Todd Haynes’ 2002 award-winning film, Far from Heaven, is set in 1957 Connecticut.
Haynes has made a homage to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, in particular All That Heaven Allows (1955) …
... and Imitation of Life (1959). Note each poster’s focus on the female leads. Middle-class white women occupy center stage in the melodrama genre.
Drawing on Sirk’s cinematographic techniques and art direction, Haynes also shows what Sirk could not. Due to rules set by the Production Code of America (PCA), during Sirk’s heyday it was forbidden to represent interracial desire. Here wealthy housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) begins to fall for her gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) …
... while her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), has secrets of his own. Like interracial desire, homosexuality was considered ”obscene” by the PCA. Note the similarity to the promotional poster for All That Heaven Allows.
Throughout the film, the themes of homosexuality and racial difference comment on each other. Mostly, this interconnection is hinted at on the level of dialogue and mise-en-scčne. At their annual company party, Cathy listens in on a conversation …
... about school desegregation. The man on the left claims that there will be no violence in Hartford, because, as he absurdly declares, “There’re no negroes!”
Pan to the waitstaff in the background—a medium close-up of the waiter’s face. It is clear he overhears this comment, yet continues to serve the guests.
The camera then focuses on Frank, drunk and belligerent. Referring to his wife’s beautiful appearance, he insults her by pronouncing, “It’s all smoke and mirrors!”
The discourse of racial strife comments on Frank’s narrative. Since his homosexuality was previously established, Frank, like the black waiter, is simultaneously present and invisible. The party guests would never imagine that a gay man mingles among them—in fact, one of their very own!
The film conflates the twin themes of racial difference and homosexuality in various ways throughout. In the Whitakers’ bedroom, Frank watches television...
... where we see a piece of documentary footage: President Eisenhower addressing the nation over the violent protests unleashed in response to school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas.
But Cathy is not listening. She interrupts the broadcast to ask Frank about his visits to his psychiatrist, a specialist in treating homosexuality.
Again, racial difference signals Frank’s homosexuality, setting a parallel between these discourses. Here he tells Cathy that what he discusses with his doctor is private…
... and she says she understands. Note the use of mirrors in this scene. The “mirroring” technique occurs several times and is a visual clue as to the parallels the film draws between interracial romance and homosexuality.
Yet Cathy’s desire for Raymond becomes a public affair. Cathy and Raymond always meet in public places, or outdoors.
These are places where others see them, like at the art show …
... where Cathy runs into Raymond and where he has come with his daughter ...
Outside Eagan’s restaurant …
... as they are going in ....
... and on Main Street.
Todd Haynes’ 2002 award-winning period piece, Far from Heaven, is set in 1957 United States, an era characterized as repressive and conformist. The film juxtaposes the impossibility of consummating heterosexual, black/white interracial romance to the almost, but not quite, impossible step of taking on a homosexual identity. This double tension is personified in the Whitakers, an affluent white couple living in Hartford, Connecticut. In the narrative, Cathy Whitaker falls for the black gardener Raymond Deagan, who tends the family’s yard, while her husband Frank tries but fails to overcome his desire for men. Each scene that depicts either interracial romance or homosexuality doubles back and comments on the other, although these twin themes rarely occupy the same scene visually. Instead, they are tied through match-dissolves, cross-cuts, and inference.
Midway through the film, for example, the Whitakers host their annual company party, and for this social circle whiteness, wealth, and reproductive heterosexuality are the implicit norms. As spectators, we are already well aware of the Whitakers’ struggles with their taboo desires. When one of the party guests declares, in a conversation centered on the topic of school desegregation, that the violence unleashed in response to integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, could never happen in Hartford, his absurd reasoning is as follows:
The irony is that all evening he has been served by a black man. The camera pans to this waiter, who clearly hears this remark yet continues to serve the guests. The camera also briefly pans the Whitakers’ black maid, Sybil, also serving the guests. This is but one example of the way the film codes class in racial terms; black characters serve the whites as housekeepers and gardeners, while the wealthy white people treat this service as their inherent right.
