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July 23, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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We Are Not A Plot Device

TRACKING THE PROGRESS OF LESBIANISM ON THE SCREEN

 

 

Since the conception of motion pictures, people have been captivated with images of themselves. Films give us something to be intrigued by, audiences preoccupied with elements of their own lives reflected on the silver screen. They have an undisputed power, but too often send the wrong message. Homosexuality, in particular female sexuality, has always been seen in cinema, but its propensity to be skewed has left a damning mark on us.

While films educated audiences on how to be as hard as Clint, their ill-informed consent hid the butch, the dyke, and the femme. As motion picture production gained momentum in the twentieth century, our dishonest portrayal not only taught straight people what to think of lesbians, but also influenced how we saw ourselves.

Whenever asked to think of an early depiction of a lesbian, or something close to it, I can’t look further than Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. The image of Dietrich is iconic, and her sultry performance in a nightclub wearing a man’s tuxedo is nothing short of classic. But what is interesting about this scene is her sexuality, which is far from overt. Dietrich simply walks into the room and commands the attention of both male and female patrons, kissing a woman briefly as she makes her way through the audience; she is there for the women as much as she is there to arouse the men. Dietrich is, at heart, a gentleman.

Hollywood’s golden era of cinema is filled with these glorious roles that seep a deep, almost unnerving sexual confidence. And these weren’t just bit part actresses, but names like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. There is a common misconception that lesbians were nowhere to be seen on the silver screen during the twenties and thirties, but they were, and it scared the censors half to death.

It only seems natural that the budding freedom of female sexuality would be snuffed out from cinema before it had the chance to blossom. Church groups began to threaten widespread boycotts of these films, citing sexual perversion, immoral behaviour, and objectionable content unsuitable for American audiences. While it could be successfully argued the film industry had always been a little questionable, studio heads, under pressure from religious groups such as the Legion of Decency, needed to act, with state legislators in the United States introducing their own forms of censorship.

Employing Will H. Hays, studios found themselves with the Motion Pictures Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, which was about as fun for filmmakers as Disney’s It’s a Small World is for unsuspecting tourists. For the next two decades, the Code strangled artistic integrity, exposing the vain, selfish, and bigoted side of humanity, the very one that desired a mirrored perfection of society free from our ‘unwholesome’ and ‘perverted’ lives.

While it would be imprudent to pass comment on rumours of homosexuality and bisexuality among female actresses of Hollywood’s golden age, the infamous Sewing Circles were very much a real thing. They were familiar to prominent actresses, writers, musicians, and artists, all with one common interest–cunninglinguistics. But the saddest aspect of the censorship was the way it continued to describe the lesbian as sexually perverse, denying their very existence. The Code taught straight audiences lesbians were immoral, disgusting, and wrong. And if this wasn’t enough, we grew accustomed to believing the very same about ourselves. Censorship shuffled us to the corner, inferred in film but not discussed, present but never addressed. We were indecent, we were a myth, and we were murderous.

The lesbian became something to fear, a sinister, conniving creature that preyed on young women, as we do in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Just like other screenwriters and directors, Hitchcock learnt to subvert the code, cleverly suggesting with a series of looks and only a handful of dialogue that the scorned Mrs Danvers murdered her lover, the never-seen but ever-doomed Rebecca. And that was our story, the roles we were allowed in cinema: the antagonist, or the dead.

The portrayal of lesbians under the Hays Code was hardly sympathetic, but the dawn of the sexual revolution gave audiences some change, and lesbians a bit of reprisal. The Code appeared to lose its grip by the sixties, with films such as The Children’s Hour and Walk on the Wild Side explicitly basing their plot around lesbianism. Still, the ending is nothing new. The lesbian dies; Shirley MacLaine by suicide in The Children’s Hour and Capucine is shot in Wild Side. But where the sexual revolution of the sixties spurred the feminist movement of the seventies, so too did it relax censorship in film. Lesbian relationships began to be shown in film, whether for comedic irony, such as Meryl Streep as Woody Allen’s ex-wife-now-lesbian in Manhattan, or as the entire subject of a film, like Les Biches. However, there quickly became a new trouble for the portrayal of female sexuality, our existence a novelty on screen.

For the first time in decades censors allowed us to grace the set but not as genuine characters who just happen to be lesbians, but as the token lesbian character, a plot device for bored viewers and lazy writers. While the eighties and nineties gave us some decent dykey films like Victor Victoria, Desert Hearts, The Colour Purple, Henry and June, and Orlando, we were also subjected films like The Hunger and Basic Instinct. I don’t dispute the glory of David Bowie, but the film is a blip except for those few moments where Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon are caught in flagrante among some wispy white sheets.

And Sharon Stone gave bisexuals with ice picks a fairly bad run. Still films like Fried Green Tomatoes failed to boldly acknowledge the female lady-lovin’, despite every lesbian who saw it pointing and shouting ‘dykes!’ at Ruth and Idgie in their cineplex.

Indie films in the nineties gave us Go Fish, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love, All Over Me, Chasing Amy, Aimée & Jaguar, and But I’m a Cheerleader, but they were lost in a sea of film strips featuring bawdy hetsex teen romps. Writers saw a niche in the industry and seemed to throw in these lesbian subplots, brief dalliances between female characters that are never fully explored. The issue now is about honesty, showing lesbians as real people with real relationships. The lesbian is a hot commodity and Nielsen ratings dictator; viewers tune in en masse to watch two women play kissy face, but it shouldn’t be forgotten Lesbian Kiss Episodes are nothing but gratuitous and trite.

I have no doubt great strides have been made in the depiction of lesbians in film, but there is room for improvement. Every teenager looks to cinema as an educator and indicator of society, and as a gay kid I struggled to find a character to relate to. While The L Word appeared on my television during high school, their world was so far removed from my adolescence I never wholly connected to any woman, any story, or any of their experiences. The future of lesbianism in cinema is uncertain, but we have our own stories and it’s about time we start writing them.

This humble lesbian is not a plot device.

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