A Complicated History: Snow-White and the Queen

I am trying to remember how I looked at Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs (or Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge, as I came to know of it as a kid) before the most recent interpretations that have popped up on tv and the movies – and I can’t. The brothers Grimm are an important part of German culture and as I grew up in it, I was always aware of them but I can’t even remember if one of my parents read the fairy tales to me and somehow I don’t think so. Maybe someone did it in kindergarten, I’m not sure, but I always seemed to have known them (or some of them). And I’ve always seemd to have known about Snow-White, and in retrospect it actually seems one of the most important of all the Grimms’s fairy tales.

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It certainly is one I remember well. And I’m not talking about Disney’s interpretation, either, because I’m pretty aure I never watched the movie. And it confused the hell out of me when I heard people mention that the dwarfs had names and the prince kissed Snow-White awake because that’s simply NOT what happens in the original text. If you think about the things that Disney kept in the story, and the things that they changed, you certainly detect an agenda (one that keeps vanity in women very much alive and adds heterosexuality/true love to it) but that’s not what I want to discuss here. I want to talk about the relationship that makes this story relevant, the one that gives it meaning, a purpose: the one between Snow-White and the Queen, between a little girl and her stepmother, the one between two women destined to be adversaries, and between innocence and witchcraft.

While this post is merely an introduction to this topic, I want to look more closely at the following texts: the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)(as it is an important part of American culture, probably more so than the original fairy tale), Mirror Mirror (2012) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) which came out the same year (one as comedy, one as drama), and Once Upon a Time (2011), a tv show that has discussed the relationship between Snow White and the Queen (Regina Mills) for almost three years now, most elaborately (adding layers to both the story and the characters). Additional texts will be the original fairy tale in an English translation, Emma Donoghue’s interpretation of the story in Kissing the Witch and Snow White: A Tale of Terror, probably my favorite interpretation of the text as it is a horror movie.

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You may wonder at my fascination with this relationship, I have thought about this, too. But it is not only ‘my’ fascination, obviously, since Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of it either. The brothers Grimm have left us with a mere skeleton of a story: this happens, then this, and in the end this. They did not draw characters, putting up mere stereotypes to drive their lectures home. You are never told what happened to Snow-White’s father, he’s never mentioned beyond the fact that he marries a second time, you don’t know how Snow-White got along with the new mother before that woman’s envy of the girl’s beauty drove her to desperate measures (and let me remind you that Snow-White was seven at the time she exceeded her stepmother’s beauty). We don’t know how long she’s been living with the dwarfs or how long she lay dead in the glass coffin before the prince found her. These holes in the narrative can, have been and will be filled with new interpretations for a long time to come. And to build a whole tv show around this tale… yes, I am fascinated by ABC’s Once Upon a Time, I’m also frustrated with it and the way it handles some of its narratives. But at the center, there’s Snow White’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) tale, her relationship with Regina (Lana Parrilla), her stepmother, who wasn’t always evil, whom circumstances changed… and I’m going to talk about it at length.

You may have noticed that I sometimes write Snow-White and sometimes Snow White. Recent interpretations seem to have adopted the latter version but the translation of the fairy tale uses the first one. I will probably do the same, using the hyphoned version for the original text. It does make sense since to me she had been Schneewittchen before she became Snow-White. Some of you may also know that there is a second Snow-White in Grimms’s tales but I will not concern myself with her as in the German version she is actually called Schneeweißchen and is not the same character.

I think this is all I wanted to say in this introduction. I hope I will be able to shed some light on this relationship, or at least discuss it knowledgable. I feel like I should begin with the Disney film but I still haven’t watched it… we’ll see.

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The Meta of Pitch Perfect: The Breakfast Club

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The Breakfast Club in Pitch Perfect is one of Jesse Swanson’s favorite movies. As I have already pointed out in my post about Jesse’s movie collection, it is the most unconventional of his choices of films. Why? Because, although it is a classic of its time, a perfect representation of rebellious adolescence, there were few awards to confirm its status as ‘great movie.’ While it has been a favorite with misunderstood teens from its making until now – like so many other John Hughes movies – it doesn’t stand out in the great scheme of movie making history. Jesse’s other favorite movies do.

Still, as part of Pitch Perfect, this movie had been chosen to stand out during the story line to build a link between Beca Mitchell – who doesn’t like movies – and Jesse Swanson – who loves movies and especially music in movies. And once again, there is this question: why? Why The Breakfast Club?

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Movies as reference in movies (or tv) is not a new concept. Popcultural references exist almost as long as movies have. Think of James Stewart singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in The Philadelphia Story thus referencing The Wizard of Oz, a movie that had been produced by the same studio and had come out the year before. Reference as advertisement, or reference as simple reminder of how great some movies were. But in most recent years, movies as reference have often been used to examplify a sort of kinship in plot or characterization.

