by Chris Straayer
Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 50-57
Feminist film theory based on sexual difference has much to gain from considering lesbian desire and sexuality. Women's desire for women deconstructs male/female sexual dichotomies, sex/gender conflation, and the universality of the oedipal narrative. Acknowledgement of the female-initiated active sexuality and sexualized activity of lesbians has the potential to reopen a space in which straight women as well as lesbians can exercise self-determined pleasure.
This article deals mainly with films that do not depict lesbianism explicitly, but employ or provide sites for lesbian intervention. I chose these films based on my interest in the lesbian viewer, and how her relation to films with covert lesbian content resembles her positioning in society. In textual analyses of ENTRE NOUS and VOYAGE EN DOUCE — two French films that seemingly oblige different audiences and interpretations — I demonstrate how, rather than enforcing opposite meanings, the films allow for multiple readings which overlap. I use the term "hypothetical" to indicate that neither the character's lesbianism nor her heroism is an obvious fact of the films. I articulate a lesbian aesthetic that is subjective but not idiosyncratic.
In particular, I examine two sites of negotiation between texts and viewers, shifts in the heterosexual structure which are vulnerable to lesbian pleasuring: the lesbian look of exchange, and female bonding. These stand in contrast to the male gaze and its narrative corollary, love at first sight. I then examine the contradictions that arise when the articulation of non-heterosexual subject matter is attempted within a structure conventionally motivated by heterosexuality. Finally, the question inevitably raised by women-only interactions — "Where is the man?" — inspires a radical disclosure of sex as historically and socially constructed and a redefinition of subjectivity.
FEMINIST FILM THEORY: GENDER, SEXUALITY, AND VIEWERSHIP
Within the construction of narrative film sexuality, the phrase "lesbian heroine" is a contradiction in terms. The female position in classical narrative is a stationary site to which the male hero travels and on which he acts. The relationship between male and female is one of conquest. The processes of acting and receiving are thus genderized.[open notes in new window]
There can be no lesbian heroine here, for the very definition of lesbianism requires an act of defiance in relation to assumptions about sexual desire and activity. Conventional filmic discourse can only accommodate the lesbian heroine as a hero, as "male." Yet maleness is potentially irrelevant to lesbianism, if not to lesbians.
The lesbian heroine in film must be conceived of as a viewer construction, short-circuiting the very networks that attempt to forbid her energy. She is constructed from contradictions within the text and between text and viewer, who insists on assertive, even transgressive, identifications and seeing.
The Hollywood romance formula of love at first sight relies on a slippage between sexuality and love. Sexual desire pretends to be reason enough for love, and love pretends to be sexual pleasure. While cinema makes sexual desire visually available for viewers' vicarious experiences, sexual pleasure is blocked. By the time the plot reaches a symbolic climax, love becomes substituted for sex, restricting sex to the realm of desire. So structured, love is unrequited sex. Since this love is hetero-love, homosexual viewers are doubly distanced from sexual pleasure.
The sexual gaze as elaborated in much feminist film theory remains a male prerogative, a unidirectional gaze from male onto female, pursuing a downward slant in relation to power. In contrast, the lesbian look that I describe requires exchange. It looks for a returning look, not just a receiving look. It sets up two-directional sexual activity.
