Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

 

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage.  Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man.  But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Directed by James Kent and written by Jane English

I was pleasantly surprised by this beautifully filmed drama based on the life of nineteenth-century diarist, Anne Lister (1791 – 1840).  Some parts of Lister’s diaries are written in code which, when cracked, was found to contain remarkably frank descriptions of her romantic involvements and sexual relationships with women. This all rather demolished the idea that unmarried women necessarily had little access to knowledge about sex or lesbian culture before the twentieth century.  It’s apparent that, not only Anne, but also the locals who called her “Gentleman Jack”, had a very good idea of what she was about.  The Lister diaries suggest that there was a well-developed discourse about lesbianism which was available, at least to upper-class women, as a way to understand themselves in the nineteenth century.

One of the most refreshing things about this drama is that it doesn’t make concessions to the straight audience: it doesn’t explain, or apologise, or dumb down the lesbian representation, but nor does it use the lesbian theme to titillate the viewer.  There is one sex scene which I thought very well done.  This may be because the producers were aware that only lesbians and people already interested in the history and literature of the period would be likely to watch it, so there wasn’t much point in trying to entice a wider audience.  It was cast thoughtfully with actresses who made credible nineteenth-century lesbians, and I was particularly pleased to see that thought had gone into how a butch lesbian might have presented herself during this time.   Maxine Peake played Anne with tomboyish energy and great charm, Anna Madeley, as her long-time lover Mariana, was believable as a woman caught between her sexual desires and the life she has chosen as the wife of a wealthy man.  Susan Lynch was excellent as Anne’s hard-drinking ex-girlfriend ‘Tib’ who’d still like to be more than friends.  Gemma Jones and Alan David were also lovely as Anne’s slightly bewildered, but ultimately accepting, aunt and uncle.

I really liked the film but found the documentary with Sue Perkins, ‘The Real Anne Lister’, even more fascinating.  In order to make the drama watchable for a modern audience, the writers modified what we know about Anne to make her appear a great deal more sympathetic than she was in real life.  As Sue Perkins reads the diaries she rather struggles to like Anne, who comes across as a terrible snob and not a particularly nice person.  For example, in the drama, her last relationship with the heiress, Miss Anne Walker, is sweetly presented, but in the diaries it seems a far more cynical arrangement based more on Anne Lister’s desire for a submissive wife and her need for money to invest in her mining projects.  Of course money and companionship were considered perfectly acceptable reasons for marriage in the early nineteenth century, but what is fascinating is that the two Annes do seem to have considered themselves married and even managed to get their relationship blessed by the church.  My own feeling is that Anne Lister probably had to become a rather ruthless person just to be able to live the life she lived in this period.

I would highly recommend this drama and the accompanying documentary for anyone interested in lesbian herstory.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, The Nightwatch

Sarah Waters’s novel, The Nightwatch, interests me partly because I had two lesbian great-aunts, one of whom (like the character of Kay), drove ambulances during World War II, and the other was in the forces and did something to do with anti-aircraft guns.

Andy’s already written a post about the recent BBC adaptation which I’ll try not to replicate too much here, but I agree with her points that, while it didn’t suck and I certainly didn’t hate it, overall, it also left me feeling disappointed.

Along with Fingersmith I think this is the most respectful of the adaptations of Waters’s work so far,  definitely the best produced and acted that we’ve seen.   I felt that the novel was being taken seriously and the actors were bringing everything they could to the text.  I thought the performances of Anna Wilson-Jones as Julia particularly good as she only had a few scenes, and also Harry Treadway as Duncan, who made his character more interesting to me than the Duncan in the book.

I do think that making it into such a short film meant that we were treated to much simplified versions of the book’s highly complex characters, with the result that Kay was too nice and good, Helen too wide-eyed and innocent, Julia a bit too predatory, and Viv’s boyfriend too obviously a creep from the beginning.   Also, what happened to the vaguely sinister Mr Mundy who seemed to have turned into the grandfather from the Werther’s Original adverts?

However, appreciating the limitations of time and money, I can live with all of that; my more serious problem with this adaptation lies in the representation of gender and lesbian sexuality, particularly in the representation of butch identity.  In this respect, what I think the adaptation shows is that while we’ve reached the stage of being able to represent lesbians, we still struggle with representing certain kinds of lesbian identity and experience.

Like Andy, I was surprised by the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Kay.  Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a good actress (excellent as Esther in Bleak House), but personally I found her deeply unconvincing as an aristocratic, butch lesbian.

When I see Kay in my mind, I see someone like Valentine Ackland or Radcliffle Hall.

