Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 40-44
LESBIANS, FEMINISM AND MINORITY STRESS MANAGEMENT
Because sexual preference is not visually determinable whereas gender is usually obvious, most lesbians experience as much overt discrimination as women as they do as lesbians. This is not necessarily the case, of course, for those lesbians who choose to become recognizable by exhibiting nonconventional actions associated with lesbianism or with lesbian stereotypes such as same-sex affection in public or "mannish" apparel. This choice is not to be confused as "the amount of lesbianism" in them nor with any degree of femaleness or maleness. Even the 1950s "butch" was no more female or male than her corresponding "femme" but was only transgressing conventions. As such, she obtained certain male privileges as well as more anti-homosexual treatment from the general society. Interestingly, the more androgynous behaviors and attitudes exercised by many women today correlate positively with both increased professional success and mental health, according to several studies. (Virginia R. Brooks, Minority Stress and Lesbian Women, Lexington MA: D.C. Heath, 1981. Brooks analyzed approximately 600 questionnaires completed by U.S. lesbians.)
Whether or not lesbians have chosen to be recognizable, they have consistently contributed to movements for women's liberation. Continuing the energy and effort between movements, they are the "living" enactment of the feminist principle that the personal is political. Not married to men and therefore economically independent, adult lesbians compete with men in the realm of production. Not relating to men sexually, they refuse to be sexual or reproductive property.
Thus the very existence of lesbians challenges the basis of patriarchy, the economic and sexual oppression of women. Even lesbians with mainstream attitudes and less-political lifestyles necessarily contribute to this challenge. More political lesbians (like many in our sample) add a further challenge.
Because all lesbians threaten patriarchy on some level, because their presence disrupts the "natural" organization of those in power, they are both disregarded and discriminated against. In addition to their oppression as women, lesbians are discriminated against economically and socially as a minority group. Church and State can and do deny them their right to own property, to marry same-sex, to raise children and to publicly declare their lesbianism. The medical and psychiatric professions (largely male and profiting from "women's madness") can deny them their physical and cognitive freedom. Social conventions and ideology control their "lesbian" behavior by isolating it in the private sphere. Mass media educate them to "proper" behavior in "straight territory." Even when a woman is open about her lesbianism she still must conform to numerous other behavior codes of straight society.
To live as a lesbian, then, produces constant stress. That stress is considerable whether one's primary status is human or lesbian, whether one is apologetic or political, whether one attempts to pass or to contest.
Mass media is a particularly important source of stress because of its pervasiveness. As publicity for and a celebration of sexism and heterosexism, it collapses the public and private spheres to challenge one's identity and perceptions. No longer is one's self-esteem dependent on only the reactions and attitudes of specific individuals to whom one does or does not reveal her lesbianism.
It would seem that this stress would cause an eventual demise of the individual, but, in fact, most lesbians find their lives to be relatively unproblematic specifically regarding their lesbianism. This is due to two basic factors: the strengthening function of the lesbian/feminist community and a high level of competency in stress management.
Unlike most other types of stress, minority stress usually continues for one's lifetime. This means that particular incidents related to one's lesbianism seldom exist without larger social and economic associations. At the same time, accumulated experiences can allow lesbians to develop effective coping responses.
In her study on minority stress and lesbians, Virginia Brooks found that a lesbian's identification of women or especially of lesbians as a minority, reference group was associated with decreased stress reactions. By counteracting negative stereotypes, a lesbian "community" promotes self-esteem in the individual. Stress from the outside world is not eliminated but the lesbian is more able to cope with it.
In addition, a minority group can attempt to change its status in relation to society at large. Possible goals might include assimilation (to disappear as a group and to be judged only as individuals), pluralism (to maintain group identity while still acknowledging loyalty to the larger society) and separation (to establish the group's own society). A fourth goal, reform, seeks to alter minority status by changing society at large. It differs from assimilation and pluralism in that it recognizes the minority group's values and ethics as superior to that of the larger society. It differs from separation in that it sees liberation as requiring change in the oppressor.
(This basic organization is derived from Brooks. However, Brooks defines the fourth goal as domination, i.e., to reverse present status arrangements, which I strongly feel is not a minority group goal of lesbian/ feminists. Though a pride in matriarchal prehistory is common among lesbians, feminist ethics definitely takes a stand against all oppressions.)
