Like any cultural phenomena, Hollywood is subject to trends - one year Vietnam is trendy, the next thing everyoneís making vampire flicks. The past two years or so itís been lesbians. Rolling Stone magazine declared "being a lesbian" as the "hot subculture" of 1994 (Rolling Stone, pg 95). In the summer of 1993, Vogue happily caroled "Goodbye To The Last Taboo." (Jetter, 86). k.d. lang is everywhere and the ultimate trend setter/bandwagon jumper, Madonna, came out about being bisexual.
So Hollywoodís finally catching on to this was only a matter of time. The money-minded moguls of Los Angeles have "discovered" lesbians and, more to the point, discovered that there dollars to be had by admitting this. However, like the subject of any trends, lesbians are being distorted to varying degrees within Hollywood films, and the end result may be more destructive than the film industryís previous silence. As the surprisingly pragmatic Vogue "Taboo" article asked "Is this the new visibility or the old voyeurism?". In sheerest optimism one can only answer "both", with all the negative and positive implications attached.
Lesbians are this seasonís gay man, but even safer, since makers can avoid feeling obligated to discuss AIDS, as they seem to be in every other gay-male character featuring film that is released. Film studios can toss a few parts out to lesbian characters and still smugly declare their sensitivity while avoiding any possible unpleasantness. Also, mainstream studios are still unsure how to treat lesbians in films. They are out to make money, and cannot decide whether to play to their established heterosexual audience, and keep the films sanitized and coded, or to try to win new viewers, and possible critical admiration with a more honest presentation.
Lesbian characters, like gay men, have not received the most illustrious treatment in mainstream film throughout the history of the medium. The Killing of Sister George (1968), and The Childrenís Hour (1962) featured lesbians, or suspected lesbians and both films had negative conclusions. Reidís character in Sister George was an alcoholic in a dysfunctional relationship and The Childrenís Hour ends in suicide. The villainous dyke type struck lows in such films as From Russia With Love with the extreme Rosa Klebb, and failed to get better thirty years letter with Basic Instinct. Lesbians are pitiful or evil women, deserving only of contempt or suspicion.
Lesbians in most mainstream films are largely frustrated women trying to pry the object of their lust away from heterosexuality or are ball busting, mannish bitches, and donít even get me started on the plethora of female vampires luring innocent maidens to their doom.
A pleasant interlude occurred in the presence of Personal Best (1982). However, the fact of a lesbian relationship between two female athletes, Chris and Tory, was trivialized by the fact that Chris was essentially saved not by "Chrisís strength and maturity derive not from Tory, who mothered her, but from Denny whose laid-back fathering has finally made her a woman" (Williams, 153). It takes a man to make a female a Woman, and, more to the point, it takes sex with a man to achieve this.
The film initially treats the lesbian relationship between Chris and Tory as sympathetically as can be hoped. The stereotypes are kept to a minimum, and although Tory is presented as a "dyke" visually, short hair, mannish clothing and posture, there is very little sensationalizing of the relationship between the two characters. However, the fact that Chris takes up a "proper" heterosexual relationship and is apparently a stronger character for it, dismisses what happened between her and Tory as an incidental fling. Tory states "We may be friends, but once in a while we fuck each other." and with that, Robert Towne relegates the two to a casual, and therefore meaningless, relationship.
Another pleasant surprise was Desert Hearts (1986). An east coast teacher, Vivian, comes to Arizona to finalize a divorce, and becomes involved with another woman, Cay. Wonderful in that it again does not sensationalize nor glamorize their relationship, even during the filmís major love scene between the two characters. It is also redeemed by the final implication that Cay and Vivian have a future together as they leave town together. This is not just a woman on the rebound being used by a promiscuous or selfish lesbian.
