SERIES: On the Female Form and the Female Gaze Pt. 2
Happy Pride month, Women and Film community! For this installment of On the Female Form and the Female Gaze, we will be examining films about women who love women! The queer gaze in film is even more contentious and scarce than the straight female gaze. Lately, we have been fortunate to see some beautiful LGBTQIA+ stories presented on screen from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name. While these films are stunning and heart wrenching, one can’t help but wonder “where are the artful and emotional lesbian films?” All too often the male gaze rears its ugly head as a sheep in wolf’s clothing when men direct films about queer women in exploitative and fetishistic ways, like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. While it is entirely possible that these straight male directors had good intentions, the ways in which they were executed make me wonder who the films are for. Is the audience of these films queer women, or men who like to voyeur into the sex lives of queer women? We may never know, but in the meantime, let’s redirect our energy into looking at the films made by queer women, of queer women, for queer women.
Most cinephiles are familiar with the shocking experimental films of Kenneth Anger, the enfant terrible of 1960’s Hollywood, who combined gay imagery with pop music and satanism in a series of short films many consider to be the origin of the music video. Fewer, sadly, are familiar with who is perhaps his lesbian counterpart, Barbara Hammer. Hammer grew up in Los Angeles, with loose ties to the film industry, but chose instead to pursue her bachelor’s degree in psychology and her master’s degree in English. In the 1970’s, Barbara Hammer experienced a paradigm shift. While studying film, Hammer was exposed to Maya Deren’s experimental classic Meshes of the Afternoon, which left a huge impact on her and inspired her to make films about her life the way Deren had. Hammer was married to a man at the time, but after attending feminist groups and being exposed to other lesbian women, she came out as a lesbian and ended her marriage. After being creatively and sexually liberated, Hammer purchased a Super 8 camera and a motorcycle, took off on a journey of self-discovery, and the rest is history. On this trip, Hammer made the first of many films, Dyketactics, which is considered to be a landmark in the history of lesbian cinema. From here, she continued to make films using a combination of personal footage, historical stock footage, and found lesbian erotica. Her first feature film, Nitrate Kisses, was lauded by critics and nominated for a number of prestigious awards. Lately, museums including the Tate and MoMA have held retrospectives of Hammer’s work and life, showcasing her films, photographs, and ephemera. Underappreciated for much of her career, it seems the world is catching up to Hammer’s bold visions on film, life, and art. The effect Hammer’s work has on queer cinema cannot be understated, because as a result of incorporating her personal life, friends, and romantic partners so deeply into her work, she opened up the art world into her sphere and was able to humanize and normalize the lesbian experience. Her films also deal with themes of feminism, often depicting women nude, menstruating, and even having multiple orgasms. Her goal was to show the female form operating in ways that had never been seen on screen, directed under the male gaze. Hammer would also go on to document her own battles with cancer and illness, showing a truly raw portrayal of women's bodies we do not regularly see. Hammer’s oeuvre can be tricky to locate, but she posts clips of her films regularly on Vimeo, and her photographs are available to view online. If you get the chance to see her work, I implore you to take it, as we must pay homage to this daring woman whose work allows us to assert ourselves in film.
