Theoretical approaches to the cinematic representation of lesbianism represent a particularly complex and fruitful area of feminist film study, as well as one filled with substantial debate. Issues arise, for instance, concerning the exact definition of a lesbian film as well as the relationship between lesbian films and those that focus on other forms of female bonding, like women’s friendships, mother–daughter relationships, and sisterhood. Other areas of debate include the usefulness of psychoanalysis for the investigation of lesbian films and the various categories of lesbian cinema. Lesbian films can be divided into ambiguous as opposed to openly lesbian portrayals, Hollywood productions vs. independent features, and coming-out narratives, lesbian romance films, and representations of lesbian families and communities. Additionally, critics have examined the history of lesbian and gay cinematic representation and theorized the potential challenge these films pose to the patriarchal, heterosexist status quo. Recently, a major issue in lesbian film criticism has centered on whether lesbian theory really should be affiliated with feminist film studies at all or whether it more properly belongs within the growing field of queer studies, which unites lesbian and gay male film critics under one theoretical umbrella and analyzes film representations from the perspective of sexuality rather than gender. Thus, lesbian film critics currently find themselves torn between feminist and queer perspectives. One would hope that this hybrid identity will not sever the connection between lesbian and feminist film criticism because, as we shall see, lesbian criticism has contributed so much to feminist film studies that it would be a great loss if lesbian critics divorced themselves entirely from a feminist perspective.
One area of feminist film studies to which lesbian theorists have made substantial contributions considers the usefulness of psychoanalysis to feminist film theory. Many lesbian theorists reject psychoanalysis as promoting the heterosexist notion that lesbianism is the result of a masculinity complex and regression to the pre-Oedipal mother-daughter attachment. They feel this theorization pathologizes lesbian desire as a case of arrested development, an infantilizing fixation with a narcissistic and dependent early bond with the mother. Other lesbian critics have embraced psychoanalysis as a way to investigate not only cinematic representations of lesbianism, but also its psychic origins and dimensions. Indicative of the use of psychoanalysis to investigate crucial issues in lesbian film theory is the discussion between Jackie Stacey and Teresa de Lauretis concerning their theories of female spectatorship and homoerotic desire. In her 1989 article Desperately Seeking Difference, Stacey suggested that lesbian portrayals and films that deal with female bonding create similar connections with female spectators. She argued that there is a homoerotic component to films that concern “a woman’s obsession with another woman,” even when this obsession is not ostensibly of a sexual nature (Stacey 1989: 125). Stacey offered as particular filmic examples All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankeiwicz, 1950) and Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman, 1985), suggesting that the homoerotically charged relationships between the films’ central female characters are replicated in the connection formed between the female viewer and the films’ female stars. Similarly, in Star Gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship (1994), Stacey again argued for a homoerotic dimension to the female spectator–star relationship. She maintained that one element of cinematic pleasure for all women viewers in watching female film stars involves “a fascination with an idealized other which could not be reduced to male desire or female identification within the available psychoanalytic dichotomies, but rather necessitate[s] a rethinking of the specificities of forms of female attachment” (Stacey 1994: 28).
In “Film and the Visible” (1991) and The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (1994), Teresa de Lauretis objected strenuously to Stacey’s ideas. For de Lauretis, the connection Stacey draws between female spectatorship and homoerotic desire confuses desire with narcissistic identification. According to de Lauretis’s orthodox reading of Freudian theory, Stacey’s ideas violate the Freudian separation between object libido and narcissistic or ego libido. As de Lauretis explains, Freud conceived of object libido as involving “desire, wanting to have (the object),” and ego libido as “desexualized and ha[ving] to do with narcissistic identification, wanting to be or be like or seeing oneself as (the object)” (1994: 116–22). For de Lauretis, following Freud, the two cannot be combined, whereas Stacey maintains, to the contrary, that this dichotomy ignores the fact that “narcissism is not just love of self, but always involves an image of another” (1994: 30). In response to de Lauretis, Stacey argued that rather than confusing identification and desire she was instead arguing for the eroticization of identification. In other words, she was not saying that identification and desire are the same, but that “female identification contains forms of desire which include, though not exclusively, homoerotic pleasure” (Stacey 1994: 29). Stacey’s revisionist Freudianism allows her to argue that female spectator– star relationships as well as women’s spectatorial positioning in regard to films involving various types of female bonding represent forms of intimacy between women that involve both identification and desire simultaneously. While these relations contain no direct articulation of homosexual object choice, they possess, nevertheless, an element that is more than the mere expression of identification devoid of erotic pleasure or desire, as de Lauretis insists. According to Stacey, the intensity and intimacy involved in these female spectator–text interactions articulate more than just the desire to become the female star or character on the screen; these intensely intimate female bonds express a “homoerotic pleasure in which the boundary between self and ideal produces an endless source of fascination” for female viewers (1994: 173).