Ideally I see her character being her played by someone like a young Vanessa Redgrave or Tilda Swinton (yes, I know they could never afford Tilda Swinton), but someone who can really occupy space in a convincingly butch way.  I imagine Kay as tall and broad-shouldered, tough, sexually confident, even aggressive, but Maxwell Martin is so tiny and delicate-looking, and there’s something self-effacing about the way she occupies space that just doesn’t feel right to me.  I can’t imagine her having rough, drunken sex with a stranger in an alleyway as Kay does in the novel.  She also came across as too good and nice; Kay is one of the most interesting characters in The Nightwatch and certainly has a heroic side, but I wouldn’t call her “nice”.  The representation was strange in several ways.  Why did the adaptation’s Kay cut off her hair because she was upset about seeing a family killed in the bombing?  This doesn”t happen in the novel where I doubt Kay would ever have had long hair (I expect she would have had an Eton crop).  As Andy says, it makes some link between butchness and tragedy that isn’t in the novel.  It’s also interesting that the adaptation has Kay breaking down and crying and being comforted by Helen, while in the same part of the book we have her drinking all night – I think Kay is the kind of butch who, even if she did cry, wouldn’t have let anyone else see her doing it.  Really the problem here is that the writers didn’t seem to appreciate that a butch lesbian in this period would have been following a certain code of behaviour.  I also felt that the character was desexualised.  Did anyone find this film sexy from a lesbian perspective? I was annoyed that the most explicit sex scene was between a heterosexual couple in a film in which the majority of the characters are lesbians.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the total erasure of the other butch character, Mickey, who is Kay’s best friend in the book, and her replacement with a feminine, heterosexual character in the adaptation.  Possibly they didn’t want to represent another butch character, but I think it’s more likely that the writers simply didn’t see the importance of Mickey, just as they don’t seem to see the significance of butchness.  Mickey is important, not least becasue she’s a happy butch.  Is it possible to represent a happy butch lesbian?

The leeriness aound butchness has plagued other Waters adaptations, such as Tipping the Velvet which had a lot more sex, but cast a woman who couldn’t pass as male in a story in which the whole plot turns on us believing that the character can pass as male.  Affinity was more offensive, turning the butch working-class character of Viggers into a predatory older woman and not at all understanding that the plot turned on the class differences and invisibility of the butch – the point is that no one can see Viggers for what she really is.

It makes me wonder when we will see a really convincing and sexy representation of butchness in mainstream television (haven’t seen Lip Service so don’t know how that was).

The adaptation did make me want to re-read The Nightwatch again though, so you may be hearing more about it in the not to distant future.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon, All Over Me (1997)

Written by Sylvia Sichel and directed Alex Sichel

All Over Me is a lesbian coming of age drama focussed on Claude (Alison Folland), a tomboyish 15 year-old girl who lives in an underprivileged area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen.  She’s desperately in love with her more conventionally attractive (and definitely heterosexual) best friend, Ellen (Tara Subkoff).   The girls share a symbiotic relationship that will be a painful reminder to a lot of lesbian and bisexual viewers of something we experienced as teenagers.   How many of us had this kind of relationship? The over-closeness and unhealthy power dynamic that underlies the relationship between the naively adoring young lesbian and the heterosexual girl who accepts that adoration as her due, and simply doesn’t understand why her friend is so upset by the appearance of a boyfriend, is beautifully drawn in this film.

Warning – some spoilers!

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The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Fire (1997)

Directed by Deepa Mehta

An independent-minded young woman named Sita agrees to an arranged marriage and moves to the city to live with her husband’s family, which includes his brother, Ashok, Ashok’s dutiful wife, Radha, Sita’s disabled mother-in-law, Biji, and the family servant, Mundu.   Her arrival soon acts as a catalyst, bringing the simmering tensions beneath the surface of family life to a crisis.

Sita discovers that her husband, Jatin, is in love with a Chinese woman called Julie who has refused to marry him because she doesn’t want to take on the role of a traditional Indian wife.  It becomes apparent that Jatin has only agreed to marry her under pressure from Ashok who wants an heir for the family because Radha is infertile.   Turning to a guru for consolation, Ashok has taken a vow of celibacy, but still subjects Radha to humiliating experiences in which he uses her to “test” his sexual control.

As Radha and Sita bond and then find themselves falling in love with each other, they also begin question the traditions that have shaped their lives and slowly start to stand up to their respective husbands.   Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das are brilliant in their roles as two passionate women trying to maintain their dignity in a degrading situation.   But there aren’t really any villains in the film; it shows that everyone in the family is trapped by tradition, which seems to be represented in the silent but vigilant figure of Biji who rings her bell loudly whenever she disapproves of anything.

This is a powerfully honest film.  It isn’t shy about the realities of life and some of the scenes are gritty and quite disturbing.   But it’s also beautifully shot and directed throughout.

The way the film uses Hindu mythology is very clever, reinventing the story of Sita, whose husband insisted that she be tested by fire to prove her purity.  It does have a bit of a “fantasy lesbian ending”, but after all the grittiness, that’s ok with me.

It caused riots on its release in India and was banned in Pakistan.

Fire is a brave, honest and passionate film that I’d highly recommend viewing.

The Kids are Alright (but I’m not sure my partner’s going to be)

I am extremely skeptical about this film, but I was thinking that, since I’ve set myself the task of writing about lesbian films, I should try to watch it at some point.

Me:  “I’m not going to pay to watch it in the cinema. It can wait for DVD.”

Andy: “We’re going to watch it?!”

Me:  “We have to!”

Andy:  “We do NOT.”

Me: “So I can review it for the lesbian movie marathon”

Andy:  “I will support you if you choose to inflict this on yourself … But I feel exploited by all this crap! … There’s so many real stories they could tell and instead they choose to tell this shit! … I’m going to write to Julianne Moore and tell her to stop trying to resurrect her flagging career by appearing in bad lesbian movies.  What is this? The third one?  What’s her problem?  Why lesbians?  What did we ever do to her? Also, way to ruin a perfectly good song with bad associations!”

She sat though Clare of the Moon, but it seems that I might have found Andygrrrl’s line in the sand.  I guess you’re going to have to watch this space ….