Chantal Akerman, the Belgian auteur, is perhaps best known for her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, in which the banality of a woman chopping vegetables and performing other everyday chores becomes art. To me, Akerman’s films are meditations on the human experience, how we get stuck in routines, and how we get out of them. Akerman was also a lesbian, and explored homosexuality in many of her films, which were often at somewhat semi-autobiographical. The most blatant example we have of this is her 1974 film, Je, tu, il, elle, which translates to “I, you, he, she”. Akerman made this film at the tender age of 24, after a stint of living in New York City, and stars in it herself as Julie, a writer who seems to have quarantined herself into a bizarre and solitary existence of writing, rearranging her apartment, and sustaining herself with granulated sugar. Eventually Julie leaves her reclusive home and embarks on a trip in which she finds companionship with a male truck driver, with whom she mostly shares silence and some truck-stop meals, but later with whom she performs a sexual act purely for his pleasure. This section of the movie which depicts male satisfaction with no regard for female pleasure could be read as commentary of the male ego, either sexually or artistically. After her encounter with the man, Julie visits her ex-girlfriend (played by Claire Wauthion), who tells her that she cannot stay with her, but who cares for her by giving her a substantial meal. After Julie’s hunger is satiated and her thirst quenched, Julie longs to fulfill her sexual desires. The sex scene in this film is historically remarkable because it is one of the first non-pornographic lesbian sex scenes on record, and it is cinematically remarkable due to the way the lovers interact with one another. Julie and her girlfriend are passionate and playful, and we see Julie experience the pleasure that has been absent from her thus far in the film. After this scene, the viewer is left with the sense that the two will stay together, at least for a little while. Akerman’s films often deal with what is at best ennui, and what is at worst, and more plausibly, depression and mental illness. Akerman herself suffered from depression, and took her own life in 2015, leaving behind a legacy that is difficult to categorize. Reportedly, Akerman once requested that her films never be played as part of an LGBTQ festival or retrospective, and while I want to respect those wishes, I think it is impossible to leave her work out of the queer canon at large. Especially with Je, tu, il, elle, Akerman showed lesbian sexuality to the European art film audience, that might have been used to seeing women as sexual beings, insofar as they were sexually pleasing a man, but never to derive pleasure for themselves. This film paved the way for other queer filmmakers to reflect their own sexual and emotional experiences and to take control of their bodily autonomy.
You probably saw this one coming, but I would be remiss if I did not include the cult classic that gives us John Waters style camp, incredible mise-en-scene, and RuPaul Charles wearing a shirt that says, “Straight is Great”. For those who have yet to see the film, the gist of it is that Megan, played expertly by Natasha Lyonne, is an ostensibly typical cheerleader whose parents, friends, and boyfriend send to a gay conversion therapy camp called “True Directions”. The camp is run by Mary Brown, played by the fantastic Cathy Moriarty, with help from her son, Rock (Eddie Cibrian), who is more than a little flamboyant. While at camp, Megan comes to terms with the fact that she is, indeed, a lesbian, and befriends the rest of the gay and lesbian campers. When the campers are instructed to pair up, Megan is partnered with Graham, played by a very cool Clea DuVall, an angsty chain-smoking teen with a how-is-she-pulling-it-off hairstyle. At first, Megan and Graham are at odds, Megan wants desperately to be straight and to play into traditional gender roles, while Graham is more evolved, but must conform to heterosexual expectations unless she wants to be cut-off from her wealthy family. One night, several of the campers, including Megan and Graham, are whisked away to a local gay bar by gay liberators, who are failed students of True Directions. At the gay bar, Graham and Megan kiss, and realize that they have feelings for one another. I’ll leave the story there, so those who haven’t seen it have something to look forward to, but let me tell you why I love this movie. From a technical standpoint, and as a sucker for good production design and set decoration, this film is a feast for the eyes. It is textural and colorful in all the ways you want, including the girls’ bathroom being plastered with silk daisies. The costumes are also excellent, especially the campers’ uniforms, which of course are color-coded by gender. The dialogue is witty and over-the-top in a way that is reminiscent of both 50’s B Films and Hairspray. Technicality aside, But I’m A Cheerleader is a win for me mostly because it’s just so damn fun. We see a lot of gay tragedy on screen, which some consider to be a victory for the community. While the LGBTQIA+, especially trans folks and queer people of color, certainly do experience a daily struggle solely because society doesn’t appreciate them for who they are, there is also so much joy to being queer, and this film reflects that in a way that I love. I also believe that the director, Jamie Babbit, went with absurdist camp to tell this story because the central message of the film is that there is nothing in this world that can stop someone from being gay and from being who they are.