Then there is a major backslide and the resurgence of "killer lesbians" in popular films. Basic Instinct, Heavenly Creatures, and Fun, all feature gay or bisexual women who kill. Killer lesbians, and other negative presentations, pander to an audienceís prejudices as well as allowing Hollywood to present a truly exotic creature, something that is bound to titillate mainstream audiences into handing over cash.
Basic Instinct was by far the greatest commercial success of the three previously named films and features a murderer who is a lesbian. The underlying suggestion is painfully clear: that women who love women are messed up. The logic runs like this: Sharon Stoneís character is a murderer, and murder is dysfunctional. She is also a lesbian, therefore, being a lesbian must also be dysfunctional. Faulty reasoning, granted, but it doesnít remove the existence of that suggestion.
Itís alright to have a lesbian or bisexual woman in a film providing that there is no possible way that an audience member could identify with them. Thatís been established for decades. The fact that character is a killer is a great way of ensuring that the mostly heterosexual audience will not identify with her and will therefore not have any sympathy for her. This has the unfortunate side effect on ensuring that audience members are also being unsympathetic to lesbians. As Ellen Carton, the executive director of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) put it "There are probably all of three lesbian killers in the entire country and theyíre all in Basic Instinct...In thirty years weíve moved from suicide to homicide" (Krupp, 175) This is not acceptable progress.
The public is receiving mixed messages. Lesbian sex is fetishized throughout the sex industry. This fetishization in marginal entertainment is inhibiting the potential positive treatment of lesbian characters in mainstream entertainment. How can an audience be expected to sympathize (much less identify) with a sexuality that is reduced to objectified, misogynistic entertainment at the video store? During my own tenure at a neighborhood video store, I noticed that the greatest percentage of "adult" entertainment featured women having sex with other women - not necessarily lesbians, as the straight male viewer would be frightened by the possibility of being aroused by "real lesbians".
When a film features a lesbian character, itís usually glossed over. In Fried Green Tomatoes, the relationship between Ruth and Idgie is sexless and practically invisible, and the lesbian content of the original novel for The Color Purple didnít even make it as far as that in the cinematic adaptation. One critic described Spielbergís treatment of lesbianism as "a sort of counseling for dissatisfied housewives" (Rudnick, 37).
However, things are looking up, or sideways, at least. In the past three years, there has been an increase in the release of films featuring lesbian characters. The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls In Love, Boys On The Side and Go Fish were all released within the past two years, and are all beneficiaries of recent media adoration of lesbians. These films could be consider points on a curve, or trend, which describe the inverse relationship between intended box-office revenue and the lack of satisfactory treatment of lesbian characters in recent feature films.
Go Fish was an independently produced feature that had the great good fortune to be of sufficient merit to impress Goldwyn into giving the film major distribution. This could be considered an ideal treatment of lesbian characters within film. Itís about lesbians leading painfully normal lives and no coy subtext attached. What an idea, lesbians leading lives just like anyone else!
The film is by lesbians, with lesbians, for anyone to watch; although Go Fish was intended for a festival audience. Even the films writer/director team Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner were surprised by its success. "Itís a movie about getting together." Ms. Turner says and her interviewer agrees by describing it as "...not a coming out movie. Itís a-weíre-so-out-we-have-all-the-problems-everyone-else-has-movie." (New Yorker, 40). This makes the film refreshingly and markedly not a Hollywood film, as lesbianism is accepted as is, with no comment nor forced attention upon the existence of lesbians.
Of course, types are still present, and may be defended with the rather thin argument that all types have an element of truth within them. Are types forgivable when they are being presented by the very group they are drawn from? There is the tomboyish Daria with a new girlfriend every scene, Ely whoís clothing, mannerisms and long-distance relationship presents an almost androgynous, shapeless, sexless lesbian. and Evy with her condemnatory Roman Catholic mother. Is this a realistic representation? Probably. Will it frighten off mainstream audiences? Apparently it didnít. Go Fish was hailed by several publications, including the New Yorker as a "crossover hit" (New Yorker, 40). The assumption there is that a film featuring lesbians is automatically beyond normal audiences, and that it must cross the desolate wastes of bland public taste before being permitted success. The fact that it was a hit is made a lateral move for lesbian characters in film in that it was minimized by the label "crossover". Such a label implies that Go Fishís success is something of a freak event, that can and does happen, but not often enough for it to be considered normal phenomena.