Considerable work by feminist film theorists has attempted to articulate operations of looking in narrative film texts and film spectatorship. In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey described how the patriarchal unconscious has structured classical cinema with visual and narrative pleasure specifically for the heterosexual male viewer, gratifying his narcissistic ego via a surrogate male character who condones and relays the viewer's look at the woman character, and providing him voyeuristic pleasure via a more direct, non-narrative presentation of the woman as image (rather than character). Since woman's "otherness" from man depends on her "lack" (of a penis), this erotic image elicits the male viewer's castration anxiety, which cinema eases by visual and narrative operations of fetishism and sadism. In Mulvey's words,
Although Mulvey's article remains invaluable in addressing patriarchal dominance as the ideological status quo formally enforced by/in the mainstream cinema/text, it does not account for other sexual forces and experiences within society. Mulvey's arguments have been constructively elaborated, revised, and rebutted by many other feminist film theorists. However, much of this work has brought about an unproductive slippage between text and actuality which presses this exclusive patriarchal structure onto the world. This critical narrowness excludes the reactions of "deviant" participants in the film event from theory's discursive event. Even though the spectator's psychology remains formed within a culture that collapses sexual/anatomical difference onto gender, the same culture also contains opposing factors and configurations which generate many discourses which instigate psychological diversity. It is this diversity rather than cinema's dominant ideology that we must examine in order to deconstruct the alignment of male with activity and female with passivity.
In a later article, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by DUEL IN THE SUN," Mulvey suggests that female viewers experience Freud's "true heroic feeling" through masculine identification with active male characters, a process which allows this spectator "to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never fully repressed bedrock of feminine neurosis." With her "own memories" of masculinity, a certain "regression" takes place in this deft "trans-sex identification"; like returning to her past daydreams of action, she experiences viewer pleasure. Nevertheless, "the female spectator's phantasy of masculinisation is always to some extent at cross purposes with itself, restless in its transvestite clothes."
Such a confusion of clothing with sex, and of both with desire for action, accepts the limitations of sex-role stereotyping in the text. True, such desire on the part of female viewers usually requires identification with male characters, but this is a limitation of mainstream cinema, not a "regression" on the part of women.
By not addressing mechanisms of gay spectatorship, the above scheme denies such pleasure or suggests that it is achieved from the heterosexual text via transvestite ploys. Mainstream cinema's nearly total compulsory heterosexuality does require homosexual viewers to appropriate heterosexual representations for homosexual pleasure. However, "transvestite" viewer-text interaction, described by Mulvey and others, should not be confused with gay or bisexual viewership.
Mary Ann Doane understands this cross-gender identification by female viewers as one means of achieving distance from the text. In "Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator," she argues that, because woman's preoedipal bond with the mother continues to be strong throughout her life (unlike man's), the female viewer — unless she utilizes specific devices — is unable to achieve that distance from the film's textual body which allows man the process of voyeurism.
As a result, woman overidentifies with cinema's female victims, experiencing a pleasurable reconnection that is necessarily masochistic. Because her body lacks the potential for castration, "woman is constructed differently in relation to the process of looking."
Doane goes on to describe an alternate strategy for women to overcome proximity and mimic a distance from the(ir) image — the masquerade of femininity.
The primary question that followed Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was: How can women's film viewing pleasure be understood? Although subsequent feminist film theory drawing on psychoanalysis successfully opened up that field for feminist purposes and raised significant new questions, the answers it has provided — elaborations of particular processes of masochism, transvestism, and masquerade — remain only partially sufficient to the original question. Much of this work has circumvented a crucial option in female spectatorship by avoiding the investigation of women viewers' erotic attraction to and visual appreciation of women characters.
Further work needs to examine how viewers determine films as much as how films determine viewers. And, care should be taken that the theorized transvestite or bisexual viewer does not inadvertently suppress the homosexual viewer.
EROTICIZING LOOKS BETWEEN WOMEN CHARACTERS
Visual exchanges between same-sex characters typically are nonsexual. The challenge becomes to eroticize these looks. The homosexual viewer has this goal when she/he brings her/his desires to the heterosexual raw material and representational system of the text. Occasionally she/he collaborates with texts to excavate subtexts and uncover ambivalence in the patriarchal "order."
Since the heterosexual structure of the gaze is already established as sexual, viewers or directors can build on it to accomplish an erotic homosexual look. One might argue that simply substituting woman for man as owner of the gaze accomplishes an erotic lesbian look. To some extent this is true, and has been done quite successfully by Donna Deitch in DESERT HEARTS (1985), which Deitch describes in the film's publicity materials as "just a love story, like any love story between a man and a woman." Though certainly erotic, DESERT HEARTS inherits certain problems from the traditional structure it follows. Insidious class stereotypes and clichés invade the film to provide the requisite power imbalance. For example, working class women are assumed to be sexually liberated compared to the inhibited female professor. And eventually, as in countless love stories before this one, "love" overcomes/denies class boundaries.