The Stacey–de Lauretis debate relates not only to questions concerning the usefulness of psychoanalysis in lesbian film studies, but also to the issue of how best to define the lesbian film. The either/or formulations embodied in their dispute, however, have prevented rather than facilitated an understanding of the relationship between lesbian films and their audience, whether lesbian or heterosexual. Although de Lauretis seems justified in her refusal to conflate lesbian representation with films that deal with other forms of female bonding, her conceptualization of a radical break between them seems extreme. Recognizing similarities does not inevitably lead to conflation. The connection Stacey draws between lesbian films and other types of representations of female bonding seems more accurate, and acknowledging this connection does not prevent a recognition of the distinct qualities that characterize both lesbian subjectivity and lesbian filmic representations. These qualities, together with the elements lesbian films share with representations of other forms of female bonding, need to be considered in any attempt to investigate lesbian cinema.
In contrast to de Lauretis’ adamant rejection of a connection between lesbian films and other films of female bonding, Christine Holmlund’s theorization of lesbian cinema embraces Rich’s idea of a lesbian continuum. In “When Is a Lesbian Not a Lesbian?: the lesbian continuum and the mainstream femme film”, Holmlund (1991) suggests lesbian films form a continuum from ambiguous lesbian representations like Personal Best (Robert Towne, 1982), Entre Nous (Diane Kurys, 1983), and Fried Green Tomatoes (Jon Avnet, 1991) to more openly lesbian portrayals like Lianna (John Sayles, 1983) and Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985).
The ambiguous lesbian film can be characterized in a number of ways. Typically, these films titillate their viewers with hints of lesbianism between the two principle characters, allowing lesbian spectators to see the two women as lovers while providing heterosexual viewers with reassurance that the characters could be just friends. In this way, they offer their audience the voyeuristic satisfaction of seeing two beautiful women interacting in sexually provocative ways on the screen without overtly challenging heterosexist norms. For instance, both Entre Nous and Fried Green Tomatoes focus on the intensely passionate relationship that develops between two women whose attachment to each other overshadows the bonds of marriage and comes to involve their sharing a life together, yet in neither film is the women’s relationship specifically delineated as lesbian. The viewer is left uncertain of whether the characters’ feelings for each other involve only friendship or sexual desire. These films utilize various strategies in promoting this spectatorial uncertainty. First, the films’ female characters are typically portrayed as femmes, lesbians who are conventionally attractive and feminine in appearance, so that they can easily be interpreted as heterosexual. Second, although allusive references to lesbianism or to alternative lifestyle choices may be made, the focus is placed on the strong, passionate affectional bonds and the exchange of long, loving looks between the two women, which can be read ambiguously as either erotic or friendly (Holmlund 1991: 145). Holmlund also isolated certain “cliched counter-conventions of continuity editing” that mark a relationship between two female characters as possibly involving lesbian desire: “shot/ reverse shots of two women looking longingly at each other, point of view shots where one woman spies on another, and two shots where two women hug, romp, or dance together” (1994a: 36). All of these visual and narrative markers of suggested homoerotic attraction can just as easily be interpreted, and certainly are by many viewers, merely as indicators of admiration and affection between friends. In combination, they create what D.A. Miller in Anal Rope has described as the filmic confinement of homosexuality to the level of connotation rather than denotation.
