Monday, April 18, 2016

On "Carol," Representation, and Whiteness - Part 3

Part 3 of 3.  Part 1, and Part 2.



When I say that “Carol” is incredibly white, I don’t mean (only) that there are only 3 whole entire people of color in it (a domestic worker, and a couple walking down the street). 

I mean, that this story can only exist within the realm and construct of whiteness.  That is to say, it is not a universal love story, as much as the cast and filmmakers and some reviewers want to think it so. 

What I mean is, you change the race of either or both of the two women, and you cannot tell this story.  If either or both of these women are Black, for example, you cannot tell this story.  You cannot tell this story of 2 women, one of them of massive and clearly inherited wealth (at least on her husband’s side), going road-tripping west on a whim and falling in love.  (The falling in love bit, sure, of course, that’s not what I’m talking about).


Somewhere around the 3rd time I saw “Carol,” I ran across this article about“Green Books,” guides of safe places for Black folk to eat, sleep, get gas, etc. while traveling across the US, and to avoid unsafe places including “sundown towns.”  The “Green Books” started in the 1930s, and were published through the 60s.  You can play around with the interactive map and discover, as I did, that in the early 50s, there were very few places to stay on a trip from New York to Chicago to Waterloo.  The article also mentions Indiana being full of “sundown towns.”

You kind of have to drive through Indiana to get to Chicago from New York, right?

1956.  Map a trip here.

Carol and Therese don’t have to think about this.  They don’t need “Green Books.”  They can just go.  Carol can even carry a gun and nobody is really going to think much about that.  So even though in one way – being queer – their freedom is impacted, in another way – being white – their freedom is privileged.  There is a freedom of movement, and a lack of worry about their movement, that would not be the same (and still is not) for Black folk.

This is one way I see whiteness functioning in the story.  I also wonder about the lack of people of color just on the streets of New York.  Surely New York was more diverse? Or is what we are seeing actually segregation of the time?  I wonder about my own desire, and how I was taught, via these same movies I love, what kind of woman is most desirable in the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy (because, let’s face it:  Jessica, Grace, RenĂ©e (opera but still), Cate…). 

And I think about how whiteness claims universality for itself, claims that white is the universal way to be human, the universal story – when in fact this is a very particular story about a very particular time that could only exist because of whiteness and wealth (which exists because of whiteness).  This is not a universal love story.

(And also, yes, it’s not a universal story in that it’s queer.  You can’t replace Carol and Therese with two straight people and have this be the same story. Nope. I get that, too, see that whole long section about representation.)

So as a white person, I’m uncomfortable with claims about “Carol” being a universal love story, that it’s “the movie we [lesbians] have all been waiting for.”  I was uncomfortable with efforts to rally a #CarolWasRobbed campaign or #OscarsSoStraight/Male because when it comes down to it, we may not get many exquisite queer stories told and celebrated, but at the end of the day, white people, and white stories, won their awards.  “Carol” could have (and should have!) won All.The.Things and still, white people would have won.

So I love “Carol” for the queer anti-patriarchy representation it offers, all the things I wrote about in Parts 1 and 2, AND I also hold it with an eye towards disrupting whiteness.  It’s all those things.   

Messy, and unresolved.

* * * * * * *


We need so many kinds of stories.  We SO need stories that don’t center cis white men.  “Carol” is a step that direction but not enough.  We need stories that center Black life – and not just slavery and suffering, but resistance and celebration and thriving. We need stories that center trans life (with trans characters being played by trans people, thank you). We need stories that center poor and working class folk, and undocumented folk, and Black and brown queers and stories that empower us and embolden us to disrupt and dismantle the white supremacistcapitalist heteropatriarchy, which tries to fool us into thinking there is only one, universal, white cis heteropatriarchal capitalist story – which is a lie.

I want all those stories.  We need all those stories.


In the movie’s canon, Therese works at The New York Times.  And neither of them are completely disconnected from what’s happening in the world – it’s just that in the window of time we see them, their world is reduced to each other, and Carol fighting for her daughter.  But there are hints that they are aware – the McCarthy hearings for example, news on the radio and TV.

In my headcanon, after where the book/movie story leaves us, Therese and Carol mostly live at Therese’s more working class neighborhood apartment. They talk about their class differences, and why they exist.  They aren’t easy conversations but they make it through. 

Then Therese comes home one day with news about the murder of Emmett Till.  Carol thinks about her own child, and something breaks open in her.  Children should not be murdered, ever. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott begins to make the news, they send money.  Therese and Carol talk about what is happening in the freedom movement around the south, and how they can help.  They’re appalled at Orval Faubus, and the abuse of sit-in activists.  They keep sending money.

When the Freedom Rides begin in 1961, Carol and Therese talk about their own “freedom ride” of sorts back in 1952 and decide to drive the Packard to Louisville, KY, where they leave it with Anne Braden to get it to whoever might need it, or to be sold, or whatever will be most helpful.

Meeting Anne Braden emboldens them. Carol picks up the furniture refurbishing business with Abby again, and they quietly overcharge their wealthy customers and send the extra money south.  Carol sells her Madison Avenue apartment, sending the money to Birmingham after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.  They take risks by talking to their friends, convincing them to support freedom work with time and money, which sometimes works, and sometimes costs them friends.  

Therese makes connections via The Times to local efforts in New York, and they support again with money, and begin meeting activists and white allies.  They continue trying to shift money, shift wealth into the movement – to SNCC, to Selma, to the SCLC.  They argue about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and end up sending money there too. They figure out ways to put their bodies on the line – Carol, her heart rooted in the mutual interest of protecting children, gets arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention protesting racism and the Vietnam War, while Therese provides jail support. 

And over time, they become more radicalized.  Over time, they become accomplices. 

Over time, they realize that until everyone is free, they are not free.