Women watching women: lesbians and popular cinema
This book started out as an effort to integrate lesbian culture and identity — as it is lived — with a putative 'lesbian spectator' inferred theoretically by textual methods based in feminist film studies. What I intended to do was use Foucault's materialist, historicist discourse theory to reposition psychoanalytically-based models of lesbian spectatorship within a materialist and discursive frame. I started compiling historical accounts of lesbian identity and culture and looking for consistencies between historical formations and accounts, both anecdotal and theoretical, of lesbian experiences as spectators. I was hoping to demonstrate that, far from being a homogenous and timeless construct of 'the film text', lesbian spectators and their reading strategies are multiplicitous and historically specific.
An element of the project of materialising 'the lesbian spectator' is to attend to the material context of film production, distribution and marketing. Popular film is a commercial medium driven by market forces as much as by cultural agendas. Over the past two or three decades, the globalisation process and the hegemonic triumph of free-market ideology have led to really fundamental shifts in the mode of production not only of goods and services but also of identity itself. If gender, as Foucault argues, had already been superceded as the 'transcendental signifer' of human identity then 'sexuality', which Foucault argued currently functions as ultimate referent of questions of identity, is similarly historically contingent. It would seem that the referent of questions of identity in urban subcultures of the new millennium is a libertarian construct of 'individuality' — despite the persistence or, indeed, intensification of gender discrimination and a vociferous backlash against 'queer' in the USA. In the process of historicising 'the lesbian', it became increasingly obvious to me that in the context of free-market globalisation 'the lesbian' is no longer primarily constituted as an oppositional reversal of either 'gender' or 'sexuality' but as a lifestyle commodity and market segment.
The introduction and theoretical overview summarises the case that lesbian readings of popular film need to be situated in the context of specifically lesbian discourses rather than effected solely on the terrain of (heterosexual) feminist film-theory. This will avoid a negative positioning or false universalisation of lesbian spectatorship as well as the elision of lesbian practices with gay or queer models. The gender-analysis developed in the field of feminist film-studies nevertheless remains crucial to an understanding of lesbian practices specifically in relation to cinema.
In order to bring out the historical specificity of lesbian practices in relation to cinema, I have proceeded by broadly delineating three lesbian discursive formations and their key constructs before deploying these to a recontextualisation of feminist film-studies discourse within a historicising, lesbianising, frame.
Chapters 1–2: tomboys and inverts
Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the 'medicalised' era of 'inversion'. Was the figure of the 'butch' lesbian a radical gender counter-identification or a collusive product of the use of medical discourse to discipline the limits of identity? Why did many lesbian spectators at the time articulate a fascination with that most 'masculine' of genres, the Western?
Chapter 1 overviews debates within lesbian feminism over the significance of crossdressing in emergent urban lesbian subcultures; the popularisation of the tomboy figure in women's popular literature; and conflicting lesbian approaches to reading Hollywood cinema in the era of formal censorship.
Chapter 2 overviews film-studies accounts of the tomboy figure. Mulvey's (1981) heterosexualising reading of Duel in the Sun is then reassessed with reference to the tomboy figure in film studies discourse and to the lesbian discourses outlined in Chapter one.
Chapters 3–6: female-bonding and New Women's Cinema
These chapters outline radical lesbian theorisation 'female identification' or 'female bonding' and examines how this discourse ordered both feminist film production and lesbian spectatorship in the 1970s and into the 1980s.
Chapter 3 overviews the emergence of radical lesbian feminism and outlines its key constructs. Chapter 4 looks at emergent lesbian film production and its critical models. Chapter five situates the popular Western 'buddy film' and its counter-articulation in 'New Women's Cinema'. These contextualise lesbian readings of Desperately Seeking Susan and Thelma and Louise in Chapter 6.
Chapters 7–11: queer and the recycling of identity
These chapters deal with the universaliation of lesbian and gay identities under the sign of queer 'sexuality', the depoliticsation and assimilation of queer identities to the diversification of popular film production and marketing in the late 1980s and through the 1990s.
Chapter 7 sketches conflict and breakdown in feminist discourses and the emergence of queer politics. Chapter 8 overviews Foucauldian queer theory and conflicting approaches to redefining lesbian discourse in queer terms. Issues surrounding the locative contextualisation of performance and spectatorship are assessed through a re-reading of accounts of queer 'performativity' in Paris is Burning.
The commodification of lesbian 'lifestyles' and the commercialisation of queer media are addressed in chapter 9; and transformations in marginal film practices in chapter 10. Chapter 11 assesses the recirculation of oppositional discourses and codes in 'indie' cinema in the 1990s through readings of Bad Girls, Set It Off, and Bound.
Chapter 12 concludes that contextually motivated shifts in feminist and lesbian discourses need to be more attentively addressed when re-appropriating or assessing popular culture as well as in the mobilisation of lesbian resistance(s) more generally. It may no longer be possible to theorise lesbian identity as a radical engagement in the field of 'gender' or 'sexuality' as hypercapitalist modes of cultural production are willing to assimilate any mode of cultural identity which does not articulate itself in opposition to the process of globalisation under the universalising sign of the 'free market'.