The ambiguous lesbian film’s connotative presentation of lesbianism has both negative and positive effects on lesbian viewers. As Miller suggests, ambiguous portrayals of homosexuality construct “homosexual subjects doubtful of the validity and even of the reality of their desire” (1991: 125). They tell their audience that what appears to be lesbianism is really only female friendship, thus seeming to deny the very existence of lesbian identity. At the same time, however, they also arguably possess certain lesbian affirmative qualities. They at least avoid the overt homophobia that has for so long characterized mainstream representations of homosexuality. Their “lesbian” characters are presented as sincere and loving rather than evil and predatory, the women’s sexual relationship is neither exploited pornographically, nor are the “lovers” punished in the end by death or separation. In fact, these films may serve an important social function for their lesbian audiences by offering moments of “discursive consent” through which lesbian viewers can engage in lesbian cinematic fantasies rendered socially “safe” within a homophobic society by the film’s heterosexual implications (de Lauretis 1994: 121). The safety of these fantasies is both literal and metaphoric: while the films, on the one hand, avoid overt gay bashing, they also minimize substantially the threat their ambiguously lesbian images offer to heterosexist and sexist ideologies. This safety is bought at a significant cost to lesbian subjectivity. As de Lauretis points out, ambiguous lesbian representations act to deauthorize and foreclose cinematic representations of actual lesbianism “in its instinctual, fantasmatic and social complexity” (1994: 122).
Although critics have theorized the relationship of the ambiguous lesbian film to its lesbian viewer, it has largely been seen as offering only a threat to the heterosexuality of non-lesbian viewers. For instance, Miller argues for the radical instability of films that reduce the issue of homosexuality to the level of connotation. By never confirming the sexual orientation of the film’s major characters, the films leave the viewer seeing implicit homosexuality everywhere. For Miller, there is a potentially subversive quality to the almost omnipresent homosexual implications of these films because they challenge a simplistic dichotomy between heterosexual and homosexual identities (1991: 125–26), suggesting that the division between same-sex friendship and homoerotic attraction is far from definitive. The popularity of the ambiguous lesbian film with heterosexual female audiences indicates that female viewers may not see these films so much as a threat to their heterosexual identity, but, instead, as offering them the same type of “discursive consent” that de Lauretis proposes the films offer lesbian viewers. Ambiguous lesbian films provide their heterosexual female audience with a “safe” means of engaging with a lesbian fantasy scenario by offering at the same time the possibility of denying this fantasy (Hollinger 1998a: 156). While de Lauretis attributes the attraction of ambiguous lesbian films for lesbian viewers to the presence of both same-sex identification and desire within lesbian subjectivity, her attempt to affirm lesbianism’s radical difference from other forms of female bonding leads her to deny what appears to be the real possibility that, as Stacey suggests, both identification and desire may also play a key role in heterosexual women’s spectatorial pleasure as they view films that focus on relationships between female characters.
Whereas ambiguous lesbian films refuse to make the sexual identity of their characters explicit, openly lesbian films clearly present their central female characters as erotically involved. The openly lesbian film can be sub-divided in a number of ways into different categories of films that develop different strategies of audience engagement. First, the films can be distinguished in terms of their mode of production: Hollywood products like Personal Best, Three of Hearts (Yurek Bogayevicz, 1993), Boys on the Side (Herbert Ross, 1995), and Kissing Jessica Stein (Charles Herman Wurmfield, 2001), for instance, typically present heterosexually conceived portraits of lesbianism, while independently produced films like Claire of the Moon (Nicole Conn, 1993), Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994), and Saving Face (Alice Wu, 2004), made by lesbian filmmakers outside of the Hollywood system, provide an insider’s rather than an outsider’s perspective on lesbian issues and lifestyles.
Openly lesbian films can also be categorized by plot interest. Some lesbian films like Lianna, Claire of the Moon, But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999) and Saving Face, are coming-out narratives following the time-worn formula of the bildungsroman, the tale of an individual’s personal development and psychological maturation. The lesbian bildungsroman or coming-out story chronicles its protagonist’s movement from the world of heterosexuality to an acceptance of her lesbian identity. Coming-out narratives can conclude with either a happy or tragic ending. In the heterosexually conceived, male-directed Lianna, for instance, after considerable struggle the film’s eponymous heroine finally succeeds in coming to terms with her homosexuality, but her journey of self-development still ends painfully. After she declares her lesbianism and leaves her husband, her lesbian lover deserts her for another woman, and Lianna (Linda Griffiths) is left to seek consolation from a female friend, who proves in the end to be the only one who is truly loyal to her. The lesbian directed Claire of the Moon and But I’m a Cheerleader, on the other hand, build to a climactic love scene which seems intended to symbolize not only their heroines’ final acceptance of their lesbian attraction to other women but also their attainment of genuine intimacy in a sexual relationship.
