2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
(Not) queering “white vision”
in Far from Heaven
by Rebecca Scherr
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:
“There’re no negroes [here]!”
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,
“they can be flashed as signs of each other in a discourse that operates so smoothly it can remain virtually silent.”[open endnotes in new window]
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
“transformation of the sexual from a familial to a social issue, from a private to a public question, depends heavily on the parallels this film establishes with racial difference.”
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
“the formation of notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality emerged in the United States through (and not merely parallel to) a discourse saturated with assumptions about the racialization of bodies.”
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, “analogies are… deeply ingrained in the logics of American adjudication.” 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:
"In legal argumentation, the miscegenation analogy is often used in ways that conflate two comparisons: first, between certain types of historically prohibited sexual acts (e.g. sex between two people of the same sex is like sex between two people of different races); and second, between two types of historically prohibited forms of marriage (e.g. same sex marriage is like interracial marriage). Because both involve the use of identity to determine the legality or criminality of a relationship between two consenting adults, these two comparisons tend to be collapsed under the single label of the miscegenation analogy."
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
“are in fact negative—thus immorality may be a challenge to repressive morality, deviance a rejection of the straight and thus narrow, and what is considered sordid and disgusting may in fact be exciting, risky, a life lived to the full on the edge.”
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.
The flashing method:
in the Whitakers bedroom
For at least three-quarters of Far from Heaven, the central discourses of racial difference and homosexuality are presented as contrapuntal, linked by a seemingly loose kinship tie. That is, these discourses are contingent and touch upon each other in subtle ways, as for example in a scene that occurs in the Whitakers’ bedroom fairly early in the film. Cathy sits at the mirror brushing her hair while Frank watches television. Cathy asks Frank about his visits to Dr. Bowman, the psychiatrist Frank sees after his arrest for “lewd behavior.” That Frank’s sexuality requires his interpellation by both law enforcement and psychiatry establishes the official “deviance” attributed to his desires and, by extension, to his identity. What makes this scene significant is the television that remains on in the background. The broadcast is historically specific to 1957. It is a speech by President Eisenhower, addressing the nation over the recent and violent struggle to integrate Little Rock Central High School, an event that will, of course, later prove to be a central feature of the company party scene. This discourse of racial struggle in confrontation with state institutions mediates the Whitakers’ attempt at conversation centered on Frank’s encounters with the state apparatus. Frank, however, rebuffs Cathy’s attempts to draw him out, and what is not being directly discussed but only danced around—Frank’s sexuality, Cathy’s marital unhappiness—becomes the central concern for both characters and therefore for the audience.
Eisenhower’s speech quickly turns into incoherent background noise, passed over in favor of a focus on the dissolution of the Whitakers’ “proper” marriage. In fact, the documentary footage is shown for only a split second and can be easily missed by the audience. This points to ways in which the film links race and sexuality discourses in a nearly imperceptible manner through a carefully constructed mise-en-scène, yet this “flashing” method is nevertheless extremely effective. To make the connection between “racial others” and “sexual others” requires only the quickest and subtlest of cues, as the existence of this intersectional discourse is already firmly established within the U.S. collective consciousness.
This television scene also establishes Frank’s struggle as “private” and Cathy’s as “public” as well as the ways that the film’s central conflation also complicates this binary. After rebuffing Cathy, Frank attempts to explain himself:
“Cathleen, what I discuss with this doctor. It’s private. That’s—part of it. I’m sorry.”
The racial strife shown on television, however, represents public discourse. Similarly, Cathy and Raymond are almost always shown meeting in public and outdoor spaces: they meet outside their respective homes, at an art gallery, on Main Street. In contrast, Frank’s encounters with other men occur in dark, semi-anonymous, more private spaces: an underground bar, a dark cinema, his office at night, hotel rooms.
That Cathy and Raymond never consummate their attraction is perhaps due to the “publicity” surrounding their friendship, for the society (white and black) at large witnesses them together and does everything in its power to keep the two apart. Frank’s ultimate move away from his family to pursue a relationship with a man is due as much to his race and class status, as well as his ability to appear straight, as it is to the private and secretive ways he is able to carry on his affairs. As long as Frank can evade the police and public notice, he is able to slide under the radar, while Cathy and Raymond cannot hide their difference. This is another way of framing racial difference discourse as the “visible” face of deviance, which comments on the seemingly more elusive and hidden matter of Frank’s sexual identity. The condemnation Cathy and Raymond experience within their communities could be extended to Frank if his homosexuality was only visible to the public eye. Thus this equation quietly suggests a potentially public and political aspect to Frank’s narrative, hinted at in the juxtaposition of political/public TV images of racial conflict with the psychological/private matter of sexual identity.
Mirrored oppressions: the pool scene
The pool scene, which occurs towards the end of the film, is one of the most crucial scenes of the entire film because it is precisely at this point when representations of homosexuality and racial segregation become so obviously, so visually fused, and thus it serves as an excellent illustration of the dynamics of conflation that structure Far from Heaven as a whole. This scene is placed in a particular locale: Miami. It's a place whose gay subtext is not lost on those “in the know”; and as a city located in the southern United States, segregation was strictly enforced there in 1957.
