Monday, April 18, 2016

On "Carol," Representation, and Whiteness - Part 1

Hi friends! This is long, so it’s in 3 parts – Part 2, Part 3
And also, beyond here there be spoilers! And fangirling!

I have SO many things to say about “Carol.”  I have seen it 7 times since it came to Denver the very last days of December – 4 times in the theater and three times (so far) on DVD, which obviously I bought immediately. I’ve read “The Price of Salt” 4 or 5 times now, and the last half (starting with the road trip) even more.   

I have SO many things to say about “Carol.” But to start, I have to tell you a little about the year I turned 12 – 1982.  Many things happened to me that year, most of which is a long story for another time. But those things, I’ll tell you, left me feeling very alone, and lonely, and afraid.

Tootsie,” released in December of 1982, was one of those things that happened to me. If you’re not familiar with the story, Dustin Hoffman’s character dresses up as a woman in order to get an acting job, and then, on the job and so “in character” as a woman, falls in love with Jessica Lange’s character.  (I used to think it was hilarious but now I’m a little worried about transmisogyny and homophobia and heterosexism...)

Anyway…I still remember how it felt in my belly when Jessica Lange was on the screen, when Hoffman-as-a-woman touched her hair when they lay in bed, and when they almost, almost kissed on the couch.  I still remember riding home in the car, staring out the window, playing those scenes over in my head, and knowing in a deep deep place that I couldn’t even admit I knew, that I looked at Jessica the same way Hoffman-as-a-woman (and the camera) did, that I wanted to touch her the way Hoffman-as-a-woman did.  And I wondered why it got awkward (or became a joke? I mean, it’s played for laughs) when they almost kissed.  

There was nobody, nobody I knew who I could talk to about it.  I didn’t know what it was I felt, had no words for it, for what I knew.  I didn’t know “lesbian” or even gay.   I did know this:  All the girls around me were so into boys, and I pretended, but knew (in not quite so deep a place) that I was lying.   

I was really lonely.

And that was it.  That was all the representation I had, on screen, of some piece of truth of me.  A story about a man dressed as a woman just to get a job who falls in love with another woman while he’s dressed as a woman and…well. The point is, it was not actually my truth exactly, right?

And then…as a teenager my parents introduced me to Hitchcock movies.  I loved them, was fascinated by them as filmmaking (I ended up taking a film class on Hitchcock in college) and, let’s be totally honest, I LOVED Grace Kelly.  

I’m dying. 

I couldn’t get enough. (Still can’t.)  I watched “Rear Window” (especially) and “To Catch a Thief” and “Vertigo” (not Grace, but the mesmerization of gaze and longing hooked me) whenever I could.  There was no Google Image then, but I cut out pictures of Grace, and Kim, (and Kiri, hello queer opera friends) when I could find them and pinned them to my bulletin board.  My friends had pictures of Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez.
I also had this album. I didn't
understand the flowers, but I sure did
understand that gaze.


But the only way to imagine myself in those stories – was to imagine myself as Cary Grant, or Jimmy Stewart (or a tenor, but I hadn’t discovered Rosenkavalier yet).  I did not know how to imagine me, myself as a cisgender woman, into those stories, because none existed (so let’s ask:  did I exist?).  (Note: “PersonalBest” also came out in 1982, but I never heard of it until many many years later, when I was already out. Which says something about whose stories get told, and distributed, and lifted up.) 

So I would imagine myself as Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window,” looking at Grace Kelly the way he (and the camera) did when she first enters.  I also wrote stories during those teenage years as a safe place to imagine myself into a story where I-as-a-man got to kiss or be kissed by a woman. Like I saw on screen. I knew I was doing this even though I also didn’t know, at the same time, if that makes sense. 

I’m a cis woman.  I knew that then.  I knew I was a girl who was utterly enthralled by Grace Kelly, and the only way I found to be a part of that story was to imagine myself to be something I wasn’t (am not).  Because those were the only stories I read or saw, anywhere.  And those stories weren’t really mine anyway, weren’t made for me.

It was a confusing, and lonely, time.  I remember in my body the aching loneliness of *looking* and knowing I wasn’t supposed to, knowing that look wouldn’t be returned.

And then this happened:

When “Fried Green Tomatoes” came out in January, 1992, I just about nearly came out of my skin.  I felt like I was flying.  I saw it over, and over, and over.  And over.  After the first time I saw it I made my best friend Mickey take me shopping for a denim shirt so I could feel like Idgie.  Finally, FINALLY here was something on screen, a story that felt like what I felt.  I could see myself-as-me in it for the first time. I didn’t have to imagine myself into something I wasn’t.  Something shifted and felt possible.

By June of that year, I had come out.

Stories matter.  Stories can show us pieces of ourselves, tell us things about ourselves, affirm parts of ourselves. Stories, whether written or on screen, help us to imagine what is possible – for each other, and yes, for ourselves.  This is why representation matters.  This is why we have to ask: whose stories are being told, celebrated, funded, awarded, distributed?  This is why campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite and #BuryYourGays are so important.  (I wrote about this last year after the Oscar nominations, in the context of race.)

What would it have meant to have had that representation when I was a lonely 12-year old girl, a closeted, scared, queer adolescent longing for Grace Kelly but with no stories to guide me?

Now I know, because now we have “Carol.”

On to Part 2 here!