lesson to women as the evil witch of the fairy tale is for communicating prohibitions to children.

In WINDOWS, the call for female submission takes a strident form. The film is an obvious backlash to the Women's Movement. What is most disturbing to us is that this blatant attack was prepared for in a number of "progressive" films which represented Hollywood's belated response to the Women's Movement.

In the middle and late 70s, Hollywood released a number of films which on some superficial levels at least presented women in a different light. First of all, women themselves, in their own right and not necessarily as accessories to men, are allowed to be the center. Moreover, they are seen working and even excelling in fields which were reserved for men in the films of the past twenty years. Thus in JULIA, Lillian is a playwright; her friend Julia is a medical student and an active member of the anti-Nazi underground. In GIRL FRIENDS Susan is a photographer. In BELL JAR Esther Greenwood is a scholarship student and an aspiring poet who rejects a fervent offer of marriage from a handsome young surgeon.

Even more importantly, in some films, women beyond the age of twelve are allowed to pursue serious friendships with each other. The pervasive male bias in our culture emerges rather sharply when one considers the question of friendship even in a cursory fashion. On the one hand, male friendship is a serious, even profound, theme, a vehicle for exploring and affirming basic humanistic values. This is certainly true in much of our "great" literature. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Hamlet and Horatio, even Huck Finn and Jim come to mind.

While male friendship has been exalted, granted dignity and nobility, female friendship has been denied or demeaned. Indeed, a basic tenet of patriarchal thought is that women are basically incapable of friendship. We are too frivolous, too catty, too self-indulgent, too irrational, too petty, too sexy, in a word, too flawed, to sustain the demands of genuine friendship. The reality, of course, as recent work by anthropologists, for instance, is beginning to show, is that women have always had more complex and sustaining relationships with one another than the portrayal in "high" or "low" art would lead one to believe.

In all parts of the world, from African co-wives to Finnish peasant women to suburban housewives in the United States, women have developed supportive networks among themselves which have been as important for survival as has dependence on men. Yet how frequently have we been allowed to catch even a glimpse of this reality? And how often, when recognized, have these relationships been trivialized? The patriarchal technique of "overkill" is revealed in the distorted version of women's relationships to one another which has been passed on in art and scholarship, in adages and jokes, in philosophic and poetic tags — "Women are sisters nowhere' (West African proverb), or again, "I never knew a tolerable woman to be fond of her own sex" (Jonathan Swift).

The dependence on men has been presented not merely as the more acceptable path (which would be bad enough) but as the only truly substantive reality. The effect is to convince both women and men of men's prime importance. Women are led to discount and to distrust their own experience of a network of women working together and helping each other. Instead, they are led to accept the prevailing conceptions which reinforce male supremacy. Instead of Hamlet and Horatio, women are given examples of pseudo-friendship as in Molière's greatest comedy, The Misanthrope, where the most brilliant and central scene (at the very heart of the play in Act III) involves a "cat" fight between the two female characters, who use their scintillating wit to annihilate each other as they compete for men.

The vision of women fighting each other appears to be a great source not only of entertainment, but of comfort. It is a tradition still with us. How else explain the inclusion of the long, brawling, but by no means clever, cat fight between the two women in TURNING POINT, another "feminist" film ostensibly dealing with women's lives and relationships to each other in a more mature way than in the past?

Once Hollywood decided that female friendship was worthy of its attention, it was heir to all the old prohibitions and prejudices — none of which can disappear simply through a superficial acceptance of feminism. And Hollywood is clearly not impelled to search deeply. The fear of presenting women's experience as a subject of interest in its own right seems to have been rooted in the fear that women might discover that men are not quite as necessary as they have been made out to be. That fear is a strong undercurrent, pulling and shaping the material, in many of these "pro-women" films.

