Personal Best
Lesbian/feminist audience

by Chris Straayer

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 40-44
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

In JUMP CUT, No. 27, Linda Williams provides an excellent feminist critique of PERSONAL BEST, focusing on its female iconography and then on its depiction of a lesbian relationship. However she does not investigate the question of female viewer response. Both depiction and audience reception are essential to feminist film theory. The first can demonstrate sexism in a particular film. The second explores how women audiences can enjoy such a film.

That the content of Hollywood movies is overwhelmingly sexist formed the first major argument of feminist film theory. Three books of the early 70s, Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape, Marjorie Rosen's Popcorn Venus and Joan Mellen's Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film, utilized historical and sociological approaches to demonstrate mainstream film's misrepresentation of women to reinforce patriarchal ideology. The multitude of feminist film critiques, which followed these books, aimed at exposing this ideology at work, making explicit the often-implicit sexism. Feminist film theorists were especially well armed for this task because ideology operates by presenting itself as "natural." And a basic tenet of early feminist consciousness raising was to question all taken-for-granted assumptions.

In a 1975 article in Screen, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey expanded feminist criticism against film content to include the narrative form and the cinematic apparatus itself. Adopting a Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalytical approach, she maintained that classical narrative cinema is constructed specifically for the male viewer's erotic look. Woman serves as image, object of this look, both within the narrative's development and as spectacle apart from the narration. Woman's lack of a penis, however, provokes castration fears in the male viewer, who then seeks either to disavow castration through fetishism or to replay the original trauma with woman in the guilty role through voyeurism. Classical narrative cinema produces both alternatives as visual pleasures. Through close ups, shallow depth of field, costuming, etc., woman's image is made fetish for the male spectators scopophilic gaze. Within the narrative, the guilty woman's character is punished or forgiven.

Reactions to Mulvey's article varied. Some feminist filmmakers and critics rejected narrative film style for avant-garde forms, which could disrupt male viewing pleasure. Feminist film theory modeled on Lacanian psychoanalysis began to spread. However, other feminist film theorists objected to the uncritical use of psychoanalysis as a model due to its sexist premises. While discussing some questions, Mulvey's position avoided others. If classical narrative cinema is constructed for male viewing pleasure, how is woman's viewing pleasure explained? Mulvey's approach left little room for female viewing pleasure other than via identification with the male viewer or regression to her own earlier phallic stage. Many feminists resented the implications. Some found an alternative to the Lacanian approach by expanding on a well-known 1970 Cahiers du Cinéma article, "John Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN," which argued for "subversive" reading. Such an act constructs multiple meanings by reading against the grain or locating gaps within the "preferred" reading. This implies an intellectually active viewer.

A good example of this approach is a 1981 article in Film Reader, No. 5, "PreText and Text in GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES," where Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca provide a feminist reading of GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES in order to "recoup from male culture some of the pleasure which it has always denied us." Rather than analyzing male voyeuristic pleasure in this film, as Maureen Turim did in her negative assessment of Hawks' film in Wide Angle, No. 1, they explore their own pleasure. This pleasure depends on the film's "positive identification for the female viewer" which is enhanced by the resistance to male objectification by its women characters and its focus on women's connection to each other. Arbuthnot and Seneca state,

"Positive identification with other women is precious both because it is crucial to our own positive self-image as women, and because it is suppressed both in life and art."

They maintain that the fictional narrative form holds pleasure for women as well as men. Independent feminist films that disrupt narrative to destroy male pleasure only succeed in destroying the pleasure of identification for both sexes. In other words, identification is not in itself a male operation.

Arbuthnot and Seneca's article posits a female viewer quite opposite to any allowed by a psychoanalytic approach. Their viewing actively seeks pleasure, yet this pleasure is decidedly not in the film's sexism. The weakness of their approach, however, is that it disengages entirely from any critical opposition to that sexism. It constructs woman-identified meaning without interrogating patriarchal ideology.

It is at this point in an ongoing dialogue among feminist film theorists that my study of PERSONAL BEST and its lesbian/feminist audience enters. I suggest a more sociological approach. Observing considerable debate in the lesbian/ feminist community and press regarding PERSONAL BEST, I decided to question viewers themselves about their reactions to the film. Though my questionnaire lacked proper design for strict statistical analysis, it did lead to some interesting observations. The unique sample chosen for questioning, i.e., lesbian/feminists, brought to light certain new considerations regarding the female viewing experience. For example, consideration of the woman viewer as lesbian accentuates certain pitfalls in the use of a psychoanalytic model.

William's review of PERSONAL BEST does recognize the question of the female viewer, whose autonomy within an entertainment industry controlled by and serving males is questioned. Though herself critical of the film's "ass, crotch and muscle fetishes of the eighties," Williams states,

"I strongly suspect that such images invite women to consume them from a temporarily assumed male point of view. If women could not learn to at least partially assume the male viewpoint in consuming such images, they would experience constant visual displeasure in the bombardment of female body parts provided by the media."

