We look to the movies to legitimise our sexual identity – using them to help us find a mirror of our own existence. With the inherent heteronormativity and heavy censorship of mainstream cinema, the effect on the LGBTQ community can only be interpreted as a negative one. Being part of this community, I’m interested in finding out how LGBTQ feel they are placed, and/or represented within the movies – with my focus being mainly on the lesbian element. Hollywood’s reluctance to stray from the heterosexual male gaze that still domineers mainstream cinema today, makes finding relatable, and more importantly, real, lesbian imagery almost an impossibility. In order to gain even basic self-acceptance we first need to acknowledge that we are not alone – and it is this lack of real lesbianism in the mainstream that makes this a daunting, and often lonely, unachievable task.
“They’re our story telling. They’re the fabric of our lives. They show us what is glorious, and tragic, and wonderful, and funny about the day-to- day experiences that we all share – and when you’re gay and don’t see that reflected in any way, ever, in the movies, you begin to feel that something is truly wrong.”
With a vast majority of lesbians feeling they are inadequately/ under represented within the movies, I sought to find out why something that is so desperately desired, and so easily achievable, is pushed under Hollywood’s carpet. Using a number of key sources I plan to show, explain and hopefully begin to tackle, or bring to light, the problems caused by Hollywood’s heteronormative agenda – focusing on how heavy censorship is a key cause of the unrealistic, stereotypical, and often devilish portrayal of the lesbian on the big screen.
The movies have always been somewhat stereotypical, but when it comes to the homosexual it seems to take stereotyping to a whole new level. The documentary, ‘The Celluloid Closet’, based on the book by Vito Russo, is an interesting compilation of film clips and interviews with influential actors, writers and directors, of both homosexual and heterosexual nature, that not only investigates the representation of the homosexual in cinema, but also scrutinise it. It focuses on the arrival of heavy duty censorship codes, such as the Hayes code, back in the 1930s, and the destructive effects these rules had on the medium – prompting directors to quickly learn to write between the lines or risk losing the homosexual on screen altogether.
“Our American people are a pretty decent, homely and wholesome crowd. Cockeyed philosophies of life, ugly sex situations, deep jokes and dirty dialog are not wanted. The decent people don’t like this sort of stuff, and it is out job to see to it that they get none of it.”
For some time it unfortunately seemed, to the untrained, or lonely eye, that homosexuality had been successfully eradicated from the mainstream. Homosexuality was not seen as something respectable people would be associated with, and was therefore something to be frightened and wary of.
“For all its efforts, the production code didn’t erase homosexuals from the screen, it just made them harder to find.”
‘The Celluloid Closet’ is an excellent example of how even those involved in the movies (directors, writers and actors) had/have little say in how homosexuality is portrayed overall – and instead have to work with the guidelines set upon them by a seemingly conservative/republican bureaucracy. Even with the demise of these initial codes, the homosexual did not make a positive return to the movies, and although homosexuality “was finally being talked about on the screen, [it was] only as something that nice people didn’t talk about.”and “characters of questionable sexuality would meet with a nasty end in the last reel.” The documentary is sometimes critisied for its open-endedness, choosing to comment only how far the depiction of LGBTQ on the big screen has come, but also how far away the ideal goal still remains.
“Hollywood still runs scared from the people who feel the very mention of homosexuality, the very display of it in some form on the screen legitimises the subject. Well of course it does, it shows that homosexuals are human beings. The movies could be making us laugh a lot more and cry a lot more if they would actually acknowledge the true diversity of humanity.”
I however believe this to be one of its advantages. It does not sugar coat any of its information, nor does it falsify it. Homosexuality is still under represented/oppressed within the movies today, and we have a long, hard fight ahead of us in order to suppress these often homophobic, heteronormative, Hollywood regulations.
The inherent heteronormativity of Hollywood cannot be denied after watching ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’. This witty, yet informative, and incredibly clever documentary turns the tables on the American ratings board – the MPAA – by putting them under the intense scrutiny, over their ratings ‘system’. Again using interviews with directors, mainly from the indie films genre, alongside film clips, and conversations with previous members of the ratings board and their employers, ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’ shows the difficulties faced by those wanting to, and making movies about homosexual lives and issues. Showing the MPAA for what it really is – a heternormative, conservative dictatorship. According to Jack Valenti (the MPAA’s then president), his ratings board ‘is populated by parents – normal human beings – neither gods nor fools.’ He believed his organisation consisted of the ‘average American parent’. The MPAA however, work under complete secrecy, and until the making of this documentary none of its members were ever known to the public. This secretive, although now known to be republican/conservative group, have taken it upon themselves to decide what we do/do not want our children to see, and get away with doing so by titling themselves ‘the norm’.
