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JUMPCUT
AREVIEWOFCONTEMPORARYMEDIA

Lesbiansandfilm,p.2
byEdithBecker,MichelleCitron,JuliaLesage,B.RubyRich
from JumpCut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 17-21
copyrightJumpCut:AReviewofContemporaryMedia, 1981, 2005
One need is for films that deal with variation, complex identities, and
contradiction all outside the scope of the "positive image" approach.
Lesbian films cannot be considered outside the context of the lesbian
community. Within this community, we face daily contradictions
(passing at work but being out with friends, public oppression versus
private pleasure, or the seeming contradiction of multiple political
commitments). The recognition and working through conflict is a
process that is essential to political and personal growth. It's one which
our films could be aiding. Unsolved problems, anger, unpleasant
decisions, fights, and other messy material are all dealt with in our lives
and could be portrayed on the screen as well. Barbara Hammer's film
DOUBLE STRENGTH, for instance, approaches the question of lesbian
relationships, love and romanticism (see two different views of
Hammer's work in the Zita and Weiss articles). Jan Oxenberg's films, in
particular, pull humor out of a hat of contradictions (see Citron article in
this section). Susana Blaustein's self-portrait, SUSANA, wittily visualizes
the conflict between her lesbian lifestyle and traditional Argentine
family values which is precipitated by her sister's visit. We need more
films that deal with the contradictions, details, and pleasures of lesbian
life.
What about all the aspects of lesbian life that haven't yet made it into the
movies? We have yet to see any film about that venerable mainstay of
lesbian culture, the bars. Despite a network of lesbian and gay history
projects, their research has yet to inform lesbian filmmaking. For
example, the slide show on "Lesbian Masquerade: Women Who Passed
as Men in Early San Francisco" could provide the basis for a wonderful
film on the phenomenon of "passing women." Again, looking to history,
the presence of lesbians in the suffragette movement has yet to be
explored in film. Films are still needed to write lesbians back into
history, to include the lives of lesbians on welfare, lesbians fighting
nationalist struggles, lesbians of color ... lesbians contributing to
struggles both inside and outside the lesbian movement perse. The
lesbian imagination is certainly not limited to the traditionally political.
Lesbian films could explore the interior of a lesbian household or
formally study the textures of daily life.
Since lesbians are trying to live lives that reflect new value systems,
there is a need for lesbian films that match those value systems, both in
the range of subject matter and stylistically. Lesbian literature offers an
example of new visions, styles, textures, and tonalities. Just as lesbian
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writers have discovered new linguistic structures and narrative styles


that both express the lesbian imagination and refute the dominance of
patriarchal writing, so must lesbian filmmakers take on this task. A
lesbian film style could reveal the interlocking structures in characters'
lives and bring a non-oppressive approach to image making and
reception. Fantasy and visionary art are sources of strength, used by
lesbians "to dream themselves" into power. Utopianism has both
positive and negative connotations, both true. It can be a flight from
social change, but can also be a beacon of inspiration. More films need
to take up the foundation laid in literature by Monique Wittig, Verena
Stefan, and Olga Broumas.
For lesbian filmmakers, the tension between creating new forms and
maintaining contact with the audience they serve is ever present. Often,
contact has been maintained by the use of already acceptable forms. Yet
it is important to develop new forms to suit the meaning of the films,
and not rely solely on existing narrative or documentary styles. (See, for
example, Barbara Martineau's article in JUMP CUT #19.) Issues, styles,
and priorities change as more lesbian films come into being. The work is
already beginning.
***
While lesbian filmmaking is not solely "a matter of a woman plus a
woman in bed," nevertheless sexuality cannot, and should not, be
avoided. For the lesbian community, the cinematic depiction of sexuality
poses a particular problem. It is important to name this element of
lesbianism for what it is, to articulate its nature, and to give positive
models of lesbian sexuality for younger women coming out. But how can
this be reconciled with the objectification of such sexuality in film and
the visual arts (from Helmut Newton's high-class-porn photography to
advertisements for Twin Sisters scotch)? The visualization of nonvoyeuristic, authentic lesbian lovemaking should be attempted. But
paradoxically, the continued existence of pornography still clouds the
depiction of sexuality.
