Sunday, January 07, 2007

Notes on a Stereotype

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't yet seen Notes on a Scandal, you might want to skip this post for now. Maybe you could re-visit some of my holiday posts and try to decide whether you like me better in my reindeer tiara or my oh-so-naughty "Happy F-ing New Year!" tiara. Or, maybe you should shut down the computer and head out to your local cineplex to see Notes so that you can join in on the debate my moms are about to launch. Don't say I didn't warn you: Spoilers and rants ahead.

My moms go on lots of dates in January. It's a time of year when one of them will say, "I've got to go downtown and get a haircut this afternoon. Want to me meet me after for a movie and an early dinner?" and the other, instead of hemming and hawing about how much work she has to do, will say, "Sure. What's playing?" Thus it was that on Friday they caught a late afternoon showing of Richard Eyre's creepy, riveting Notes on a Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. (Pause for a scene-setting bit of local gossip: Just as the trailers were about to start, PBS reporter Gwen Ifill and a female companion came and sat down right next to Moose and Goose. The moms were thrilled. They just love rubbing shoulders with the kinda famous people one tends to see at the movies in Washington.)

My moms are suckers for a good story, and they like nothing better than spending a couple of hours in the dark with women who are as smart, talented, and gorgeous as Dench and Blanchett are (even though Dench bends over backwards to be the opposite of gorgeous in this role. She succeeds admirably. Wait for the bathtub scene. Look at her upper arms. You'll probably race from the theater to the gym to start a weight-lifting program. Props to Dame Judi for letting them film her aging female body in all its un-nipped or -tucked glory.).

The tale is gripping, as Dench's Barbara Covett and Blanchett's Sheba Hart (love the subtly allegorical names, eh?) are drawn not into friendship but into a twisted nest of co-dependency, power struggle, sexual intrigue, and multiple betrayals. The two women meet on the first day of a new term in a dysfunctional high school in inner-city London. Dench plays a battle-ax history teacher who holds her students and her colleagues in utter contempt, while Blanchett is a novice art teacher who is bored with her bourgeois married-with-children life but clueless about how to run a classroom. Searching for a gem among her unruly students (Barbara calls them "feral"), Sheba gets entangled with a horny fifteen-year old boy. Barbara soon discovers the affair and realizes she can use the knowledge to gain control of Sheba and command a semblance of devotion from her. Not surprisingly, complications ensue. Horny boys show up at inconvenient times. Families get suspicious. Cats die. Secrets come out, with a little help from the bitter, grief-stricken cat owners who are supposed to keep them. Jobs are lost. Someone goes to jail. Someone else goes to the park. No one looks noble, though the child with Down syndrome at least seems fully innocent.

Luminous peformances, a great script, a haunting score by Philip Glass--What's not to love about Notes on a Scandal? Why did my moms walk out saying they felt deeply conflicted about this film? My moms are the opposite of image-nazis. They don't go to the movies expecting (or even wanting) to see positive role models and happy endings, but they were bothered by how fully invested Notes on a Scandal turned out to be in the trope of the predatory repressed lesbian. One could argue that as the adult in a sexual relationship with a "child," Sheba, too, is a predator, though the film is clear that her lover Steven instigates their affair and that Sheba's chief moral failing is her inability to stop it. Sheba seems less a predator than a selfish fool who misses the "fuck fests" (as she describes her early relationship with her husband to Barbara) of her youth. In the film's last glimpse of her, Sheba is shown in a tabloid photograph being sent off to jail with her forgiving husband at her side. She has been convicted of a crime, but she has been fully restored to "normal," marital heterosexuality.

Barbara, on the other hand, is the unredeemed and irredeemable sex criminal of Notes on a Scandal. The word "lesbian" is never spoken in the film, a sign of how deeply phobic its structuring of female same-sex eroticism is. In the moral panic whipped up by the revelation of Sheba's affair, Barbara is forced to resign from her job. The headmaster threatens to reveal a previous incident in which another woman teacher, Jennifer, sought a restraining order against Barbara, who had obsessively stalked her much as she has been stalking Sheba throughout the film. The film ends with Barbara moving in on her next target, a young woman who vaguely resembles Sheba and gets drawn into conversation when Barbara notes that she knew the woman who is the subject of the lurid tabloid headlines she is reading. Called a vampire earlier (and we all know that female vampires are lesbians, right?), Barbara has her fangs out in the end, getting ready to strike again. Sheba has been rehabilitated. Barbara is the damned recidivist. She is damned by the tormenting power of a sexuality neither she nor the film is willing to name.

