The specter of lesbianism stalks the periphery of These Three (1936) at every turn. Even though this adaptation of the overtly lesbian dramatic novel The Children’s Hour was actually adapted for the screen by the original writer Lillian Hellman, the resulting film stands more as a compelling example of the ham-handed Hays Code than a completely viable text. The character Joe becomes an embodiment of suppression, a substitute for female/female sexuality, a corporeal form behind with the true theme of lesbian love and struggle hides in plain sight. Watching this film is such a strange experience, especially for one familiar with the source material. I could liken it to eating a cake that was made with a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar, and telling yourself with every bite that the saltiness is SUPPOSED to represent sweetness. As “unnamed and invisible” as lesbian romance and sexuality is in the Code, it finds a weird kind of vitality when male sexual mores attempt to define it, refine it, or erase it. Foucault also touches on this sort of self-defeating mechanism of sexual repression as an act of tamping down “useless energies and the intensity of pleasure.”
Patricia White’s question in the first chapter of “Uninvited” is a simple way to read These Three: “To what extent is lesbianism subsumed under male definitions of sexuality?” One could say that by the exclusion of Martha and Karen’s storyline of intimacy, it gathers a kind of simmering and elusive power underneath the text. As one of my favorite scholars (and Stuart Hall devotee) Dick Hebdige put it: “As a rule, ideology by definition thrives underneath consciousness.” I’ll get to him a little more in a second, but I find that the idea of “thriving underneath” a text has so many implications as we evaluate each screening in this class; what do we each bring to these films as we decode what they have encoded? How does Stuart Hall’s discussion of “where things fit” vs. “how things are” help us make declarative statements about film without invalidating them through our own subjectivity? I think about our discussion of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and the friction that dominant readings and adaptive/oppositional readings experienced with one another. If ideology runs underneath consciousness, even my dominant/hegemonic reading of a text can have nuances of an adaptive reading, and so on. Hall’s categories are simply not immutable.
We see These Three’s mechanism of negotiated same-sex love in Design for Living (1932), but (in my opinion) this is a much more fun and narratively viable film because Gilda does not function completely as a last-minute stand-in for Tom and George’s Code-rejected love. She does, though, function as a sort of gaze-refracting hinge, in which the two mens’ homosexual desire and intimacy may be sublimated and refracted back to each other like a prism. The female object of the male gaze and male desire is a mediator to diffuse the queer ideology that runs underneath the text. As a film, I found this unspoken commentary on homosocial and homoerotic love to be so fascinating and prescient – I’m reminded of the very thematically daring Sense8, a TV show created by the Wachowskis that aims to complexify modern tropes of sci-fi. The scene between Tom, George, and Gilda in the car (where she kisses each of them and sensuality zings throughout the trio in three directions) is very reminiscent of a scene between a gay male couple and their female companion in Sense8. Stories such as these add new dimensions not only to readings of homosexuality but also the ways sex can be represented in ways other than physical contact.
I want to return to Dick Hebdige – his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style has been so useful for me in my scholarship, especially with questions of semiotics and the decoding of meaning. It’s mostly about punks in England and their subversion of capitalism in the way they display (and violate) signifiers of commodification in their fashion. Hebdige says that the punk visually demonstrates an awareness that “codes are there to be used and abused” which is something I think is easily read in Design for Living. From the conscious camp of Tom and George performing as “detectives” to the more subtle camp of their performances of wealth and performances of poverty, the film demonstrates a sly sort of style – what Susan Sontag would call “epicene” style, that relies on the easy convertability of meaning. Tom is a pauper playwright who becomes a literary star, George is his best friend but then his enemy and probably his soulmate, Gilda is an alien feminine presence, a girlfriend, a “mother of the arts,” and so on; these characters rapidly switch meanings and occupy new positions to one another all the time. It’s an instability of meaning and an encoding process that relies on oppositional decoding that gives camp its distinctive style and “openness of text.”
Design for Living (1933)
These Three (1936)
Sense8 (2015 – )
“Encoding/Decoding” – Stuart Hall
History of Sexuality – Michel Foucault
Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability – Patricia White
“Notes on Camp” – Susan Sontag
Subculture: The Meaning of Style – Dick Hebdige
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015