Think of Easy A, the main reference is certainly The Scarlett Letter (yes, this is strictly speaking a literary reference but at least two movie versions are mentioned) but it also points toward the same movies The Breakfast Club is a part of: John Hughes’ movies about adolescents fighting to be understood – if only by their peers. And it uses the references to draw similarities, in actuality, goes as far as to copy scenes from these movies.

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Pitch Perfect doesn’t do that. And this is a surprise. The similarity in plot you can find between Pitch Perfect and the movie it references is merely this: a group of very different people (some of them social outsiders) comes together. That’s all. They don’t do the same things, they don’t even exist in the same social setting, they merely come together.

Believe me when I say that from a cultural theorist’s point of view this is disappointing. I spent quite a few hours trying to come up with similiarities that simply don’t exist. Plotwise. Yes, you can point out that one scene in which the Bellas sit down together and share little stories of their lives but it falls short in comparison with the unscripted bonding scene in The Breakfast Club. The amount of time dedicated to this scene in the 80s movie, its significance for the film alone, would put a comparison with the Pitch Perfect-scene to shame. This is not a comparison worth making.

But, fortunately, there is more than plot to compare. Characters are an important part of every story worth watching or reading, they usually exist with the plot, sometimes despite the plot, and even without it (and then there are those unfortunate examples of movies without characterization, be it with or without plot).

As the ending of The Breakfast Club is the part of it Pitch Perfect dwells on (playing the ending twice, having Jesse state that the ending is the best part of any movie), and it’s the part of the movie that states the characters’ stereotypical function within the narrative, it makes sense to have a closer look at the characters:

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Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) is an unlikely heroine. I don’t know if this has been stressed enough or at all but the heroines of movies about coming-of-age and young adulthood are not usually tomboys wearing dark eye-liner and plaid shirts – at least they haven’t been for the last 20 years. I can only think of one other (female) character with similar markers: Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful – another movie written by (who else?) John Hughes. The tomboy is not part of a popular narrative but if you think about it, she lends perfectly to stand as reference to a male character of the 80s. Feminist instead of casually misogynistic

John Bender (Judd Nelson) and Beca Mitchell are both discribed as rebellious, they struggle within their familial bonding, and live to do their thing. They value friendship and don’t shy away from breaking the rules to help someone out. They embody teenage ennui, are quick witted, somehow under-challenged. They repesent the smart American teenager/young adult who is not interested in being an intellectual.

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This character is much more likely to be male than female. The tomboy is used as a stand-in for ‘male characteristics’ in female characters. Which is certainly an interesting theory but not one I want to elaborate here.

If we take the names of these two characters, Beca and Bender (as he is called despite his first name being John), we have another marker that connects them, a letter: B. This would not be significant if we couldn’t draw a line from the two heroes to the other characters where this is repeated. Look at it: Claire and Chloe , Andrew and Aubrey, Brian and Benji – and Allison and Amy which works better with the letters here than with the characters.

Of course, if you want to look at it this way, you cannot ignore Bender’s first name and the fact that he and Jesse (Skylar Astin) also share a letter. It would seem to me that Cannon – or whoever came up with this lettering comparison – created Beca and Jesse as two sides of John Bender. This would certainly pull them together in a platonic (from Plato’s theory of one person being smite into two by envious gods) soul-mate-y kind of way – if Jesse was indeed a part of Bender. But – and this I have already stressed in my other post about Jesse’s movie collection – there is little to nothing that connects Bender to Jesse. I see Jesse as a very conservative fellow who lacks instinct – another characteristic that Bender and Beca share. He’s not very adventurous although he would probably disagree with this assessment. What I see in him – when put in relation to The Breakfast Club within Pitch Perfect – is a meta narrator. He point us toward the movie, introduces us to the meta discourse that connects The Breakfast Club with Pitch Perfect, pretty much introduces Bender to Beca to make her see where she stands in the scheme of her own narrative. Fascinating and necessary as he is in this regard, he doesn’t seem to be part of this narrative itself. He’s more of a tool than a character in introducing The Breakfast Club (just think of how many of you watched The Breakfast Club after watching Pitch Perfect – Jesse introduced it to you).

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I am not saying that Jesse Swanson isn’t a character within the Pitch Perfect narrative – he is Beca’s love interest (as by request of the powers that be), he is also her rival, her adversary, and Mr. Nice Guy of the movie – but i wasn’t able to find him as a representative to one of the characters within The Breakfast Club-reference – even though he introduced it to us. This may seem complecated but it also makes sense since it would make for bad narrating if he were to point out a movie to us in such detail in which he would see himself as the hero – much more so because he is not the hero of Pitch Perfect since that’s Beca.