At this point in the narrative Frank and Cathy are on holiday in Miami in an attempt to patch up their rocky marriage.Yet when the scene I will describe opens, the audience has already registered a covert look of interest pass between Frank and a handsome “blond boy” in the previous scene, although the two have not spoken. Cathy sits poolside, while:
"FRANK is just finishing some laps at the shallow end to catch his breath. He sits down on a step, still half-submerged…He notices something at the other end of the pool. A few members of the blond family are just coming out…The pretty son doesn’t seem to be among them. FRANK stands, stretches. He steps out of the water and reaches for his towel just as a small black boy, age four or five, goes skipping past him into the first step of the pool."
The young boy’s father runs to him and loudly remonstrates him in front of all the white guests:
“Now what did I tell you about going in that pool? You know you’re not allowed in there!"
The boy is taken away crying, and although he only made it to the first step, within moments the pool empties. The tense atmosphere is further enhanced by a nearly hysterical white mother ordering her daughter out of the pool: "But why?" the daughter asks, and her mother responds, "Because I said so."
Implicitly, this scenario illustrates white Americans’ fear of black bodies, bodies that for whites symbolize “contamination”; and “contamination” in turn signifies the underlying fear of miscegenation. The camera moves between Cathy’s point-of-view looking out at the pool, and then the camera turns and focuses directly on Cathy so that she becomes the object of the gaze. Her eyes remain half-hidden behind sunglasses, which act as shield and mirror. As the unfolding action is miniaturized and reflected—indeed, doubled—on Cathy’s lenses, the message is that this drama turns back on Cathy, illustrating in a rather didactic manner the futility of her desire for Raymond, a black man. The emphasis on parenting here, with a black father and white mother “saving” and disciplining their respective children, further emphasizes the undercurrent of segregation as policing the boundaries of racial reproduction.
The scene then returns to a focus on Frank. In the midst of this moment of segregation in action, Frank spots the blond boy. When the turmoil produced by the act of racial “transgression” begins to calm down, the camera swings in an abrupt manner to take Frank’s point-of-view. We get a close-up of Frank’s gaze, which shifts from watching the body of the black child to that of the blond teenager, suggesting that Frank filters his desire through the fear and confusion of the situation at hand. At this point Frank offers to go back to the hotel room to fetch Cathy’s book, and while looking at himself in the bathroom mirror he feels a presence behind him. Frank sees “blond boy” reflected in the mirror and it is noteworthy that they are wearing the same outfit: bathing trunks and white robes. Frank’s look registers surprise, guilt, and desire all at once, and as the young man slowly moves his hand inside his robe and down to his crotch, Frank turns towards him as if hypnotized. The scene ends rather abruptly here but the audience is well trained and can imagine the rest.
Thus Frank takes his cue from the initial site of transgression, discomfort, and fear, which on a meta-level represents the Civil Rights struggle’s fuelling of other, primarily white liberationist struggles, such as the gay rights movement. I suggest that Haynes actually appropriates elements of black struggle in depicting Frank’s sexual liberation, for the relationship with the blond boy initiated in this scene will later lead to Frank’s “coming out.” This scene also directly parallels the bedroom scene, for in that one too segregation policy is invoked yet quickly displaced into a focus on the white characters’ struggles with non-normative desires. Also like the bedroom scene, it shows segregation as the public face (outside at the pool) of the private discourse of sexuality (inside the dim hotel room), again politicizing the theme of homosexuality through analogy.
I think Haynes’ ultimate point in this scene is to make the audience aware of the interconnections in the production of “otherness.” To accomplish this, Haynes draws primarily on racial difference discourse. That is, he emphasizes blackness and whiteness as opposites, thereby making cinematically visible the dynamics of racial difference as a mode of white supremacy. By pointing to whiteness as dependent upon blackness for definition and power, and by making so obvious the fear mechanism embedded within this structure, the film marks whiteness as strange. This is particularly significant because usually whiteness operates invisibly as “the norm” within U.S. cinema.
Through cross-cutting, the scene then maps homosexual desire into a racial difference framework, a move that becomes obvious when the camera, just having focused on the black boy’s body, turns to focus on Frank’s and the blond boy’s matching white robes, white bodies underneath, framed by the pale pink hotel interior. The screenplay even describes the blond boy’s “lithe, white body squeezed into pale orange swim trunks.” This rendering of whiteness as strange is thus realized visually by focusing on the sameness of Frank’s and the blond boy’s dress, race, and gender, and underscored by the play with mirrors in this scene, as the two men’s eyes do not meet directly but on the mirror’s surface. They are, in a sense, mirror images of one another, and this use of reflection as a visual device links back to the image of Cathy’s sunglasses. White audiences might have only paid attention to the sameness of gender, and not to Frank’s and the blond boy’s sameness of racial markers, if they hadn’t just witnessed, via Cathy’s point-of-view, the intense reaction to a violation of segregation policy, that is, to whiteness as juridical power. The deployment of refraction and reflection in this scene therefore renders cinema’s “white vision” momentarily perceptible. Haynes is making whiteness strange by calling attention to its construction, by making what normally operates as invisible visible.