If applied specifically to PERSONAL BEST's lesbian/feminist audience, this suggestion could perpetuate homophobic myths. Lesbians have persistently been misassigned a male point of view by straight society. Sexual preference is confused with gender identity. Freudian and Lacanian psychology fosters this misconception by its denial of active female sexuality. Lesbians are a vulnerable target for any theory that terms activity as "phallic." One conclusion apparent from my survey of lesbian/feminist viewers is that they are not consuming sexist imagery from a male point of view. Their enjoyment of PERSONAL BEST is similar to that described by Arbuthnot and Seneca with one important corollary.

Certainly PERSONAL BEST provides for a feminist reading without requiring subversion. The Donnelly and Hemingway characters defend each other against a manipulative heterosexist coach and at the end support each other despite Hemingway's move into heterosexuality. The film's depiction of vigorous sports activity challenges sexist stereotypes of feminine passivity. And its presentation of lesbianism without obligatory explanation or maximum punishment is a rarity. Any feminist pleasure in PERSONAL BEST, however, is bittersweet and coexists with a conscious discomfort with equally obvious sexism and heterosexism in the film's images and narrative. The lesbian/feminists whom I surveyed demonstrated a viewing experience which contains simultaneously both a feminist reading and a feminist critique.


In May 1982, 44 women filled out questionnaires about their reactions to PERSONAL BEST, which were distributed in Chicago by a few lesbian/ feminist friends, two feminist bookstores, and myself. This is what sociologists term a "snowball" sample. Rather than obtaining a diverse sample, the intent was to survey a relatively homogenous and specific population: lesbians and feminists who operate within a lesbian/feminist culture.

Of the 44 responders, 32 identified themselves as lesbian, 6 as bisexual, 5 as straight, and 1 unsure of her present sexual identity. 43 of the sample identified themselves as feminist. Ages ranged from 21-47 years and were comparably dispersed among the above subgroups. The majority of women described themselves as white; four said they were Mexican, American Indian, or Black. Four others identified themselves as Jewish (some of the "white" category were also probably Jewish — my questionnaire was not perfect).

The means I chose for distribution directed questionnaires to lesbians who experience feminism in their public (bookstore) or private (friends) spheres and straight or bisexual feminists who have close contact with lesbian friends and co-workers. Considering this shared position in a specific political subculture, it is not surprising that no significant differences were found among lesbian and non-lesbian subgroups. Each subgroup exhibited a parallel range of responses. Therefore the group is considered as a whole here and referred to as lesbian/feminists. In no way does this sample pretend to represent women in general or, in fact, the entire diversity of lesbians and feminists.

Responders were asked to gauge their responses to PERSONAL BEST using the following categories: loved it; liked it very much; liked it some; disliked it; hated it. Approximately 70% of the sample responded favorably (loved it, liked it very much, liked it some) and 30% unfavorably (didn't like it, hated it). Twenty per cent indicated that they had liked the film more at the time of viewing (average one and a half months before) than they did now. However an inspection of reactions to more specific parts of PERSONAL BEST reveals these basic statistics to be an oversimplification. Indeed, 91% of the sample indicated that they were split in their reactions.

Detailed answers blurred any clear boundary between favorable and unfavorable response groups. As might be expected, lesbian/feminists originally in the favorable response group were more likely to be glad that the movie was made and feel that it was progressive for a Hollywood product. A few unfavorable responders, however, also felt this way. When asked if they liked the film's ending, if the film portrayed lesbianism as positive and if its lesbian relationship was an accurate representation according to their own experience, lesbian/feminists originally in the unfavorable response group gave predominately negative answers again. However, a majority of the favorable responders also answered these questions negatively. For example, one lesbian/ feminist liked the film but thought it didn't present lesbianism accurately because,

"I saw no evidence of love between the two women. I was especially shocked during the car fight when Torrie said they fucked each other. I've never heard a lesbian use that word to describe her lovemaking."

Sixty-four per cent of the lesbian/feminists surveyed indicated that they went to see PERSONAL BEST because they had heard that it was about lesbians. After viewing, only 10% felt that the film was indeed about lesbians. 42% felt the film to be about sports. 3% thought the subject to be a mixture of sports and lesbianism. Other responders provided answers consisting of "male perspective of lesbians or women athletes," "male voyeurism," "male fantasies," and "male pornography." Interestingly, those women who expected PERSONAL BEST to be about lesbians are found in higher percentages among the liked some, disliked and hated categories, possibly suggesting that their dislike of the film relates to disappointed expectations.

