Liberal Lesbianism

by Lisa DiCaprio

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 45-47
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

As with PERSONAL BEST, LIANNA (written, filmed and directed by John Sayles), has been hailed by many critics as presenting an accurate portrayal of lesbian culture. Promotional material has described the film in these terms:

"LIANNA … looks and sounds authentic. Its neither slick, like MAKING LOVE nor does it pretend to be about something else, like PERSONAL BEST." (Vincent Canby, New York Times).

"An unusually intelligent and compassionate view of a woman's coming to terms with her sexuality and herself, done with taste and understanding" (Judith Crist, WOR-TV).

Reviews in the alternative press such as In These Times have been no less positive:

"John Sayles' new movie is certainly and triumphantly about lesbians. Because he gets it so exactly right, I assume he has a good informant on the inside and a writer's ability to imagine his own way to the interior of someone else's experience" (Barbara Presley Noble, In These Times).

Predictably, LIANNA has provoked as much controversy among feminist and lesbian viewers as did PERSONAL BEST. In reviewing either film, it is necessary to establish a common point of reference. Do we judge these works from a historical perspective? In the past 20 years, only three major Hollywood films have been produced in which lesbian characters are primary: THE CHILDREN'S HOUR (1962), THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1968) and THE FOX (1968).

These films all dealt with lesbian relationships as being shameful. For example, in THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine are accused of having "sinful sexual knowledge of one another" and MacLaine ultimately commits suicide. Neither PERSONAL BEST nor LIANNA assume such a condemnatory attitude toward lesbians. Within a historical framework, LIANNA represents a sympathetic portrayal of lesbians, but it is a sympathy shaped by a liberal perspective. The ultimate result of this perspective promotes an ideology of tolerance, rather than liberation.

From an artistic standpoint, LIANNA falls to accomplish even Sayles' own stated goals. In a review published in In These Times, Sayles denied any overwhelming political motivation behind his film explaining,

"I just tried to get across the character. For instance, in Lianna's first love scene with a woman I wanted to communicate what she was feeling."(1)

Toward the end, Sayles employed a deliberately garbled tape of French conversation as a voice over. However, the tape served more to distract rather than to heighten the believability of the scene. Sayles' utilization of the tape points to the way that LIANNA is written very much from the outsider's viewpoint. Whatever Sayles' intentions were, the most striking characteristic of the lovemaking scene in his film is the absence of any real passion expressed between the two women.

For the most part, Sayles has created one-dimensional characters lacking in emotional depth.(2) Essentially, he fails to explore the complexities involved in lesbian relations. The usual weight of social ostracism faced by lesbians becomes further compounded in Lianna's case by the fact that she is married and is the mother of two children. Sayles, however, seems unable or unwilling to dramatize the conflicts which would inevitably occur within such a situation. As will be shown, the common thread which runs throughout LIANNA is the view that heterosexual and lesbian relations are the same in their most fundamental aspects. While the film avoids some of the crudest anti-lesbian imagery, at the same time it confirms other stereotypes of women and lesbians, presenting lesbian relations in such a way as to preclude a radical presentation of the issues.

An attractive young woman in her early 30s, Lianna is married to her former instructor, a film professor in the university's English department. Lianna states early in the film, "I started out majoring in English and became a wife instead." Interested in continuing her education, Lianna enrolls in an adult education class on child psychology taught by a visiting professor, Ruth Brennan. Lianna is obviously captivated by Ruth, an older woman in her late 40s with an established reputation in her field. Most of the women at the university are either students or wives whose lives have become an appendage to their husband's career. Ruth provides the model of a woman who has the independence and self-confidence absent in Lianna. Lianna remains after class one night to express her admiration for Ruth's teaching ability and offers to assist Ruth in her research. Ruth invites Lianna to her apartment to discuss the details of their work. In the course of several hours of discussion, Ruth confides her past love for a woman. Through this revelation, she assumes the risk of initiating a physical relationship with Lianna.

It is interesting to compare this moment in LIANNA with the comparable scene in PERSONAL BEST. In a review published in JUMP CUT, Linda Williams writes,

"In PERSONAL BEST, the track and field sports context of the narrative permits an emphasis is on the physical and sensual that renders the women's erotic relationship a ‘natural’ by-product of their highly physical existence."(3)

Williams concludes,

"This is the source of the almost overwhelming acceptance of the film's acceptance of the normally taboo subject of homosexual love."(4)

In PERSONAL BEST, the first lovemaking scene occurs as the outgrowth of an arm-wrestling contest between the two athletes. In LIANNA, Ruth expresses her physical attraction for Lianna during an intimate discussion. Lianna remains almost expressionless as Ruth moves closer and begins to gently stroke her face. While LIANNA does not employ the physicality of sports as the context for the expression of sexual love between two women, because Lianna exhibits such passivity in this scene, it tends to reinforce the stereotype of an older lesbian’s seducing a younger woman.

Overall, the film presents Lianna's relationship with Ruth as a natural response to a positive approach by another woman. Lianna accepts an option which presents itself when her marriage is clearly near its end. Earlier the film had portrayed her husband Dick as unsympathetic, with an overwhelming preoccupation with advancing his own career. He proprietarily takes over Lianna's time and energy. She resents being drawn into the obligatory social life of the "professor's wife." He resents it when she would rather attend Ruth's class than one of the many parties which he must go to.

Yet, the film presents the internal dynamics of Lianna's relationship to Ruth in many ways similar to those of her marriage. Lianna does not significantly transform herself. She falls back on the familiar role of research assistant, thus duplicating the dependent relation she had with her husband. However, Lianna's relation to the outside world does undergo a qualitative’ change, which rapidly transforms her life. Most dramatically, Lianna now sees the world around her through lesbian rather than heterosexual eyes. Several scenes establish Lianna's newly affirmed lesbian sexuality. In one, we see her gazing at other women on the street, as she lets herself express her previously suppressed physical attraction to women.

The film shows Lianna's confrontation with the intensely negative attitudes toward lesbians held by mainstream U.S. culture. She first meets the reality of homophobia when her husband Dick returns from a trip, during which time she and Ruth had taken advantage of his absence to consolidate their relationship. Both women agree to discretion, but in the middle of an angry exchange with Dick, Lianna confesses that she is having an affair. Her husband demands, "Was he the man of your dreams?" Lianna responds, "It was not a man. It was a woman," and names Ruth Brennan as her lover. Dick responds with laughter and anger, revealing his deep fear of and contempt for lesbians. When Lianna responds in turn that he too has had affairs with students, he answers, "But at least they were with the right sex." Dick issues an ultimatum that Lianna must move out.

The principal effect of this scene is to establish Lianna as an "impetuous" character. Throughout the film, Lianna exhibits a particular innocence and naiveté which leaves her extremely emotionally vulnerable.(5) She is consistently oblivious to the social consequences of her acts, especially social attitudes towards lesbians. Why did she specifically identify Ruth as her lover? Goaded by her husband, she felt she had to shock him with specific details. Generally alluding to a relation with another woman would not have had the same dramatic impact. However, by naming Ruth, Lianna placed Ruth in a position of jeopardy. Dick could easily use the information to discredit Ruth professionally in the small town atmosphere of university life.

As further evidence of her naiveté, Lianna tells Ruth about her imminent divorce, assuming they will now live together. Ruth quickly dispels these illusions, stating that with such a living arrangement, "Everyone would know." Here, we can identify with both Lianna's spontaneity and Ruth's caution. The exigencies of daily life constantly force lesbians to suppress their desire to express physical affection. In a sense, the film presents Lianna and Ruth as a study in opposites. In her impetuosity, Lianna expresses the liberating experience of acting on her newly realized lesbian identity. Ruth, on the other hand, represents a woman who probably "came out" in the late 1950s during a particularly repressive period in the United States when the nuclear family was monolithic and authority generally unquestioned. Although "old gay" organizations such as Daughters of Bilitis would have given support to a lesbian of Ruth's age, only with the emergence of the contemporary women's movement was a full-scale assault launched on traditional sexual roles in our society. This movement provided the framework for a more positive assertion of lesbian identity and culture than was previously possible.(6) Years of living a dual existence have resulted in Ruth's resigning herself more to her situation while Lianna, only recently coming to know society's condemnation of lesbians, constantly feels frustrated at having to suppress her physical impulses.