Boys On The Side is a fine example of Hollywood trying to be subtle, tasteful, considerate, even, of the existence of lesbians. It fails. Rather, Boys On The Side is a contrived "womenís film" whose single lesbian character, Jane, reeks of tokenism. Jane is musician. Is this an attempt to play on the stereotype of homosexuals in the arts? I think not although with the popularity of k.d. lang, one could mistaken. Jane is trying to make it out to Los Angeles, hoping to improve her career. The fact that sheís a lesbian is incidental, and the question is: is this incidental treatment of Janeís lesbianism a laudatory attempt to present lesbians as "ordinary folks", or is Janeís sexuality a token item, thrown in to vary the plot somewhat?
During Hollyís trial, the prosecuting lawyer attempts to undermine Janeís testimony by suggesting a relationship between Holly and Jane, which Jane fiercely rebuffs. There is also the moment between Robin and Jane while Jane is in the hospital for a second time. Robin tells Jane about her one homosexual crush, and learns that the object of her momentary, adolescent desire was Jane herself. Too little, too late. This scene is evocative and dripping with "what might have been" potential, but what there actually is, is very little indeed. By the end of the picture, Robin has passed on, Holly is living out her own American dream with a husband and daughter and Jane is left alone, with only her memories. So she isnít dead, but thatís scant consolation.
Were these scenes written so that the film maker could acknowledge that itís okay to be gay, or because they needed some drama in the courtroom and a tear jerker in the ward? Being an optomist, Iím inclined to believe that it is both, rather than just the latter.
To the movieís credit, Jane is not a heavily typed lesbian. I acknowledge that is like admitting that a statement is only slightly racist, but in this jaded age, it is the best for which I can hope at the moment. Jane is a performing artist, a type usually forced upon gay men but beyond that she is presented as a "normal" individual. Such a presentation of a lesbian in a mainstream film has two purposes. One is so that Hollywood can pat itself on the back for refusing to give in to type - and hope that it will ingratiate itself with the lesbian community as a result - and the other is that a "normal" lesbian will not alienate the "normal" audience. Janeís homosexuality is sanitized and treated in a general manner because of industrial fear of losing money.
This industrial fear of losing money is a detriment to the film because it weakens Janeís character and makes one wonder why Jane was presented as a lesbian. There is no overwhelming plot that demands the presence of a lesbian, other than it allows for that moment of intimacy duing Robinís illness, which is as I stated earlier a convenient tearjerker and at best possibly a suggestion that we the viewers could be like Jane (although it could also be suggesting that we should wait until near-death before admitting any homosexual memories or impulses) . Jane could have been a straight woman with very little effect on the film - or even a straight man, but that would have disqualified the film from the increasingly lucrative "womanís film" category - and thus it reduces the fact of a lesbian in a commercial hit film to tokenism.
The Incredibly True Adventure... occupies an interesting position of character and story type between the heavily mainstream, popularized Boys On The Side and the more Ďalternativeí Go Fish, and as such, suffers from the good and bad points of both ends of the spectrum. The lesbian characters suffer from typing and the plot suffers from trying perhaps a little too hard not to frighten the audience. Randyís extended lesbian family, ranging from the apparently "dykey" aunt Rebecca to the long-term visiting ex-girlfriend who has just left her husband run the gamut of lesbian types in a manner reminiscent of after-school specialís desperate attempts to cover every possible racial, sexual and physical type within a five person cast. "Look, weíre diverse! Weíre really diverse! You canít condemn us for only presenting one type, weíve got them all!"
