The Lesbian Look in the Movies

The Lesbian Look in the Movies

Presented at the 1st National Queer Theory Conference, Lund, Sweden, October 1998. ©Moira Sullivan, Ph.D

This presentation entitled ” the lesbian look” in movies stems from the use of the term

” the look”

which was presented by Laura Mulvey in the 1970’s in a celebrated article called ”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. This article was one of the first studies in which the image of woman was structurally discussed for its symbolic meaning and has been the definitive article on the subject since then. ’Woman’, said Mulvey was the receiver of the the look , that is to say the receiver of the’ male gaze’, who is the bearer of meaning. ‘Woman’ is seen but does not see,which was eerily represented in the character of Lucy commanded to suppress an apparition of Dracula as half man and beast in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992). Woman’s meaning is therefore a fixed and symbolic one, the reminder that lacking a phallus, she represents and evokes male castration anxiety. This fear is well illustrated in Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) where men are bitten from the waist down by a shark, in actuality a modern ’Vagina dentata’ and is recycled in other films such as 'Alien'.

Spectators of film,

according to Mulvey are unconsciously a part of this speculative economy in much the same way that women are positioned on screen. We also become ’voyeurs’ while watching film which Freud studied , called ’scopophilia’ and classified a sexual disorder. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (GB, 1960) is a good illustration of this where a deranged filmmaker ’shoots’ and watches his female victims die with a camera that has a protruding lethal spoke. (Truffaut loved it and felt sympathy for the filmmaker).

It seems no coincidence that ways of seeing became codified in Hollywood film production at the same time that Freud’s theories describing how the unconscious was structured as language were being discussed around the world. Mulvey appropriated Freud’s theories of scopophilia and indeed other tenets of


to use as a ’political weapon’ in which to analyze film. By studying how women remain one-dimensional characters in film, seeminlgy 'flattened' by the male gaze, she was able to describe why women appear so powerless on screen in relation to men who are three-dimensional by comparison.

I always wondered how this process worked for the lesbian spectator viewing 'the flattened female'. I grew up knowing nothing of Mulvey’s future theories but often wound up identifying with the male gaze. This was because it seemed to me that women were wimpy and comparatively uninteresting. How long did it take before Ingrid Bergman stood up to her husband in Gaslight! Later I discovered that actors such as

Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn and Kim Novak

portrayed interesting women. Perhaps this was because because somehow these characters seemed to subvert the classical Hollywood narrative. With them there was some kind of curious ’looking’ which I came to see as a ’female gaze’. ( I later came to learn that all of these women in real life were either lesbian or bisexual).

There is an ongoing dialogue in film concerning the lesbian character, who empowered, is the bearer of meaning and disempowered remains an object of the male gaze.

Film theorist

Claire Johnston, a guest professor at San Francisco State University

where I was a graduate student in film studies, introduced to me the work of Mulvey and also a ’closeted’ director named

Dorothy Arzner,

the only female director working in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940’s. Katherine Hepburn was one of her first stars, in Christopher Strong (US,1930) where Hepburn plays an Amelia Earhart type character that commits suicide after she breaks an aviation record. This in order to avoid the stigma of bearing the child of Sir Christopher Strong, a married man. Johnston argued that Arzner was excellent at subverting texts, that is, ’going against the grain’ of the conventions of commercial film language so that an alternative reading was possible. It seemed something of a misnomer to discover that films were considered ’texts’ and analyzing them was called ’reading’. But early film theory borrowing from literature studies employed such conventions. This all made sense in time. For example, Arzner’s film was after all named after ’Sir Christopher Strong’ but almost exclusively about Hepburn. What a better way to bring to attention to the absence yet presence of ’woman’ than to subvert the text!

Hepburn emerges in one noteworthy scene in a silver lamé body stocking dressed as a chrysalis,

something Johnston pointed out was symbolic of the future of women where power relations would not be based on the suppression of female identity.