SHEER MADNESS (1983, Margarethe von Trotta) initially employs a heterosexual gaze, then alters its direction. Hanna Schygulla sings the first verse of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" to her male lover, but turns to look at a woman friend during the next verse. The first direction of her glance toward a man both eroticizes it and distinguishes it from a male's "downward" glance. Her ongoing song provides continuity as these characteristics carry over into the second glance, charging it with lesbian possibilities.
In THE COLOR PURPLE (1985, Steven Spielberg), Shug Avery sings and dances for a sexually mixed audience in a tavern. Her suggestive use of a costume prop as a phallic object, which she pulls rhythmically towards herself, elicits appreciative sounds from the males. Thus eroticized, however, she sings her next song to Celie, another woman. The men looking at Shug sufficiently confirm her sexuality, which then eroticizes her look at Celie. Such heterosexual pre-structuring, however, can eroticize women's looking and counter lesbianism simultaneously.
I do not intend to imply here that heterosexual presence is the only means of eroticizing women's interactions. Several examples illustrate other strategies. In LA FEMME DE L'HOTEL (1984, Lea Pool) the absence of heterosexuality encourages lesbian readings. Its only prominent male character is the main (female) character's brother, and he is gay. Even while precluding heterosexuality, however, this gay male foregrounds its absence. This is particularly clear, for example, in a scene where he relaxes on a bed watching television while his sister undresses and gets into bed nude behind him. Such scenes both suggest and forbid sexuality and unhinge desire, freeing it to settle between women characters.
In LIANNA (1982, John Sayles), a lesbian "coming out" story, a lesbian exchange of looks is split into two separate looks. Although the two looks complement each other in relation to the main character Lianna, each is unidirectional and maintains its sexual energy through traditional objectification. In a lesbian bar, Lianna feels "looked at" by the other women. Later, on the street, Lianna is suddenly sensitized to the female population as she does the watching.
In SHEER MADNESS Hanna Schygulla stands facing the film audience while a second woman watches her from a window behind her. As if able to feel this look, Schygulla acknowledges it by turning away from the film audience and towards the woman, sealing a look between them. If the viewer's engagement in this scene has been primarily one of looking at Schygulla, he or she is now shut out. However, if the viewer has been identifying with Schygulla's feeling of being looked at, he or she turns with Schygulla, vicariously experiencing her visual exchange with the second woman. These two processes, of course, are not mutually exclusive.
Such independently structured glances between women, however, are outside conventional definition, and therefore threaten. The ultimate threat of eye contact between women, inherent in all scenes of female bonding, is the elimination of the male. Nowhere is this more explicitly played out than in Marleen Gorris's A QUESTION OF SILENCE (1982), in which eyeline matches among three women in a boutique precipitate their collaborative murder of the male boutique owner. Any erotic exchange of glances between women requires counter-efforts to disempower and de-eroticize them.
I now will focus on two films, both open to lesbian readings, that are interesting for their similarities and differences. VOYAGE EN DOUCE (Michele Deville, 1980) is an erotic art film, bordering on "soft porn," about two women who take a trip to the country together. They exchange fantasies and flirtations, then return home to their male partners. ENTRE NOUS (Diane Kurys, 1983) also deals with the interactions between two women, but their relationship leans ostensibly towards the buddies genre. They too take a trip away from their husbands. The women demonstrate growing mutual affection and, at the film's conclusion, they are living together. Although the two films appear opposite — one pseudo-lesbian soft porn serving a male audience, the other feminist and appealing to a female audience — this dichotomy is deconstructed once viewers are actively involved.
