Taryn, who recognizes Kristen’s growing attraction to her even before Kristen does, is cautious: although it is clear she likes Kristen, Taryn is content to let the friendship develop at its own pace. When Kristen asks Taryn one night if she wants to stay over, Taryn resists, asking “are you sure you’re ready for that?” and although Kristen pretends not to fully understand, she can no longer ignore what is going on between them.
Meanwhile, Kristen meets Wayne, an artistic, long-haired freshman who she gradually begins to trust despite a fear of men since the rape. Kristen’s relationship with both of them culminates in a sequence of sexual scenes in which Taryn and Wayne are repeatedly interchanged–i.e. Kristen leans in to kiss Taryn, who then turns into Wayne, who later turns back into Taryn, and so forth–ostensibly to show Kristen’s sexual experimentation and her attraction to both Wayne and Taryn.
Kristen’s storyline ends at a University gathering with her looking back and forth between Taryn and Wayne, as if trying to decide which one she wants.
Like most mainstream movies, Higher Learning’s depiction of lesbianism and bisexuality is both compelling and problematic. On the one hand, such an honest portrayal of bisexuality in a mainstream film was almost unheard of in 1995 (and is still rare today); on the other hand, the movie leaves the impression that Kristen’s bisexuality may be the result of the rape (since she didn’t indicate any interest in Taryn until afterwards) and thus positions it as a retreat from men rather than an attraction towards women.
And although Taryn is a very likeable character and in many ways un-stereotypical (especially compared to other representations of lesbians in mainstream films of the mid-90′s), she still reinforces the stereotype of lesbianism as fundamentally anti-male since not only does Taryn appear to have only female friends, but she seems to spend most of her time recruiting women to attend women-only safety meetings. In other words, her entire existence is defined around protecting herself and other women from men.
Safety for women is an important issue, of course (especially on college campuses), and the character of Taryn is certainly realistic. But since this was one of the only representations of lesbians in mainstream movies at that time, it is unfortunate that Singleton chose to emphasize this aspect of Taryn’s character since it only reinforces negative stereotypes about lesbians.
Interchanging Taryn and Wayne in the sex scene also smacks of Singleton trying to have his cake and eat it too. By intercutting the images the way he did, Singleton avoids actually showing sexual contact between women (since it’s not entirely clear what Kristen did and did not do and with whom) while exploiting the sensationalism that is inevitably associated with any sexual activity between women in mainstream film. It’s also just an annoying scene to watch.
The buildup of sexual tension between the two women is well done, however, and the film does a good job of making both characters three-dimensional, even if Taryn could have been a little more well-rounded.
In comparison to the mainstream movies with lesbian characters that immediately preceded this film–1993′s Three of Hearts and 1994′s Sister My Sister and Heavenly Creatures–the way lesbianism and bisexuality is portrayed in Higher Learning is a huge leap forward. Just the fact that neither of the women in Higher Learning killed anyone, slept with their sister, or sacrificed their own happiness for the male lead constituted major progress at the time.
Within two years following the release of Higher Learning, positive lesbian characters began cropping up in a wide array of mainstream films, from Bound to Chasing Amy to The First Wives Club. While this change was the result of the collision of a number of social and economic factors, early 90′s films like Higher Learning which presented a positive (or at least neutral) view of lesbian sexuality contributed to this change by chipping away at the wall of negative lesbian images previously offered by mainstream entertainment.