The study of the ’subversion of texts’

is an area of film criticism. Another is called ’spectator studies’. Jackie Stacey, co-editor of Screen , a film journal from the UK,wrote a pioneering study in this area called "Star Gazing" in the early 1990’s. Here she examined the viewing habits of women in the UK during WWII. It was during this period many women had spouses or boyfriends who were away in the service, in addition to obviously lesbian or asexual women. These women confided of their strong identification with female characters such as Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953) . One women according to Stacey had seen the film 88 times.

Stacey was a guest at Stockholm University Department of Film Studies with gay film scholar Richard Dyer

in 1992. Both made ’readings against the grain’-- the surface of the narrative. According to Richard Dyer,

references to gays and lesbians are the rule not the exception in film.

Such references involve usually a double ’entendre’ or twist such as the ending of Casablanca where Rick says to the Vichy police captain: ’This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.

What is interesting today in the field of cinema studies is the application of specifically ’gendered’ and lesbian feminist perspectives of ’subverted texts’ as informed spectators. Attributing ’the look’ or bearer of meaning to women in film is in a hybrid and problematic state. I recall discussions with Johnston about the existence of ’the look’ in films with lesbian ’content’ or the applicability of a lesbian feminist perspective to film in general. Yes, subversions were possible, she said, but altering symbolic language was more difficult. The work of Hélčne Cixous and Luce Irigaray became useful here who have worked with 'feminine writing'. As Mulvey claimed, ’you can not create language in a vacuum’. Women still made films which were carbon copies of conventional narratives. Together with a colleague, we presented Mulvey’s work with a lesbian feminist perspective, the first time in Sweden.

I am interested in the explicit representation of lesbians in film as well as ’reading against the grain’. But, as in all exploration, it is important to get the story ‘straight’. Each decade produces a different aesthetic of the ’lesbian look’ forged by social conditions. In the 1990's lesbian representation has been included within the designation 'queer cinema', coined by Teresa de Lauretis, a cinema studies professor at UC Santa Cruz . She used the term to include the representation of both lesbians and gays but has since abandoned the term which she feels has become a 'vacuous' publicist' label.
Progress in terms of empowered imagery is never constant but would appear to ebb and flow with negative recycled myths about lesbians.
There is an interesting avantgarde film made by Maya Deren in 1945 called At Land . Maya Deren was the initiator of the second wave of avant-garde films in the 1940’s. She made her own

films on a budget of what Hollywood spent on lipstick

as she liked to say, and traveled across the USA showing them and lecturing on film language. ’Amateur’ film, she said, refers to ’lover of one’s craft’ and she consciously chose not to work in Hollywood. The short formal of the personal film is especially useful to lesbian filmmakers. It is both economical and does not fall into the narrative pitfalls of making lesbian feature film which often has some negative ( commercial) influence. Deren influenced a cadres of women (both heterosexual and lesbian filmmakers) such as Barbara Hammer, a prolific lesbian avant-garde filmmaker active for the past two decades. In fact, one film in particular inspired a wave of lesbian iconography where Deren is the bearer of meaning. Here Deren caresses the heads of two women playing chess in order to take back a chess piece she has stolen. The game is representative of patriarchal order and she runs away as victor down the beach with her prized possession. At Land was called a lesbian film by Peter Weiss, an avant-garde filmmaker who made films in Sweden. A journalist from The New Republic called it ’lesbianish’. Deren protested her film being called ’lesbianish’ because she felt it was an epithet tantamount to using derogatory designations for African-Americans. Many gay and lesbians were featured in her films although she was herself heterosexual.

The following are examples of films where where lesbians are either the bearer of meaning or flattened by the male gaze.

All films have a specific aesthetic:

The Fox , (US, 1968) Mark Rydell. A tree falls on the woman of a lesbian relationship. Based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel, a man enters the scene and convinces one of the women to leave with him. The punishment for the one who is left behind, the phallic tree.

The Killing of Sister George , (GB,1968) Robert Aldrich Featuring a typical butch-femme relationship of the late sixties where one of the women in the relationship is forced to drink her lover’s bathwater. Includes a scene filmed in the famous London lesbian bar, ’The Getaway’.