Mosquita Y Mari is a gorgeous virtually no-budget coming-of-age story by Chicana activist and director Aurora Guerrero. I had the pleasure of playing this film for a group of high school girls for a feminist film seminar I taught, and this film resonated deeply with my students. The girls I taught were between the ages of 14-18 and already they spoke about their experiences of men co-opting their sexual exploration for their own pleasure, and how this film felt like the antithesis of that. In the seminar, we also were fortunate to have a Skype session with Guerrero, in which the girls were able to ask her questions about her process and her inspiration for the film. To everyone’s delight, Guerrero was every bit as warm and genuine as her film is, and she graciously walked my students through the steps of creating an independent film. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Mosquita Y Mari takes place in Los Angeles, and focuses on Yolanda, nicknamed Mosquita, who fulfills her parents expectations of her to be docile, religious, and successful in school. One day, a new girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Mari, is introduced into Yolanda’s world. Their relationship brings forth a deep transformation for both girls. Under Yolanda’s tutelage, Mari performs well academically for the first time in her life. Adversely, with Mari’s lust for life, Yolanda sets herself free for the first time. Together, cautiously, both girls slowly question if their feelings for one another go beyond friendship into something romantic. This film is at once sublime and cozy for a number of reasons. I cannot overstate the authenticity this film delivers, not only is it based on Guerrero's own lived experiences, but in making the film, she also immersed herself in the neighborhood where she shot the film in LA and cast her lead actresses, Fenessa Pineda and Venecia Troncoso, from that same community. Queer stories tend to be dominated by thin and white actors, and it is radical and refreshing to see girls on screen who look like your average teenagers. The performances they deliver are tender and raw, and the film does an immaculate job in capturing the longing and confusion many queer folks experience when coming to terms with their sexual orientation.
Historically, queer people of color, and especially Black queer folks, are criminally underrepresented in queer cinema. In fact, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, released in 1996, is the first feature film written and directed by a Black woman. In the twenty years since then, Black queer women still lack representation and visibility within queer cinema, even though Black queer women were at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQIA+ liberation. A salve to this unsettling issue is Dee Rees’ film, Pariah. This film tells the story of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old girl who is trying to figure out how she sees the world and how she wants the world to see her, while living under her conservative parents’ roof. Alike finds friendship with Laura (Pernell Walker), an out lesbian who takes her to gay clubs on the weekends. In these spaces, Alike navigates her own identity, feeling gradually more herself by dressing butch and accepting her own sexuality. Audrey (Kim Wayans) is Alike’s strict, traditional mother who disapproves of the way Alike dresses and is uncomfortable with her daughter’s sexual orientation. Alike’s father, Arthur (Charles Parnell) is gentler with his daughter, chalking up her presentation to a phase, and relating to his masculine-of-center child. At the behest of her mother, Alike befriends Bina (Aasha Davis), a girl from the family’s church. At a sleepover, the girls explore their physical attraction to one another and Alike is smitten. Much to Alike’s dismay, after hooking up, Bina dismisses what happened between the girls and rejects Alike. Heartbroken, Alike returns home to find her parents arguing and is attacked by her mother. Finding refuge with Laura, Alike does not return home, despite her father’s attempts, and instead decides to create a new life for herself, going to California, where she will attend college, early. When her father questions her motives for going to California sooner than intended, and accuses her of running away, Alike says “I’m not running, I’m choosing.” This film is clearly heartbreaking for many reasons, mostly because many families cannot accept their queer children for who they are, and hide behind religion to excuse their homophobia. However, it is also a brilliant example of the resilience of queer people, particularly queer people of color. The film, as well as Adepero Oduye’s performance as Alike, was lauded by critics and embraced by the LGBTQIA+ community instantly. It is a powerful piece of work that deserves a highly visible spot in the queer canon, and will hopefully serve to eliminate barriers of entry for queer women of color.