Although the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences are not known for their appreciation of diversity in film, it was still a surprise to many that the critically-hailed film Carol was not among the Best Picture titles in today’s 2016 Oscars nominations. And while many have already speculated as to why (it was “too gay,” “too cold,” “too female“), all very possible reasons why it was left out. But the reality of why the Academy does not appreciate a film like Carol is because it never has.
Specifically looking at the category of Best Picture, only a handful of lesbian-themed films have ever received the nod: The Color Purple in 1985, The Hours in 2002 and Lisa Cholodenko‘s The Kids Are All Right in 2010. But these films were ensemble projects, works that were not focusing specifically on women and their sexual attraction to other women. (In fact, Steven Spielberg admits to his toning down of the Sapphic bits from Alice Walker‘s original novel in this adaptation of The Color Purple.) Stephen Daldry‘s The Hours included major queer female characters but did not focus on their same-sex desire but, instead, on their relationships with their children and dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives. And in the case of The Kids Are All Right, the storyline revolved around one of the lesbian-identified characters infamously beginning a sexual relationship with a sperm donor.
What they also have in common is their sadness and turmoil; the punishment that comes to pass for the women characters who stray from homosexuality. Virginia Woolf offs herself while the other women in the film face suicide for themselves and loved ones; Shug and Celie are subjected to violence at the hands of men and Jules and Nic are left picking up the pieces of relationship rocked by an affair. And while some might also include Black Swan as a Sapphic offering, the sexual moment shared between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis was brief and not part of the film’s raison d’etre. Nonetheless, it would fall into the same category as the other three films: Non-celebratory and punishing for the women involved.
Conversely Carol, which was adapted from Patricia Highsmith‘s novel The Price of Salt, is very much about the romance between two women. And while Phyllis Nagy‘s screenplay takes some liberties in diversifying itself from the original text, the intent remains: This is a lesbian love story with a happy ending. And while that was revolutionary in 1952, it remains so today because it is still not treated with the respect it so deserves. In the age of pulp novels, Pat Highsmith was tired of the stories that sat on the shelves with their covers teasing tragic consequences for the women who were also used as titillation. One of the best writers of her generation, she set out to write something for and about lesbian women who weren’t in turmoil over their identities, but instead, strong enough to refute society’s ideals and prioritize their love for one another. It was a necessary beacon of light for women like us, who have existed and will continue to exist long after this year’s Oscars have come and gone.
So while we can see a movie like Carol get made in 2016, today’s Oscars announcement is another reminder of the patriarchal society we continue to live in, where films that create a space for women to live happily without men and without punishment will not be rewarded, despite the praised performances of their lead actresses, the screenplay, the music, the cinematography, and the costume design. While these things are worthy of commemoration, voters cannot find the value in the overall love story at Carol’s center. It’s truly unfortunate, and not just because Carol deserves to be awarded in its execution, but because it defied many odds to get there, and everyone who has had a hand in the publishing of The Price of Salt and the making of it into a feature film has believed in the original mission, to create a happy ending for those of us who are seen as worthy of tragedy.
If not Carol, then what film about two women in love would ever be worthy of the accolades; of Best Picture? If we leave the answer up to the voters of the Oscars, I fear the answer is worse than none, but simply not even a possibility unless one or both of the heroines are reminded that they cannot exist in this world without suffering.