On Ruth's insistence, then, Lianna must live alone once she leaves her husband. She and Dick seem to agree to give him custody of the children. Here Sayles' treatment of Lianna seems most implausible. He portrays Lianna's relationship with her children as positive and shows a touching scene in which Lianna carefully brushes her daughter Theda's hair. Yet he characterizes Lianna as experiencing only minimal conflict when Theda pleads tearfully, "Why can't I come with you?" Then later in the film, Lianna misinterprets Theda's unwillingness to speak to her when they meet by chance in front of a theater and assumes that Theda's reserve comes from Dick's having informed the children of her lesbian relation with Ruth. Rather, clearly Theda feels betrayed and abandoned simply because her mother has left, without considering the specifics of Lianna's new relation to Ruth.

Although married for at least 13 years and the mother of two children, Lianna acts as if she had been married only briefly and had no children. Even though Ruth's field is child psychology, she and Lianna never discuss Lianna's children. Such discussion would have provided the film a means to examine the particular stigma society attaches to lesbian mothers, against whom the epithet of "unfit mother" is hurled. Sayles states in his interview that to include children in the film "was one of the most important things for me, because that complicates the issue for most people."(7) However, the film so casually treats Lianna's relation to her children that it actually tends to reinforce the popular stereotype that being a lesbian and a responsible mother are mutually exclusive. KRAMER VS KRAMER already gave the message that pursuing a career and motherhood are incompatible. Whether Sayles intended to or not, he has made the same point in relation to lesbians and motherhood.(8)

The film presents Lianna and Ruth's relation as developing within a vacuum, with no emotional conflicts intruding from Lianna's past. Only Ruth's past commitments influence their relationship's outcome as Ruth informs Lianna that she has another lover in the city that is her home. This revelation comes as a complete shock to Lianna, as she has given up her husband, children, and friends out of her love for Ruth. Ruth understands the inequities between them — age, experience, and career. Ruth's interest in Lianna may have been limited to physical attraction, rather than mutuality. She refers to her lover Jan as an older woman, the head of her department, and someone with whom she has undergone a great deal. In contrast, her relation to Lianna lacks emotional substance. At first glance, it would be easy to judge Ruth as irresponsible she seems to initiate a relationship and then not be prepared or willing to deal with the consequences. However, we find the clue to Ruth's behavior when she tells Lianna that she assumed Lianna's attraction to her was in the spirit of exploring the possibilities of a lesbian relationship. Ruth has expected that Lianna would remain married and that they would have an affair in which both would maintain their primary relations. Ruth then announces that she is returning home to discuss the matter with Jan.

Now, Sayles shows Lianna facing the fear of being alone as she experiences intense feelings of dependency, typical of the early stages of love. Perhaps by showing Lianna nearly emotionally devastated, Sayles provides here a negative portrayal of lesbian relations. Another interpretation is that by showing Lianna at this point in her life, waiting to find out whether or not Ruth has rejected her, the film can develop Lianna as a character confirming her lesbian identity outside of her specific relation with Ruth. Lianna rejects the advances of a close male friend who assumes that since she is now "free," they can act on the physical attraction he assumes is mutual. Lianna says she sees him only as a friend with no sexual interest, a revelation he finds difficult to accept. Here, the film shows men's common assumptions about "unattached women," especially women recently divorced or separated.

Additionally, Lianna does not waver about leaving her husband and does not return for solace when her relation with Ruth is in jeopardy, even though she no longer has her old friends to turn to for emotional support. For example, informed that Lianna is a lesbian, her best friend Sandy confides to Jerry that she had to examine hers and Lianna's entire relationship to question if there were "anything more" than an intimate friendship.

Left to her own resources, Lianna decides to return to a lesbian bar, which Ruth had first taken her to. The first time they went, Lianna exclaimed incredulously, "But they are all women." Now, she has overcome that initial intimidation and even responds positively to the sexual advances of another woman. The film gives here a glimpse of the strengths and weaknesses of the lesbian bar scene. On the one hand, bars serve as a "safe" environment where lesbians can openly express physical affection without fear of condemnation. At the same time, the bar serves as a ghetto, and there it is difficult to find emotional companionship, since women communicate there mainly on a physical, non-verbal level.(9) It is not surprising, then, that Lianna is approached by someone very different from her — a member of the Air Force. Lianna loves Ruth, yet in Ruth's absence, she regains a certain level of self-confidence by becoming sexually involved with another woman. On her return, Ruth sees this new development as positive, since she has always said that Lianna's lesbian identity extended beyond their particular relation.

