Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Winona Forever

You soon can expect another film to use the lesbian predator device, this time with Natalie Portman as the prey. In Black Swan, to be released later this year, Portman plays a prima ballerina tormented by a younger dancer who may or may not be a figment of her imagination. In any case, the younger ballerina (Mila Kunis) has a stalker quality, and there is quite of bit of sexual/romantic activity between these two women.

But my interest in this film is not due to its lesbian subtext. I'm more interested in the fact that Winona Ryder is also in this film. I just love that she's making a comeback. No, she is not the leading ingenue she once was, but she is carving out interesting roles for herself at age 38 after self-destructing ten years ago. I didn't realize she was back until I recognized her in Star Trek last year, playing Spock's human mother. After being the It Girl of the 1990s, she unraveled. In 2001 she was arrested for shoplifting more than $5,000 of nice things from Saks in Beverly Hills—including a $760 cashmere Marc Jacobs sweater and pair of $80 cashmere Donna Karan socks. Hey, at least she still had some aesthetic sense while under the influence of too many prescription drugs. After an ugly trial, she was convicted of grand theft and sentenced to community service and drug counseling. If Timothy Leary is your godfather, which he is in her case, and if you grew up in a California commune, which she did, I think it's understandable that drugs might have an unhealthy presence your life. But she has apparently put that behind her and is still pursuing her craft of acting. I admire that she's taking supporting roles and becoming something of a character actor—more of an artist, I'd say, which seems to be her sensibility. As Johnny Depp once tattooed on his arm: Winona Forever! (Even though, after their breakup, he changed it to Wino Forever.)

Lesbian predators redux

Lesbians are abuzz about the recent I Kissed a Girl episode of Rizzoli & Isles—which, I concede, was remarkable in just how thoroughly it was steeped in sapphism—HOWEVER, I must offer a word of caution in the celebration. I must turn on the lights at this rowdy house party. (Fair warning to those who have not yet seen the show.)

The plot of the episode relies on the age-old portrayal of lesbians as crazed sexual predators, and it also presents a clear anti-butch theme throughout. Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are trying to solve the murder of a lesbian, whose sexually assaulted body is discovered in an alley near a dyke bar. In the victim's wedding photo, we see her in a white dress holding hands with her butch spouse in a suit. To catch the killer, Rizzoli is urged by a giddy Isles to go undercover as a lesbian. Isles herself ultimately joins in, posing as a busty waitress at the dyke bar. To attract the killer, Isles posts Rizzoli's profile on a dating website for lesbians. While our two gals spend most of the show acting like adolescents with crushes on each other—this includes discussing what kind of lesbians they would be if they were lesbians, talking side-by-side in bed while fully clothed, trading shoves during yoga class, and reacting excitedly to the slightest hint of emotion or insult from each other. When checking the categories of the online dating form, Isles seems to think she is defending her beloved tomboy friend by insisting that Rizzoli should be classified not as a butch, but, rather, as a "sporty" lesbian. "Butch" clearly indicated a slur. In the end, of course, it turns out the victim was killed by her butch spouse, who was working in cahoots with the butch bartender. As the curtain closes, Rizzoli & Isles celebrate their confirmed heterosexuality. The butches are punished, and the straight girls stride into the future.

All this is not to say that I did not enjoy the show. (Embrace double negatives.) Yes, it was fun to see Rizzoli brush up against Isles's breasts. Yes, it is generally a thrill to watch Angie Harmon swagger around as a rangy tomboy. But the show also confirmed that the ugly stereotype of the mannish lesbian predator is alive and well in popular culture. Are we still celebrating crumbs of visibility?

We've seen all this before. The Celluloid Closet documented it well. For most of the history of film (and television), gays and lesbians have been portrayed as something to laugh at, pity, or fear. Lesbians in particular were often seen as predators. The Rizzoli & Isles episode, with its murderous lesbians, fits this unfortunate model. The lesbians on the show reminded me of the sadistic drunk June Buckridge in The Killing of Sister George, of the doomed Martha Dobie in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, of the chilling Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. For the film, Hitchcock modified the masterpiece novel by Daphne du Maurier (herself a secret bisexual, as often was the case with lesbians of her generation), to amplify the creepy lesbian undertones. It's interesting to note that Mrs. Danvers was played by Oscar-nominee Judith Anderson, who also played another hated mannish woman on screen: Memnet in The Ten Commandments. I always kind of liked Memnet, but, naturally, she was thrown off the balcony.
I am reminded of another recent memorable unfeminine villainous lesbian. Regal old Dame Judi Dench pursues scrumptious Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal. Both women behave very badly, but the straight woman behaves criminally. Nevertheless, be confident that the dyke is the villain. Even so, I can't take my eyes off Blanchett's performance as her character—dressed in the most beautiful knitwear—completely loses it. When things go badly, blame the dyke.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Funny Grrrls

Today's topic, suggested by another super sexy reader, is this: The persistent and annoying myth of the humorless lesbian. I know, I know. It's such a bore. But, alas, the stereotype does persist. Recently I watched a few minutes of a very bad movie on Logo, and even a film about gay men contained a cheap shot at so-called humorless lesbians. Why is this so? I think we should approach this problem two ways: 1. We will refute the myth with examples of lesbians who are funny, and 2. We can examine why this specious criticism began and in whose interest it endures.

First things first. Let's establish the truth. Lesbians are funny. In fact, I, the Sapphist Gazetteer, am officially funny, as I like to remind anyone within earshot when I'm grouchy. Indeed, I was voted Class Clown during my senior year in high school. There you have it. But if that is not enough evidence, let us consider the following list of some of the most celebrated comics of our time: Lily Tomlin, Ellen Degeneres, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Rosie O'Donnell, Sandra Bernhard, and, uh, Stamie. Out lesbians, all. (In case you forgot how funny Rosie was before she went off the rails, take a look at her in the old days doing standup.) And even when we look beyond the specific category of comedienne, we find lesbians and queer women in popular culture who are known for their comedic roles. They include: Cynthia Nixon (who won an Emmy for best supporting comedic actress on Sex and the City), Portia de Rossi (see her doing the chicken dance on Arrested Development), and Queen Latifah (have you seen Beauty Shop?)

Even if we go back a ways, we find queer women who are funny. Tallulah Bankhead, for example. Very funny. Very queer. And Patsy Kelly, who debuted on Broadway in the 1920s and had a long film and television career, including a role in one of my personal favorites Please Don't Eat the Daisies (with Doris Day!) and the original Freaky Friday (with Jodie Foster...) Patsy Kelly proudly called herself a dyke. And she's looking pretty cute in the cap and pea coat.

There are also countless other lesbians in the world of comedy who should not be overlooked. They include Lea DeLaria, comedienne and jazz singer, who was the first openly gay comic (male or female) to appear on national television in the US; Sara Gilbert from Roseanne—who has a new morning TV show called The Talk on CBS; Amanda Bearse from Married with Children. Alison Bechdel created the classic lesbian comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. And let's not forget the many, many hilarious lesbian stand-up comics: Kate Clinton, Julie Goldman, Marga Gomez, Vickie Shaw, Jennie McNulty, Suzanne Westenhoefer, etc. You get the picture, and I'm getting tired of making the list.

But perhaps the best piece of evidence I can throw at the humorless lesbian bullshit is Fran Lebowitz. Everyone should have a copy of her 1978 classic, Metropolitan Life, which somehow made it into my rural New Hampshire childhood home and gave me hope that I might escape my surroundings. In one piece, Fran examines the pros and cons of children. On the pro side, she writes: "Children do not sit next to one in restaurants and discuss their preposterous hopes for the future in loud tones of voice." On the downside, she writes: "Notoriously insensitive to subtle shifts in mood, children will persist in discussing the color of a recently sighted cement-mixer long after one's own interest in the topic has waned." Oh, it's still genius.

Now that we have established that lesbians are truly and officially funny, on to the next question: Why does this myth persist? In addition to the cheap shots present in gay boy films on Logo (tsk,tsk), I have to believe that part of the problem is straight people. Not to blame heterosexuals with broad brush strokes (after all, I do love many of them dearly), but it's possible that lesbians might be mistaken as humorless because we generally do not show appreciation for the Jackass series.