All of these goals can be seen operating in survey responses to PERSONAL BEST. To be glad that the film was made and to credit it with being progressive reflect goals of assimilation and pluralism. Feminist subversive readings reflect both goals of pluralism and separation. Feminist critiques reflect goals of separation and reform.
In different periods of history, a minority group as a whole may adopt various goals as primary. At any one time, however, all four goals still will exist within the group as individuals' goals. Furthermore, any single individual changes goals through time. Rather than existing in a hierarchical and stagnant structure, these goals offer a dynamic path for both groups and individuals. Progress through them is not completed but instead repeated in a spiraling pattern. Most importantly, different goals frequently coexist with a single individual.
It is reasonable to suggest that any lesbian/ feminist viewer's response to PERSONAL BEST is the product of many influences besides the film's content and form. A thorough investigation would include the particular viewer's expectations of the film as it exists within her prior experience with mass media, her sensitivity to any stress caused by or referred to by the film, her pre-learned adaptive or maladaptive coping responses, her possible involvement in a lesbian subculture, and the current goals of that subculture as well as her own goals with regard to the dominant culture. All of these no doubt contributed to whether a viewer's final rating of PERSONAL BEST reflects a lesbian/feminist reading or a lesbian/ feminist critique. At the same time, the film no doubt attempts to diminish the influence of all these "external" factors. Total assimilation of all audiences is Hollywood's economic goal.
Lesbian/feminist viewers offer an interesting challenge to the concept of the subject formed in ideology. Of course, their status is defined by ideology, but their position simultaneously inside and outside of mainstream society certainly facilitates a critical consciousness.
PERSONAL BEST AND AUDIENCE STRESS
PERSONAL BEST's narrative concerns two women athletes, Chris and Torrie, who have a lesbian relationship. Though the relationship disintegrates, they are friends and teammates at the film's end. Their coach, who advocates a killer instinct approach to sports, insists that the women compete against each other, voices opposition to their relationship, encourages their separation, and finally attempts to seduce Chris. Chris resists Coach Tingloff's advances and instead gets involved with an ex-swimmer, Denny, who is spokesman for the "personal best" philosophy of sports. Chris thus ends up in a heterosexual relationship while Torrie remains lesbian-identified.
As Linda Williams points out, PERSONAL BEST uses its sports story to resolve its lesbian story. Much visual attention is given to female athletics and athletes throughout the film. Extreme close ups, montage editing and slow motion transform sports activity into a sensual visual experience. The film ends with Chris and Torrie both qualifying for the Olympic team via cooperative teamwork.
Classical narrative cinema has been likened to a dream mode, engaging the viewer on a subconscious level and removing her/him from any awareness of external reality except its manipulated representation by the film. The mimetic nature of film allows a fictional creation to stand in for reality while the darkened viewing environment separates each viewer from others as well as from the theatre dimensions and the world as a whole. Disruptions to this dreamlike arrangement are usually associated with avant-garde and political modes, which contain distancing devices such as interruptions to the narrative flow and foregrounding of film's artificiality.
I argue that distanciation can arise from within the viewer as well. Statements from lesbian/feminists' viewers of PERSONAL BEST reveal an active resistance to the film's "authority." The stress activated by their presence in public/heterosexual space and the film's focus on their personal/lesbian identity both act as a natural defense against cinematic hypnosis. Their past experience with mainstream "lesbian" movies discourages any confusion of film with reality and in fact encourages a defensive stance. Still, they too watch movies for the purpose of enjoyment. Rather than total involvement or distanciation, the lesbian/feminist viewer experiences PERSONAL BEST from an intermediate position where opposing forces work simultaneously to engage and distance her.
PERSONAL BEST attempts to engage lesbian/feminist as well as straight audiences. Its liberal content promises a narrative environment in which lesbians "want" to identify. At the same time, this lesbian content threatens to distance a straight audience whose comfort requires that no essential challenge be waged to its homophobia. It could be argued that the film's visual display of athletics and athletes interrupts its lesbian narrative, thus distancing straight viewers from unwanted identification. Ultimately straight viewers can then be engaged in viewing both lesbianism and sports as erotic spectacles. PERSONAL BEST works to ameliorate stress for all audiences. Its complexity of form and content reinforces homophobia while seeming to contest it.