The representation of women's bodies in art and film has been an issue
of concern to feminist critics (see Lucy Lippard on body art in Fromthe
Center) Due to a history of patriarchal art, to the visual coding of our
society and to the presence of a male audience, it sometimes seems that
the attempt for women to reclaim our bodies is doomed. In feminist film
such an assessment has often led to a turning away from the depiction of
heterosexual lovemaking, because of its inherent power relations and
the difficulty in trying to create a new visual iconography to alter those
relations. Lesbian filmmakers are faced with a different situation. The
all-woman environment, on the screen and in the audience, defines
sexuality within a lesbian context and therefore should pose no problem
to the representation of lesbian lovemaking. It would seem that lesbian
filmmakers have no need for puritanism. Even in this context, however,
lesbian viewers may still feel themselves made vulnerable by the open
sexuality on the screen. French novelist and filmmaker Christiane
Rochefort is clear about the reason: "because we don't want men to look
at what we do, I cut the intimate scenes..."
The problem is present for the audience as much as for the filmmaker.
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Feeling so often under siege in society, it is hard to relax in a safehouse.


Films showing lesbian lovemaking are vital to the lesbian filmmaker and
lesbian community, yet there are always concerns as to what use the film
can be put outside the intended context. Aware of how men
misappropriate lesbian films, some filmmakers have sought to restrict
screenings of films with lesbian lovemaking to all-woman audiences, as
in the case of Barbara Hammer's DYKETACTICS. Although unrestrictive
of audience, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman tried in her early film,
JE, TU, IL, ELLE, to construct a fresh non-voyeuristic image of lesbian
lovemaking. Yet critics, on the whole, have discussed the film with
pornography as their singular reference point, indicating the limitations
of the artist's intention. What distinguishes both JE, TU, IL, ELLE and
DYKETACTICS from other depictions of lesbian lovemaking in film is
their visual and editing styles, as well as the presence of the filmmaker
as participant in the scene, which conveys an insider's point of view.
Since lesbian sexuality is different from heterosexuality, then films
about it, done from a lesbian perspective rather than an outsider's
perspective, will have to be different in both form and content. By using
visual and musical coding associated with pornography, the lesbian
lovemaking scenes in Connie Beeson's HOLDING have been easily coopted into theatrical marketing for a mass audience. At other times,
paradoxically, mass audience films can be appropriated in part by the
lesbian audience. The racist softcore hit, EMMANUELLE, contained
scenes of lesbian eroticism that were accepted as satisfying by many
lesbian viewers. They could be appropriated, perhaps, because they were
suggestively erotic rather than explicitly pornographic: the women were
neither naked nor in bed.
While it would be inappropriate to divert our attention here into a
lengthy debate on the distinctions between pornography and erotic film,
we could mention a few points. The objectification of women and the
enactment of male/female power relations are basic to pornography.
Furthermore, lesbian depictions within pornography are predicated on
standards alien to lesbian sexuality, such as the fetishizing of genital sex
or the displacement of emotional involvement. Pornography's
exploitative style (of lighting, camera angle, and editing) obstructs the
possibility of erotic enjoyment. The differences between eroticism and
pornography in film can only become clearer as more lesbian
filmmakers present sexuality in their work. Nor is the filmmaker's
attempt a vain one. The ideal remains of a visual image/ style which
could rupture even the patriarchal codes by which lesbian sexuality is
read. Therefore it is important to keep co-optation from becoming
intimidation.
Pornography is the extreme case, yet it points to a widespread
phenomenon. There's a difficulty in defining the terms of lesbian
experience when these very terms may mean one thing inside the
women's community and something quite different in the gynophobic
(woman-hating) society outside. Collective action inside is separatism
outside; woman's anger inside is hysteria outside; autonomy inside is
man-hating outside. These contradictions cannot be avoided. They
emerge whenever a period of struggle is in progress, whenever an
oppressed people aggressively assumes the task of self definition.