An overwhelming majority (93%) of this sample said that they like the image of women athletes. Responses frequently referred to the athletes' strength, beauty, naturalness and internal determination. Less typical responses were:

"Muscularity and physical fitness seem to now be another demand on women's bodies," and

"This image is too boy-like. It rejects more full, womanly figures."

In contrast to the sample's predominately positive reaction to the image of female athletes was a strong negative reaction (87%) to the use of that image by Playboy magazine. The April issue of Playboy did an interview with Robert Towne, the director of PERSONAL BEST, and reproduced several PERSONAL BEST stills including one from the steam bath scene. Also several poses of Mariel Hemingway, which were not from PERSONAL BEST, were printed. Of the 33 negative comments about this Playboy coverage, the most commonly used words were "anger" and "disgust." Responses also included such reactions as "not surprised," "pornography" and "usual exploitation by males." Of the remaining responders, 4 indicated that they didn't care and 1 indicated that she would buy the issue.

The sharp contrast between the results of these two questions testifies that similar images can be used for grossly different purposes both by the image-makers and the viewers. Several comments occurred on questionnaires indicating that, while those viewers were enjoying PERSONAL BEST, they were also aware of and made uneasy by the knowledge that straight males in the audience might be enjoying this same film in a more sexist way. One responder related her ability to experience the film psychologically disengaged from male audience presence. From this rare perspective of woman space and sensibility, it was possible to appreciate the muscular achievement in the crotch shots without the images' usual pornographic connotation. Interesting in relation to Laura Mulvey's article, another responder conjectured that men's liking of PERSONAL BEST was tantamount to their watching of sexy women in Playboy while simultaneously stating,

"I was seduced by Torrie and Chris. I liked the way the characters watched each other."

Yet obviously she felt her reactions differed from men's.

The questionnaires used for this survey allowed for better qualitative assessment than quantitative. Responders were encouraged to write comments as well as pick among given choices. Three questions of particular interest simply asked responders what parts of the film they liked, disliked or would change. Their answers provide evidence against any notion that they viewed PERSONAL BEST from a male point of view. Regardless of overall favorable or unfavorable ratings, a feminist viewpoint is active throughout the sample. Not one questionnaire submitted was without some acknowledgement of sexism or heterosexism in the film. Viewing pleasure co-existed with displeasure.

Both those responders who liked the film and those who disliked it listed many of the same complaints and praises regarding PERSONAL BEST. When divided into the following four groups, these comments demonstrate both a lesbian/feminist reading and a lesbian/feminist critique.

Pro-Lesbian parts which were liked: Lesbians are shown (on film and, at times, openly in relation to other characters) displaying affection/caring for each other (hugging, kissing, making love, tickling, finger pulling. Torrie cares for Chris in shower; Torrie calls Chris her "side kick"; Chris helps Torrie in final race, etc.). Torrie is coded as lesbian and projects lesbian energy attractively and realistically.

Pro-Woman parts which were liked: Women perform athletic feats (arm wrestle, run up hill and on beach, outrun male runner during practice, lift heavy weights). Women rebel against domineering coach (Chris talks to Torrie in lunchroom).

Anti-Lesbian parts which were disliked: Coach is sexually aggressive towards Chris in his apartment. Coach insults lesbian relationship and lovemaking. Torrie is depicted as stereotypical jealous lover spying on Chris in restaurant. Torrie and Chris never talk about their relationship and use word "fucking" to name their lovemaking. Torrie talks about old boyfriend. Chris kisses guy at party as if heterosexuality were more valid than lesbianism even while in a lesbian relationship.

Anti-Woman parts which were disliked: Crotch shots of women high-jumping are shown while loudspeaker is announcing that high jump is a masochistic event. "Pussy" is used to insult a man, which is inherently derogatory towards women. Denny blows up Chris's shorts while she is assisting him in bench lifts. Coach insultingly says that he could have coached a men's team. Denny watches Chris' legs under water. Coach pins Torrie to wall during party. Woman's overweight figure used for humor.

By far, the most frequent and emphatic comment was dissatisfaction with the portrayal of Chris and Torrie's relationship. Because they were isolated from any lesbian community and had no lesbian friends, outside pressures exceeded outside support. That they never discussed the relationship seemed out of line with generally sanctioned and exercised lesbian values. By not grounding their relationship in time and space, the film provided no satisfactory causes for it to succeed or fail. As one lesbian/feminist wrote,

"The movie gave the impression that being a lesbian required no more thought than who to date on a Saturday nite."

Lesbians are quick to note the limitations of a "lesbian" movie which provides no lesbian context for its characters. Likewise, any understanding of a lesbian/feminist audience requires discussion of context. The reasons why many of this sample gave the film an overall favorable rating and others did not reaches past PERSONAL BEST to the relation of lesbian/feminists to mass media and society.