VOYAGE EN DOUCE is particularly interesting in relation to looking. Its opening scene situates the main narrative adventure as a "departure" from the conventional male gaze. From front row seats, Helene and her male lover watch a female singer perform. A shot from the male's point-of-view focuses on the singer's cleavage and thus defines his gaze as sexual. Subsequent eyeline matches between him and the singer invite and endorse his gaze. The scene ends with a long shot of the concert hall, now empty save for this explicitly privileged male viewer and the woman singer still on stage locked in his gaze. This opening scene seems disconnected from the film's plot and is, in fact, outside an important framing device (described below) that demarcates Helene and Lucie's shared story. The scene's connection to the women's travels thus appears thematically causal.
Instead of resolution, VOYAGE EN DOUCE attempts sustained sexual desire. According to the conventions of pornography, the erotic involvement of two women functions as foreplay for a heterosexual climax. This does not happen in VOYAGE EN DOUCE. Erotic looking and flirting between women is thematic in this film. The lesbian desire this stimulates is accentuated by a hierarchical looking structure that mimics the male gaze. Throughout the film, a blonde woman, Helene, played by Dominique Sanda, is the more active looker and the text's primary visual narrator. Primarily "through her eyes," we see sexual fantasies visualized on the screen. When taking nude photographs of her brunette companion Lucie, played by Geraldine Chaplin, a camera prop "equips" Helene/Sanda for this male role.
Helene is also the primary pursuer in the narrative, while Lucie functions to stimulate, tease and frustrate that desire. The film's episodic structure — another convention of pornography — alternates between the women's individual sexual stories and fantasies and their erotically charged interactions. Helene pampers and grooms Lucie, appreciates her visually, and verbally reassures her about her beauty and desirability. This serves to build both generalized sexual desire and more specific lesbian desire. In both cases, a series of narrative denials and delays establishes an "interruptus" motif.
Early in the film, a point-of-view shot shows Lucie looking at Helene's breast, which Helene quickly covers. Later, when Helene purposely exposes her breast to excite Lucie, Lucie does not respond. Helene recalls an erotic moment from their childhood, which Lucie claims not to remember. Lucie does remember wanting to kiss Helene, but when asked if she still wants to, she answers no. When photographing Lucie, Helene encourages her to remove her clothes. Lucie does so hesitantly and coquettishly, but when Helene attempts to take the final nude shot, she is out of film.
In several scenes Helene and Lucie exchange unmediated glances, as do the two women characters in ENTRE NOUS — Lena, played by Isabelle Huppert, and Madeline, played by Miou Miou. Such exchanges, which occur primarily within two-person shots, gain sexual energy from the women's physical proximity and subtle body contact. The fact that two women share the film frame encourages this lesbian reading, i.e., the women are consistently framed as a "couple." This visual motif provides a pleaurable homosexual content which is frustrated by the plot.
However, the absence of a shot-reverse-shot reciprocal point-of-view pattern in these two-shots excludes the viewer from experiencing the looking. Thus, the viewer's identification with the women's looking is necessarily more sympathetic than empathic.
In ENTRE NOUS, the addition of a mirror to such a shot establishes a second internal frame. The reciprocal point-of-view exchange achieved between these two simultaneous frames — a two-shot of the women looking at each other through the mirror — allows the viewer to be sutured into the looking experience, while also experiencing the pleasure of seeing the two women together. It is notable that during this shot, the women are nude and admiring each other's breasts.
A similar construction occurs temporally instead of spatially when, in a sequence in the garden, the camera temporarily identifies with the look and movement of Lena/ Huppert approaching Madeline/Miou Miou through a subjective tracking shot, and then holds steady while Lena enters the frame. The viewer is carried into the women's space via an identification with Lena's look, then observes their embrace from an invited vantage point. This is followed by a shot of Madeline's father and son watching disapprovingly — a look from outside. Standing together, hand in hand, these two males foreground the generation missing between them — Madeline's husband. Hence their look both acknowledges and checks the dimensions of the women's visual exchange.
