The Lesbian between the Lines

Published in: November-December 2004 issue.


Lesbian RuleLesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire
by Amy Villarejo
Duke University Press
207 pages, $74.95 ($21.95 paper)


THE LESBIAN in literature is found in the shadows of heterosexual plots with (often ambiguously) lesbian subtexts. Lesbian criticism, in turn, is best carried out by someone who’s adept at reading between the lines. In Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire, Amy Villarejo, an Associate Professor at Cornell University, takes the quest for lesbian visibility on a journey beyond the bounds of what we know for sure. This is a challenging and probably important book about the lesbian images in film, photos, and fiction.

Operating within a “queer theory” paradigm, Villarejo begins by tossing around the names of those dead white guys—Freud, Foucault, Marx, Kant, Hegel, and Barthes—as if they were old friends. But it is to the postmodernist writings of Jacques Derrida that she keeps returning, asking such questions as these: How are lesbian identities, lesbian values, and lesbian desires reflected in literature or film? Can we apply the same analytical tools to film as we do to literature? Are our values accurately reflected in what we see and what we read? How can we say that the images are accurate when we are a fragmented subculture ourselves, when commercial culture increasingly dictates what we see, when our collective attention can be sold? To answer them, she examines the various contexts in which the lesbian is rendered visible, analyzing the accuracy or inaccuracy of the “lesbian perception.” In a political economy of hatred, she argues, there exists a lesbian diaspora; we have little knowledge of who or what the “normal” lesbian is.

In the chapter “Archiving the Diaspora: A Lesbian Impression,” Villarejo examines the work of a lesbian filmmaker named Ulrike Ottinger, whose film Exile Shanghai is about Jews who emigrated to Shanghai in the 1930’s and 40’s. The film’s theme is that of the outsider struggling to live in an antagonistic environment. The filmmaker, a lesbian, undoubtedly selected scenes that underscored the plight of the outsider because of her own status in an unwelcoming heterosexual culture. In “Absolute Queer: Cuba and its Spectators,” Villarejo examines several films by Cubans about gays and transvestites. In one film, a gay man in Cuba attacks the gays in the U.S. for not doing something to help their “brothers” in Cuba, if only by actively denouncing the Cold War embargo that has so impoverished the Cuban people.

“Pulp Fiction” focuses especially on Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker (1962), but also highlights the 1982 lesbian documentary Forbidden Love, in which lesbian couples discuss their private lives in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. The essay moves on to the lesbian bar and street culture and to the world of sex workers, who are often lesbians even though their clients are men and they do not identify themselves as gay. In this way, lesbianism has been commodified for distribution and consumption within a capitalist mode that associates lesbian with the lurid and the salacious.

A problem with this book is its language. Despite the fact that I teach college writing, I found the syntax, especially in the first half of the book, so stilted and convoluted as to obscure the literal meaning of the text. Here Villarejo writes in what could be called a postmodern idiom, whose main attribute seems to be the choice of a scholarly-sounding word when an everyday word will do. Let the following passage serve as a case in point: “…one of the tasks of Derrida’s commentary seems to be to convince his reader (or the photographs’ viewer) not to see these series of photographs as images but instead as something like textual occasions, or that which compels interpretive work, storytelling and theory-making, reading, exegesis, deciphering.” Curiously, the author sometimes takes the opposite tack, choosing a low-brow word rather than a more formal one, as when describing a photo of two nude women with recourse to the words “crotch” and “groin.”

About halfway through the book she abandons most references to classical theory (those dead white guys), perhaps because she’s finding that for the most part it’s not working. This lightens the reading considerably, and eventually we come to the book’s most entertaining essay, “Straight to Video.” In it, Villarejo argues that lesbian visibility is largely confined to “cable/satellite and pay-per-view television, mail order services (that send in the mail gay-related videotapes to far-flung subscribers), Web-based media, videotapes, laser discs, and DVDs.” But there’s a real difference between home video and a movie theater. Five or six distributors now control nearly ninety percent of movie rentals. As Villarejo points out, “We produce commentary differently when the tape or pulp novel is in our hands, certainly as opposed to the kind of commentary possible on the fleeting object that is more properly cinema.”

Of the several films she mentions, Chained Girls epitomizes her central argument. This film is the lesbian Reefer Madness, asking the questions: “Who and what is a lesbian? Is lesbianism a disease or natural occurrence? Is it reserved for a few or a common happening? How do lesbians live? Are they happy with their lives? And how does society accept them?” In the film, gangs of baby butches terrorize “everyone who falls in their path.” High-class women go to the seamier side of town to meet other women. Coming out is a lesbian social debut, and lesbians have coming out parties. The special moment is choreographed and the dykes draw straws in order to plan the femme’s rite of initiation (which is gang rape). The patriarchal approach of the film is clear. Women are a sexualized commodity for straight men, and because lesbians reject that role, they are nothing at all.

“Straight to Video” suggests that lesbian visibility is unattainable due to the nature of the phenomenon itself in a patriarchal order, which automatically voids it out. Our erotic desires are only a part of who we are, but films and books about our lives have scarcely begun to develop the lesbian image beyond these desires, culturally unacceptable as they are.


Martha Miller has published several books of fiction and had four plays produced. Her latest book, Tales from the Levee, will be published next year by Southern Tier Press.



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