If a world can be defined by a consciousness of itself, lesbians live in at least two worlds simultaneously. They are included in the first world by the fact of their humanness and the assumption of their heterosexuality. For centuries, this world has made lesbianism invisible, occasionally approaching it as a personal sickness to be cured or a social problem to be explained, but never actually reaching it or acknowledging it as an ongoing fact. As lesbianism is constantly denied in the first world, it becomes primary status in the second, a lesbian-created world, and the lesbian subculture.

Whereas straight people very rarely experience the lesbian subculture, lesbians constantly pass back and forth between the two worlds. In the past two decades, the gay liberation movement has forced straight people to cross the line at least in their awareness of homosexuality. Though this has in many cases increased tolerance of gays and exposed stereotypes, it has not been an open door to the gay subculture. As long as heterosexuality is synonymous with certain privileges and power, homosexuals will be distrustful of heterosexuals. Though many lesbians today do not fear retaliation were their lesbianism known, e.g. loss of job, rejection by straight friends, movements are transitory and liberation is relative.

Lesbians may fear less the losing of a particular job or friendship than a resurgence of repressive attitudes during their lifetime.  While in the straight world, therefore, lesbians often take advantage of the heterosexual assumption to pass as straight themselves. Rather than "acting straight," merely not fulfilling lesbian stereotypes is usually sufficient. Passing as straight does not decrease the importance to themselves of their lesbianism or their need for a lesbian world. Lesbians are usually sensitive enough to nuances to pass as straight and recognize other passing-as-straight lesbians. In addition, lesbians often purposely give off clues of their lesbianism, which are unnoticed except by other lesbians. This process of simultaneously passing as straight and exposing one's lesbianism to other lesbians, of claiming one's status as both human and lesbian, creates a meta-identity: a co-existing awareness of who you are and who others think you are.

This meta-identity also functions when lesbians experience mass media. Regardless of how accurately or inaccurately mass media represents straight society, it is created essentially for a heterosexual audience. The ideology it creates or reflects is heterosexist. This is an excellent example of the power and privileges afforded to heterosexuality in the larger world.

Unfortunately the denial of power, including economic power, in that world severely limits the ability of lesbians to create comparable subculture media for their own. Though there now exists, and has in past movements, an international feminist literary network, including women-owned and operated presses, publishing houses, distribution companies, periodicals and writers' guilds, which indeed provides a viable alternative in the print medium, the economic demands of filmmaking have limited widespread access to a parallel production network arising there.

More important, not even the most separatist lesbian is disengaged from the larger world. Lesbians participate on various levels in the larger exchange of commodities. Most lesbians include city newspapers and Hollywood movies among those commodities. As participants and economic/labor contributors in that larger world they wish to he equally served by it.

Vito Russo, in his book, The Celluloid Closet, amply demonstrates the typical treatment of gays in/by Hollywood movies. Not only are they underrepresented and misrepresented, but also they are consistently punished. Usually that punishment is severe, i.e. death, and it is presented as destiny. If a lesbian or pre-lesbian "fell" for this depiction of homosexual destiny and unworthiness, no doubt she would either commit suicide or "go straight." In fact, however, though a pessimistic and unflattering presentation is essentially the only one available in mass culture, lesbians do live healthy lives with surprisingly few lesbian-related problems.

Indeed, lesbians are, a "living" proof of the limitations of ideology. Initially without role models or even a name for their feelings and beliefs, they are still able to own them as valid and thus question the truth of ideology.

"Once information about lesbianism is secured, an individual typically makes one of three types of resolution of (stigmatized) identity. First, a woman may identify with the social category and accept the given negative imagery as descriptive of self. Second, she may disidentify with the category. Third (and most prevalent among the women with whom I spoke), the individual may identify with the category but change the meaning of the category." (Barbara Ponse, Identities in the Lesbian World; Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978, p. 139, my italics. Ponse interviewed 75 lesbian women from a gay organization in a southern U.S. city.)

Gradually, without the aid of heterosexist family traditions, school behavior codes or mass media, lesbians meet other lesbians, confirm and re-name their thoughts and enter a subculture where their experience is not denied.

The reaction of lesbians to mass media, then, is one which Roland Barthes would describe as "writerly," an active questioning and recreating of what is presented to them. It is not atypical of lesbians to rewrite a text as this lesbian does in The Well of Loneliness, the 1928 lesbian classic by Radclyffe Hall.

"I really identified with that book, but in the end when she gave up her lover to a man I thought to myself, 'It sure wouldn't be that way for me.' I just rewrote the end of the book in my head and made it come out the way I wanted it to! (laughter)." (Ponse, p. 141.)

Likewise, lesbians can watch the movie CAGED (a 1950 Hollywood film about lesbianism in prison), dismiss the stereotypes for what they are and creatively enjoy the narrative's community of women. Shall we say that lesbians are well trained for subversive reading?

(Continued on page 2)