Or that's what my moms say anyway, and their reaction is similar to commentary by Malinda Lo that my Aunt Katie was kind enough to pass along. Our pal Damion over at Queering the Apparatus had a different take on the film when he saw a preview of it in November (and you know we put great stock in what Damion has to say about film). We share Damion's awe for the performances, but the film's artistry is itself problematic because, as Lo points out, the performances have such a strong ring of truth that they forestall critical examination of the toxic stereotype that serves as the story's central narrative trope. And even if we don't go to the movies in search of positive queer images, it's disheartening that last year mainstream audiences thrilled to Brokeback Mountain, which presented same-sex love as sweet but doomed to a violent end, while this year they'll flock to a morality play that depicts same-sex desire not as victimized but as pathetically, inevitably victimizing.

I think I'm going to go to Hollywood and pitch a movie about my moms. Maybe I'll call it Notes on Twenty-Three Years of Queer Delight (Thirteen of Which Included a Really Cute Dog). Whaddyathink, kids? Could I sell that script and quit my day job as a world-class squirrel chaser?


  1. Anonymous8:59 AM EST


    When my moms saw the trailer for this flick they were *totally* turned off and said "you couldn't pay us to see this movie." Knowing nothing of the story, it seemed from the trailer it would be exactly what it has turned out to be: closeted, bitter, pathetic lesbian praying on an attractive younger woman. My moms thought they saw movies like this with creepy lesbians oh, about three decades ago. (Can you say Rachel, Rachel?) Do we really need stuff like this (or Throwback Mountain) in the 21st Century?

    Can I join your script: Notes on 28 years of Queer Delight (14 of which included a really cute dog)??

    Your pal,

    Ripley (arf!)

  2. Ripley--Twenty-eight years! Wow! Clearly, we'll need a whole series of films to celebrate such extraordinary relational success and to dislodge the negative stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. My moms want Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis to play them. Who do you think should play your moms? And, most importantly, who should play US??? It is of course obvious that the secret to long-term lesbian success is a DOG (have you noticed that in the movies psycho-dykes are always CAT people?)--preferably but not necessarily some kind of terrier!

    Hey, Ripley, my moms have been looking for your moms at the Comcast Center, but they're not sure how to spot them. My moms are the middle-aged goofballs holding up the signs that say, "Fear the Brenda" and "Terp Women Rule." We know what your moms blog like (fabulously!), but we don't know what they look like. Looking forward to another huge Lady Terp blowout on Saturday!!!!!

    Queer the Turtle, baby.


  3. Hey there Roxie,
    It seems that your Moms chose a much better film to see than I did this last weekend. Don't bother with "Little Children" no matter how much you may love Kate Winslet. The whole show is a very creepy affair amplified by an even creepier voice-over narrator. By the end I just didn't care what happened to any of these people.

    You are quite a movie critic, Roxie. How do you get into the theater, my dear? Did Gwen Ifill sneak you in, you name dropper, you ;-)

    Auntie Faye

  4. Anonymous7:29 PM EST

    Roxie, I can't let my human read your post if you're going to say "Ifill" in the same sentence with "reporter."

    It seems that, when the New York Times and the other newspapers checked the recount in Florida some months after the 2000 election. Ms. Ifill, who heads Washington Week in Review, began the segment by announcing that the count had shown that George Bush won fair and square. The reporter tried to say that wasn't exactly so, and she practically gave herself a hernia trying to get him to say that Bush had won.

    My human has been in a snit ever since.

  5. Anonymous7:58 PM EST

    Homer the thirteen year old Chow shares that his mommies ran into Gwen Ifill in the women's locker room at the Red Door Spa in Chevy Chase. Her locker was right next to his Mama Js and she helped Gwen lock her locker. Apparently much was seen by both of Homer's mommies, although sadly they have not seen Notes on a Scandal.

  6. Welcome to Roxie's World, Homer! The Red Door--Oohlala! You must have some fancy moms there, dude. ;-)

    I see that film reviews and celebrity name-dropping are excellent ways to increase traffic. Look forward to more of same. Perhaps I'll hold forth soon on last night's season premiere of "The L Word." We took a vote in my house and were unanimous on two points: Shane had a really, really, really bad day, and hetero-Tina is even more insufferable than lesbo-Tina was!

  7. Anonymous9:19 AM EST

    I agree with your argument the film displays everywhere "trope of the predatory repressed lesbian." In addition, Sheba (Queen w/o brains) is available to anyone, no agency whatsoever.

    I disagree last year's films showed such sympathy for homosexuals or transvestites. I would argue that _Brokeback Mountain_ presented gay men as sick
    and miserable, and _TransAmerica_ made flexible sexuality into a nightmare which breaks up the safe needed families. The only sex shown in _Brokeback Mountain_ was between one of the men and his wife. I wrote about _TransAmerica_ on this blog.



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