Born in Flames , (US, 1983) Lizzie Borden. Here, lesbianism is connected to class and sexual politics.

Go Fish , (US ,1994), Rose Troche. A film about lesbian friendship and relationships.

Gia , (US,1997 HBO television. Featuring lesbian supermodel Gia Carangi, (Cindy Crawford was initially called ’Baby Gia’) one of the first lesbians to die of AIDS. In real life Carangi complained about the homophobia in the fashion industry. In this TV movie, her lesbianism is toned way down as a ‘phase’ of the 1970’s.

Ellen , (US, 1993-1998). TV serial by Ellen Degeneres. 'Ellen' is by far an example of one of the strongest bearers of meaning in this century and the ramifications of her coming out on public TV have far-reaching consequences which have yet to be fully studied. Now in repeat in Sweden on TV 4 where Ellen has still not come out. (postscript: now she has!). Ellen has broken the silence of lesbians within a heterosexual context, and reversed meaning from being an innocuous, asexualized woman to becoming a sexual and empowered woman. One interesting aspect of her outing is reflected in the film career of her former partner Anne Heche- whose ability to ’play’ a heterosexual character was questioned in a film when she was to play opposite Harrison Ford ( protest by Ford). Outing raises the threat of losing ’heterosexual privilege’--an epistemological switch with consequences.
After Go Fish, by Rose Troche, financed by Samuel Goldwyn, a wave of lesbian films were produced either explicit or implicit. It was discovered that if a film could appeal to a lesbian public, the box office draw would increase 10%. ( Survey in "Details" magazine ) Yet asexualized lesbian films abound more than not like Fried Green Tomatoes, (1991, with strong female bonding Thelma and Louise (1991), GI Jane , (1997, Demi Moore is insulted to be labeled lesbian because she will have to quit boot camp with the boys) Boys on the Side (1995, Whoopie Goldberg plays your ordinary asexual lesbian in love with a woman who is dying of AIDS. The title? ). Sharon Stone’s career was lifted by playing (and laying) a homicidal bisexual woman in Basic Instinct (1991). All films except Go Fish demonstrate lesbian content but not a ’lesbian look’. All diminish ’the look’ with either closeted, vague, anti-lesbian, or homophobic voyeuristic material for male desire and fantasy.

As more women become directors and work with the conscious insertion of content into lesbian characters and imagery, we will wrestle with the ’lesbian look’. Films must go beyond Thelma and Louise which are parodies or surrogates of power, outlaws punishable by a ride over the Grand Canyon which symbolically re-echoes the demise of Katherine Hepburn on her solo flight over the Atlantic in Christopher Strong or Sandy Fox, felled by a tree in The Fox . ’The look’ is out there!


Luce Irigararay, This Sex Which is not One , tr. G. Gill, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Claire Johnston, The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema , London: BFI, 1975.

Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, Volume 16, No 3, 1975. Richard Dyer, Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film , London: Routledge, 1990. Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship , London: Routledge, 1993.

Moira Sullivan, An Anagram of the Ideas of Filmmaker Maya Deren , Stockholm University, 1997.

Moira Sullivan

received her doctorate from Stockholm University, Department of Film Studies in 1997. Her research has been done transculturally in Sweden, the USA and France. She wrote her doctorate on avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren who made films during the 1940’s and 1950’s. At the Stockholm Kvinnohuset (Women’s House) she has worked to create an exhibition and distribution forum of international women’s films. She also teaches courses in lesbian film and small film production at Kvinnohöjden in Borlänge. Her work has been shown at the Denver Underground Film Festival, Paris TV (Canal Plus) and in Lesvos Greece. Guests she has presented to local public forums have been Barbara Hammer and Yvonne Rainer. Sullivan is a staff writer for Movie Magazine, San Francisco and, Paris. She regularly covers Créteil International Films de Femmes, the largest returning women’s film festival in the world and Cineffable, the largest lesbian film festival in Europe. She is a guest speaker at the gay and lesbian film festival in Stockholm and at various universities and art colleges in Europe and the USA. She has authored two web pages:

Maya Deren Forum


Email: Moira Sullivan