To avoid duplicating that stress in the lesbian audience necessitated by the heterosexual viewing space, PERSONAL BEST employs the two most common passing behaviors used by lesbians. In Alice E. Moses’ Identity Management in Lesbian Women (New York: Praeger, 1978), Moses analyzed 81 questionnaires completed by lesbians in the U.S. The two behaviors most often used by these women to avoid being identified as lesbian were these: "Introduce partner as friend" — 76%; "Avoid talking about living situation" — 67%.
The film has Chris and Torrie present themselves to the world simply as friends. Open discussion of their love relationship is avoided. The two times that their relationship is discussed directly (between themselves in the car and by Coach Tingloff in his apartment), it is defined in strictly sexual terms. This is surely in tune with Chris and Denny's equally sexually motivated relationship; lesbianism "passes" as part of the sexual revolution.
A third passing arrangement, initiated by heterosexuals rather than lesbians, is prevalent in PERSONAL BEST. A "nothing unusual is happening here" stance can be used to deny a minority group's identity. Rather than being accepted by their peers, Torrie and Chris' relationship is ignored. This robs their kiss at the party of its "coming out" power. Even Denny, who first appears accepting, later tells Chris not to tell him anything about her earlier lesbian relationship. Tingloff is the only character, besides Torrie, who acknowledges the "unusual."
More important than passing behavior is PERSONAL BEST's complete avoidance of the two most stressful types of lesbian oppression/ discrimination: economic and social. At no time during the film is Torrie's or Chris' professional status denied because of their lesbianism. Neither character is actually harassed by her peers for being lesbian. The stress that does exist with PERSONAL BEST's lesbian story, associated with Tingloff's aggression towards lesbianism and Chris' passive denial of it, in fact is of little magnitude. Coach Tingloff repeatedly tries to extend his power over Chris and Torrie into a personal realm. Though many lesbians experience sexual harrassment on the job, most have necessarily eliminated it in the personal realm. Flirting men rarely present the threat to a lesbian relationship that is suggested by PERSONAL BEST's emphasis, via closeups on Chris' and Torrie's reactions to one another's "sports play" with Tingloff. Chris' romantic interest in males during a party sequence, while in Torrie's presence and while still supposedly involved with Torrie, is presented as so naively innocent as to discredit not only Torrie's jealousy but lesbian relationships as well. The inaccuracy of such character naiveté goes unrecognized within the film due to its lack of a lesbian context.
PERSONAL BEST's avoidance of any lesbian community support system is possible because of its avoidance of any major economic and/ or social oppression. Both avoidances combine to isolate the individual lesbian character or viewer in "neutral" territory. Furthermore, the lack of a lesbian reference gro14 within the film reinforces a strictly sexual definition of lesbianism, thus weakening any progressive presentation of lesbianism as an alternative, by restricting that alternative to a sexual plane as opposed to a lifestyle. This considerably soothes any stress men might feel in connection to the "manhating" myth of lesbianism.
PERSONAL BEST is composed of opposites and contradictions. Certain lesbian myths and stereotypes are deconstructed while others are reinforced. Often both manipulations occur with regard to the same myth or stereotype. Despite developed musculature, both Torrie and Chris are presented visually on the feminine side of androgyny (hair style, make-up, earrings); however, Torrie's hair is slicked back "butch-style" when "spying" on Chris and Denny in the restaurant. While the women's sports environment offers a situational explanation of lesbians, care is taken to present "normally" mixed party scenes. While Chris articulates resistance to the "all a lesbian needs is a good screw myth," she does, indeed, acquire happiness via the "good man." Lesbianism depicted by Chris is a stage, by Torrie a more permanent though problematic state. As one responder wrote,
Considering the homophobia rampant in mainstream ideology, the presence of lesbianism, even temporarily, likely would be stressful to men. PERSONAL BEST works on both narrative and extra-narrative levels to mollify that stress. Humor in PERSONAL BEST occurs on an extra-narrative level in the form of jokes which establish the superiority of those enjoying the jokes. The fact that these jokes exist essentially as verbal extra-narrative inserts suggests that the corresponding superior beings also exist outside the narration. Hence, though all of PERSONAL BEST's jokes are told by characters at least on half of whom are women, they exist for those in the audience who by right could tell such jokes. Not surprisingly, then, they are sexist (a guy stretches his belly button up and down to imitate a woman hurdler’s crotch), heterosexist (Tingloff relates a story of a marine throwing a fag out of a 44th story window and the fag then saying to the marine, "I'm not mad”), and racist (a woman in the steam bath imitates a man masturbating to explain why he is squint-eyed and buck-toothed).