Coming-out narratives often merge with a second common form of lesbian film, the lesbian romance or love story, such as Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1986) and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (Maria Maggenti, 1995). In the lesbian romance film, the focus shifts from one character’s discovery of her lesbian identity to the formation of the lesbian couple. As we will see, in Desert Hearts, the paradigmatic representative of this subgenre, one of the barriers that separates the two women is the internalized homophobia and resulting inability to accept her attraction to another woman that torments one of the lovers, yet the film’s plot centers not so much on her struggle to accept her lesbianism as on whether both women will be able to overcome their differences and successfully come together as a couple. A third and much less common form of lesbian narrative combines the lesbian romance with an exploration of life within the lesbian community. While these films may contain at their center a lesbian romance or a coming-out narrative, this story is placed firmly within the context of an exploration of lesbian lifestyles and friendship networks. Rose Troche’s independent feature Go Fish introduced this category of lesbian narrative with considerable success. Although the film does involve a central lesbian romance, its focus alternates between the development of the lovers’ relationship and the lives of their lesbian friends. As a result, it becomes not only a lesbian love story but also a celebration of lesbian community. The popular Showtime serial The L Word (2004–9) is an example of the successful transfer of this category of the lesbian film to the television serial format. In The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko (2010) expanded this category to include the lesbian family drama.
As lesbian theorists make clear, these categories of largely positive contemporary lesbian portrayals have emerged from a long history of negative and distorted mainstream lesbian representations. While cinematic portrayals of lesbians before the contemporary period have covered a wide range of variations, few of these variations were positive. Until very recently, lesbianism was either barred from mainstream cinema entirely, or when it was infrequently represented in films such as The Fox (Mark Rydell, 1967), The Killing of Sister George (Robert Aldrich, 1968), and The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1962), it was portrayed as sordid, depressing, and deviant behavior resulting either from congenital deformity, arrested psychic development, or pathological gender reversal. Lesbian characters were, and in too many cases still are, presented as sinister villains, victims of mental illness, cultural freaks, or pornographic sexual turn-ons for a male audience. Such homophobic lesbian images are used most frequently to validate the superiority and desirability of heterosexuality. Richard Dyer even describes a heterosexist plot formula central to the structure of mainstream lesbian films (1984: 34). The story involves a struggle for control of the central female character by competing female and male love interests. The woman who is at the center of this contest is portrayed as “without character, unformed. … nothing, an absence,” and because her sexuality is “malleable – she will be had by anyone.” In the conflict, the lesbian competitor, is ultimately defeated, and the male character triumphs, “getting the girl,” and suggesting, as Dyer indicates, that “the true sexual definition of a woman is heterosexual and that she gets that definition from a man” (1984: 34). Within this plot configuration, gayness is used merely as a way to reinforce the appropriateness of heterosexuality, the hegemony of which is never really challenged. This heterosexually conceived and heterosexist lesbian plot formula can be identified not only in past lesbian representations but in contemporary ones as well. Personal Best, Three of Hearts, and Kissing Jessica Stein all portray the disintegration of a lesbian relationship and its replacement by a heterosexual romance in ways that follow the structure that Dyer describes. Lisa Cholodenko in The Kids Are All Right subverts this formula by having the lesbian lover triumph over her male competitor in the end.
Lesbian theorists have also examined the question of how these various forms of contemporary lesbian representation relate to their viewers. The issues of whether or not they reinforce or challenge the homophobia that has characterized past mainstream lesbian portrayals and how they might best be constructed in the future represent other areas of considerable disagreement in lesbian film studies. Some critics have suggested that the exploitation and distortion that have dominated the history of lesbian representations have led lesbian audiences to reject mainstream lesbian portrayals completely as heterosexually conceived; instead, they have become adept at expropriating through camp reading strategies non-lesbian films that focus on strong female characters. This fear of exploitative and distorted lesbian representations also has contributed to the popularity of ambiguous lesbian films with lesbian viewers. The possibility of portrayals of lesbian sexuality being used by male spectators for pornographic purposes is minimized by the films’ refusal to clarify their central characters’ sexuality.
