Lesbians and film, p. 2
by Edith Becker, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, B. Ruby Rich

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 17-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

One need is for films that deal with variation, complex identities, and contradiction — all outside the scope of the "positive image" approach. Lesbian films cannot be considered outside the context of the lesbian community. Within this community, we face daily contradictions (passing at work but being out with friends, public oppression versus private pleasure, or the seeming contradiction of multiple political commitments). The recognition and working through conflict is a process that is essential to political and personal growth. It's one which our films could be aiding. Unsolved problems, anger, unpleasant decisions, fights, and other messy material are all dealt with in our lives and could be portrayed on the screen as well. Barbara Hammer's film DOUBLE STRENGTH, for instance, approaches the question of lesbian relationships, love and romanticism (see two different views of Hammer's work in the Zita and Weiss articles). Jan Oxenberg's films, in particular, pull humor out of a hat of contradictions (see Citron article in this section). Susana Blaustein's self-portrait, SUSANA, wittily visualizes the conflict between her lesbian lifestyle and traditional Argentine family values which is precipitated by her sister's visit. We need more films that deal with the contradictions, details, and pleasures of lesbian life.

What about all the aspects of lesbian life that haven't yet made it into the movies? We have yet to see any film about that venerable mainstay of lesbian culture, the bars. Despite a network of lesbian and gay history projects, their research has yet to inform lesbian filmmaking. For example, the slide show on "Lesbian Masquerade: Women Who Passed as Men in Early San Francisco" could provide the basis for a wonderful film on the phenomenon of "passing women." Again, looking to history, the presence of lesbians in the suffragette movement has yet to be explored in film. Films are still needed to write lesbians back into history, to include the lives of lesbians on welfare, lesbians fighting nationalist struggles, lesbians of color ... lesbians contributing to struggles both inside and outside the lesbian movement per se. The lesbian imagination is certainly not limited to the traditionally political. Lesbian films could explore the interior of a lesbian household or formally study the textures of daily life.

Since lesbians are trying to live lives that reflect new value systems, there is a need for lesbian films that match those value systems, both in the range of subject matter and stylistically. Lesbian literature offers an example of new visions, styles, textures, and tonalities. Just as lesbian writers have discovered new linguistic structures and narrative styles that both express the lesbian imagination and refute the dominance of patriarchal writing, so must lesbian filmmakers take on this task. A lesbian film style could reveal the interlocking structures in characters' lives and bring a non-oppressive approach to image making and reception. Fantasy and visionary art are sources of strength, used by lesbians "to dream themselves" into power. Utopianism has both positive and negative connotations, both true. It can be a flight from social change, but can also be a beacon of inspiration. More films need to take up the foundation laid in literature by Monique Wittig, Verena Stefan, and Olga Broumas.

For lesbian filmmakers, the tension between creating new forms and maintaining contact with the audience they serve is ever present. Often, contact has been maintained by the use of already acceptable forms. Yet it is important to develop new forms to suit the meaning of the films, and not rely solely on existing narrative or documentary styles. (See, for example, Barbara Martineau's article in JUMP CUT #19.) Issues, styles, and priorities change as more lesbian films come into being. The work is already beginning.

* * *

While lesbian filmmaking is not solely "a matter of a woman plus a woman in bed," nevertheless sexuality cannot, and should not, be avoided. For the lesbian community, the cinematic depiction of sexuality poses a particular problem. It is important to name this element of lesbianism for what it is, to articulate its nature, and to give positive models of lesbian sexuality for younger women coming out. But how can this be reconciled with the objectification of such sexuality in film and the visual arts (from Helmut Newton's high-class-porn photography to advertisements for Twin Sisters scotch)? The visualization of non-voyeuristic, authentic lesbian lovemaking should be attempted. But paradoxically, the continued existence of pornography still clouds the depiction of sexuality.