The scripts nervously go out of their way to assert women's unshakable allegiance to men. They assert heterosexuality when the assertion is inappropriate and unnecessary. In TURNING POINT the ludicrous and dishonest emphasis on how very "straight" the dance world, the film's awkward, self-conscious repudiation of gayness, is a case in point. But it is not simply a question of shoring up heterosexuality: that we are accustomed to. It is that the act of shoring up involves not positive images but negative ones. It involves outright attacks, often not warranted in the storyline, on lesbians or on the specter of lesbianism.

JULIA, BELL JAR and GIRL FRIENDS each contain what can only be described as an obligatory anti-lesbian scene. Their purely gratuitous quality makes these scenes particularly insulting. For in no way are the scenes truly necessary to the major thematic development or structure of the films in which they are dutifully placed. Instead of challenging, Hollywood is reinforcing the assumption that attacks on gays require no justification.

JULIA is an interesting case. In Hollywood's first and major attempt to portray friendship between women in a feminist context, the film's lack of ease with the topic is painfully evident. The film is pervaded by a sense of unnaturalness, as if the very idea of women enjoying one another's company were too implausible to be successfully actualized. The specter of lesbianism haunts the film with particular intensity. Zinneman allows, indeed he stresses, mildly erotic feelings between Lillian and Julia. Whether or not he does so because he is simply more comfortable in following the male tradition of viewing women primarily in a sexual light is not clear. What is clear is that later on in the film, he has to denounce the sexual potential to which he has repeatedly called attention. As Pam Rosenthal pointed out in "Notes on Female Bonding" (JUMP CUT, 19), the scene in which the anti-lesbian point is actually made distorts Lillian Heilman's more honest and generous account in Pentimento.

The scenario of denunciation is particularly grating, for it is clear that the director suddenly feels on sure ground. The discomfort disappears. Zimmerman creates a strong dramatic scene, especially memorable in a film marked by confused feeling and inactivity. The scene is crisp. It has all the elements for success: an unappealing antagonist, an appealing heroine, and direct physical resolution of their conflict. The antagonist, a stray acquaintance of Lillian's, never to be seen again, exists solely for this moment. He exists solely to make a political point.

It is this unpleasant young man who finally accuses Lillian of having an affair with Julia. The emotional responses excited in the audience are very simple. Since he is distasteful, his insinuations are distasteful. We are meant to recoil with horror from the prospect of a lesbian liaison. His values, however, go unquestioned. We are asked to reject his "dirty" thoughts, not his labeling system. When he assumes a camaraderie of perversion between himself and Lillian (linking his incestuous experiences with his sister to Lillian's relationship with Julia), it is assumed that the audience will accept the equation.

The scene is a cheap but effective trick designed by the director to repudiate his own dramatic subtext. For it must be emphasized that up to this point, the audience has been encouraged to note the sexual edge in the relationship. But the specter of lesbianism has been called forth only to be exorcised. In this scene the audience is effectively chastised for entertaining the insinuations and fraudulent implications cultivated by the director. Hints of lesbianism in JULIA function like so many cubes of white sugar placed to test the innate virtue of wayward children in fairy tales.

What makes the scene doubly pernicious is that it has the makings of a genuine feminist moment. Lillian responds swiftly to the "insult." She hits the young man and overturns the table in the bar where they sit. In short, we see a woman unafraid to deal with a man, a woman unafraid to express her anger and able to do so, not only actively but flamboyantly. However, all these positive elements are put to the service of a basically anti-feminist cause, to the service of creating fear and distrust between women. WINDOWS is direct and unsubtle. The packaging in JULIA is more insidious. For JULIA uses a feminist facade to promote its attack. By winning assent to the feminist elements in the scene, Hollywood can pose as progressive while advocating reactionary values.

Like JULIA, the BELL JAR is based on a minor literary work by a 20th century woman author who has received attention from the Women's Movement. In the case of Sylvia Plath, Hollywood is in fact picking up, ten years late, on an author who was avidly read at a time in the late 60s and early 70s when women were first reaching out to find works which would in some way validate their emerging consciousness about woman's condition. Not only Plath's poetry but her far less substantial autobiographical novel contained enough feminist insights to win a staunch readership.

