Tag Archives: lesbianism

A case of blue

“Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so sweet/Oh I could drink a case of you darling/Still I’d be on my feet/Oh I would still be on my feet”

“A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell

Yes, we are talking about that movie. But before delving into what makes Adele of Blue is the Warmest Color an Outside Girl, let me preface this post with this disclaimer: The film is one minute shy of three hours and–at most–devotes only 15 minutes to scenes of explicit coupling. This movie features sex, but is also about a lot more than that. Okay, the lecture is over now.

Believe it or not, I’m more interested in how this incredible film depicts everyone’s favorite subject: love. For those of you unaware of Blue, here is the rundown: It is very loosely based on Julie Maroh‘s awesome graphic novel, Blue Angel. In addition, it explores the years-long relationship between two women (one is older, cultured and experienced; the other is younger, working class and green) from when their paths first cross to when their paths permanently diverge. It is fantastic. Especially because director Abdellatif Kechiche decides to acknowledge that romance is just as likely to destroy a person as it is to build her up. You see, as high school aged Adele becomes more and more wrapped up in college student Emma, the more she cuts herself off from everything else in her own world.

It is no revelation when I say that individuals can lose their own sense of self when they become part of a couple. A colleague of mine (thinking himself very wise) once said when you are in a relationship, your status shifts from “me-dom to we-dom.” Violations of the English language aside, the core of his sentiment does have some bearing on reality. We have all had friends who become so dedicated to their romance that they have little time for anything else. Scholar Caroline E. Jones recently studied the way burgeoning female sexuality and first sexual experiences are presented on television. She argues that the female protagonist often “constructs a social or public identity that reveals, complements, or masks her personal or private identity; the double-process of self-perception and self-construction helps her frame…her emerging sense of herself as sexually active.”

For the record, Jones only applies her claim to Buffy Summers, Veronica Mars and Rory Gilmore and analyzes how their initial sexual experiences shaped their characters. However, the stance Jones takes is extremely relevant to Adele and her head-over-heels fall for Emma. Adele is not ashamed of her sexuality, exactly. But she is very private about her feelings and her relationship. For example, both women meets the other’s parents. Emma’s parents know who Adele really is, but Adele’s parents are under the impression that Emma tutors Adele in philosophy. As the commitment between these two women intensifies, the less Adele has to do with her own individual life. When the two first meet, Adele has a large circle of friends, a boyfriend and spends time with her parents every day. By the time the two move in together, Adele only socializes with Emma’s colleagues and friends. It is almost as if Adele has no sense of herself without Emma. It’s like her previous life never even existed.

To be clear, Jones does not argue that Buffy, Veronica and Rory all lose their individuality once they embark on a sexual relationship. But there is a perceivable shift in the way they see themselves and their lovers. Adele goes through this transformation too, even if it is more extreme than Jones documents in her study. Many critics have argued that economic status is what eventually drives these two women apart.  A.O. Scott notes that the “subtle, unmistakable class difference” is punctuated by the aforementioned dinner scenes. Emma’s parents serve oysters; Adele’s family serves spaghetti. It’s true that the differing class status puts strains on their romance, but I would argue that their respective sense of self is the ultimate catalyst for their breakup. As Scott describes, “Emma is proudly out. Adele is, somewhat defiantly, closeted.”

Revealing one’s sexuality is an inherently personal decision. Just as I believe that no one should be attacked or discriminated against based on his or her sexual orientation, I don’t automatically think anyone should be pressured to divulge something that he or she is not ready to share. In my opinion, Adele has every right to keep her sexuality private, but I can also understand how it fractures her relationship with Emma. Adele’s isolation is her own unconscious construction. She is so in love and is so hesitant to publicly discuss it that her lover eventually becomes her entire world.

That puts a lot of pressure on Emma and would be too much for many people to handle. During their devastating breakup scene, Adele confesses to cheating on Emma and tells her, “I felt so alone.” She is alone, even when she is deliriously happy in her relationship. For all of their intense chemistry and genuine affection for each other, these two women come from completely different worlds. Shy Adele, who aspires to be a teacher, will never really fit with Emma, an artist whose emotions are just as visible as her electric-blue hair. Adele does not understand this until it is too late. From the moment she sees Emma, she barrels forward and sacrifices everything so she can be with her. The cruel irony of this beautiful film is that Adele’s willingness to give up everything for love is exactly why she loses it.