Humor from the narrative level of PERSONAL BEST depends more on physical superiority. Much of it does, however, also reinforce the sexism of the extra-narrative jokes (a fat woman is used for humor twice and Tingloff calls a male runner a "pussy" when Chris passes him on the track).
PERSONAL BEST's humor relies on tension and functions for its release. Two types of tension are addressed: physical and sexual. Scenes of extreme physical exertion are often followed with physical jokes. A prime example of this is the scene of Chris and Torrie’s running up the dune in slow motion finally to reveal Coach Tingloff’s sitting at the top dressed like a Florida tourist and drinking beer. To the audience, who emotionally has been struggling up the dune with Chris and Torrie, the reentry of relaxation (their own attempted state as movies goers) is a pleasure, a relief, a joke. Note that when Tingloff motions the two women to continue running, the audience is not made to follow them.
Similarly though less obviously, because heterosexist humor takes place mainly on the extra-narrative level, the attention paid by characters to the opposite sex and to heterosexuality is a relief to the tension produced by the films temporary presentation of lesbianism. The marine and fag joke occurs during the scene in Tingloff's apartment. Tension is high not only because he has just succeeded in forcing apart Chris and Torrie but because he now has Chris trapped in his space (he refuses to let her answer the phone), she is physically handicapped, and he is both hostile and aggressive. When sexual aggression is in the air, the idea of a masochistic victim (fag) functions as a relief. Even though this joke was used narratively by Tingloff to imply that Chris' involvement with Torrie was masochistic, its position in the narrative action closely preceded his aggression towards Chris, giving it motivational power on a subliminal level. The joke actually reveals Tingloff's relationship with/attitude to Chris. Sexual humor exists in PERSONAL BEST for heterosexual men, to excuse their reactions to lesbians.
Humor for lesbian/feminists predominantly lies in the film's narration. One survey question asked what parts of PERSONAL BEST the responders found funny. 22% of these answers indicated that they found nothing in the film funny. Other responses included the following as things they found funny: the gay aesthetic of the goose lamp; Chris and Torrie's run up the dune to the relaxed Tingloff; come-uppances such as Denny’s hitting his head in the swimming pool, Denny's embarrassment when Chris holds his penis in the bathroom and Chris' greater weight lifting ability; playfulness shared by Chris and Torrie such as driving the car in a U-turn and onto the curb; and absurd/ ridiculous/ unrealistic scenes such as Chris and Torrie’s tickling: "Is that really what they think we do?"
In contrast, lesbian/feminists demonstrated an inverse relation to PERSONAL BEST's extra-narrative humor. The sample was asked if they liked, disliked or didn't remember four jokes from the movie: the belly button/ lady hurdler joke; the squint eyes and buck teeth/ masturbation joke; the fag and marine joke; the yank finger/fart joke. Of all responses to all four jokes, 48% were "don't remember," 44% were "disliked" and only 8% were "liked." Of the 8% positive responses, most (84% of those) were in response to the yank finger/ fart joke which they said exhibited initmacy between the two women. One responder who could not remember most of the jokes said,
Interestingly, the one male who completed a survey, which was not used in calculations for this study, remembered all four jokes and liked them all. Of course one male responder cannot be statistically relevant here, but this extreme variation from any of the 44 female responders suggests a direction for further study.