Yet not only are race and class difference marked here; much more subtly, homosexuality is the scene’s hidden subtext. The themes of visibility and invisibility invoked in this moment underscore Frank’s narrative. No one at the party would guess that a gay man, indeed one of their very own, mingles among them. Frank, like the black waiters, is simultaneously present and invisible. Thus in this scene relations between visibility and invisibility, public and private, racial difference and homosexuality are meshed on the level of discourse although not on the level of what is actually shown to the viewer. In other words, the apparent focus on racial difference subtly comments on what is not seen or discussed, namely the topic of homosexuality. In this moment, the discourse of racial difference signals homosexuality.
Haynes is certainly not the only contemporary filmmaker who conflates the discourses of racial difference and homosexuality, although the subtlety of his conflation in Far from Heaven is remarkable yet, as I will argue later, also problematic. In fact, it is apparent that many contemporary directors seem practically to require that racial difference discourse signals representations of both homosexuality and queerness. This trend was already apparent in Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), one of the first “queer” blockbuster hits, and has continued to play a pivotal role in such recent and well received films as Before Night Falls (2000), Capote (2005), Transamerica (2005), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Echo Park, L.A. (2006) among others. (See Appendix)
What is at issue in such a conflational economy, argues Janet E. Halley, is not the similarities or differences between “racial others” and “sexual others,” but rather that in the realm of representation these “others” are coded so that they signal each other, or, as Halley so elegantly puts it,
Certainly the scene I opened with draws on this “flashing” method, with the sign of racial discrimination drawing our attention to the “silent” yet pressing theme of Frank’s homosexuality. Following Halley’s insight, this essay examines the effects of this conflation in two films, Far from Heaven and Transamerica, and looks at the ways in which representations of race and sexuality are mapped as contiguous and interlocking discourses.
In both of these films, the central characters—Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) in Far from Heaven, and Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman) in Transamerica—are not particularly queer under the rubric of contemporary queer theory, meaning that these characters occupy relatively identifiable positions of “otherness.” Far from Heaven’s representations of homosexuality and interracial desire and Transamerica’s representations of transsexuality are based on fairly normative conceptions of these identities and categories, recognizable to most viewers and, especially in Transamerica, rather stereotypical. These characters are also presented as engaged in personal quests. They are not interested in exploring the politics of their otherness, they do not question the foundation of the dominant society that designates their otherness, and they are not interested in occupying the margins of intelligibility.
However, central to my argument is that these characters actually do come to be “queered” by the directors’ deliberate flashing of racial otherness within the diegesis. Through the use of racial difference as an overriding analogical discourse—in both films the message is that to be white and of a sexual minority is like being a member of a racial minority—these (white) characters’ struggles are framed as contributing to a queer political project connected to, yet differentiated from, the Civil Rights and other racial equality movements.
In these films, images of “racial others” are imbued with a legitimating and explanatory power, so that their presence signifies concepts such as equal rights, marginality, righteous struggle, and pride, lending the legitimacy attached to race-specific civil rights to representations of sexual minorities. As in my opening example, this is another way of saying that racial struggle signals and frames white non-normativity, giving the films’ presentations of (white) GLBT issues a political and collective spin which is not obvious on the level of the films’ narratives. Black power discourse can be retrospectively viewed as “queer” by the ways in which it challenges the dominant white society’s conception of blackness. To paraphrase Richard Dyer, queer theory turns negativity on its head, which is precisely what the discourses of civil rights and black power attempt to do, and it was a political move from which queer theory has borrowed heavily.
In the films under analysis, this analogical equation elevates the white characters’ personal struggles to the level of (queer) political discourse. Throughout this essay I will give several examples of this analogical dynamic in action. Yet the problem with the use of this analogy, I argue, is that the vast majority of films that depend on racial difference as an explanatory discourse towards framing sexuality “fail to return the symbolic debt” owed to the black liberation struggle, which much of queer discourse takes its cue from. To return this symbolic debt would mean to confront the racial assumptions of cinema itself, for as Dyer correctly points out, cinema has a fortiori privileged constructions of whiteness both on the levels of narrative and technique. Far from Heaven and Transamerica do not successfully confront the implicit whiteness of U.S. cinema. In those films, in order to focus on the white characters’ struggles with non-normative identities and desires, the initial invocations of Civil Rights and racial difference rhetoric in general are pushed into the films’ margins after they are no longer “useful” as analogical tools. This becomes particularly obvious in the films’ conclusions, which I discuss later. Both films end up elevating a “queer” project and frame this project as a white struggle, and thus seem to be unwilling or unable to move beyond a “history of white vision” even when they seemingly expose the inconsistencies embedded within the concept of whiteness itself.
