The Way She Looks: Cinema and the Lesbian Canon

With The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018, dir. Ahkavan) receiving the highest honor at the Sundance festival, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the novel it was based on, as well as spending about an hour every day convincing everybody I know to read the book (not a lot of success so far). The book has an interesting relationship to cinematic culture, and it will be interesting to see how this relationship plays out in the triangle of book – adaptation – wider cinematic and literary culture.
In the novel (written in 2012 by Emily M. Danforth), the title character finds herself obsessed with the film The Hunger (1983, dir. Scott). Cameron watches the scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve again and again, not really understanding why it interests her so much. Even though at the time of reading the book I myself hadn’t yet heard of The Hunger (I was 17 so it’s allowed), this experience seemed very familiar to me. Despite the fictional Cameron Post growing up in the early 90s in rural Montana, a lifetime away from me both chronologically and geographically, the way she looked at female characters in media was similar. Indeed, there were several passages in the book that I returned to again and again, without knowing why. What The Hunger was to Cameron, Miseducation was to me.
Then, a few days ago, as I was watching If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000, dir. Anderson, Coolidge and Heche), the opening shot reveals the two main characters of the first part watching The Children’s Hour (1961, dir. Wyler) together in the cinema. It is always an interesting cinematic phenomenon, watching characters watch others (never say the words ‘looking relations’ to a film critic unless you want to be bored to death for the next 3 hours), but in this case it felt particularly significant to watch fictional lesbians watch a film that is about other fictional lesbians. The shot instantly reminded me of Miseducation.
These ‘looking relations’ are clearly a trope in lesbian media. This is because within the representation of same-gender relations, there is a particular invisibility of lesbian relationships (for the purposes of this article I will use the word ‘lesbian’ to refer to romantic and sexual relationships between women, but obviously the women in these relationships don’t necessarily identify as lesbians themselves) because of the general lack of exploration of women’s lives among ourselves to begin with – indeed, we mustn’t forget that the Bechdel test, a test which is often used to measure how well a film portrays women’s relations to each other, found its origin in Alison Bechdel’s 1983-2008 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, and can be more accurately summed up as a commentary on the impossibility of portraying lesbian lives in a world that can’t even conceive of two women talking to each other about their lives outside of men.
Among my LGBT friends, all of us have had our cinematic character, a character which we were inexplicably drawn to without being able to articulate exactly why (say hey if you ‘just really liked Bend it Like Beckham’ [2002 dir. Chadha] when you were younger). Many of these characters are not even explicitly lesbian, but just have ‘something’ about them that we identify as part of ourselves, before we have the language to articulate this.
Clare Whatling, talks in the introduction to Screen Dreams: Fantasising Lesbians In Film (1997) about the fact that the most important lesbian films tend to be the ones that have a lesbian ‘sensibility’, rather than being explicitly about same-sex attraction. This is likely because covert images of lesbianism are ones that come to us earlier, exactly because they are covert. While some parents are perhaps open-minded enough to let their child watch media that contains actually explicitly lesbian characters, this is still quite rare, and it is only a very recent development that has allowed lesbians to exist in media that is specifically aimed at children.
Furthermore, minority sexualities differ from many other marginalized groups, in that there is a distinction at all between overt and covert representation. While most of the time (though definitely not always) race and disability both physical and mental, can be shown simply through visuals, this is not the case for sexuality. We often can’t look at a character and undoubtedly know that they are gay, this has to be inferred from secondary clues such as clothing and mannerisms, or sometimes even extradiegetic clues in camera movements, editing, or prior knowledge of actors’ roles (we all know that Ellen Page is not playing a straight character anytime soon). So it is not just that covert representation comes to us earlier, it is also for most people the predominant mode in which we see ourselves represented at all.
This particularly goes for lesbian representation. While male-male intimacy tends to get pushed into the gay box very quickly, the knee-jerk response to label any female-female intimacy as simply friendship or curiosity, means that even representation that could be considered overt (two female characters kissing, flirting, even having sex), might be reduced in the public eye to a mere ‘reading’. I am very often told that I am simply pushing my own interpretation on characters that I presumed to be obviously and undeniably gay.
This isn’t helped by the fact that there is a wide variety of (unsurprisingly male-directed) films in which female-female intimacy exists mainly to be pathologised into a signifier for danger and destruction to the characters around them – examples off the top of my head include High Tension (2003, dir. Aja), Black Swan (2010, dir. Aronofsky), Heavenly Creatures (1995, dir. Jackson) and The Neon Demon (2016, dir. Winding Refn). It seems that female-female intimacy can never just mean that the characters are gay. Incidentally, the influence of the trope of the predatory lesbian who preys on innocent young women, and the trauma that it causes for young lesbians, their self-image and the ease with which lesbophobia becomes legitimized in communities out of fear, plays a huge role in Miseducation.
While I don’t for a moment want to imply that the situation is a lot better for relationships between men, there is an issue of visibility that creates a huge difference between lesbian representation and gay male representation: firstly, media creators tend to be male, and their experience of women’s inner lives, and women’s lives away from men is secondhand at best. This results in a host of female characters that are clearly ‘images’ of women, rather than characters that feel real. Many lesbian characters, if they’re not wildly offensive to begin with, feel flat at best. Personally I have always been drawn to fictions of gay men (or even occasionally straight men) more than lesbian women, for exactly this reason: once the media creator feels comfortable actually engaging with the inner life of a character, their stories become much more relatable – and often this can only happen if the character resembles the writer in some way, so women (and particularly lesbians) tend to be right out of the question.
Secondly, as mentioned before, the sheer number of male characters vastly overwhelms the number of female characters in most mainstream entertainment, and when women are represented, they tend to be singular or somehow attached to a male presence. The idea that there are women whose primary (or perhaps even only) relationships are with other women, seems to be one that terrifies Hollywood.
Because the small and often covert canon that we do have is such an established part of lesbian growth and socializing, it seems to become part of the identity itself on a semiotic level: the mere watching of The Children’s Hour by the characters in If These Walls Could Talk 2, signifies to us that these characters are lesbians.
It comes as no surprise (and definitely not as a coincidence) then, that the first time I became aware of the film If These Walls Could Talk 2, it was through the writing of Sara Ahmed, in her 2017 book Living a Feminist Life. The whole book is concerned with the way in which we, as feminist, distribute our emotions and our experiences, and how certain bodies and certain pieces of media lead us to particular insights, emotions, and how this sharing creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity. Ahmed looks, for instance, at the role of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) as portrayed in The Hours (2002, dir. Daldry) a book that connects a writer to a reader, connects readers among each other, connects women, and women’s love for each other, through time and geographical difference.
Now that Miseducation is a film (film often being a more accessible medium than literature), and one with massive mainstream exposition through the Sundance win, it is very likely that in itself it will become part of this canon that creates a trace through time. Like Cameron, there might be young women watching the film, not understanding why they are so interested in particular aspects of life depicted in it. They might (as I did), follow in Cameron’s footsteps and watch The Hunger, or other films that are alluded to in the film and the novel, and in this way the alternative canon continues itself.
This is why it is so important that we have spaces like the LFFF where we can explore what it means to take inspiration from and create an alternative canon, a canon that is centered around women, and has a female language that is not often spoken in the mainstream cinematic world. Most importantly, it is paramount to allow works that have been created by women to take the forefront because it allows for a dialogue between creator and audience and between different audience members among each other, while also questioning the very distinction between creator and audience – canons, and alternative canons in particular are created bottom-up through interaction and debate around the text, rather than top-down. Spaces where we can create these canons allow us to turn our established order upside-down.

Pippa Sterk