In her essay A Queer Feeling When I Look at You: Hollywood Stars and Lesbian Spectatorship in the 1930s, Andrea Weiss discusses the attraction of lesbian audiences to sexually ambiguous female stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katherine Hepburn. Weiss argues that extra-cinematic rumors and celebrity gossip have always been important in shaping the fantasies of lesbian fans about certain sexually ambiguous stars and authorizing lesbian readings of their films. While these rumors may have been circulated by studio publicity departments to promote male erotic interest, Weiss maintains that they also encouraged lesbian viewers “to explore their own erotic gaze without giving it a name, and in the safety of their private fantasy in a darkened theater” (1994: 331). She also points to specific moments in their films when isolated gestures or movements that were inconsistent or extraneous to the narrative and even seemed to pose an ideological threat to its coherence opened up the possibility of reading the narrative against the grain and uncovering a possible lesbian subtext. As examples of such ideologically threatening moments, Weiss mentions the famous scene in Morocco ( Josef von Sternberg, 1930) in which Dietrich gives a stage performance dressed in a tuxedo and top hat and kisses a woman in the audience or Garbo’s movements, voice, manner, appropriation of male attire, and kiss with another woman in Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). Weiss proposes that this type of subversive reading of Hollywood films gave lesbian viewers a special relationship with certain stars and was particularly important in the 1930s when there were so few images of lesbian desire on the screen and when the images that were shown were so overwhelmingly negative (1994: 334–35). According to Weiss, these fleeting moments and innuendos about stars allowed lesbian viewers to take individual scenes out of context and use gossip and rumor to fashion subversive lesbian readings that were empowering for them (1994: 341). In a similar vein, Patricia White (1999) in Uninvited: classical hollywood cinema and lesbian representability, calls attention to lesbian subtexts in mainstream films, like Rebecca, All About Eve, and The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963), that seem on the surface to contain only heterosexually oriented plots.
Rather than championing camp reading strategies or ambiguous representations of homosexuality, other lesbian and gay critics have argued that the paucity of representations and abundance of negative images of lesbians and gay men in popular films make the creation of positive mainstream images of homosexuality all the more expedient. Yet advocating a simplistic “positive images approach” to lesbian and gay representation which suppresses contradiction and results in unrealistic, static, one-dimensional portrayals seems hardly the answer. One current development which should lead to less stereotypical lesbian representations is the advent of more lesbian filmmakers who can bring to popular cinema their own visions of lesbian life in its various dimensions. Lesbian filmmakers need, however, to be given the opportunity to express through both popular and avant-garde cinema a variety of lesbian experiences and to move beyond the now standard coming-out and romance narratives to create stories of lesbian history, culture, communities, households, and daily life, as well as to present non-exploitative portrayals of lesbian sexuality.
One reason for the lack of mainstream lesbian representations relates to marketing strategies that prompt Hollywood producers to direct their films toward multiple audience groups. Rightly or wrongly Hollywood sees lesbian films as risky ventures with limited appeal. Another proposed explanation for the paucity and the distorted nature of mainstream lesbian portrayals is the subversive effect lesbian representations might have on heterosexual female viewers. The open portrayal of lesbianism has been seen to pose a significant threat to the heterosexist, patriarchal status quo in a number of ways. First, lesbianism represents an alternative to the patriarchal heterosexual couple and challenges female dependence on men for romantic and sexual fulfillment. By providing women with the space to exercise self-determined pleasure, lesbian portrayals threaten mainstream cinema’s “unproblematic fit between the hierarchies of masculinity and femininity on the one hand, and activity and passivity on the other” (Mayne 1991: 127). Chris Straayer argues that the lesbian film also “deconstructs male/female sexual dichotomies, sex/gender conflation, and the universality of the male Oedipal narrative” (1990: 50). The very visibility of lesbianism on the screen seems to unsettle the rigidity of sexual categorizations and the maintenance of patriarchal, heterosexist hegemony.
Teresa de Lauretis argues in both Film and the Visible and The Practice of Love that lesbian representations offer a radical spectatorial position to all female viewers, regardless of their sexual identity. She describes this position as a site of real liberation that creates “a new position of seeing in the movies, a new place of the look: the place of a woman who desires another woman; the place from where each one looks at the other with desire and, more important still, a place from where we see their look and their desire; in other words, a place where the equivalence of look and desire – which sustains spectatorial pleasure and the very power of cinema in constructing and orienting the viewer’s identification – is invested in two women” (de Lauretis 1991: 227). According to de Lauretis, this desiring lesbian subjectivity is embodied in the subject position created by independent lesbian films. In these films (she uses Sheila McLaughlin’s independent feature She Must Be Seeing Things  as an example), two women are brought together who as a “coupled” subject inhabit the film’s subject position together, thereby projecting a coupled female spectatorial position that is subversive of patriarchal, heterosexist norms (de Lauretis 1991: 225). Although de Lauretis believes the lesbian coupled subject position is confined to independent lesbian representations, it seems reasonable to believe that it might also be found in mainstream films where the representation of a desiring lesbian subjectivity would offer an even stronger challenge to the conventional structures of film viewing.