This process of making strange by making visible the underlying racial vision embedded within cinema is initiated in the spectacle of racial difference and culminates in the spectacle of same-race, same-sex desire. This particular trajectory—the flashing of racial otherness as the first step in “queering” representation—is repeated again and again not just in Far from Heaven but in many U.S. films that depend on intersectionality as a method for making (sexual) oppression intelligible to mainstream audiences. The presentation of racial segregation as a construct of white power legitimizes the presentation of compulsive heterosexuality as a different form of oppression. They reflect one another in their constructedness, yet as I will discuss later in this essay, Haynes’ use of this dynamic nonetheless participates in the project of perpetuating “white vision” as central in the film. While Haynes does fleetingly expose this “way of seeing,” the film fails to overcome the power of this vision, for it does not offer an alternative.
Queering “coming out”
It is from the pool scene forward that race and sexuality are much more closely intertwined within the film, culminating in one important scene in which Haynes maps the traditional gay “coming out” narrative onto Cathy’s experience of interracial desire. This occurs when she reveals her desire for Raymond to her friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson). In this scene, Cathy first tells Eleanor about Frank’s homosexuality, and in this context Cathy’s dialogue obliquely references both the language of the closet and of racial markers:
“The endless secrecy. Our entire lives just—shut in the dark.”
She then proceeds to admit her feelings for Raymond, and this continuation of the scene follows to the letter the typical “coming out” narrative form: having hidden her non-normative desires, Cathy feels compelled to confess “the truth” to someone, coupled with the attendant hope for the other’s acceptance and fear of rejection. Eleanor displays much more receptivity and understanding when Cathy reveals Frank’s homosexuality, but Cathy is soundly rejected by Eleanor regarding the issue of Raymond. Furthermore, Frank’s own coming out eventually leads him to leave Cathy for the blond boy, while Raymond leaves town and also leaves Cathy behind. Thus at the point in the film when the kinship tie between interracial and homosexual desire has become so deeply conflated that the discourses are nearly indistinguishable, everything falls apart for Cathy.
The two instances of “coming out” in Far from Heaven produce different narrative trajectories, and the mediating factor of racial difference accounts for these divergent outcomes. This difference in outcome is based in the notion of visibility—racial difference cannot usually be hidden. The film communicates that heterosexual, interracial desire could, in a sense, be seen as even more “queer” than homosexuality, at least in the context of queerness as visible deviance.
This “queerness” might explain the film’s insistence that Cathy and Raymond have no place or space to escape to, which, as I pointed out earlier, is not socially and historically accurate. The failure of this coupling, then, has a specific function within the terms of this melodramatic filmic world.
Frank’s more traditional “coming out” demonstrates the positive power of this narrative: something hidden is made visible; the secret is revealed in the moment of utterance; and such revelation holds the power to enact change in the individual and the world. Yet that same power to enact change is often denied to those kinds of queer and non-normative identities where there is no escape from visibility, where there is no possibility to choose revelation or concealment, where the interpellation of the subject precludes his or her ability to narrate her own identity or express her own will. This does not mean that there were no visibly out “queers” in 1950s United States. The function of the obviously gay art dealer Farnsworth is to demonstrate that gay men, rendered visible through stereotypically effete mannerisms, did indeed exist and even, in a limited way, prosper at this time. That Frank seeks sex in a cinema and a bar also points to the existence of an underground community. Yet there is no visible existence within this filmic world where interracial romance seems even a remote possibility, so that within this world the potential coupling of Cathy and Raymond exists at the very margins of intelligibility, thus occupying the “queer” space of the film.
In Far from Heaven, then, a critique of the “coming out” narrative surfaces when applied to straight, interracial desire, not homosexual desire, revealing that this narrative is not exclusively gay nor does it operate positively for certain queer identities. Racial difference discourse allows for the “making strange” of this foundational gay narrative to emerge on the visible plane of the film. In other words, through the presentation of interracial desire as queer, Haynes ingeniously “queers” the very narrative that gay politics stages as “ground zero in the project of articulating an ‘epistemology’ of sexuality.’” In complicating the "coming" out discourse in this way, Haynes stages a meeting between the "historical queer" and the contemporary "queer project," for a queer project, in contrast to a gay one, insists on undermining and questioning what has come to seem foundational and universal.
Far from Heaven’s white lens
While Far from Heaven adds the layer of racial difference to the class conflict central to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), it also reveals that when representing desire and romance, racial difference actually eclipses class difference. Haynes’ film demonstrates that Raymond’s status as a black man, not as a gardener, is what makes his friendship with Cathy so scandalous. He is simply “The Negro” to the white people within the filmic world. For them, he has no name, no occupation, he is only the color of his skin and all the associations white people attach to that skin. For those familiar with both All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life (1959), Raymond is a composite figure. In his role as gardener he is an echo of All That Heaven Allows' Ron Kirby, and in his role as caring, single black parent (in fact, he is shown as the only caring parent in the entire film), he is Imitation of Life's nurturing and self-sacrificing maid Annie Johnson. I think that this representation of Raymond as an avatar of previous representations of melodramatic “others” draws him less as a developed character and more as a kind of cinematic prop that allows for his “queering” function within the film to become apparent. As such, Raymond is less realistically fashioned than Cathy and Frank, and the film’s point-of-view fails to challenge the white vision of Raymond.