VOYAGE EN DOUCE also contains abundant mirror shots, some of which similarly conduct visual exchanges between the characters, while others seem to foreground hierarchical erotic looking. In particular, several mirror shots occur in which the two women examine Lucie's image while Helene compliments and/or grooms her.
FEMALE BONDING IN FILM
What becomes evident from these examples is that, when one searches for lesbian exchange in narrative film construction, one finds a constant flux between competing forces to suggest and deny it. As with sexuality in general, efforts to subdue lesbian connotations can stimulate innovations. Female bonding and the exchange of glances between women threaten heterosexual and patriarchal structures. When female bonding occurs in feature narrative film, its readiness for lesbian appropriation is often acknowledged by internal efforts to forbid such conclusions.
Conceptually, female bonding is a precondition for lesbianism. If women are situated only in relationship to men or in antagonistic relationship to each other, the very idea of lesbianism is precluded. This partially explains the appreciation lesbian audiences have for films with female bonding. So often has female bonding stood in for lesbian content, that lesbian audiences seem to find it an acceptable displacement at the conclusions of such "lesbian romances" as PERSONAL BEST (1982, Robert Towne) and LIANNA (1982, John Sayles).
The widespread popularity of ENTRE NOUS among lesbian audiences depends on basic narrative conditions, which the film reiterates. Most important is female bonding. The film begins with parallel editing between Lena's and Madeline's separate lives. This cross cutting constructs audience expectation and desire for the two women to meet. Once they have met, the two women spend the majority of screen time together. Lesbian viewers experience pleasure in their physical closeness. Though lesbianism is never made explicit in the film, an erotic subtext is readily available. Later in the film, Lena and Madeline are separated when Madeline leaves her husband and moves to Paris. At this time their bonding switches from visual to visual-verbal representation. They no longer share the film frame but a considerable portion of the soundtrack consists of voice-over readings of affectionate letters between them. Thus one woman's voice and the other's image share the temporal confines of these scenes. The specific agenda held by lesbian viewers for female bonding warrants an inside joke at the film's conclusion when Lena and Madeline are finally living together. In the "background" a song plays: "I wonder who's kissing her now. I wonder who's showing her how."
The development of Lena and Madeline's relationship stands in sharp contrast to the development of Lena's marriage. During World War II, she and Michel were prisoners in a camp. Upon his release, Michel was allowed to take a wife out with him. He selected Lena by sight alone. Throughout the film, Michel remains the good provider, which prolongs Lena's dependence on him. In effect, he buys her. Each time she hints at leaving him, he asks how she will survive. The film's sensitivity to the economic disadvantages experienced by women unattached to men is appreciated by lesbian and feminist audiences.
In many ways, female bonding stands as the antithesis of love at first sight. While love at first sight necessarily deemphasizes materiality and context, female bonding is built upon an involvement in specific personal environments. In both ENTRE NOUS and VOYAGE EN DOUCE, the women's relationships acquire a physical quality from the presence of personal items which, when exchanged, suggest intimacy. Women frequently wear each other's clothes, selecting and modeling them for one another. Body lotion and love letters pass between Lena and Madeline as easily as do cigarettes.
Such bonding activity between women suggests an alternate use for the feminine masquerade. This mutual appreciation of one another's feminine appearance, which achieves intimacy via an attention to personal effects, demonstrates the masquerade's potential to draw women closer together and to function as nonverbal homoerotic expression which connects image to body. This "deviant" employment of the feminine masquerade is in contradistinction to Doane's elaboration of it as a distancing device for women.
Females together on the screen signal simultaneously a lack of sexuality and a forbidden sexuality, both of which upset the film's heterosexual mechanisms. Within these mechanisms, female bonding poses a narrative blandness. Since both filmic and narrative desires are fueled by sexual desire, films often introduce sexual signals to eroticize such framing which contains two women. Once eroticized, however, female bonding threatens to subvert or, worse, circumvent that heterosexual scheme entirely.