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***
The lesbian struggle for self definition has been in process for a long
time in a variety of ways organizationally, through publications,
culturally, in music and poetry, in the bars and in alliance with a
number of other movements, particularly with gay male, left, and
feminist struggles. In the United States, any history must take into
account the founding in 1955 of the first lesbian organization in the
country, the Daughters of Bilitis. Its publication, TheLadder, published
continuously from 1956 to 1972. The official position of the Daughters of
Bilitis, brave for its time, stressed education to the general public about
homosexuality, self education, research projects in the social sciences,
and lobbying for more tolerant legislation. Their emphasis on
acceptance is very different from that of the best known lesbian literary
tradition, that of Nathalie Barney, Rene Vivien, and their coterie in
Paris at the turn of the century. The Paris circle's pride in and
celebration of relations and sexual liaisons between women takes no
notice of heterosexual sobriety, a luxury which its economic status
permitted. These women were able to speak in their own voice early on,
due to class status. But it remained to the 70s to offer equal opportunity.
These very different traditions, of political awareness and cultural pride,
were finally brought together with the events leading into and out of the
Stonewall Resistance of 1969. At that event in New York City, gay men
and lesbians fought back against police, battling generations of police
harassment. The night's political tradition has been kept alive and
furthered by the following
by annual Gay Pride Week events each June, with marches in
cities all over the country;
by organizations, like the Gay Liberation Front and later the
National Gay Task Force, or like the specific media organization
that was formed at last year's Alternative Cinema Conference, the
National Association of Lesbian and Gay Filmmakers;
by actions, like those against the exhibition of WINDOWS and the
filming and opening of CRUISING;
by national demonstrations, like the October 14, 1979, mass
mobilization in Washington in defense of gay rights against the
homophobic backlash and increasingly repressive legislation, like
the Briggs initiative.
Within the left, gays and lesbians have struggled against homophobia,
both unconscious and deliberate. While many sectors of the gay and
lesbian movement have a non- or anti-leftist perspective, the presence of
gays and lesbians in specific left organizations and national solidarity
movements, as well as the participation of gay and lesbian groups in left
coalitions, is significant. This summer's Lavender Left conference was
held by progressive lesbians and gay men.
The dominant context for the lesbian movement, of course, has been the
women's movement, in which lesbian feminists have always been a
major presence, from the earliest days of women's liberation to the
present. However, that history has been scarred by continual eruptions
between lesbians and straight women within the movement, resulting in
purges and separate lesbian organizations. Nevertheless, leading in the
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formulation of feminist theory critiquing patriarchal society and its


institutions of power, lesbians have been activities in all spheres of the
movement: rape crisis work, battered women's shelters, women's health
clinics, reproductive rights struggles, the organizing of women workers,
etc.
We have selected these events above, not to capsulate a thumbnail
history, but merely to contextualize the discussion of lesbian aesthetics
and film history which cannot be divorced from the political and cultural
ferment of its era. The development of a lesbian identity has been
especially strong in art, poetry, literature, music and philosophy. This
development has occurred both within autonomous lesbian contexts and
within the more generalized women's community, though any line of
demarcation may be hard to fix. Women's music offers an outstanding
example of how women working together have created not only a
pleasurable art form but the entire apparatus necessary to bring that art
to its public, the women's community: women composers, musicians,
technicians, producers (like the group of women who form Roadworks),
recording companies (like Olivia Records) and distribution networks.
Women's concerts and coffeehouses have provided a public space within
which lesbian audiences can enjoy the creative articulation of a shared
culture. Though cultural, these spaces are also political. Without the
journals, galleries, concerts, bars, publishing houses ... there would be
no basis for collective awareness or action, no evidence that things could
be otherwise for lesbians in a society of mandatory heterosexuality.
Women have taken possession of the means of production in yet another
way, through the establishment of a number of publishing houses to
ensure a free voice for feminist and lesbian writers. Similarly, lesbian
journals have proliferated on both regional and national levels, as have
feminist publications in general. On the regional level, the journals play
a role in local political struggles, report on issues of interest to lesbians,
publish local poetry and graphics, provide a directory for lesbian
services, and advertise local businesses and bars. One national
publication that follows this format of a news and culture blend is Off
OurBacks which has published continually for ten years, always
maintaining a strong political stance. In 1976-77, four national journals
were founded which have contributed to, discussed, and helped shape
the renaissance in lesbian culture, theory and politics. They comprise
the following:
Conditions, "a magazine of writing by women with an emphasis on
writing by lesbians;"
Chrysalis, "a magazine of woman's culture;"
Heresies, "a feminist publication on art and politics;" and
SinisterWisdom, "a journal of words and pictures for the lesbian
imagination in all women."