“What’s really offensive about that is, for a rater to say, we’re just going to rate these movies like an average American parents – who is an ‘average American parent’? I’m an American parent. I’m a lesbian, I live in Los Angeles, I’m a film maker, I have a daughter. I’m a parent. I pay taxes and is there anyone on the ratings board who’s a parent like me? I highly doubt it.”
The above opinion is that of, Jamie Babbit, director of one of the more well known lesbian films, ‘But’ I’m a Cheerleader’, and is an opinion that is shared by the vast majority of those creating LGBTQ subject matter for the movies. However, since the ratings board is a secretive organisation, one is not allowed to ask if all aspects of humanity are represented throughout ratings process. Luckily for Dick, and the rest of the LGBTQ population, two previous members of this board have broken their silence, and stated that, “Uhm… [long pause], well you know, to my knowledge there weren’t any that were self proclaimed homosexuals on the board whilst I was there. No.” More than anything, this documentary shows us excellent comparisons between heterosexual cinema and homosexual cinema. By showing us just how much harder it is for films of a homosexual nature to be treated as equally as their heterosexual counterparts, ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’ cements the knowledge that Hollywood’s perspective on equality is on a par with Orwells, ‘Animal Farm’ – some will always be more equal than others. In the eyes of the MPAA, you will be better placed to have your movie seen my the masses/ deemed acceptable by having heterosexual characters who are unfaithful and/or having numerous one night stands, than you would be if you portrayed a homosexual couple in a loving, committed relationship (See Fig 1).
“But I’m a Cheerleader was a movie about gay kids who go to a homosexual rehabilitation camp. It’s a comedy, it’s a teen movie, I mean it’s all the things that I thought kids would like and I really wanted teens to see it – and I feel like the most important teens to see it are teens that are in high school in like Wyoming, or like wherever, that are just feeling like they’re the only ones. Especially these kids that are sent to these homosexual rehabilitation camps – and those camps are very real.
So I got a call from the ratings board and they’d said you got an NC-17. I was really angry and really devastated and I didn’t understand why. Because there’s no nudity in the sex scene, and they’re fully clothed. It was ridiculous. But the really offensive thing was at the time that I submitted it to the ratings board ‘American Pie’ had just come out. I had seen the trailer a million times of Jason Biggs masturbating in an apple pie – in the trailer! So what the ratings board then tells me, that in order to get an R, I have to cut one of my girls masturbating over her underwear, fully clothed, you don’t see anything – basically you can tell that she’s masturbating.”
This documentary not only stands up to the ratings board and Hollywood, but it is also an eye-opener to anyone who subconsciously thinks these heteronormative ideas are the only way the movies can function whilst more importantly, ‘protecting’ our children.
Upon closer inspection, however, it would seem that Hollywood is not only determined to ‘protect’ our children, but also masculinity – and what better way than to villianise the lesbian.
“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 creating a feared female character, the ‘poor’ straight or even confused woman, is left with no other option than to turn to the safety of her heterosexual male counterpart.
In its creation of the lesbian villainess “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 lesbian is used as the perfect aid to propel masculinity forwards, and in return keep women in their patriarchal place. This is the point put forward by Claudette Charbonneau and Lucy Winer in ‘Lesbians in “nice” films’. By best describing the lesbian with disapproving negatives, and removing all appealing characteristics – “she is neither intelligent, nor charming, nor good looking,’– it allows heteronormativity to still inherently prevail in the mainstream. Lesbians looking to these films to for assurance are instead met with the realisation that they are instead, disgusting, sneaky and best kept in the shadows. So it is any wonder 80% of those questioned in a survey undertaken by myself feel they are unable to relate to LGBTQ characters in the mainstream?
“In real life, it is men who perpetuate violence against women. It is men who use rape as a weapon… 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.’
What may seem like a genre with the biggest ‘breakthrough’ in terms of lesbian cinema is once again a product of the heterosexual male gaze (See Fig 2). The greatest lesbian villain – the lesbian vampire – is born from male desire as a means to prove, “it is not he who is inadequate, he is competing with supernatural powers. A man who offers his woman life though his sexual potency (symbolised by sperm) cannot compete with the vampire who sucks away her life (symbolised by blood).” The lesbian vampire genre is one of the few, if not the only genre to deal with lesbianism in a sensual manner, however the content should not be mistaken as homosexual. What is depicted in these movies once again does nothing to help the lesbian in the real world – they will not help her find her place, and over all acceptance of her sexuality. The “heterosexual context must be very clear: lesbianism must be presented as an aberration.” The lesbian vampire also has a new, yet just as demeaning, characteristic –narcissism. These films teach us that “the lesbians and homosexuals are narcissists capable of making love only to images of themselves”’ and that “lesbian sexuality is infantile…; lesbianism is sterile and morbid; lesbians are rich, decadent women who seduce the young and the powerless.” (See Fig 3.) Love between women cannot according to these movies be described by any other means than vampirism. In Hollywood, both words mean the same thing.