White womanhood is the site of affect in this film; it is through Cathy’s character that we, the audience, experience Far from Heaven’s intense affect of longing and loss. In fact, both Whitakers are our sites of identification throughout the entire film. Despite the crucial role Raymond’s blackness performs in revealing the production of otherness, his lack of subjectivity is striking. According to Willis,
“Raymond’s world is…even more invisible than the gay subculture, whose margins Frank haunts.”
Furthermore, Raymond’s character is not only a conglomeration of Sirkian others, but his appearances on-screen only relate to his position within Cathy’s world and as an object of Cathy’s desire:
“[Raymond] is the one who stimulates the flow of Cathy’s speech and thought.”
We are never given even a glimpse from Raymond’s point-of-view, yet he is the one who, in the end of the film, says he has been more or less run out of town, forced to move to a city he has never even been to. Thus the character whose visible blackness performs the symbolic work of “queering” both hetero- and homo- desire is literally “pushed off the film’s map.” In other words, once the “racializing principle” has performed its cinematic “work” of queering representation, it fades into the margins and falls silent in the overarching conflational discourse.
What I am arguing is that while racial difference and segregation policy perform important work in this film by structuring virtually all encounters between individuals across institutions of race, class, and sexuality, this discourse of racial difference ultimately becomes backdrop — Eisenhower’s speech as background noise, the black child in the pool, the complication of the “coming out” discourse in regards to interracial romance—queering desire by marking it as contingent through parallelism and intersectionality. While revealing the dynamics of white and heterosexual privilege, this focus simultaneously reproduces the logic of white supremacy by positioning white bodies as primary sites of identification and affiliation.
In this context, the supposed subversiveness of Haynes’ queering of desire comes under question. If his cinematic queering relies on perpetuating racial power dynamics by deploying these dynamics mostly as props for framing white experience and understanding, how can this use of queerness and intersectionality claim real subversiveness? Dyer points out,
“White discourse implacably reduces the non-white subject to being a function of the white subject, not allowing her/him space or autonomy, permitting neither the recognition of similarities nor the acceptance of differences except as a means for knowing the white self.”
Thus the queering mechanism at play in Far from Heaven is in the final analysis a “white” mechanism. While this queering method does indeed expose fractures within white identity formation in terms of both racial affiliation and sexuality, it nevertheless positions white bodies as the medium through which all of this information is processed and disrupted. While I would argue this trend runs throughout queer cinema, there are indeed film directors who directly take on cinema’s “white vision” and queer this vision from both a black (or, more generally, non-white) and queer perspective simultaneously, although most of this film production happens within alternative, independent, and documentary film. Arguably, Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris is Burning (1990) examines questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality from a counter perspective, as do Marlon Riggs’ and Isaac Julien’s bodies of work.
Establishing “white vision” as primary reasserts the status quo even if the status quo is shown to be fraught and splintered at its core. It could be argued that exposing the instability of whiteness actually strengthens its power. Thus it is seen to be a more self-reflexive, self-critical, and unstable identity and therefore critically engaged and fluid. Representations of blackness in the form of black characters in this film are quite undeveloped, and an examination of black identity formation does not exist at all. “Blackness” exists as a prop, and as a category of identity it does not possess its own movement or logic. In this way Far from Heaven, seemingly unintentionally, ends up undermining the potential of its own critique. It falls apart precisely on the mechanism it is so dependent on. To Haynes, as to mainstream U.S. audiences, white non-normative sexuality is more “palatable” as a central site of identification, and this focus is achieved at the expense of a deep exploration into the politics and production of “racial otherness.” In Far from Heaven, flashing “racial otherness” as a product of white power is the stepping stone towards rendering the contours, construction, and problematics of “sexual otherness,” but it does only that. This trajectory stops short at turning back again to effectively question “whiteness” or “white vision” as the dominant filmic lens.
Far from Heaven’s depictions of the links between racial difference discourse and homosexuality are so self-consciously stylized as to seem almost “stiff,” a conscious move made to expose the constructed nature of difference in general. In Transamerica, the surprise hit from first-time writer/director Duncan Tucker, a similar conflation is made: in this case, racial difference both parallels and intersects in the presentation of “transsexuality,” although this conflation comes across less self-consciously than it does in Haynes’ film. Indeed, in Transamerica, this conflation seems so unconscious that I suggest that the film can be read as a counterpart to Far from Heaven in that it demonstrates that the link between “racial others” and “sexual others” is so deeply ingrained within U.S. culture that the presentation of “otherness” cannot be visually conceived of without recourse to the rhetoric of racial difference.
In contrast to Far from Heaven, which is a film that depends heavily on costume, dialogue, and mise-en-scène to carry the narrative and communicate the subtlety of the film’s central conflation, Transamerica is a textbook example of the ways that “performance” shapes and moves filmic narrative. The opening scene is an almost classic study of gender performativity, where we watch the protagonist, Bree Osbourne, adorn herself in all the accoutrements of high femininity. However, much like Haynes, Tucker uses props and backdrops in which racial difference figures as the vehicle which contextualizes and politicizes what this performance means.