The primary threat of female bonding is the elimination of the male. The unstated but always evident question implicit in such films — "Where is the man?" — acknowledges defensive androcentric reactions. Its underlying presence attempts to define female bonding and lesbianism in relation to men. Publicity which accompanies a distribution print of VOYAGE EN DOUCE from New Yorker Films describes the film as "What women talk about when men aren't around." In ENTRE NOUS, scenes approaching physical intimacy between the two women are juxtaposed with shots signaling the lone male. Depicting female bonding as the exclusion of men moves the defining principle outside the women's own interactions. The lesbian potential, an "unfortunate" by-product of the female bonding configuration, must be checked.
In VOYAGE EN DOUCE, Helene and Lucie's excursion is framed by their domestic base, where the presence of their male lovers limits their (and the film's) transgressions. In ENTRE NOUS, Lena's husband seems an ideal father to their children. This negates the stereotypical association of lesbianism with man-hating. Lesbian viewers are not unaware nor unconcerned with how general audiences receive female bonding. They can hear the unspoken question — "Where is the man?" ENTRE NOUS directs its attack most forcibly at the patriarchal structure, not individual men.
THE MALE INTERMEDIARY
One way to interfere with female bonding is to insert references to men and heterosexuality between women characters. In ENTRE NOUS, Madeline and Lena spend a considerable portion of their time together talking about their husbands and lovers. For example, they jointly compose a letter to Madeline's lover. Reassuring references to off-screen males, however, remain a feeble attempt to undermine the visual impact that the women together make.
To be more effective, the interference needs to be visual in order to physically separate the women's bodies and interrupt their glances. Thus VOYAGE EN DOUCE literally places a male between the two women. The soft porn approach of VOYAGE EN DOUCE relies on titillating the male viewer with lesbian insinuations. Ultimately, however, female characters must remain available to male viewers. In one scene, Helene verbally instructs a young male, placed between the women, on how to kiss Lucie. The inexperienced boy reinforces the male viewer's sense of superior potency — the male viewer is represented but not replaced. In this scene the boy connects the two women as much as he separates them. It is Helene who is sensitive to Lucie's pacing and is manipulating her desire. The boy is an intermediary. Helene's vicarious engagement, however, is confined to the realm of desire. The actual kiss excludes her.
Male intermediaries are common in films with female bonding. In ENTRE NOUS, when Lena and Madeline are dancing together in a Paris night club (which opens with a male point-of-view shot at Madeline's ass), two male onlookers become intermediaries by diverting the women's glances and easing the tension created by their physical embrace.
Often, as in the following example from ENTRE NOUS, the connection that an intermediary provides is less obvious. Lena is on her way to meet Madeline in Paris when she has a sexual encounter with an anonymous male. A soldier who shares her train compartment kisses and caresses her. Later, while discussing this experience with Madeline, Lena "comes to realize" that this was her first orgasmic experience.
The scene on the train reasserts Lena's heterosexuality. At the same time, this experience and knowledge of sexual pleasure is more connected to her friendship with Madeline, via their exchange of intimate information, than to her heterosexual marriage of many years. In fact, it is Madeline who recognizes Lena's described experience as an orgasm and identifies it to her. Because the film cuts away from the train scene shortly after the sexual activity begins, the film viewer does not witness Lena's orgasm. Had this train scene continued, her orgasm might have approximated, in film time, the moment when Madeline names it — and Lena gasps. In a peculiar manner, then, Madeline is filmically credited for the orgasm. Likewise, Lena's excited state on the train, her predisposition to sexual activity, might be read as motivated by her anticipation of being with Madeline.
A male's intrusion upon female bonding, then, is just as likely to homoeroticize the situation as to induce corrective heterosexuality. In ENTRE NOUS, it is Lena's jealous husband who gives language to the sexual possibilities of their friendship. By calling the women's boutique a "whorehouse," he foregrounds the erotic symbolism that clothing provides. When he calls the women "dykes," he not only reveals the fears of a jealous husband but confirms the audience's perceptions.