PERSONAL BEST employs humor as a stress reducing strategy. Within the narrative, humor softens its Freudian themes for lesbians and its feminist themes for men. On the extra-narrative level, it serves mainly men. The blatant sexism and heterosexism of many of the jokes defuses the stress of the heterosexual male audience, while the extra-narrative status of these jokes refuses to anchor them within the text. They are free floating and can be ignored or utilized by various audience members according to whether they provoke on alleviate stress.
In addition to humor, PERSONAL BEST develops the narrative to ameliorate, specifically for men, the very stress it creates. As with most comedies, this film restricts its challenge to the status quo to the beginning and middle parts. By the end, it reestablishes that status quo. Disruptions in the status quo, namely in the superiority and assumed universality of heterosexuality in our culture, are associated in PERSONAL BEST with the characters of Chris and Torrie. Defending the status quo against those disruptions is Tingloff. Reestablishment of the status quo is associated with Chris and Denny.
The Tingloff character acts as a scapegoat. He alone personifies heterosexist homophobia in PERSONAL BEST. It is he who finally voices what all heterosexists wait to hear: the denigration of lesbianism to the single level of sexuality and the subsequent attack on that sexuality. Tingloff acts out jealousy and reveals his fantasy of forced heterosexuality. Finally, it is Tingloff who is rebelled against by Chris and Torrie and defeated by Chris and Denny. His function is to represent sexism and hetenosexism and receive the justified anger directed against it. So efficiently does his character function that he absorbs much feminist rage at other aspects of the movie as well. That feminist audience anger (at sexism such as the movie's crotch shots) is directed back into the fictional world, even if towards a male character, is ultimately beneficial to heterosexist goals.
The narrative of PERSONAL BEST officially endorses heterosexuality via the defection of its main character, Chris, from homosexuality to heterosexuality as the film moves to a "happy ending." Needless to say, Torrie, though treated kindly in the end, moves from romantic involvement to inactivity and as a subcharacter is given less and less time as the movie proceeds.
Another major development in PERSONAL BEST, important for the soothing of male audience members, is Denny's replacement of Tingloff in the narrative structure. Whereas Tingloff represents heterosexism, Denny represents "tolerance." His appearance halfway through the narrative is necessary on several counts. First, he extricates the audience males from guilt by gender association with Tingloff. Secondly, via him, "tolerance" enters the film after the active lesbianism is over.
Thirdly and most importantly, Denny is needed to replace Tingloff so that the male gender can change its "character traits" without male audience members experiencing (via identification) the process of change. For a male such as Tingloff to change into a male such as Denny requires intellectual conflict. Since PERSONAL BEST avoids conflict, two male characters are required to enact a change in male position within the narrative.
PERSONAL BEST parades as a progressive film challenging conservative views on femininity and sexuality. Its management of conflict, however, insures against any real threat to tradition. On two planes, women's strength vs. women's oppression and homosexuality vs. heterosexism, opposite positions are provided, but care is taken to avoid their collision. Nowhere in the film is its presentation of women as both sex objects and capable aggressive athletes acknowledged as a contradiction. "Strong" women are just as available for objectification as are more feminine types. Lesbianism and heterosexism conflict briefly in the scene of Chris and Tingloff in his apartment. The conflict is circumvented before it makes demands on the heterosexual or male viewer's mind. Friendship replaces homosexuality and Denny replaces Tingloff. The male viewer can identify with both good guy and bad guy without actually wrangling with either position. No real change occurs within any single male character.
Chris, as PERSONAL BEST's main character, acts as the female role model and is expected to change. In her change is the ultimate amelioration of stress caused in male viewers by her earlier homosexual attachment. The lesbian story in PERSONAL BEST is a closed structure. Males need not fear that Chris will betray them in the future for another lesbian relationship.
Lesbianism is presented as a stage by PERSONAL BEST through the story of its main character. The presentation relies on now clichéd Freudian theories relating to the female child's process of changing her primary attraction towards the female gender (her mother) to an attraction towards the male gender (heterosexual lover). When sexuality and immaturity overlap, as they do for the Chris character early in PERSONAL BEST, the result is lesbianism, a stage to grow out of naturally. Chris' initial immaturity in PERSONAL BEST, her daughterly need for Torrie's nurturing, her penis envy suggested in the film via humor. Her final move simultaneously into heterosexuality and maturity absolutely reinforce a Freudian explanation. She is delivered into the arms of a man not as a bisexual but as a heterosexual. End of story.