In the end, Ruth decides to leave Lianna. In contrast to PERSONAL BEST in which Chris leaves Tory for a man, Ruth is leaving Lianna to return to another woman. In the final scene, Lianna and her old friend Sandy meet at the park bench where the film began. Sandy has come to terms with her own prejudices towards lesbians. She says she cannot "understand" lesbians but loves Lianna as a friend. The film closes on an image of the two women in a close physical embrace.

What overall impact does a film such as LIANNA have? According to its producer Maggie Renzi, its purpose was "to give people new information or a new way to think."(10) To what insight does LIANNA bring the viewer? Since THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, we have witnessed the rise of a women's movement which has posed a fundamental challenge to sexual roles as well as the rise of gay and lesbian movements which have questioned the compulsory nature of heterosexuality in our society. Yet, LIANNA presents a vision more appropriate to the outlook of "old gay" organizations such as the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society, whose goals were essentially limited to achieving public acceptance, rather than personal and political liberation.

In her In These Times review, Barbara Presley Noble writes,

"Since why Lianna loves women isn't any more explicable than why some women love men — or anyone loves anyone, for that matter, Sayles concentrates on the details of lesbian culture."

This "inexplicable" character of Lianna's love for another woman precisely characterizes the liberal view of lesbians. The film does not show Lianna's agonizing over her new identity because, in Sayles' view, her affair with Ruth is just "another relationship” — this time, with a woman. According to Sayles, society should not make distinctions between lesbian and heterosexual relations.(11) To say that justice lies in the leveling of differences serves to diminish women's and lesbians' special needs.

It is not surprising then that Lianna and Ruth's relation exists in a social and political vacuum. Sayles portrays lesbian relations only as a choice, to be understood within the narrow framework of one woman's response to the particular circumstances of her life. LIANNA does not give the viewer any indication of why such a "rational" choice would be met with such fierce hostility from society, except to imply that homophobia is based on irrational fears and attitudes — the product of a conservative sexual morality. The film's basic structure only explores individual responses to Lianna's new lesbian identity. We are shown the reactions of her husband, children, and friends.

However, LIANNA excludes from consideration the larger economic, political, and cultural forces which are responsible for determining and shaping the experience of lesbians. The film deprives lesbian oppression of any real political meaning; instead, we are to regard it as a purely individual, private issue. From Sayles' perspective, the solution to lesbian oppression lies merely in challenging prevailing views of lesbians, as if change can take place within the realm of ideas alone without challenging existing institutions. This is the real meaning of Lianna and Sandy's reconciliation. It provides a touching moment. But it has the ultimate effect of defining a lesbian relation as a barrier that Sandy will never cross as she relegates Lianna to the category of "other." This is the essence of the liberal conception of lesbians which promotes tolerance but does not question the institution of compulsory heterosexuality itself.

In producing LIANNA, Sayles has chosen a controversial subject for mainstream culture, but he has presented the issue of lesbian relations in such a way as to actually contain political controversy. For many heterosexuals, LIANNA will undoubtedly be viewed as an informative' but non-threatening film. From a lesbian perspective, LIANNA represents a form of exploitation — a depiction which only serves to compound further general misconceptions about the lesbian experience.


If LIANNA presents its main character as a woman who appears suspended in time and space, an earlier film, A WOMAN LIKE EVE provides a significant alternative. Based on a screenplay by Nouchka van Brakel and filmed with a largely female crew, this Dutch film dramatizes the changes in a woman's life when she decides to leave her husband and becomes the lover of a French lesbian living in a commune. In one sense, A WOMAN LIKE EVE faces the same criticism as does LIANNA in that the basis for the women's relation seems to lack emotional depth. However, A WOMAN LIKE EVE deals with the external realities of a lesbian relation very differently. A WOMAN LIKE EVE is very much a film made from a woman's perspective and directed to a women's audience.

While in Sayles' film, a mother's responsibilities and her lesbian relations appear to pose no conflict, it is precisely the emotional turmoil of such a situation which A WOMAN LIKE EVE portrays with rare sensitivity. Eve has two children, but she decides from the outset of the separation from her husband to retain custody of them. She fights a court battle which she ultimately loses. In preparing Eve for her initial court appearance, her lawyer says not to mention her lesbian relationship. However, in a typically vindictive outburst, Eve's husband brings out this fact. Eve refuses to deny her new lesbian identity, stating emphatically that whom she chooses for a lover has no bearing on her maternal competence. Accepting Eve's argument that she has had the primary responsibility for her children and should be allowed to continue as the main parent, the court awards Eve temporary custody.