The representation of women's bodies in art and film has been an issue of concern to feminist critics (see Lucy Lippard on body art in From the Center) Due to a history of patriarchal art, to the visual coding of our society and to the presence of a male audience, it sometimes seems that the attempt for women to reclaim our bodies is doomed. In feminist film such an assessment has often led to a turning away from the depiction of heterosexual lovemaking, because of its inherent power relations and the difficulty in trying to create a new visual iconography to alter those relations. Lesbian filmmakers are faced with a different situation. The all-woman environment, on the screen and in the audience, defines sexuality within a lesbian context and therefore should pose no problem to the representation of lesbian lovemaking. It would seem that lesbian filmmakers have no need for puritanism. Even in this context, however, lesbian viewers may still feel themselves made vulnerable by the open sexuality on the screen. French novelist and filmmaker Christiane Rochefort is clear about the reason: "because we don't want men to look at what we do, I cut the intimate scenes..."

The problem is present for the audience as much as for the filmmaker. Feeling so often under siege in society, it is hard to relax in a safehouse. Films showing lesbian lovemaking are vital to the lesbian filmmaker and lesbian community, yet there are always concerns as to what use the film can be put outside the intended context. Aware of how men misappropriate lesbian films, some filmmakers have sought to restrict screenings of films with lesbian lovemaking to all-woman audiences, as in the case of Barbara Hammer's DYKETACTICS. Although unrestrictive of audience, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman tried in her early film, JE, TU, IL, ELLE, to construct a fresh non-voyeuristic image of lesbian lovemaking. Yet critics, on the whole, have discussed the film with pornography as their singular reference point, indicating the limitations of the artist's intention. What distinguishes both JE, TU, IL, ELLE and DYKETACTICS from other depictions of lesbian lovemaking in film is their visual and editing styles, as well as the presence of the filmmaker as participant in the scene, which conveys an insider's point of view.

Since lesbian sexuality is different from heterosexuality, then films about it, done from a lesbian perspective rather than an outsider's perspective, will have to be different in both form and content. By using visual and musical coding associated with pornography, the lesbian lovemaking scenes in Connie Beeson's HOLDING have been easily co-opted into theatrical marketing for a mass audience. At other times, paradoxically, mass audience films can be appropriated in part by the lesbian audience. The racist softcore hit, EMMANUELLE, contained scenes of lesbian eroticism that were accepted as satisfying by many lesbian viewers. They could be appropriated, perhaps, because they were suggestively erotic rather than explicitly pornographic: the women were neither naked nor in bed.

While it would be inappropriate to divert our attention here into a lengthy debate on the distinctions between pornography and erotic film, we could mention a few points. The objectification of women and the enactment of male/female power relations are basic to pornography. Furthermore, lesbian depictions within pornography are predicated on standards alien to lesbian sexuality, such as the fetishizing of genital sex or the displacement of emotional involvement. Pornography's exploitative style (of lighting, camera angle, and editing) obstructs the possibility of erotic enjoyment. The differences between eroticism and pornography in film can only become clearer as more lesbian filmmakers present sexuality in their work. Nor is the filmmaker's attempt a vain one. The ideal remains of a visual image/ style which could rupture even the patriarchal codes by which lesbian sexuality is read. Therefore it is important to keep co-optation from becoming intimidation.

Pornography is the extreme case, yet it points to a widespread phenomenon. There's a difficulty in defining the terms of lesbian experience when these very terms may mean one thing inside the women's community and something quite different in the gynophobic (woman-hating) society outside. Collective action inside is separatism outside; woman's anger inside is hysteria outside; autonomy inside is man-hating outside. These contradictions cannot be avoided. They emerge whenever a period of struggle is in progress, whenever an oppressed people aggressively assumes the task of self definition.