The first thing we see is Bree training her vocal chords to a feminine pitch, immediately establishing her transsexuality, and in particular, her identity as a transsexual woman intent on “going stealth.” The diegetic soundtrack then takes over from Bree. She puts a record on the turntable, and significantly, it is the South African diva Miriam Makeba singing a traditional Zulu battle song. With music blaring, we watch Bree pack her pink handbag, into which she stuffs a copy of Civilizations of Black Africa by Jacques Maquet. Both the song and the book signify in such a way as to present Bree herself as a warrior going into battle. This is underscored by the scene’s focus on Bree’s dressing and make-up ritual. She is putting on her armor, readying herself to fight and win, and, like “Black Africa,” she is fighting the battle of the subjugated, the colonized. We quickly discover the nature of Bree’s battle, for cuts to Bree in a psychiatrist’s office are interspersed into her dressing ritual. She wants the psychiatrist to authorize her sex change surgery, and she is performing “woman” as best she can to win his approval. Furthermore, the quick shots of the walls of Bree’s home show them adorned with pictures and objects from “other” cultures. Images of black women with rows of neck rings, for example, are meant to parallel Bree’s own bodily transformations; as she speaks to the psychiatrist, she details all of the intensive cosmetic operations she has undergone to feminize her appearance.
Strangely, the shots of Bree applying her pink-tinted make-up, putting on all her pink clothes, slipping into her pink high heels, painting her nails pink, seem a kind of parody of feminine performance resonant not with transsexual self-presentation, but more with drag performance. This becomes especially apparent when she leaves her house and enters the world outside. Bree’s white and pink femininity contrasts sharply with the people she passes on the streets. The entire neighborhood, with the exception of Bree, is working class Hispanic. She looks like a drag queen up against this background, overdressed, hyper feminine, taller than everyone she passes on the street, although her neighbors don’t even bat an eye. Nevertheless the performance works for the (white) psychiatrist; he tells Bree that she looks “authentic.”
Perhaps the fact that Bree is presented as less authentic, more gender queer against the backdrop of non-white people comments on the “otherness” attributed to both transsexuals and non-white people within the hegemonic rhetoric of white privilege and power. Her otherness within the larger cultural framework is rendered visible through the film’s analogical link between Bree’s identity and non-white people. In other words, to make the analogy clear to viewers, Bree must stand out in relation to other “others.” Simply presenting her as passing in the white world would fail to delineate Bree’s identity as subjugated, a political identity that requires racial difference rhetoric as well as a hint of civil rights and post-colonial rhetoric in order to send the “correct” message to the audience.
Bree is constantly juxtaposed to and takes an interest in people of color throughout the entire film. Not only does she lives in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles, but she washes dishes in a Mexican restaurant, and later in the film flirts with a Native American man. Her only friend is her therapist Margaret, a latina woman played by Cuban-American Elizabeth Peña. In a sense, Bree is framed by elements that signify “boutique multiculturalism,” a kind of uncritical selection of objects and images of a variety of “racial others” whose display is meant to demonstrate Bree’s personal and political positions. I would certainly call this a form of cinematic “white vision.” These representations of “the racial other” within Transamerica come to signify something extra-diegetic related to the position of transsexuals in contemporary United States. The constant positioning of Bree up against this backdrop of racial difference operates analogically: the message is that to be transsexual and white is like being racially other.
In this regard, a hint of Tucker’s motivations surfaced when he discussed with an interviewer some of the research he did while writing the screenplay:
"I went out and met about a dozen-and-a-half transgender women. I was very secretive, especially with the ones who were stealth, whom I was the most interested in. I met a lot of them through friends of friends, and if I could gain enough trust, we'd usually arrange to meet in a restaurant. I'd get there and look around, asking myself, ‘OK, who's the transsexual?’ You don't say ‘tranny’ for the same reason you don't say ‘nigger.’"
This explicit reference to racial difference discourse, and the implicit link between transsexuality and blackness, seemingly emerges from nowhere, and moreover it is strange in the context of Tucker’s own comment. He begins by drawing on the notion of visibility, saying that the transsexuals he sought out were “stealth,” that is, passing as women and presumably invisible as transsexual. Yet he links this to the notion of seeing blackness, or bodies that are hyper-visible to white people, which is the opposite of stealth. Tucker’s comment does not make any sense, then, except on the level of discourse, for unconsciously Tucker is linking blackness and transsexuality along the axes of non-normativity and visibility.
The concepts of “passing” and “stealth” in relation to identity and visibility have their antecedents in African American culture, based on the history of people of color passing as white for a variety of personal, professional, and legal reasons, including, in antebellum United States, the possibility of escaping enslavement. In this context, then, “passing” or “going stealth” as a fact and a discourse references both the issues of racial difference and miscegenation, although within the film this aspect of the analogy operates on an extremely subtle level.