Far from Heaven
The more self-aware of the two films under analysis is Haynes’ Far from Heaven, which is the first Hollywood production by this pioneer of the New Queer Cinema movement. This film has garnered much scholarly attention for its masterful reworking of 1950s Sirkian melodrama both on thematic and formal levels. With the exception of Sharon Willis’ thorough analysis of the film, however, critics have barely scratched the surface in regards to the film’s complex interweaving of race and sexuality discourses. Willis argues that in Far from Heaven, the
While I agree with this statement, Willis limits her analysis to the ways in which sexuality and racial difference discourses structure the socially defined limits of desire. I contend that it is crucial to the reading of this film that these limits of desire are not only based in social convention, but they are also explicitly addressed in law.
The miscegenation analogy
In 1957 marriage and sexual relations in general between blacks and whites were illegal in several states (mostly southern) and socially condemned across the entire country. It wasn’t until the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that all laws barring interracial marriage of any kind were uniformly declared unconstitutional. Likewise, in 1957 homosexual sex was criminal and homosexuality listed as a psychiatric disorder. Homosexuality was de-pathologized in 1973, and it wasn’t until 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas) that homosexual sex was finally and unambiguously decriminalized in federal law.
In the context of 1950s conceptions of both social deviance and matters of law, then, the desires displayed in Far from Heaven share a kind of family resemblance, underscored by Haynes’ positioning of same-sex desire and interracial desire as occurring simultaneously within one family. Haynes suggests a kinship tie between them. In my thinking about this kinship tie, I draw on Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line, where she argues that
In 1894 the U.S. Supreme Court institutionalized racial segregation with the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, formally restricting the borders between black and white bodies in post-Reconstruction United States. Somerville ingeniously links Plessy to the writings of U.S. and British sexologists who were publishing their material at the same time as racial segregation became institutionalized. These sexologists produced the terms by which one’s sexual object choice came to define a (white) individual’s normality or abnormality; they deemed both same-sex and non-white object choices as pathological. Furthermore, less than one year after Plessy, Oscar Wilde’s court case generated new practices and world-views regarding homosexuality. In effect, as renewed objects of legalistic and scientific surveillance, both “homosexual desire and interracial desire became linked as ‘unnatural’ sexual desires.”
It should be noted that the segregation and miscegenation laws that both pre- and post-date Plessy refer to the racial “mixing” of whites with non-white people, and were generally applied towards the prohibition of black/white reproductive and social relations. These laws certainly did not pertain to sexual or social relations among non-white peoples (for example, black/native, native/latino, and so forth.) Also, the application of these laws varied from region to region, with the strictest and longest enforcement occurring in the Southern region of the U.S., while the north and west varied in terms of the kinds of racial populations that inhabited these regions and the actual passing and enforcement of race-based laws. For example, most middle and western states repealed anti-miscegenation laws in the late 1950s and 1960s prior to Loving, and in fact Connecticut, where Far from Heaven is set, never even had an anti-miscegenation law.
This does not mean, however, that Cathy’s and Raymond’s doomed relationship does not comment on 1950s legal discourse, for issues like school segregation and the lack of civil rights laws are certainly shown as contributing to the forces that separate them. Perhaps the film’s refusal to imagine Cathy and Raymond starting over elsewhere, which, from a realist angle, could be a possible narrative trajectory, comments not so much on interracial marriage laws as it does on queerness. For, as I will argue later, through the analogical equation I described earlier, Haynes constructs Cathy’s and Raymond’s relationship as queer.
The legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, one of the first to develop a sustained theory of intersectionality, points out that in most anti-discrimination lawsuits U.S. courts have a hard time conceiving of multiple identities, so that discrimination must be shown to be based on a single category of identification: either race or sex, for example. This stems from the court’s interest in regulating identity into discrete categories, yet the irony is that it is precisely the law’s dependence on analogical thinking that has shaped intersectional discourses in the first place; as Halley writes,
One of the most persistent of these analogies is the link between homosexuality and interracial marriage, commonly referred to as “the miscegenation analogy.” Somerville explains:
This formulation holds that homosexuality is like interracial desire. Some scholars also call this intersectional rhetoric in general “like race argumentation.” Thus the U.S. legal system attempts to “secure” identity through formalizing the categories of identity, yet at the same time undercuts such certainty by linking and conflating identities across race, gender, and sexuality determinants on the level of analogical discourse.
“Expert discourse” and popular culture have always informed each other, and this long-standing “miscegenation analogy” takes on various forms—explicit and implicit—in cinematic representations. Historically illegal and socially unacceptable, homosexuality and white/black interracial desire fell into the purview of “public morality,” and thus public representations of both were relegated to the category of obscenity (literally, off stage.) This obscene classification was reflected in The Production Code, the U.S. movie industry’s guidelines for ensuring the “wholesomeness” and “high moral standard” of film production. Codified in 1930 and enforced through the 1950s and arguably into the 1960s, the PCA, as it was known, listed both “miscegenation” and “sex perversion” (i.e. homosexuality) as two kinds of representations banned under the heading “Sex,” along with adultery, rape, child pornography, prostitution, and venereal disease. While PCA guidelines were not exactly law, they functioned in a similarly prohibitionary manner, as the PCA scrutinized and censored Hollywood films. Haynes, whose film cites 1950s Sirkian melodrama that was under the direct and indirect power of the PCA, structures Far from Heaven on the discursive interconnections between sexuality, race, and desire that the PCA itself did not analyze but nonetheless treated as a matter of common knowledge.
What all of this goes to show is that in Far from Heaven, Haynes assumes the dissemination of this conflational discourse into the larger cultural landscape and U.S. spectators’ seemingly unconscious acceptance of it. In other words, Haynes did not have to stretch very far to forge a kinship link between Cathy’s and Frank’s seemingly separate struggles. The connection between homosexuality and miscegenation was already embedded in the U.S. psyche in terms of law and in its manifestation in the history of cinematic representation.
Beyond the specificity of the miscegenation analogy in cinematic and legal terms, furthermore, Haynes’ conflation also draws on a more general link between race, bodies, and sexuality. As Dyer points out, “[a]ll concepts of race are always concepts of the body and also of heterosexuality,” meaning that the anxiety that fuels both racial difference rhetoric and heteronormativity is the same: that because the body is the site of reproduction, it must be contained and controlled so as to reproduce the power structure that privileges both whiteness and heterosexuality. This also explains the atmosphere of psychological anxiety in Far from Heaven that connects the Whitakers’ “deviant” desires: both kinds of desire threaten the Whitakers’ own place within this structure of privilege.
“Queerness” and its double significance
Within the framework of 1950s United States in which the film is set, both Cathy’s and Frank’s desires would be considered “queer.” This definition of queer “is an historically bounded notion” and refers to people whose sexual object choices, in the eyes of the heterosexual majority, rendered them as ill, deviant, degenerate, and so forth. Certainly homosexuality and interracial desire (but especially coming from the direction of white womanhood, as it does in Far from Heaven) constituted this historical definition. “Queer” was the embodiment of deviance precisely because it was perceived as a threat to white, heterosexual privilege and thus needed to be regulated by means of all kinds of legal and social mechanisms.
However, writing and directing a 1950s period piece in the year 2002, Haynes sets these representations of “historical queers” within a contemporary cultural framework in which the term “queer” has been re-appropriated. Haynes, who is well versed in current queer theory, is fully aware that in today’s discourse “queer” points instead to a particular political and theoretical project in which the very idea of deviance has been resignified, so that queer “challenges the assumption” that the associations attached to historically queer identities
Furthermore, actively to “queer” something (such as to “queer representation”) means to expose identity markers we take for granted as in fact unpredictable, culturally relative, and constantly fluctuating.
The temporal disjunction between the film’s setting and the year it was written and produced gives the function of “queer” in Far from Heaven a double significance, and as I will discuss below, the interconnections between the historical idea of queer and a queer political project are “illuminated” through the mediating influence of racial difference discourse, in this particular film, through linking sexuality to the discourse of racial segregation policy.