* * *

The lesbian struggle for self definition has been in process for a long time in a variety of ways — organizationally, through publications, culturally, in music and poetry, in the bars — and in alliance with a number of other movements, particularly with gay male, left, and feminist struggles. In the United States, any history must take into account the founding in 1955 of the first lesbian organization in the country, the Daughters of Bilitis. Its publication, The Ladder, published continuously from 1956 to 1972. The official position of the Daughters of Bilitis, brave for its time, stressed education to the general public about homosexuality, self education, research projects in the social sciences, and lobbying for more tolerant legislation. Their emphasis on acceptance is very different from that of the best known lesbian literary tradition, that of Nathalie Barney, Renée Vivien, and their coterie in Paris at the turn of the century. The Paris circle's pride in and celebration of relations and sexual liaisons between women takes no notice of heterosexual sobriety, a luxury which its economic status permitted. These women were able to speak in their own voice early on, due to class status. But it remained to the 70s to offer equal opportunity.

These very different traditions, of political awareness and cultural pride, were finally brought together with the events leading into and out of the Stonewall Resistance of 1969. At that event in New York City, gay men and lesbians fought back against police, battling generations of police harassment. The night's political tradition has been kept alive and furthered by the following —

  • by annual Gay Pride Week events each June, with marches in cities all over the country;
  • by organizations, like the Gay Liberation Front and later the National Gay Task Force, or like the specific media organization that was formed at last year's Alternative Cinema Conference, the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Filmmakers;
  • by actions, like those against the exhibition of WINDOWS and the filming and opening of CRUISING;
  • by national demonstrations, like the October 14, 1979, mass mobilization in Washington in defense of gay rights against the homophobic backlash and increasingly repressive legislation, like the Briggs initiative.

Within the left, gays and lesbians have struggled against homophobia, both unconscious and deliberate. While many sectors of the gay and lesbian movement have a non- or anti-leftist perspective, the presence of gays and lesbians in specific left organizations and national solidarity movements, as well as the participation of gay and lesbian groups in left coalitions, is significant. This summer's Lavender Left conference was held by progressive lesbians and gay men.

The dominant context for the lesbian movement, of course, has been the women's movement, in which lesbian feminists have always been a major presence, from the earliest days of women's liberation to the present. However, that history has been scarred by continual eruptions between lesbians and straight women within the movement, resulting in purges and separate lesbian organizations. Nevertheless, leading in the formulation of feminist theory critiquing patriarchal society and its institutions of power, lesbians have been activities in all spheres of the movement: rape crisis work, battered women's shelters, women's health clinics, reproductive rights struggles, the organizing of women workers, etc.

We have selected these events above, not to capsulate a thumbnail history, but merely to contextualize the discussion of lesbian aesthetics and film history which cannot be divorced from the political and cultural ferment of its era. The development of a lesbian identity has been especially strong in art, poetry, literature, music and philosophy. This development has occurred both within autonomous lesbian contexts and within the more generalized women's community, though any line of demarcation may be hard to fix. Women's music offers an outstanding example of how women working together have created not only a pleasurable art form but the entire apparatus necessary to bring that art to its public, the women's community: women composers, musicians, technicians, producers (like the group of women who form Roadworks), recording companies (like Olivia Records) and distribution networks. Women's concerts and coffeehouses have provided a public space within which lesbian audiences can enjoy the creative articulation of a shared culture. Though cultural, these spaces are also political. Without the journals, galleries, concerts, bars, publishing houses ... there would be no basis for collective awareness or action, no evidence that things could be otherwise for lesbians in a society of mandatory heterosexuality.

Women have taken possession of the means of production in yet another way, through the establishment of a number of publishing houses to ensure a free voice for feminist and lesbian writers. Similarly, lesbian journals have proliferated on both regional and national levels, as have feminist publications in general. On the regional level, the journals play a role in local political struggles, report on issues of interest to lesbians, publish local poetry and graphics, provide a directory for lesbian services, and advertise local businesses and bars. One national publication that follows this format of a news and culture blend is Off Our Backs which has published continually for ten years, always maintaining a strong political stance. In 1976-77, four national journals were founded which have contributed to, discussed, and helped shape the renaissance in lesbian culture, theory and politics. They comprise the following:

  • Conditions, "a magazine of writing by women with an emphasis on writing by lesbians;"
  • Chrysalis, "a magazine of woman's culture;"
  • Heresies, "a feminist publication on art and politics;" and
  • Sinister Wisdom, "a journal of words and pictures for the lesbian imagination in all women."

