Following the release of The Kids Are All Right,LGBT film historian Jenni Olson reflects upon the fascinating intersection and conflicting identity politics of lesbian and bi women’s cinema.
It should be noted that a majority of what we typically think of as gay or lesbian films would often be more accurately described as bisexual films, inasmuch as they portray characters who sleep with both men and women.
Indeed, the history of lesbian cinema is inextricably linked with (and generally overshadows) the history of bisexual women’s cinema, if you will. An explanation is in order. Depictions of lesbian characters on screen have been relatively rare in the entire history of mainstream cinema. These portrayals have frequently characterized lesbianism as a “phase” with the woman in question returning to heterosexuality by the end of the film.
This narrative structure can be seen to have arisen in part out of the strictures of the Hollywood Production Code (which demanded that “sex perversion,” when depicted, must be shown to be immoral — hence all the suicides, homicides and refutations of homosexuality), and in part out of a hetero-normative desire for heterosexuality to be triumphant (we all know that 99% of Hollywood cinema is based at least in part on the Boy Meets Girl formula—and, of course, he has to Get the Girl for the film to end).
The objection of lesbian viewers to this paradigm has been understandable in the relative absence of complex portrayals of lesbian characters who don’t either end up dead or ultimately deciding they really aren’t lesbians and prefer sex with men.
But here’s the thing. As we lesbians have been agitating for better portrayals of lesbians; we have also systematically (if unintentionally) been de-legitimizing the fact that many of these characterizations we may have dubbed “negative lesbian” portrayals might sometimes more accurately be described as “bisexual” portrayals which are not inherently negative or positive (except inasmuch as we as lesbians have desired to have more images of just plain old lesbians).
As the lesbian movement/the lesbian community has come to accomplish some of our goals for more sophisticated representations of our lives on screen (through the efforts of organizations like the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); and historian/activist/academics like Vito Russo, B. Ruby Rich and others) we can begin to acknowledge this problematic conundrum.
Which is nowhere more evident than in The Kids Are All Right itself. Because of course we must acknowledge that Julianne Moore’s character Jules is in fact bisexual. A lesbian-identified bisexual, but bisexual nonetheless.
[Warning: Some spoilers]
Interestingly The Kids Are All Right manages to utilize much of the classic narrative anxiety of mainstream cinema’s dalliances with lesbians (Oh yeah, really only one of them is a lesbian… the femmier one was just experimenting with girls but is sexually unsatisfied until that guy comes along and now she’s going off with him). But of course Kids turns this on its head by having Jules dump the guy, return to Nic (Annette Bening) and proclaim her true lesbian-identity (though sadly in the lesbian role models department Jules and Nic seem to have not the greatest sex life).
Compare this to, say, The Fox — the 1967 film in which the secluded lesbian partnership of Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis is disrupted by the arrival of Keir Dullea who has hot sex with Heywood, accidentally kills Dennis with a fallen tree (which descends fatally and symbolically between her legs) and then runs off with Heywood to a happily-ever-after normal heterosexual life.
Whew! This trope of the return to normalcy was the standard in mainstream cinema until relatively recently. Here’s Renata Adler’s matter-of-fact affirmation of the status quo in her New York Times review of The Fox: “The fox, which [D.H.] Lawrence intended as a male symbol in the book, seems to represent lesbianism in the movie. Since Paul kills it — by my count, two chickens and the fox died for this film — it seems to make more sense.”
Really The Fox is perfect as a kind of negative mirror image of The Kids Are All Right. It’s like the ne plus ultra example of homophobic lesbian movies — and in that sense a great vintage landmark to show how far we really have come.
And so, in the spirit of the evolution of all of our sexual identities, let us acknowledge and celebrate The Kids Are All Right as a new pioneering landmark in both lesbian and bisexual cinema (and, of course, the film simultaneously inhabits and transcends those labels — as, simply: cinema).
If this all seems kind of semantic or over-analyzed to you then you’re probably not bisexual and maybe you are not feeling in need of complex nuanced portrayals of bisexual characters (who also have not fared well in mainstream cinema and are often depicted as even more crazy, violent and perverted than gays and lesbians; not to mention transgender characters who fare even worse).
As cinematic and other cultural representations evolve so does our society evolve; and so do we as individuals learn to expand our understandings of ourselves and the people around us.
Here’s to a time when there are enough on-screen portrayals of everyone to go around and nobody else has to be stuck in that celluloid closet.
Jenni Olson is director of e-commerce at WolfeVideo.com — she is also a filmmaker, LGBT film historian and infrequent blogger at her online home Butch.org