The film then, although failing to gain support either at the box office or at the hands of feminist reviewers, is very much a part of the miniseries of specifically "pro-women" films promoted by Hollywood. The job is unconvincing. At times the script sounds terribly pat, as if the heroine had memorized portions of Betty Friedan. At other times the film shows no awareness at all of feminist issues.

While the focus is not primarily on the threatening topic of friendship but rather on the difficult price a woman must pay to build a career and develop creatively, this film too must nevertheless issue a warning. And once again the limits of female self-sufficiency are prescribed with the figure of the lesbian used to express the danger of female intimacy and autonomy.

In Plath's novel, the lesbian is a minor character, a distant college acquaintance whom Esther Greenwood begrudgingly gets to know in a mental hospital, where both women are recovering from breakdowns. Joan, the lesbian, is best described by negatives — she is neither intelligent, nor charming, nor good looking. Esther merely tolerates her presence. The avowal of lesbianism and its rejection are incidental moments in the novel. Joan's admission of attraction is made in an adolescent fashion and Esther's repudiation, while outspoken, is casual. In the novel Joan commits suicide, not as a direct result of her rejection by Esther but rather in response to her perception of woman's lot, after she has witnessed the heavy bleeding brought on by Esther's first experience of sexual intercourse.

In the film, the lesbian has been upgraded, both in prominence and appeal. Joan is now Esther's closest friend. Moreover, she has been given many important attributes — she is bright, sophisticated, cynical, physically attractive, and rich. Her admission of attraction to Esther is turned into a highly dramatic scene. It occurs when Joan has visibly reached the lowest depths of despair. Indeed, it is difficult to determine whether Joan is offering Esther the possibility of sex or a joint suicide pact. Esther rejects both offers. And Joan hangs herself.

Hollywood felt it important to distinguish the acceptable independent woman from her "sick" and destructive counterpart. Though Plath's depiction of the lesbian is ultimately more insulting since she poses no threat, Plath's intentions are not as malicious. For Plath does not use the lesbian to define the acceptable limits of female independence. The character in the novel is a minor freak in a well-populated side-show. She carries no moral or didactic weight.

The striking changes in the lesbian character from the book to the film enforce political points. The figure's enhanced status enhances the rejection of lesbianism. It is more powerful to spurn the advances of a close friend, someone one likes, than it is to slough off the advances of a bothersome acquaintance. The fact that the lesbian is outwardly attractive becomes an effective device to underscore the innate horror of her sexuality. Her many privileges and advantages are not enough to protect her from the misery and self-loathing which lesbianism entails. BELL JAR promotes the traditional view of the lesbian as maimed and tormented. In its portrayal of the deadliness of lesbian sexuality, the film has clear links to WINDOWS.

GIRL FRIENDS offers a more sophisticated treatment of the lesbian menace. Claudia Weill does not entertain us with grim, outdated stereotypes. Her lesbian is not tormented and twisted, just somewhat confused. A childlike waif who spends her time hitchhiking and camping out in other people's apartments, she appears lost in the terrain of the 70s and is clearly overshadowed by the more "together" heroine. The specter has been reduced to an anomalous flower child, incapable of causing serious discomfort to any "with it" woman. She is a minor annoyance who pales before the real hassles posed by gallery owners, art agents, and lascivious rabbis. If women are to emerge from their cocoons and take their place in the real world, they must learn to take all kinds of unpleasantness in their stride. The film's liberal attitude carries with it a contempt which is as effective in undermining the viability of lesbianism as are more reactionary stances.