These journals all have a national readership, are handsomely produced,
and focus much more on history, philosophical issues, and broad
questions of aesthetics and culture than they do upon current events or
reporting. These journals are the mechanisms by which a network of
feminist thought is spun across the country, establishing a common
frame of reference.
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The editors of Heresies,ConditionsandOffOurBacks have opened


their publications to the concerns of Black and Third World women's
experiences. The issues of ThirdWorldWomen:thepoliticsofbeing
other (Heresies 8), Conditions5:theblackwomen'sissue and OffOur
Backs:ain'tIawoman (Vol. X, 6) all confront the white
feminist/lesbian movements to acknowledge the uniqueness and
autonomy of our triply oppressed sisters (by race, class and sex). In the
past, white movement women "have claimed that they could not find
any women of color as an excuse for their all whiteness," write the
editors of Conditions 5. These excuses have dissolved as women "of
color" substantiate their continued historical struggles through their
diverse modes of artistic expression. If it is only in recent years that the
publishers of these national women's journals have prioritized the
printing of these women's work, then how much longer will those who
control the necessary, and more expensive, means for production and
distribution of films remain racist, closed to Black and Third World
women. The relatively few films made by and about these women have
yet to reach a mass distribution level. As the Heresies, 8, collective has
written, because Black and "Third World women are other than the
majority and the power-holding class, and have concerns other than
those of white feminists, white artists and men," their works remain
ghettoized and are often only found within their original cultural
community.
Naturally, Black and Latina lesbians are not waiting for the rest of the
movement to catch up: There have been Black and Third World lesbian
conferences in New York and Washington, D.C.. There was a Black
lesbian conference held in California last Fall. And groups like the
Combahee River Collective in Roxbury MA are engaged in ongoing work
on the level of theory and practice. Happily, the lesbian and women's
community as a whole are participating in the dialogue and not
passively forcing Third World and Black women to do all the work of
education or confrontation: the National Women's Studies Association,
for instance, has already announced racism as its theme for the 1981
conference. There will always be differences in the perspectives of
lesbians from differing races or class backgrounds. The ideal of a
universal sisterhood does not necessitate the suppression of differences.
Still, it is only now, with the greater participation of Black and Third
World lesbians, that we can discuss the degree to which a faulty
universalizing was previously practiced. While lesbians who are not
white are less likely to perceive patriarchy as the primary enemy, their
perspective on class and race oppression can only educate the lesbian
movement about political realities.
As the lesbian movement progresses, and as lesbian filmmaking
prospers, the kinds of lesbian films we are seeing are bound to change.
As there is more of an interchange between filmmakers of all races,
lesbian films will be more likely to reflect the connections in our society
between homophobia, antifeminism, and the corresponding
mechanisms of racism and class oppression. Lesbian films are
passionately linked to the lesbian community, both in the sense of
political struggle and in the banalities of daily life. It is that immediacy
which gives the art its strength and the audience its pleasure. Lesbian
filmmaking has begun to develop new editing strategies, tamper with
traditional sound/image relations, and visualize new codes by which
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women's bodies can be seen. Only such a reassessment of film aesthetics


can adequately serve the values of lesbian culture at this time. 8y
moving beyond oppression to liberation, a true lesbian art form and an
authentic lesbian aesthetic can emerge.
This is a filmmaking that is not reacting against older, heterosexual
images of lesbianism. At the center of the new cinema, there must be a
conscious sense of self. In turn, lesbian film theory, as demonstrated by
many of the articles in this special section, must begin to dismantle
some of the structures of current feminist film theory and film history in
order to build a more inclusive foundation. Lesbian criticism can give
voice to those things that have long remained silent, and in so doing,
point up the extent to which previous feminist film criticism may still be
bound into measuring by male or heterosexual standards. A true
recognition of lesbianism would seriously challenge the concept of
women as inevitable objects of exchange between men, or as fixed in an
eternal trap of "sexual difference" based in heterosexuality. Feminist
theory that sees all women on the screen only as the objects of male
desire including, by implication, lesbians is inadequate. This
theoretical framework excludes lesbian experience, and it may in fact
diminish the experience of all women.
* * *
The process of compiling this Special Section has been a long and
exhaustive one. We hope that the Special Section sparks ongoing work
on issues of lesbianism and cinema. We welcome future submissions to
JUMP CUT, and equally expect to see more attention devoted to film in
the lesbian and feminist press.