The film then examines how Eve's maternal role affects her love relation with her lover, Lilianna. A social worker is assigned to investigate the new living arrangement. Eve acknowledges that she in some way sees Lilianna as a "father" whom she wants to be more a part of her family. However, Eve also recognizes that Lilianna resists such a role and that this is that woman’s prerogative. Because of custody problems, although Lianna prefers that Eve live with her in the commune, for Eve this is not a viable option. Eve's lover often expresses resentment at the fact that Eve’s prior responsibilities and strong emotional ties to her children define their relation. The film presents each woman's perspective in a balanced and sympathetic way. The temporary custody arrangement is portrayed as problematic, but Eve and her lover seem committed to working out the best possible solution.

Eve's husband abruptly announces that he is soon to be remarried — to Eve's best friend. He challenges the custody arrangement. He argues that, remarried, he can provide his children a "proper" heterosexual family. Eve passionately reiterates her original position that single or not, lesbian or heterosexual, she remains the mother of her two children. This time, however, Eve loses.

In the final scene, we see Eve carrying suitcases and preparing to board a train, presumably to the commune where Lianna lives. At the last moment, she decides not to leave. Although she has lost custody of her children, Eve prefers to remain in the same city so that she can visit them. While Sayles' film very much mutes the social consequences of Lianna's actions, A WOMAN LIKE EVE emphasizes the painful choices that society forces on lesbians, especially on lesbian mothers. On the most crucial points, A WOMAN LIKE EVE succeeds where LIANNA fails. It provides us with an engaging drama which illustrates in a compelling way how the dynamics of a lesbian relationship are shaped by the harsh realities of a deeply homophobic society.


1. John Sayles, “John, Maggie, and Lianna," interview with Pat Aufderheide, In These Times, March 9-22, p. 12. The tape utilized by Sayles for this scene was originally the background for a heterosexual lovemaking scene in the French film, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR scripted by the French feminist Margeurite Duras. What is communicated by the use of this same tape in LIANNA is that for Sayles the lesbian experience is foreign one that he is able to convey only from a heterosexual point of reference.

2. The character that perhaps "works best” in LIANNA is a male friend of Lianna who attempts to seduce her after she has left her husband. He is played by Sayles himself.

3. "PERSONAL BEST: Women in Love," JUMP CUT, No. 27 (1983), p. 11.

4. Ibid.

5. It is interesting to consider why Sayles portrayed Lianna as being so consistently naive. In an interview in Film, Mar. 4, 1983, Sayles has stated that his film is not about lesbians per se, but about society's response to one woman choosing a lesbian relationship. However, the fact that Lianna retains her innocence to the very end means that she does not achieve any significant personal growth. The film therefore deprives the viewer of a more complex rendition of a character who suddenly must face a new factor in her life (in this case, lesbian oppression) and come to terms with it. At the end of the film, Lianna does not seem to have incorporated any new perspective into her life. She is instead presented as the victim of a lover who has rejected her. In his portrayal of the main protagonist as a naive and passive woman, Sayles reinforces a conservative stereotype about the female role.

6. For a description of this period, see "Reminiscences of Two Female Homophiles" by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, as published in Our Right to Love, A Lesbian Resource Book (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978), p. 124. The authors write, "The climate of the fifties was not the climate of the seventies. DOB [Daughters of Bilitis] members feared disclosure of their sexual orientation more than anything else."

7. Sayles, In These Times, p. 22.

8. This view of a mother's asserting her independence by essentially abandoning her children either for a career or a personal relationship appears almost to be the reverse view of women's enacting the Playboy philosophy, as it was analyzed in a recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men. According to Ehrenreich, Playboy was instrumental in creating an ideology which encouraged men to forsake family responsibilities in order to maximize their pursuing individual satisfaction in their career choices and personal relations.

9. In a review published in off our backs, Angela Marney criticizes the exaggerated nature of Sayles' bar scene:

“I am at a loss to remember when a gathering of women has ever been portrayed with such lechery — Sayles has encouraged one of the most common stereotypes about lesbians, that because they are sexually attracted to women, they act upon that attraction in the same way that heterosexual men do" (April, 1983, p. 18).

10. Sayles, In These Times, p. 22.

11. Ibid. p. 13.