The ineffectual and insignificant hippie recalls the character in Plath's novel. But Plath's book was never intended to speak to as central an issue of the Women's Movement as friendship between women. Because GIRL FRIENDS purports to have a more serious grasp of feminism than films produced within the commercial industry, the contemptuous dismissal of lesbianism is particularly scathing. The Women's Movement has generated serious discussion of lesbianism. Indeed, many women have found the necessary support in the Movement and the emerging feminist analysis to reconsider and redefine their sexual identity. For the lesbian, as has been pointed out in much feminist literature, is the ultimate embodiment of female autonomy and self-sufficiency. This last, threatening point is very conveniently obscured by Weill's conscious trivialization of the lesbian.

In films like JULIA, BELL JAR and GIRL FRIENDS, the lesbian has been cast as the "fall guy." Clearly now it is the lesbian rather than the "fallen woman" of the past who is used in the more emancipated films to keep women in line. Earlier films expressed our culture's fear that women would be unchaste. Now that they are allowed fuller and richer lives, the fear is that women will not need and therefore not serve men. Some women have gained the privilege to be friends, to pursue careers, to be publicly intelligent. But the right of passage still involves the rejection of other women. Hollywood simply redesigned an old formula. The weaker sex is still divided against itself. Only now it is the lesbian and straight woman who have replaced the whore and the virgin.

The basic anti-feminist ploy in these supposedly feminist films — the device of divide and conquer — was not necessarily recognized. Hollywood was well aware of the fact that it could count on a reservoir of anti-gay prejudice to countenance its tactics. Because feminism has questioned and demanded changes on so many layers of life, predictably there seems to be a desperate reaching out for stability. And the film industry is here to provide the needed reassurance. As men learn to diaper babies and women learn to demand orgasms, they need only go to their local movie house to find that the basic patterns of life remain untouched. Even if the heroine wears a stethoscope, the point of the narrative remains unchanged: The essential bonds are made with men, not with women, who can never be fully trusted. No matter how confused the heroine is, how successful her career, how close she is with another woman, she is not a lesbian. And it is that fact which at once reassures the audience and provides them with a dumping ground for all the troubled feelings they have about the upheavals in their personal lives and the social order around them.

If one were to rank the challenges of feminism, the easiest to deal with would be those centering on work and career. But once one gets to deeper and more private layers, the responses are less sure. The questions of family structure, of sexuality, of emotional independence are much harder. To answer them requires very basic changes not only in the outer world but in each of our inner worlds.

The popularized versions of feminism which Hollywood promulgated distort the problem. Hollywood tried to make the public believe that advances could be made on the easiest levels while leaving the more difficult and threatening substratum of patriarchal oppression not only intact but reinforced.

These "progressive" films are clearer in their attack on lesbianism than they are in their affirmation of feminism. But it is, of course, their veneer of feminism which makes them so pernicious. No one has trouble dismissing WINDOWS — it is too crude an example. But many were taken in by GIRL FRIENDS, et al.. The films' superficial feminist context provided a "cover" for the assault. That there are thematic connections between seemingly benign films such as JULIA and the vicious WINDOWS proves the dangers of a shallow and opportunistic use of feminism. Hollywood got away so easily with vilifying lesbians in the "nice" films that they judged the public ready for the unexpurgated edition. There were picket lines outside the movie WINDOWS, but none outside of JULIA, TURNING POINT, GIRL FRIENDS or BELL JAR. Perhaps there should have been.

Although it is important to continue to hold Hollywood accountable for its bigotry, we must look to ourselves if we ever expect meaningful and effective films about lesbians and gay men. Consequently in the fall of 1979 a group of film makers, distributors and users came together and funded the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Filmmakers. They have actively supported protests against movies like WINDOWS and CRUISING. (The New York City demonstration and press conference against WINDOWS in January 1980 was organized by the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Filmmakers and the Coalition Against Violence Against Women, in conjunction with the National Gay Task Force.) The group also recognizes the crucial importance of fostering the production and distribution of films made by gay people so that there will be a true alternative to the homophobic and patriarchal fare of the U.S. commercial cinema.