According to Mulvey’s classic articulation of looking relations in mainstream cinema, the power of the gaze is invested in the male and the female is typically positioned as the object rather than the subject of desire. The subversive potential of the lesbian coupled subject position, as de Lauretis has theorized it, resides ultimately in its evocation of the lesbian look and in the investment of this look in two desiring women, the coupled lesbian protagonists of the film, each of whom is simultaneously both subject and object of the look and consequently of female desire. The active desire invested in the coupled lesbian subject position contains the potential to be transferred through the lesbian look to the film’s female spectator, who is thereby offered empowerment as an active desiring female subject. In other words, the lesbian look challenges the exclusive male prerogative to control the filmic gaze and reconfigures this gaze so that it reflects a new female relation to desire. Differing markedly from the male gaze, the lesbian look “requires exchange. It looks for a returning look, not just a receiving look. It sets up two-directional sexual activity” (Straayer 1990: 50). Its radical potential involves not only reciprocity but also an association between female subjectivity and agency and a refutation of an all-encompassing “natural” male–female opposition as the defining principle of subject formation. Although these subversive qualities are not to be found in every cinematic representation of lesbianism, de Lauretis seems too restrictive in designating as potentially subversive only those independent lesbian films in which a lesbian filmmaker, her characters, and the spectator unite in a fantasy of lesbian desire through investment in the lesbian look.
To create a lesbian subject position in a film, it takes more than simply replacing a heterosexual with a lesbian couple, as many mainstream lesbian films do. As we will see, the groundbreaking lesbian romance Desert Hearts has come under attack for presenting its lesbian love story in accord with the conventions of heterosexual romance. Many mainstream representations of lesbians blur the distinction between heterosexuality and lesbianism with a resulting failure to affirm the difference of lesbian subjectivity. In what would seem to be an attempt to appeal to a heterosexual audience, they represent lesbianism not as a distinct sexual identity for women, but as really the same as heterosexuality. The lesbian is presented simply as a woman whose sexual desire is similar to a man’s, and no light is cast on the specificities of lesbian desire. The potentially subversive effects of lesbian representation on mainstream audiences are also often counteracted by the identification of lesbianism with traditional derogatory forms of female friendship that involve female rivalry and antagonism (for example, Single White Female [Barbet Schroeder, 1992]) or imposing an unhappy conclusion on the film’s lesbian relationship so that a woman who would dare to exhibit active sexual desire for another woman is shown to be punished for her usurpation of male privilege (for example, Lianna). It seems unwise, however, to dismiss all mainstream lesbian films as distorted counterparts of truly subversive independent lesbian representations; instead, they might more profitably be approached as complex texts that open themselves up to various interpretive possibilities and offer their female viewers, regardless of their sexual identification, myriad opportunities for viewing pleasure.
In any case, it seems clear that it would be a great loss to feminist film studies were lesbian theorists to see their affiliation as falling entirely within the compass of queer studies. Lesbian film theory has brought to light a number of significant issues in regard to women and film. For instance, it has questioned the exact relationship between lesbian representations and other films that focus on female bonding. Should lesbian films and films about female friendship, sisterhood, and mother–daughter relationships be seen as closely related forms of female representation, or should they be seen as radically different? Is the notion of a cinematic continuum between lesbian films and other films dealing with female bonding a useful way to think about the impact of lesbian films on female viewers, or does this connection deny the radical potential of lesbian representation? Even within the lesbian film itself, distinctions must be considered between ambiguous and openly lesbian portrayals, various plot formulas, and different methods of characterization which affect spectatorial response and the possibility that the films will generate subversive readings. Two aspects of lesbian cinema that seem to open up subversive interpretive possibilities are the coupled lesbian subject position and the lesbian look. How exactly is this subversive potential enacted in specific lesbian films and what means, if any, are employed to control its effect on female viewers? Clearly, the theorization of the lesbian film has initiated a new understanding of this much neglected area of women’s cinema, but it has also raised many unanswered questions. In addition, lesbian film theory has cast new light on the overarching questions of the usefulness of psychoanalysis in feminist film study and the positioning of the female spectator in mainstream films, two issues that have for so long intrigued feminist film theorists.
Source: FILM, THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY The Key Thinkers Edited by Felicity Colman, McGill Queens University Press