(Image #1 courtesy of aceshowbiz.com; #2 courtesy of teatopour.blogspot.com; #3 courtesy of athenacinema.com; #4 courtesy of galleryhip.com)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

“Imagine being born with a name like Miles Davis. You’ve already got it made.”

–from Trumpet by Jackie Kay

During my second year of college, I went to Ireland for spring break. I returned with a souvenir pin bearing my mother’s maiden name.  According to the back of this pin, her former surname is Gaelic for “troublesome” or “light-haired.” Coming from a family of sarcastic blondes, I was delighted to learn that little fun fact. Really, it shouldn’t matter to me one way or another. It isn’t my last name and I could just as easily be a pleasant (ha!) brunette. But our names–whether we acknowledge it or not–influence our identities and even our dispositions. In short, our names are more than something listed on our birth certificates.

Alike of the film Pariah (which you need to see) knows something about the complexity of identity. She is a seventeen-year-old poet and Brooklynite who also happens to be a lesbian. Her sexuality is never really the driving conflict of the film. Alike knows who she is and accepts it. The problem is that her parents refuse to see or support her sexuality. Her constant shift from the person she wants to be (complete with a girlfriend and masculine clothing) to the person her parents expect her to be (complete with a pink, clinging shirt) is the movie’s main source of tension.  Like so many other girls on this blog, Alike is caught between her parents’ ideologies and her own evolution.

I could go on and on about how Alike’s constant clothing changes symbolize her struggle, but I would probably bore you. Anyways, everything you need to know about the protagonist’s journey can be found in her first name. It is pronounced ah-LEE-kay, but is also visually semantic. For all you English majors out there, the OED defines alike as “Of two or more things: like one another, similar, of identical form or character.” Alike’s gruff-but-loving father and her flinty, worried mother have certain standards. They want Alike to adhere to the strict gender code that other teen girls seemingly follow without issue. Arthur and Audrey  see that Alike is physically uncomfortable in frilly clothes. They sense that her friendship with another girl from their church congregation is more than platonic. But they simply cannot handle it. Despite alike‘s coded meaning for conformity, their individual daughter will never act exactly as they planned.

For she is Alike with a better, bolder pronunciation. She deals with heartbreak, isolation and insensitivity from her parents, but you can’t help but feel happy for Alike throughout the movie. Even though she has to hide herself from her parents, Alike is decidedly living on her own terms. After an intense verbal fight between Alike, Arthur and Audrey, Alike decides to move out and attend a prestigious writing program on the other side of the country. Film critic Stephen Holden argues that “Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life…while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” That is true–to an extent. I am just as excited for Alike as Holden is, but her identity is not as simple as free/not free. Like her name, Alike’s role as an Outside Girl is up for multiple readings and interpretations.

Yes, Alike’s decision to break away from her family is agentic, independent and the best decision for her. But I have to mention that her otherness is not fully self-inflicted. Most of the other girls I have discussed on this blog are white and upper middle class. They have the freedom to buck tradition for awhile and can return to the status quo if they ever need to. However, Alike’s outsider status is threefold and the most complex: she is black, she is gay, and she needs to get away from her family’s constraints and gender policing. Yes, her family is middle class, but there is a distinct urgency to the way her parents behave. Arthur perceives Alike as “Daddy’s little girl,” but her burgeoning masculinity is a threat to his own. Audrey is so afraid of what other people will think that she sees Alike’s sexuality as a personal affront. How can she build a happy life for Alike when her daughter insists on wearing butch clothes and actively “turning into a man?”

I don’t say any of this to undermine Alike’s journey. The truth is that choosing to walk away from your social circle (with the full knowledge you can waltz right back) is another unfair privilege of being white or having money. Alike is a great character who decides to leave her community instead of waiting around to be pushed away. If I was in her position, I would do the same. But it is important to note that this isn’t just another case of getting bored and making a change in your life. This is a case of leaving everything you love behind and knowing full-well that it is for good. Director Dee Rees might have named the film after a social outcast, but I probably would label Alike “Brave as Hell.” Then again, her awesome name already says it all.

(Image #1 courtesy of en.wikipedia.org; #2 accessatlanta.com; #3 courtesy of usatoday.com)

The cat’s in the cradle and the (antique) silver spoon

“Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me.”

