In the past year, Carol has single-handedly proven that Hollywood can produce a film centering around a romantic relationship between two women and cultivate an overwhelmingly positive response. The decadent 1950s setting of the film made me think of the kinds of movies being made during that era and of filmmakers like the fictional Ruth Alice Bennett. Ruth, a female director working in a highly censored time in film history, is one of the central characters in our upcoming production of 180 Degree Rule by Barbara Lhota and the late M.E.H. Lewis. Not only is she a woman paving a career as a successful artist in a male dominated profession, she is also a lesbian in a time where representation of alternative sexuality was against cinematic law.
From 1930 to 1968, major Hollywood film studios found their artistic freedoms stifled as they were forced to create content that adhered to a set of moral standards established by Will H. Hays (the then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America). Enforcement of The Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934 and required that films be reviewed and receive a seal of approval prior to release. One of the many items (including childbirth and drug trafficking) prohibited under the code, was “any inference of sex perversion”. However, the Production Code Administration was willing to make an exception to this rule if the perversion was depicted negatively. This led to a generation of films depicting homosexuals as criminals (Rope, 1948), divisive villains (Rebecca, 1940), mentally unstable (The Children’s Hour, 1961) and a myriad of other unsavory types deemed punishable.
While it is easy to say that we have moved past these conservative generalities in modern depictions of LGBTQ characters, I would argue that we continue to package queer slanting stories in a repetitive and bland way to appease today’s timid mainstream. The two prevailing plots adapted by larger studios involve either a coming out story (tinged with tragedy that comes exclusively from the character’s sexuality) or a biopic that martyrizes a homosexual figure in history (who likely suffered from painful or tragic death). Although the Code Era has long since past, the mainstream portrayal of life as a homosexual is still tinged with the implication that this “perversion” is still punishable.
This year, Todd Haynes’ instagram-filtered 1950s drama Carol has received critical acclaim for it’s depiction of a lesbian relationship between Carol (an Alto II Cate Blanchett whose nails are always on fleek) and Therese (Rooney Girl-with-the-Dragon-Tattoo-not-the-one-Kevin-Spacey-pushed-in-front-of-a-train Mara). Critics love it!
“Carol is gorgeous, gently groundbreaking, and might be the saddest thing you’ll ever see.” – The Telegraph
“…their courtship is sexy and sad and alluring” – Vanity Fair
*Spoilers ahead, jump to the next paragraph to avoid*
Many responses to the film laud Haynes’ bravery and subversiveness for allowing these characters to have a happy ending. Happy in that they decide to be together. In the 50s. And presumably deal with an extension of the homophobia, sexism and probably court enforced childlessness endured during the film that lasts long after the credits roll. But hooray for love! Upon personal viewing, Haynes sets up a film that could very easily end in suicide for either character. I was immediately reminded of the Code Era, and while I was pleasantly surprised by the ending, it rang hollow to me as a forced apology to a time period. However, some applaud the film and have taken to calling the character of Carol a heroine because she takes her repeated social mauling with grace and power and never decides to give into the option of heteronormativity.
Carol is simply the latest (and possibly most accessible) example of the continuing trend of telling homosexual stories through a lense of tragedy as it results from living an alternative lifestyle. A possible solution for this continued slant lies in the focus of conflict in gay cinema. From Desert Hearts (1985) to Imagine Me & You (2005), lesbian cinema has remained fixated on telling the story of a proclaimed heterosexual meeting an out lesbian AND SUDDENLY QUESTIONING EVERYTHING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IN BED AND WHY THEY’VE BEEN SO SAD ALL THEIR LIVES. Enter internal conflict revolving around coming out, enter external conflict from society saying “Gross.” and voila, that’s all you need for 90 minutes. The story rarely places a character who happens to be gay against outside sources – the only example of this in recent memory being Bound (1996), where two women forge an intense relationship and decide to pull one over on the mob. It’s sexy, thrilling, and not sad.
If we are going to challenge the stagnant state of lesbians on film, we need a modern-day Ruth Alice Bennett, who dares to challenge the studio system in her attempts to show women in love on film. We can only imagine that if Ruth were making films today that her courageous auteurism would offer a refreshing perspective of lesbians in film by telling stories about complex homosexual women with bigger concerns than their sexuality.
Want to learn more about gay cinema and the code era? Check out the 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet.
Also watch this, just because: