Tuesday, August 24, 2010

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.


M said...

Oh, SG - so funny that I get back from vacation and find you have written on this topic! I just experienced a situation where I was blamed for bad behavior because I am a lesbian and I wanted to tell you about it. I was on a local but busy road that merges from two lanes to one. Another driver scooted in front of me at the merge and then started flailing the bird at me and seemed to be screaming. I signaled the OK to her and continued on - keep in mind that her car was in front of mine. I turned off into a shopping center parking lot, parked and got out of my car. As I walked toward the store she came zooming up in her car from another entrance, jumped out and started screaming at me, mostly curious about how I thought I could get away with cutting her off (which I never did, had no intention of doing, and remember, her car was in front of mine.) After trying to explain to this 60+ year-old woman with unkept hair and clothes that I had no intention to race her to the merge, I chose to ignore her venim and started walking away. At this time she noticed the gay stickers on my car and unleashed every slur you could imagine, punctuating, whether appropriate or not, with the word "fucking". I did not react to her tirade by asking her if she kissed her grandchildren with that mouth, and I'm glad I said nothing to escalate the situation (although that would have been a good one!)

Two funny things about this: 1) she thought she could use my sexual orientation against me even though I have gay stickers on my car and am not exactly hiding what I am. 2) In her rant she said "You gays are all the same." Well, I suppose "us gays" have been accused of many things, but I certainly never thought aggressive driving was a part of our perception problem. Have I missed something in my gay upbringing? Am I supposed to be a bad driver because I'm gay?

I was fine, but I decided to call my town police and report the incident. And although I am strong and secure, I broke down and cried as I talked to a very sympathetic officer. I just ran into some crazy person who had not sympathized with the issues in "The Celluloid Closet."

Sapphist Gazetteer said...

Oh, dear M, I am so sorry that happened to you! It sounds kind of scary, actually. I'm glad you kept your cool and found a sympathetic police officer. It's true that these negative portrayals of "us gays" do tend to resurface in destructive ways.

Anonymous said...

I love Mrs. Danvers.