These journals all have a national readership, are handsomely produced, and focus much more on history, philosophical issues, and broad questions of aesthetics and culture than they do upon current events or reporting. These journals are the mechanisms by which a network of feminist thought is spun across the country, establishing a common frame of reference.

The editors of Heresies, Conditions and Off Our Backs have opened their publications to the concerns of Black and Third World women's experiences. The issues of Third World Women: the politics of being other (Heresies 8), Conditions 5: the black women's issue and Off Our Backs: ain't I a woman (Vol. X, 6) all confront the white feminist/lesbian movements to acknowledge the uniqueness and autonomy of our triply oppressed sisters (by race, class and sex). In the past, white movement women "have claimed that they could not find any women of color as an excuse for their all whiteness," write the editors of Conditions 5. These excuses have dissolved as women "of color" substantiate their continued historical struggles through their diverse modes of artistic expression. If it is only in recent years that the publishers of these national women's journals have prioritized the printing of these women's work, then how much longer will those who control the necessary, and more expensive, means for production and distribution of films remain racist, closed to Black and Third World women. The relatively few films made by and about these women have yet to reach a mass distribution level. As the Heresies, 8, collective has written, because Black and "Third World women are other than the majority and the power-holding class, and … have concerns other than those of white feminists, white artists and men," their works remain ghettoized and are often only found within their original cultural community.

Naturally, Black and Latina lesbians are not waiting for the rest of the movement to catch up: There have been Black and Third World lesbian conferences in New York and Washington, D.C.. There was a Black lesbian conference held in California last Fall. And groups like the Combahee River Collective in Roxbury MA are engaged in ongoing work on the level of theory and practice. Happily, the lesbian and women's community as a whole are participating in the dialogue and not passively forcing Third World and Black women to do all the work of education or confrontation: the National Women's Studies Association, for instance, has already announced racism as its theme for the 1981 conference. There will always be differences in the perspectives of lesbians from differing races or class backgrounds. The ideal of a universal sisterhood does not necessitate the suppression of differences. Still, it is only now, with the greater participation of Black and Third World lesbians, that we can discuss the degree to which a faulty universalizing was previously practiced. While lesbians who are not white are less likely to perceive patriarchy as the primary enemy, their perspective on class and race oppression can only educate the lesbian movement about political realities.

As the lesbian movement progresses, and as lesbian filmmaking prospers, the kinds of lesbian films we are seeing are bound to change. As there is more of an interchange between filmmakers of all races, lesbian films will be more likely to reflect the connections in our society between homophobia, antifeminism, and the corresponding mechanisms of racism and class oppression. Lesbian films are passionately linked to the lesbian community, both in the sense of political struggle and in the banalities of daily life. It is that immediacy which gives the art its strength and the audience its pleasure. Lesbian filmmaking has begun to develop new editing strategies, tamper with traditional sound/image relations, and visualize new codes by which women's bodies can be seen. Only such a reassessment of film aesthetics can adequately serve the values of lesbian culture at this time. 8y moving beyond oppression to liberation, a true lesbian art form and an authentic lesbian aesthetic can emerge.

This is a filmmaking that is not reacting against older, heterosexual images of lesbianism. At the center of the new cinema, there must be a conscious sense of self. In turn, lesbian film theory, as demonstrated by many of the articles in this special section, must begin to dismantle some of the structures of current feminist film theory and film history in order to build a more inclusive foundation. Lesbian criticism can give voice to those things that have long remained silent, and in so doing, point up the extent to which previous feminist film criticism may still be bound into measuring by male or heterosexual standards. A true recognition of lesbianism would seriously challenge the concept of women as inevitable objects of exchange between men, or as fixed in an eternal trap of "sexual difference" based in heterosexuality. Feminist theory that sees all women on the screen only as the objects of male desire  — including, by implication, lesbians — is inadequate. This theoretical framework excludes lesbian experience, and it may in fact diminish the experience of all women.