While I would not go so far as to equate these two films, it would be naive to dismiss VOYAGE EN DOUCE simply as a "rip-off" of lesbianism for male voyeuristic pleasure while applauding ENTRE NOUS as "politically correct" lesbianism. In their different ways, ENTRE NOUS does just as much to stimulate lesbian desire as does VOYAGE EN DOUCE, and VOYAGE EN DOUCE frustrates it just as much as ENTRE NOUS does. The two films exhibit similar tensions and compromises. As far as any final commitment to lesbianism, ENTRE NOUS is no more frank than is VOYAGE EN DOUCE. Lesbian reading requires as much viewer initiation in one film as the other.
One could argue that any potential lesbianism in VOYAGE EN DOUCE is undermined by heterosexual framing in early and late scenes with Helene's male partner. Another interpretation of this framing device, however, sends conclusions in a different direction. Early in the film, Lucie crouches outside Helene's door. Helene sees Lucie through the railing under the banister as she climbs the stairs to her apartment. When Lucie declares that she is leaving her male partner, Helene takes her into her apartment where they plan a vacation together. At the film's conclusion, the two women return to Helene's apartment. Then Lucie decides to go back to her husband, but Helene decides to leave hers again.
Inadvertently, Helene locks herself out of the apartment without her suitcase. Instead of ringing the doorbell, she crouches in Lucie's earlier position as the camera moves down the stairs to observe her through the railing. One can read this shot as portraying the prison of heterosexuality or domesticity — as a cul-de-sac. Or one can read this pattern as indicating a cyclic structure.
Helene's display of lesbian desire throughout VOYAGE EN DOUCE qualifies her as a hypothetical lesbian heroine as much as the women in ENTRE NOUS. Ultimately, these characters' lesbianism remains hypothetical and illusory because of their isolation. The acknowledgment of lesbian desire does not, in either film, acknowledge the condition of lesbianism within culture.
To summarize, VOYAGE EN DOUCE and ENTRE NOUS are narrative films that exist by right of a language informed by heterosexuality. However, because they deal with women's relations, they also challenge the conventions of this language. The contradictions that result from their use of a heterosexual system for non-heterosexual narratives give rise to innovations that interact with audience expectations to create multiple and ambivalent interpretations. The focus on two women together threatens to establish both asexuality and homosexuality, both of which are outside the heterosexual desire which drives mainstream film and narrative. Therefore, simultaneous actions take place in the text to eroticize the women's interactions and to abort the resulting homoerotics. These very contradictions and opposing intentions cause the gaps and ambiguous figurations that allow lesbian readings.
I have demonstrated three such figurations: the erotic exchange of glances, which contrasts with the unidirectional, hierarchical male gaze articulated by Mulvey; eroticized female bonding, which utilizes the feminine masquerade to achieve closeness, contrasting the use and purpose of the masquerade described by Doane; and the oppositely-sexed intermediary who both separates and connects the same-sexed couple, accomplishing both heterosexuality and homosexuality within the contradictory text. These structures neither replace nor compromise the heterosexual film text and event recognized and analyzed in previous feminist film theory, but rather offer additions and alternatives to account for homosexual viewership and desire.
REVISING BINARY SEXUAL IDEOLOGY
As a woman, the lesbian is defined and situated in culture as opposite to man, as a lack. The lesbian's physical/sexual interactions, however, insist on a different presence which operates outside male determination. It is her womanness, not her lesbianism, that confines her within the patriarchal formation of femininity. I therefore argue that, were lesbians able to situate themselves as another sex, that is, as non-women (and non-men), they could theoretically create a defining model to which men are irrelevant.
In his introduction to Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, Michel Foucault contrasts the allowance of free choice and the coexistence of sexes within one body in the Middle Ages, to the medical/legal relegation of the hermaphrodite to a single "true" sex in the eighteenth century.