-Alison Bechdel in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

A few examples of the inverted nature between Alison and her father, Bruce:

As we have previously discussed, Outside Girls often reject the ideology of their class and peers. When I think about the women I’ve written about thus far–like Lindsay, Angela, Daria, and Jessica–I think about how they also write off their parents as clueless and hopelessly unaware of what it’s like. What is “it,” you ask? Everything. In. Life.

As much as I love all these characters and the texts they come from, it’s sad that  I, as the reader, never find out whether they ever end up giving their parents the benefit of the doubt. With Fun Home, I found out. Bechdel’s memoir tells the story of her childhood growing up in a funeral home, but it is from an adult’s vantage point. Years after her coming out and her father’s suicide, Bechdel looks back and attempts to make sense of her family. This hindsight gives her a deeper understanding of the volatile, closeted Bruce and her own coming of age.

Alison and Bruce are frequently at odds with one another in the text, but there is an underlying mutual understanding and affection. Bruce recognizes Alison’s sexuality will be a site of struggle in their small town world; he’s lived with this struggle all his life. In fact, I think he knows she will be an Outside Girl before she does, and his constant criticism and insults are his way of protecting both of them. As scholar Robin Lydenberg points out, “their common struggle over gender identity puts father and daughter alternately in conflict and in cahoots.” As cruel as he can be, Bruce considers gender policing the sole way to prevent his daughter from future pain, even as it repeats patterns he must have experienced from his own parents.

Unsurprisingly, this plan does not work. It further drives apart the father and daughter and results in even more familial isolation:

As the home gets less and less fun, the Bechdels become increasingly interested in their solitary artistic pursuits. Bruce’s love of antiquing, restoring furniture and decorating is his way of curbing his desires, while Alison’s drawing is her way of surviving until she is able to leave. Likewise, her mother’s music and brothers’ respective guitar and model airplanes are the only way they are able to find pleasure in the fun(eral) home. On top of this self-induced quarantine, Alison and her family are trapped in a house that her mother describes as “a tinderbox.” Alison herself sees it as something akin to the Addams Family‘s home with its “dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings.”

Is it any wonder that Alison chooses to walk away?*

In college, Alison finds a way to embrace her sexuality, is passionate about learning, and manages to reject the repressed, desperate parts of her childhood. And her acceptance of who she is–as something different from her family and the rest of Beech Creek, Pa.–is when she finally sees her father for who he is.

Like so many solid relationships, Bruce and Alison find a way to connect through their mutual love of literature. In fact, Alison takes a suggestion from her father to read Colette‘s autobiography. He appears to recommend it because he wants his daughter to “learn about Paris in the twenties. That whole scene,” but I’m sure the book’s lesbian presence is no coincidence. At this point, I believe Bruce accepts that Alison has chosen to live the way she wants: out of the closet and in exploration of her own sexuality and identity. As Lydenberg opines, Bechdel “is able to cross boundaries her father never dared to transgress.” Bruce recognizes that Alison’s life will be quite different from his and I think this actually gives him joy. Bruce can’t protect her from the inevitable ignorance and intolerance she will face, but he can enjoy the fact that her life as a gay women coming out in the 1970’s will be easier than his life as a gay man who dared not express himself in the 40’s and 50’s.

After her father is hit by a bread truck, Alison and her girlfriend attend his funeral in Beech Creek. As the mourners try to comfort the bereaved family, Alison thinks what she cannot say: “I’d kill myself too if I had to live here.” This is the most memorable part of the story for me. Not only does Bechdel pinpoint the raw honesty that plagues a grieving family, she highlights why she is an Outside Girl. In Beech Creek, she would suffer and could end up just like her father. But she decided to leave all of that shame and repression behind and is the happier for it. I won’t say that Bruce Bechdel was a good father. I will say that Fun Home suggests that he was miserable in his life but was relieved his daughter wouldn’t be miserable in hers. As Alison explains in the narrative’s conclusion, her father “was there to catch me when I leapt.”

*Be advised: I am not saying that Alison chose her sexuality. That is something she was born with, explored, and embraced. Alison’s choice was to extricate herself from a life and community where her sexuality  and identity would not be tolerated.

(Image #1 courtesy of funhomememoir.blogspot.com; #2 courtesy of tcj.com; #3 courtesy of dykestowatchoutfor.com; #4 courtesy of cognitivedissident.org)