Evie, meanwhile, is the rich girl next door living with her divorced mother. Very normal, very, well, mainstream. Okay, so Evieís black, but even Hollywood has admitted thatís okay. These family and character types can be just as readily found within a John Hughes film and the lesbian aspect of Randyís family and her own character make it different enough to interest an audience without threatening it.An audience that does not feel threatened will spend its money.
Have these movies been given particular attention because of the current trend? Are theyíre plots being given significance and critical kudos because they feature a woman-woman situation, not a man-woman situation - particularly in Go Fish and The Incredibly True Adventure...? Thatís a distinct probability in my mind. If the romantic aspects of those two films had been heterosexual, they would have been trite and they certainly wouldnít have been as heavily featured in the popular press as they were. Heterosexuality is nothing new, but nor is homosexuality. But lesbians are trendy right now, as is sexual sensitivity, and Hollywood deseperately cashes in on every trend that comes down the pike.
The romantic aspects of Go Fish and The Incredibly True Adventure... would have been condemned as dull and unoriginal or something equally damning if it had been a heterosexual setup. Incredibly True Adventure... would have been just another coming-of-age film with a few elements of a bedroom farce tossed in at the end if it had been a heterosexual relationship.
Is film important because it features lesbians? Is a film important just because it features lesbians? Are lesbians enough to make a film sufficeintly different to be new, or is it merely new packaging on the same product? Should a film be treated differently, held to different standards, by critics just because it features lesbians? I believe that while it is important that all sexuality be equally treated and discussed within mainstream film, and that includes being featured in ultimately mediocre features such as Boys On The Side, it needs to be treated without the self conscious emotional baggage that Hollywood has saddled it with. Thatís why Go Fish is so great, because itís free of that, mostly because it was made by gay women, and because it was not a Hollywood product. I guess LA has a lot of catching up to do.
The presentation of lesbians within big-budget mainstream film is hampered by the industrial fear of utterly alienating an audience, combined with a fear of mortally offending the gay community. It is a somewhat delicate situation, but it must be met. Films featuring lesbian characters can still be categorized as either "Lesbian Sinister versus Lesbian Lite" or Basic Instinct versus Boys On The Side (Pincus, 81) and this cannot be tolerated.
Sometimes trends can provide a greater service. The "lesbian chic" has served to remind whitebread America that lesbians exist - like it or not. However, trends themselves pander to stereotype, as particulars are too finicky to be dealth with on the grand scale of popular culture, so types can persist. Newsweek magazine still uses terms such as "butch" and "femme", which are considered archaic by the current lingo (Pincus, 81) and no doubt believes itís being dreadfully hip.
The problem with trendiness is that they sometimes spiral beyond all reason, adored by all who come in contact with it, vaunted to the heavens and then, with the same swiftness that it arose, the trend collapses and the backlash kicks in. This leaves the object of the trend confused at best, and bruised and bloody at worst. The collapse of the trendiness of homosexuality could mean a return to the dark ages of vicious types and homophobia. So much for progress.
It must be kept in mind that Hollywood is a commerical enterprise, and films are distributed, be they taken from the festival circuit, or entirely contrived in Century City, to make money. If there is the slightest risk that the mainstream audience will be shocked and avoid the film, then Hollywood is not going to try again. When a major studio makes a film, there is always the message sent, be it via dialogue and camera angle, or shiny press pack, that "Look! Thereís a lesbian in this film! Arenít we sensitive? Arenít we caring? Arenít we so open minded! Prove us right and give us your money!". Unfortunately, the entertainment business is a business that cares not about creating broadening minds, only about exploiting out leisure time. Acknowledging this however, doesnít mean that I have to like this fact or accept it. But the only way to ensure continued representation of lesbians within mainstream film is to keep track the mediocre products, for vigilance is required to curtail future Basic Instinct clones, and to support what few good mainstream films are presented. If we appeal to their balance books, we can hope the directors and writers will follow.