Foucault's insights challenge the very "obvious" criteria used not only to delineate the sexes but to limit their number to two. By denying evidence of a sexual continuum and conceptually precluding a more complex sexual variance in favor of a system of binary opposition, arbitrary and enforced standards for assignment of both sex and sexual behavior are made to seem adequate, primary, and natural.
No attempt to delineate clearly between two "true" sexes has been successful. The exceptions and ambiguities in anatomical and physiological assignments become even more pervasive when considering secondary sex characteristics, hormones, chromosome patterns, and behaviors. Erasing the hermaphrodite from our consciousness allows male and female terms to appear unambiguous and definite. In effect, the hermaphrodism existing within each of these terms is dismissed.
If we understand male and female sexes as constructs, we must ask ourselves what investment empowers them. Certainly within classic narrative film, the language/ expression/ momentum of heterosexual desire relies precisely on this particular system of binary opposition. When, in ENTRE NOUS, the soldier sexually pursues Lena, biological difference is assumed sufficient motivation. We do not know what specifically excites him about this woman. Like the previous, "establishing" shot of the train entering a tunnel, he simply pursues her female sex. He "loves" her at first sight.
Within contemporary psycho-linguistic thought, the subject is always male. Because of her different psychological development and relationship to the mother, the female remains connected to the pre-language imaginary. Any "I" she speaks is constructed for her by the male principle, just as female is defined not from itself but as male's other.
Lesbian sexuality generates an identity which is not defined by an opposition to maleness. Thus the lesbian remains outside the male-female polarity. She demonstrates a radical possibility for attaining subjectivity through activity which asserts personal meaning and is understood via similarities as much as differences.
Lesbian "deviance" refutes the all-encompassing "natural" power of the male-female opposition as defining principle. Lesbianism demands a new operation of subjectivity in which active desires, pleasures, and other specific declarations of identity, construct a field of multiple entry points. Within this new operation, a heterosexual woman's active sexuality would not be consumed but empowered. Rather than enforcing two "true" sexes, which allow one (male) subject, we must recognize the power of individual activities, in this case sexualities, to assert subjectivity.
I am not merely suggesting that sexual preference be added to anatomy as a determiner of the subject position, but rather that individual activity and assertion can construct subjectivity. Thus, for example, the experience and assertion of one's ethnic or racial identity would be acknowledged as an authentic subject position.
The proposal that lesbians might abandon the female "position" without adopting maleness uncovers an historical investment in and enforcement of a system of two sexes as well as two genders. This consistent maintenance of an historical construct explains the overloaded significance of the question, "Where is the man?" in response to relations between women and/or lesbians. It raises the ultimate importance of investigating lesbian aesthetics.
I would like to thank Nancy Finke and Ken Kirby for their helpful suggestions and assistance during the editing of this article.
1. See Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), especially the "Desire in Narrative" chapter.
2. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16, no. 3 (1975), p. 17.
3. Laura Mulvey, "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by DUEL IN THE SUN," Framework 15/16/17 (Summer 1981),p. 13.
4. Mary Ann Doane, "Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator," Screen 23, nos. 3-4 (September-October 1982), p. 78. Also see Doane's "Masquerade Reconsidered: Further Thoughts on the Female Spectator," Discourse 11, No. 1 (Fall-Winter 1988-89).
5. Ibid. p. 80.
6. Ibid. p. 87.
7. Such an investigation was called for over a decade ago by Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, and Anna Maria Taylor. See their discussion in "Women and Film: Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics," New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978), pp. 88-91.
8. See Lucie Arbuthnot and Gail Seneca, "Pre-text and Text in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES," Film Reader 5 (Evanston, IL: Film Division/School of Speech, Northwestern University, 1982), pp. 13-23. Arbuthnot and Seneca describe the pleasure afforded the lesbian viewer by such framing-together of women characters.
9. Michel Foucault, "Introduction," Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, trans. Richard McDougall (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), pp. vii-viii