Transsexuals as “queer”:
the discourse of pathology
By linking transsexuality to both blackness and racial difference in general, Tucker draws on the same intersectional and analogical discourse as Haynes, yet Tucker positions transsexuality as the new, old“queer.” What I mean by this is that in our contemporary world transsexuality is defined by law and medicine as a mental illness and is therefore under the purview of “the experts.” In order to receive the medical treatment we see Bree undergoing in Transamerica, one must receive and accept the psychiatric diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID), although the psychiatrist in the film uses the terminology “Gender Dysphoria.” Not incidentally, GID was first included as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) just as homosexuality was taken out. What this means in legal terms is that one must accept a clinical diagnosis of mental illness in order to change one’s sex. The institutional forces of medicine and law control the parameters of the sex-change process and act as gatekeepers as to who counts as a “real” transsexual, and a “real” transsexual is by definition sick.
Rather than basing GID on sexual object choice, which defined “the queer” of the 1950s, in this case the central issue is a person’s desire to change one’s own sex and thus one’s own body, and this becomes the basis for diagnosing or defining gender pathology in our contemporary era. In short, “the transsexual” has replaced “the homosexual” as medicine’s “other.” The film does show that there is a legal space for this form of “deviance” within the existing structure as long as one is willing to be labelled as “ill.” This is in contrast to the queer desires presented in Far from Heaven, desires that were seen as signs of illness and were illegal to act upon.
Yet as Dorthe Troeften discusses in her dissertation Trans/acting Truths, one must adhere to a very narrow concept of transsexualism to receive the requisite medical treatment. Those whose identities and desires as “the opposite sex” most closely align with normative conceptions of femininity, masculinity, and heterosexuality more easily pass through the mechanisms of control. Therefore in terms of current radical queer theory, traditional transsexuality (the kind Tucker refers to in the interview I quoted above, and the kind of transsexual identity with which Bree is characterized) supports and reinforces a two-gender system and relies on the existing standards of gender roles and sexual normativity. In other words, there is nothing “queer” about this kind of transsexuality, in the contemporary sense of “queer” as questioning and revaluing the foundational (gendered, sexual) narratives of the status quo. Thus the relation between a transsexual person and the medical establishment is based on a rather odd premise: the establishment initially defines transsexuality as a (historically) queer identity, and then gives the transsexual treatment to smooth over that queerness, all the while requiring that person to maintain this “queer” label in the form of pathology.
Bree is a traditional transsexual, and indeed in one scene, where Bree unwittingly stumbles into a transgender gathering that includes all kinds of gender queers, the film marks gender queer people (in this case, transsexuals who are not interested in passing or going stealth) as freaks. Within this economy, then, visual evidence of Bree’s “queerness” requires an external signifier, for, like Frank in Far from Heaven, in most instances she prefers to be simultaneously visible (as woman) and invisible (as trans). And again, racial difference discourse performs this queering role.
The road trip: racial
discourse in Transamerica
Days before her scheduled sex change surgery, Bree, who used to be Stanley, discovers she has a teenaged son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), the result of a college fling. Forced by her therapist to face the fact of Toby’s existence—Margaret won’t sign the requisite paperwork until Bree comes to terms with this heretofore unknown dimension of her life, setting a new condition which, parenthetically, is unethical—Bree travels from her home in Los Angeles to New York to bail Toby out of jail, where he has been arrested on prostitution and drug charges. As Toby does not know that Stanley has become Bree, and the two have never met before, Bree does not reveal her identity to her son. She poses instead as a church lady who helps runaway teens. Bree offers to drive Toby back to his home in Kentucky, but he wants to move to Los Angeles to try his luck in the porn industry. After a series of misunderstandings and mishaps, Bree reluctantly agrees to drive Toby all the way to Los Angeles, determined, the whole trip, to maintain her church lady disguise.
On the road trip, Bree and Toby first pass through the southern United States and then on through the Southwest. In the south, the gas stations and truck stops are populated by small-town white men, and Bree’s fear of being “read” is rendered obvious by her nervous gestures and self-consciousness at being watched. Interestingly, she is read while in this geographical zone but not by a white man. Sitting at a restaurant in Arkansas, a young black girl, looking backwards over her chair, stares openly at Bree and asks, “‘Are you a girl or a boy?’” Bree does not answer as the girl is admonished by her mother. Yet moments later we see Bree tearfully phoning Margaret, “An 8-year-old just read me!” she cries. Considering Tucker’s comment on the link between blackness and transsexuality, was the choice of casting a young African American girl in this scene purely accidental? For such an encounter reinforces the notion that Bree, who usually passes so successfully among whites, can be “seen” by a person whose visible blackness categorizes her as “other” within the dominant culture. Here the director plays with the concepts of visibility and stealth, blackness and transness, in an effort, it seems, to drive home to viewers that he thinks that the “otherness” attributed to transgender people establishes a kind of connective bond that bridges differences across and within heterogeneous, marginalized populations. This is, in a sense, a restaging of the opening scene, where Bree’s gender presentation is shown to be visually unstable against the contextualizing backdrop of people of color.
In the Southwest, the locals presented are mostly latino and Native American. It is in this region that Bree, who in L.A. lives and works in a predominantly latino environment, is portrayed as more relaxed, much less fearful of discovery and possibility of bodily harm. Thus on a cursory level the film communicates that the shared experience of marginalization itself is enough to convince Bree that as a transwoman she is in less danger in predominantly non-white areas of the United States, although the truth of this depiction is certainly questionable. On a discursive level the director relies on a “like race” argument, using “race” as a kind of pedagogical backdrop or an explanatory mise-en-scéne, instructing the audience on the position of transsexual bodies in contemporary United States.