That is, end of story one. As stated earlier, lesbians' existence in more than one world prepares them for reading more than one story. Though undoubtedly Chris is the main character of PERSONAL BEST's intended narrative, Torrie is the main character of its subversive lesbian/ feminist reading. One lesbian/feminist wrote,
By lesbian/feminist viewers, Chris was perfunctorily dismissed as "immature." Torrie was their "real" star. They liked looking at her and they liked being represented by her. Eighty-one percent of survey respones indicated identification with the Torrie character. Eighty-five per cent indicated liking the Torrie character more.
With Torrie as main character, a new story is not difficult to imagine. The most important development in the movie is her rising intact after an unsuccessful relationship. Without the support of a lesbian community, without even the normal talking-through expected of any relationship, Tornie survives the loss of her love, her only lesbian comrade. In the atmosphere of this movie, her final line, "He's Ok … for a guy," is an act of strength that any lesbian struggling under dominant heterosexist ideology would appreciate. Several lesbian/feminists read on from here to a reestablishment of Chris and Torrie's relationship.
CONCLUSION: A POLITICAL CONTEXT
I have tried in this article to further a discussion on the film viewing experience, particularly on how cultural subgroups within audiences negotiate enjoyment of films as long as those films avoid real conflict. I have tried to relate how lesbian/feminist readings and critiques exist within history and society.
For a lesbian/feminist audience, PERSONAL BEST contains both progressive and oppressive elements though its structure serves a heterosexist male audience. Though the majority of a lesbian/feminist sample reported having liked the film, further investigation revealed that those women, like others in the sample who disliked the film, were sensitive to and angered by specific sexist and heterosexist parts. A favorable general response is not to be interpreted as a favorable response to all parts. Multiple readings were operating. The sample was more in agreement over particular parts, however, than in general responses. The differences in final opinions relate to multiple complex factors operating in each individual. These individuals were active viewers producing either (or more commonly both) a feminist reading or a feminist critique. For feminists, it is now necessary to consider feminist readings and feminist critiques from a political perspective.
Film is usually accepted as a one-way communication. The audience talks only with money, a simple yes on no. In such a system it matters little to the producers whether the audience is enjoying a film or enjoying its rewrite of that film. Both cost the same. Likewise, neither feminist reading nor feminist critique is a political act unless articulated outside — the subculture. Within the subculture it is easy to lose track of the common oppressor and fall into false divisions, such as those who like vs. those who dislike PERSONAL BEST. PERSONAL BEST would then be manipulating us much like the misplaced marker "accidentally" disrupted Chris and Torrie's relationship.
To understand various responses to PERSONAL BEST, two points are most important:
After all, the subculture's political goals are comprised of individual goals and are undoubtedly anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist. To rate one or the other viewer response as more political from an aggressive position or as too "heavy" from a defensive position is to overlook their complementary functions. A feminist critique may be more combative but expends energy. A feminist reading usurps the oppressor's energy. Together they initiate and strengthen a cycle of resistance.
This is not to imply that feminist readings and feminist critiques are equally rebellious. A feminist critique designates the film as a target for anti-sexist attack while a feminist reading is a refusal to act as a target for the film's sexism. The feminist reading is a political action only so far as it provides energy for feminist political action in other directions.
Likewise, this endorsement of feminist readings and feminist critiques does not imply that every woman's response to PERSONAL BEST is necessarily feminist. The sample used for this paper may be uncommonly feminist. The present wave of feminism is rapidly being answered with backlash, and lesbian/feminists may be moving towards a goal of assimilation. Rather, what is concluded here is that any act, including viewer response, can be understood only within personal, social, historical and political contexts.
To view feminist readings and feminist critiques as an opposition is to divert conflict with a common outside oppressor to internal conflict. Simultaneously, to view them as identical is to equate a withdrawal into safety with a surging beyond constraints. Though successful revolution depends on the fortification of its proponents, such fortification is not revolutionary in itself. It is the sum total of individually effective acts that makes for successful change. Sustenance affects the effectiveness of those acts by providing potential energy. It is kinetic energy, however, that forwards liberation.