"I remember a scene ... This from a film I want to see. It is a
film made by a woman about two women who live together.
This is a scene from their daily lives. It is a film about the
small daily transformations which women experience, allow,
tend to, and which have been invisible in this male culture.
In this film, two women touch. In all ways possible they show
knowledge of. what they have lived through and what they
will yet do, and one sees in their movements how they have
survived. I am certain that one day this film will exist."
Susan Griffin
BIBLIOGRAPHY
The footnotes to the articles in the Special Section provide a
bibliography that can lead interested readers to more lesbian and gay
male perspectives in cultural studies. Below we list a few other key
sources used in writing our introduction.
________. AdamInternationalReview, 29 No. 299 (1962). Natalie
Barney issue.
Broumas, Olga. BeginningwithO. New Haven: Yale University Press,
1977.
Daughters of Bilitis, ed. TheLadder, 1956-1972. Reprinted, with
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Jonathan Katz, et al, ed.; New York: Arno Press, 1976. Also reprinted
with Barbara Grier and Colleta Reid, eds., in four volumes:
Lesbiana:BookReviewsfrom"TheLadder". Reno: Naid Press,
1976.
LesbianLives:BiographiesofWomenfrom"TheLadder."
Oakland, CA: Diana Press, 1976.
TheLavenderHerring:LesbianEssaysfrom"TheLadder." Diana
Press, 1976.
TheLesbiansHomeJournal:Storiesfrom"TheLadder."Diana
Press, 1976.
Dyer, Richard. "Gays in Film." JUMP CUT, No. 18 (August 1978).
Gornick, Vivian, "Is Women's Liberation a Sexist Plot?" Womanin
SexistSociety:StudiesinPowerandPowerlessness. Vivian Gornick and
Barbara K. Floran, eds. New York: Signet Books, 1971.
Griffin, Susan. "Transformations." SinisterWisdom, 1, No. 2 (Fall 1976).
Harris, Bertha. "The More Profound Nationality of Their Lesbianism:
Lesbian Society in Paris in the 1920s." AmazonExpedition. New York:
Times Change Press, 1973.
Harris, Bertha. "Notes Toward Defining the Nature of Lesbian
Literature." Heresies, 3 (Fall 1977).
Harris, Bertha. "What Is a Lesbian?" SinisterWisdom, No. 3 (1977).
Heresies, No. 3 (Fall 1977). Lesbian Art and Artists issue.
Jay, Karla and Young, Allen. LavenderCulture. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1973
JUMP CUT Special Section on Gay Men and Film. No. 16 (November
1977).
JUMP CUT Report on Alternative Cinema Conference. No. 21
(November 1979).
Katz, Jonathan, ed. GayHistory:LesbiansandGayMenintheUSA
ADocumentary. New York: Avon, 1978.
Lourde, Audre. UsesoftheErotic:TheEroticasPower. New York: Out
and Out Books, No. 3, 1978.
Ponse, Barbara. IdentitiesintheLesbianWorld:TheSocial
ConstructionofSelf. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."
Signs, 5, No. 4 (Summer 1980).
Rich, Adrienne. OnLies,Secrets,andSilence:SelectedProse,1966
1978. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.
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Sheldon, Caroline. "Lesbians and Film: Some Thoughts." Gaysand


Film. Richard Dyer, ed. London: British Film Institute, 1977.
Smith, Barbara. "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism." Conditions 2
(1977).
Smith-Rosenberg, Caroll. "The Female World of Love and Ritual:
Relations between Women in 19th Century America." Signs, 1, No. 1
(Fall 1975).
Stambolian, George and Marks, Elaine, eds. Homosexualitiesand
FrenchLiterature:CulturalContexts/CriticalTexts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1979.
Stefan, Verena. Shedding. New York: Daughters, 1978.
Tyler, Parker. ScreeningtheSexes:HomosexualityintheMovies. New
York: Anchor, 1972.
Wickes, George. "A Natalie Barney Garland." ParisReview. 61 (1975).
Wilson, Elizabeth. "Gayness and Liberalism." ConditionsofIllusion.
Sandra Allen, Lee Sanders, and Jan Wallis, eds. London: Feminist
Books, 1974.
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