That Bree both lives in and travels across the southwestern U.S. borderlands, and finds peace within environments in which the border between (white) United States and (brown) Mexico is fluid and loosely defined, seems to position Bree, through analogy, as on the borderlands of gender identity. On a discursive level this borderland subjectivity positions Bree as a kind of queer subject, when in fact she thinks of her sex change as the last step towards coming into the woman she has always been. Thus in this case the background of racial difference seems to insist on queering Bree’s identity, in a way forcing a queering of the subject even when this is not particularly relevant to the situation at hand. This uncritical or almost unconscious use of conflation ends up pitting the character’s own will, and even the way that the film marks Bree’s transsexuality as normative, against an intersectional rhetoric that positions her as neither here nor there, as a queer subject who nevertheless resists such interpellation.
A pattern emerges when one looks at the use of “racial otherness” throughout the entire film. It is always non-white characters who seem to accept, or remain indifferent to, Bree’s transsexuality. The shots of Bree working in the Mexican restaurant where all her co-workers are latino depict her at ease in a friendly environment. The little black girl’s mother admonishes her daughter and instructs her on proper behavior, but does not even bother to look at Bree. The film even has a mammy-like figure (Venida Evans) who once acted as a kind of surrogate parent to Toby and, upon meeting Bree, offers to give her free electrolysis. Margaret is a compassionate and challenging friend. And it is Calvin (Graham Greene), a Native American man, with whom Bree establishes a romantic connection.
In my interpretation of the film, not only does this pattern forge the analogy that to be transsexual and white is like being racially other, but it also reinforces the simplistic and incorrect notion that “racial others” lack power. To me, the film implicitly communicates that these “others” don’t judge Bree because their judgment holds no social weight. They are “safe” precisely because they, too, are “threatening outsiders” as defined by the status quo. In other words, as defined by the white power elite, all “others” fall outside of the category of what constitutes a legible person. Like the figure of Raymond or blackness more generally in Far from Heaven, these “others” serve as props towards delineating the contours of Bree’s outsider status within the larger culture. The characters serve little to no purpose of their own and as a result their depictions lack complexity. Again, “racial otherness” as an explanatory mise-en-scène works towards framing non-normative white subjectivity as queer.
Transamerica’s queer project
It is Toby who is presented as possessing the most indeterminate, queer sexuality of all the characters in the film. He is a male prostitute and we see him in one scene with a john; in another scene we watch him kiss a young girl; towards the end of the film he even hits on Bree after he has discovered she is a transwoman and still has her penis (but he doesn’t yet know that Bree is his father.) Aside from the possible reading of Toby’s pass at Bree as a quasi-comical, queered version of the Oedipal drama, the issue of race and racial difference is also very much at play in the filial relationship between Bree and Toby. The question of origins often pivots on the issue of racial “purity” and “mixing,” and Toby is certainly concerned with the racial identity of his father. At one point on the road trip, Toby tells Bree he is part Native American on his father’s side, and he qualifies this by saying he’s not really sure but he feels it, “it’s an Indian thing.” Calvin also tells Toby he looks like he has some Cherokee in him, something it is clear Toby is delighted to hear. Bree is half Jewish, and significantly, it is precisely during Bree’s moment of revelation, when she comes out to Toby as his father, that “queerness” and “racial identity” are shown to be so conflated that they turn on the very same axis.
In Bree’s “coming out” speech a torrent of guilt is unleashed, and she tells Toby that she knows he must be disappointed that Bree is his father, because this means that Toby is part Jewish, not Indian, and moreover, she later tells Toby that he is Jewish on the “wrong” side, meaning that he is not really Jewish at all. An interesting parallel is constructed here. Bree’s revelation forces her to accept a queer identity: she is Toby’s father, thus disrupting her dream of attaining unadulterated womanhood. This child will be a constant reminder of her past as a man and thus acceptance of Toby is also an acknowledgement of her own status as a kind of “queer” parent, at least in the eyes of the larger culture. Her identity as “father” certainly calls attention to the indeterminacy of gender roles; she will never be Toby’s mother, nor will she fit the image of the father. The analogy here is that Toby, a queer character, must accept his identity as a fully white person, that is, he must give up the dream of racial otherness, in accepting Bree as his transwoman father. In giving Toby his whiteness by claiming him as her son, Bree moves into a more queer identity in relation to him. This move thereby establishes a reciprocal, kinship relation between queerness and racial identity. This move is made visible at the end of the film when Toby, who has indeed started a career as a pornographic actor, is shown as having dyed his hair from dark brown to an incongruous blond, a seeming nod to his newly confirmed whiteness. Bree, as well, begins to call herself his “father,” which also produces an incongruous picture, as Bree is a thoroughly pink-clad woman, an exaggeratedly feminine “father.”