* *  *

The process of compiling this Special Section has been a long and exhaustive one. We hope that the Special Section sparks ongoing work on issues of lesbianism and cinema. We welcome future submissions to JUMP CUT, and equally expect to see more attention devoted to film in the lesbian and feminist press.

"I remember a scene ... This from a film I want to see. It is a film made by a woman about two women who live together. This is a scene from their daily lives. It is a film about the small daily transformations which women experience, allow, tend to, and which have been invisible in this male culture. In this film, two women touch. In all ways possible they show knowledge of. what they have lived through and what they will yet do, and one sees in their movements how they have survived. I am certain that one day this film will exist."   — Susan Griffin


The footnotes to the articles in the Special Section provide a bibliography that can lead interested readers to more lesbian and gay male perspectives in cultural studies. Below we list a few other key sources used in writing our introduction.

________. Adam International Review, 29 No. 299 (1962). Natalie Barney issue.

Broumas, Olga. Beginning with O. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Daughters of Bilitis, ed. The Ladder, 1956-1972. Reprinted, with Jonathan Katz, et al, ed.; New York: Arno Press, 1976. Also reprinted with Barbara Grier and Colleta Reid, eds., in four volumes:

  • Lesbiana: Book Reviews from "The Ladder". Reno: Naid Press, 1976.
  • Lesbian Lives: Biographies of Women from "The Ladder." Oakland, CA: Diana Press, 1976.
  • The Lavender Herring: Lesbian Essays from "The Ladder." Diana Press, 1976.
  • The Lesbians Home Journal: Stories from "The Ladder." Diana Press, 1976.

Dyer, Richard. "Gays in Film." JUMP CUT, No. 18 (August 1978).

Gornick, Vivian, "Is Women's Liberation a Sexist Plot?" Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Floran, eds. New York: Signet Books, 1971.

Griffin, Susan. "Transformations." Sinister Wisdom, 1, No. 2 (Fall 1976).

Harris, Bertha. "The More Profound Nationality of Their Lesbianism: Lesbian Society in Paris in the 1920s." Amazon Expedition. New York: Times Change Press, 1973.

Harris, Bertha. "Notes Toward Defining the Nature of Lesbian Literature." Heresies, 3 (Fall 1977).

Harris, Bertha. "What Is a Lesbian?" Sinister Wisdom, No. 3 (1977).

Heresies, No. 3 (Fall 1977). Lesbian Art and Artists issue.

Jay, Karla and Young, Allen. Lavender Culture. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973

JUMP CUT Special Section on Gay Men and Film. No. 16 (November 1977).

JUMP CUT Report on Alternative Cinema Conference. No. 21 (November 1979).

Katz, Jonathan, ed. Gay History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA — A Documentary. New York: Avon, 1978.

Lourde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. New York: Out and Out Books, No. 3, 1978.

Ponse, Barbara. Identities in the Lesbian World: The Social Construction of Self. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs, 5, No. 4 (Summer 1980).

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Sheldon, Caroline. "Lesbians and Film: Some Thoughts." Gays and Film. Richard Dyer, ed. London: British Film Institute, 1977.

Smith, Barbara. "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism." Conditions 2 (1977).

Smith-Rosenberg, Caroll. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in 19th Century America." Signs, 1, No. 1 (Fall 1975).

Stambolian, George and Marks, Elaine, eds. Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Stefan, Verena. Shedding. New York: Daughters, 1978.

Tyler, Parker. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Anchor, 1972.

Wickes, George. "A Natalie Barney Garland." Paris Review. 61 (1975).

Wilson, Elizabeth. "Gayness and Liberalism." Conditions of Illusion. Sandra Allen, Lee Sanders, and Jan Wallis, eds. London: Feminist Books, 1974.