As Andrea Weiss states in ‘Vampires and Violets’, even when homosexuality seems to have made a breakthrough in the movies, it is often as a guise for the ‘correctness’ of heterosexuality.
“While seemingly arguing the opposite, [mainstream ‘lesbian’ films] end up also, more convincingly, affirming the position that lesbians too can find fulfillment in heterosexual sex and heterosexual definitions of womanhood.”
On the contrary to mainstream cinema, is lesbian independent film. This genre deals with lesbianism minus the heternormativity, however, they often go to opposite extremes in order to remove the risk of these images generating male desire. Images of lesbian lovemaking are replaced with subtle glances – it is as if we’ve been catapulted back in time to the 1930s when censorship was first instilled. Regardless of this possibly negativity, this seems to have become a key element in lesbian indie movies.
“A young, attractive woman exchanges looks with a nun on the street of New York’s Lower East Side. The nun walks away quickly, but the woman follows her right into a church. And the camera positions our view with that of the bold pursuer, so that we unexpectedly find ourselves guilty of transgressing the taboo, of looking at the nun somehow ‘differently’.”
Although “this goal –not often achieved –is a primary one for lesbian independent film, and one of its defining characteristic,” it is not necessarily a step in the right direction. But one could, and often would, argue the genres superiority to the mainstream. Because of the lesbians absence Weiss makes a similar point to the sources mentioned above, stating, “the process of unearthing a gay iconography involves seeing with double vision. Absence as image. Erasure as image.” Lesbians are left to fill in the gaps, in order to see their own lives. Creating your own narratives could be seen to be enjoyable and therefore, easier to relate too. However when the only option you’re given is to read between the lines, doubt will always be close by.
‘Lesbians and film’ is yet another Jump Cut piece, but one that seems to sum up the majority of the points mentioned in my other sources in one short, and easy to understand article. Simply, yet powerfully, this article shows lesbian oppression within the movies with comments such as, “Lesbians are the women who are penalised for their sexuality more than any other women on earth.” The key feature in this writing is a point made relatively early on,
“The creating of a lesbian film criticism is particularly urgent, given the intensified use of the lesbian as a negative sign in Hollywood movies and the continuing space assigned to lesbians as gratification of male fantasy in pornography and a distressing number of male avant-garde films. Equally important as an impetus for new criticism is the rise of an independent lesbian cinema, under acknowledged and in need of attention.”
This hits the nail on the head. In order to move the focus from “heterosexuality [as] the positive, [and] lesbianism [as] the negative” we need to figure out how to propel these independent movies forward – without hitting the brick wall that is censorship and Hollywood. However, since mainstream cinema and censorship organizations (such as the MPAA) unfortunately hold independent cinema in the palms of their hands this still seems like a major impossibility – “film’s role in enforcing heterosexuality has hardly been challenged.” Whilst heternormativity exists within our male dominated society it is “not only lesbians, or straight women, who may find these images erotic,”and “as long as lesbianism remains a component of pornography made by men and for men, that will affect the ‘positive image’ of lesbianism.”
If we want to be able to relate to the lesbians on movie screen we first need to make the majority of the films made by lesbians, for lesbians, as close to reality as possible. Making this a possibility when “the film’s presentation of sexuality is not even one of liberal ‘equal opportunity’; the double standard of heterosexuality prevails”, as long as censorship organizations such as the MPAA exist, is not going to be an easy task, especially when in the majority of mainstream movies the lesbian is identified only by her sexuality. Independent cinema somehow needs to convince the mainstream that the lesbian should “not only [be] defined by, but limited to, her sexuality,”before any significant progress will be made. When it comes down to next years submission, utilising the sources mentioned in this essay, along with the extensive overview in my bibliography, I hope to gather a wider range of relevant sources in order to help me write a more in depth critique of lesbian portrayal in mainstream cinema – focusing mainly on the negative effect having a conservatively ran ratings boards has on the lesbian community. I strongly believe that until Hollywood suppresses its need to remain on its inherent heteronormative path, members of the LGBTQ community will continue having to translate the movies to fit their lives, instead of actually being able to see themselves in them. Unfortunately unless you are lucky enough to fall into what Hollywood describes as the ‘norm’, using the movies as a mirror, in order to gain self-acceptance, or to place oneself within certain social constructs, is something the minority can only dream of.
(Adapted from my Bibliographical essay submission for GSA, Year 3)