The queer political project comes to the forefront in the very last scene of the film, when the blond Toby reconciles with the post-op Bree, for it is here that the film establishes the formation of a dyadic but nonetheless unconventional and “queer” (white) family. This contrasts sharply with the conclusion of Far from Heaven, which depicts the dissolution of the “proper” white family. What is significant is that in finally establishing the coming together of this queer family as a desirable outcome, racial difference as a dominant “queering” mechanism has sunk back into the margins, for it is no longer necessary as a framing device. “Wholeness” has been established—Bree no longer has her penis and is therefore a woman, Toby has solved the mystery of the “father” and thus of his white racial identity. “Queerness” is now established within the white family circle; it needs no longer be delineated by recourse to racial difference rhetoric, by framing these characters to those outside this circle. Referring back to the very opening, in this final scene Bree gives Toby a gift—a black cowboy hat that Calvin had given Toby on their journey with the comment, “Now you look like a warrior.” Thus this scene suggests both Bree and Toby have won their battles, and the only hint of racial difference discourse that remains is contained in the sign of the hat, which, after all, is a cowboy hat, not an Indian headdress.
Paradoxically, the queerness of this family reunion remains hidden beneath the mask of whiteness and clear-cut gender difference. The last shot of the film marks this spatially, for after Bree and Toby’s reunion, the camera actually moves outside Bree’s home and films them from a distance and through a window. Our perspective has suddenly shifted and we are now looking, peeping tom fashion, in on a mother and son sharing a beer. From this “outside world” perspective, nothing would appear strange or particularly “queer” about this dyad, the hat signifying nothing but “cowboy.” This final scene thus ultimately distances the queer political project from racial equality rhetoric by positioning the white queer family as a closed circuit.
In both Far from Heaven and Transamerica, then, racial difference facilitates the major encounters and transformations the main characters experience in terms of sexuality and gender identity. Both films reveal that identity is only understandable in a relational economy. However, both present this understanding as discernable and filtered through the lens of “white vision.” The debt owed to critical race theory and the Civil Rights movement has not been fully paid. These directors use racial difference discourse as a primary structuring and “queering” mechanism, and by doing so they use this discourse as a tool towards rendering oppression visible, yet both strangely fail to challenge the supremacy of white vision that continues to uphold the white power and privilege they seem to be intent on critiquing.
An intersectional perspective is an extremely useful lens for analyzing U.S. film, for such a perspective allows for an account of the interplay of identity politics within this national cinema, at the same time that it holds the potential to transform the object of study, in this case, the study of film. There are parallels here with feminist theory. For example, thirty-five years ago Linda Nochlin claimed that to develop a feminist perspective within the discipline of art history would transform the discipline itself: that such a lens would facilitate a revaluation of the politics, prejudices, and fissures in the formation of a given field of study. In this way, the study of film can greatly benefit by a more direct engagement with the intersections of critical race and queer theory, for these theories can be used to further expose the cultural assumptions embedded within film and thus take the field in new directions. Moreover, by admitting the implicit whiteness of cinematic vision and keeping a critical eye on how whiteness structures both the study and production of film, and structures filmic representations of identity politics, scholars and filmmakers alike can make steps in the direction of revealing the dynamics of what actually happens between the contingent spaces where race, sexuality, and gender intersect with each other.
5. Susan Courtney writes, “…a history of white vision…cannot be read apart from the history of American cinema.” In Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 4.
10. Ibid. Somerville explains that what distinguishes late 19th century sexologists’ construction of homosexuality from mid-20th century conceptions is a shift from defining homosexuality in terms of physiology or even physiognomy (the invert), to defining it in terms of object choice (the homosexual). See Chapter 1, “Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body,” 15-38.
12. Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 141.
18. Haynes is granted a certain exceptionalism among contemporary U.S. filmmakers because, as Lynne Joyrich explains, “his films implicitly position themselves as theoretical reflections, intertextual explorations, and self-referential critiques” and thus he is “often [treated] as a theorist and critic of his own text.” Lynne Joyrich, ‘Written on the Screen: Mediation and Immersion in Far from Heaven’, Camera Obscura 57 (2004): 212.
19. Dyer, Culture, 6-7. Also, Haynes stated in a 1993 interview that his films aim to “queer” representations of sexuality by disrupting notions of both heterosexuality and homosexuality, to mark both as interdependent constructs and thus reveal them as “strange.” In Justin Wyatt, “Cinematic/Sexual Transgression: An Interview with Todd Haynes,” Film Quarterly, 46.2 (1993): 8.
24. Haynes mentions in the DVD director’s commentary that Eleanor’s reaction to Cathy’s admission of her crush on Raymond is less about Eleanor’s racism and more about feeling betrayed, because Cathy lacked trust in her when Eleanor initially confronted Cathy about the rumors.
25. For a discussion on the ways in which a critical race perspective can challenge and reconceptualize the notions of “the closet” and “coming out” within queer theory and discourse, see Marlon B. Ross, “Beyond the Closet as Raceless Paradigm,” in Black Queer Studies, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 161-89.
31. See also Willis’ conclusion, “Ultimately, the film disappoints its own logic because its structural analogy between racism and homophobia fails through its very visual organization. It cannot go beyond the boundaries it has set for Cathy in terms of racialized geography and spaces. And it can’t grant Raymond the independence it permits Frank, because it has not endowed him with a point of view,” “Politics,” 168.
33. Cinematical.com. “Interview: Duncan Tucker, writer/director of Transamerica,”
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