Why Straight Audiences Don’t “Get” Gay Films

While I was visiting my parents recently, I had the distinct pleasure of watching the classic film The Uninvited, a ghost film that tells the story of a brother and sister who move into a haunted house and find themselves in the middle of a domestic melodrama involving adultery, ghostly apparitions, and the unnamed (and unnamable) specter of lesbian desire.  One character in particular, Miss Holloway, exhibits the typical qualities of classic Hollywood cinema lesbianism, including an overwhelming and excessive desire for a dead woman (as occurs in the film Rebecca), as well as a certain predatory attitude toward a younger woman (alleged to be the daughter of Miss Holloway’s dead friend but in reality the product of adultery).

When I mentioned to my mother (with whom I was watching the film), that the character was clearly a lesbian—assuming that she would be able to read the codes of Hollywood as easily as I could—she responded with a fierce denial.  The character was not a lesbian asserted, and I hardly dared to point out that Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca was one as well, since it was fairly obvious by then that she would also disagree with that assertion.  This exchange led me to reflect upon the ways in which historic audiences respond to particular films in particular ways, picking up on the codes of viewership that Hollywood utilizes to express desire.  When that desire happens to be homosexual, and if the film happens to be made during the period of classical Hollywood, the viewing strategies historic audiences utilize can be quite different.

Patricia White makes this point explicit in her excellent study Uninvited:  Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, in which she argues that lesbian desire and lesbian characters often haunt the edges of cinema, simultaneously constructing and inviting lesbian encoding while also disavowing such viewing strategies.  As a feminist and may male viewer several generations removed from the film The Uninvited, I come to experience of watching it equipped with certain viewing strategies, some more subversive than others, that my very straight-identified mother and, by extension, other mainstream heterosexual viewers, do not.  Trained to know that gay people are seldom named as such in classic Hollywood films, I must look for them at the margins where, as White puts it, they continue to haunt the text of the very films that seek to strenuously to either marginalize or destroy them (again, the case of Mrs. Danvers comes to mind.  At the end of Rebecca she is consumed by the fire that she has set).  Thus, although Miss Holloway can be read by “straight” audiences as just a friend who is devoted to the memory of her beloved companion, I know that the film is really doing something else here, that there is something more than just friendship going on here.  Whether the film entirely intends me to or not, I find myself drawn to the lesbian character and reading her as such, investing her with those very qualities that make her appealing as a representative of same sex desire on screen, even if the film wants me to read that desire as inherently pathological and destructive.

What is really striking, however, is the resistance that my mother exhibited to this particular reading strategy.  Nor is she the only one who has had such a response to queer readings of allegedly straight films.  This was brought home to me in a very powerful way when one of my students responded negatively to my assertion that Scar, the villain of The Lion King, is queerly coded and may offer gay viewers a non-normative node of pleasure in an otherwise very hetero-oriented film.  There is a strong ambivalence and often downright resistance of straight culture to appropriations of its icons for gay purposes and this is especially true when one considers the accusations and rumors of the homosexuality of various actors.  There are still those, for example, who take great umbrage at those who assert that Cary Grant, that paragon of romantic masculine heterosexuality, may have actually been a little less heterosexual than is commonly assumed.  Even those who are “okay” with homosexuality still feel threatened by the possibility that their beloved icons, whether they be favorite childhood characters or favored Hollywood stars, may be tainted with the stain of the love that dare not speak its name.

Naturally, all of this has begun to change with the advent of more “well-rounded” or “developed” roles for gay characters, though we still remain conspicuously absent, or at least downplayed, within much Hollywood cinema.  There is still a sense of in which we are, as Patricia White puts it, the uninvited, excluded from the dreams that the cinema produces for the heterosexual mainstream consume base.  While there may be more of us on screen, we still are the “other,” the irregularity against which the “normal” heterosexual viewer measures itself.  All of this is not to suggest that there are absolutely no straight viewers who can pick up gay or lesbian subtexts in films, whether of classical Hollywood or later minting.  The strategies of queer reading can be learned and practiced by those whose lived experience is not necessarily structured along homosexual lines (indeed, some of the best queer readers I know are straight).  However, I would argue that the stakes for those viewers are less intense and weighted than they are for gay audiences, who still have to struggle and really work to find their own desires and screen likes represented in mainstream film.  We have over a century of neglect and repression within cinematic representation to deal with and overcome, and that is a very long process indeed.  Unlike some, however, I do see hope on the horizon in terms of the ways in which LGBT people are represented in film.  At this point, however, I think it is still far too early to tell what the future will hold nor, significantly, do I think that those of us in the LGBT community are yet entirely sure what it is that we want to see in our screen representation.  But that’s a post for another day.

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