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While Jesse is certainly put into Pitch Perfect as Beca’s love interest, this stereotype is undermined by the referential narrative of The Breakfast Club. If Beca is Bender, then there is no doubt Chloe is Claire. Brittany Snow was asked by the makers of the movie to change her hair color to red (and please keep in mind that her red hair was a kind of signature feature of Molly Ringwald’s at the time – much as platinum was Marilyn Monroe’s [what I’m saying is that in some cases a hair color is not just a hair color]). If we keep this in mind, it is not surprising that there is a fair amount of confusion (or certainty) about Beca and Chloe’s relationship. Bender and Claire were an item – as shortlived, passionate and off-camera as it was, they were canon. Is it surprising that fans of Pitch Perfect see this in Beca and Chloe also? No, it is actually part of their referenctial narrative: they are polar opposites who more than like each other.

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Chloe’s character is certainly that of a ‘princess’ – she is priviledged, her open demeanour is part of a character who knows that she can afford it because it has never been rejected. It is never said whether Chloe’s parents are rich but I at least made it part of her story line in my fanfictions – even before I bagan thinking about her as a Claire-character. She comes across as someone who doesn’t have to work hard to be liked – she is popular. Pitch Perfect‘s narrative complicates this, certainly, as Chloe is part of a world that is more nerdy than mainstream, still, she is very open and well liked (even by someone as reclusive as Beca).

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If anything she is more generous and less concerned with other people’s opinion than Claire but she is also in her early twenties while Claire is still very much a teen. Also: while referential characters may have some of the original’s characteristics, they shouldn’t have them all. Mere repetition is not very flattering, and Pitch Perfect‘s characters would only have been half as interesting if they had been mere rip-offs of The Breakfast Club‘s characters.

Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Andrew (Emilio Estevez) are probably most similar. They both get a lot of pressure from their fathers, and they both ‘blow’ under pressure. While Andrew uses his strength and aggression against a weak schoolmate, Aubrey literally ‘blows’ – losing her lunch at the most important event of her aca-career, ruining her team’s chances of winning. They’re both athletic, they’re both drawing attention by their looks. Aubrey and Andrew are both complicated characters in search for control – unaware that losing control can actually help them more. They both find help in friendship but also have a hard time letting themselves fall into those friendships. I like both characters a lot, because they are so complex but not at the heart of the narrative. They are important but not the main heroes of their stories.

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Considering this, I should probably note the antagonism between Aubrey/Beca and Andrew/Bender. And it’s the same kind of antagonism: a person who sees themself as leader has issues with an anti-hero figure, an alt-girl, a troublemaker. Out of this antagonism can arise sexual tension and whether we look at Pitch Perfect or The Breakfast Club, homoerotic subtext can be read into both pairings.

The nerd-factors of Benji (Ben Platt) and Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) are obvious. They are outsiders within the narrative of the outsider. It is again Jesse who introduces Benji’s otherness to the Pitch Perfect narrative, and it is no big leap to see Brian in him. While Benji is not part of the Bellas (couldn’t be) he is still part of the outsider-meme in Pitch Perfect. But his otherness is probably more problematized than any other because it is frowned upon. Otherness as part of institutionalized discrimination – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – may be touched upon in Pitch Perfect but as it is recognized as discrimination, there is more tolerance, more politcal correct liberalism afforded to it than toward mere nerd-dom which is labelled as plain ‘weirdness.’ This is probably not surprising, as nerds are mostly seen as straight, white, and male (which is, of course, not entirely true) – and are represented in both movies as (possibly) straight, white, and male. But there is, of course, more to either Benji or Brian than their geek-dom. Benji dreams of being part of the aca-world but is denied access because of his ‘weirdness’ and Brian can only adopt his parents’ dream of excellency because he is afraid that he will be a failure if he strays from it. While they are both very likable, they have problems making friends because few people dare to look past their ‘weirdness’.

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Allison (Ally Sheedy) is probably the least defined character of The Breakfast Club. I always feel like John Hughes has taken the least care with her, making her another outsider among outsiders (just as Brian) but with even less character. But her non-definition lends itself very well to a different interpretation when it comes to her representation in Pitch Perfect because I see her represented by the Bellas as a group. The ultimate outsider, if you want, someone without friends, without links even to a real world. She says that she is a nymphomaniac (Stacie [Alexis Knapp]) but then it turns out she is more of a pathological liar (think of the fact that Fat Amy [Rebel Wilson] lied about her name, Fat Patricia), she’s a little bit goth (Lily [Hana Mae Lee]) with dark eyeliner (Beca) and the tendency to overshare (Chloe). Maybe we cannot find all of the Bellas in Allison (homosexuality and race were not necessarily topics John Hughes discussed in his movies – and that is certainly representative of mainstream 80s movie culture), but her ‘otherness’ can include all kinds of otherness the Bellas inhabit, and maybe even all the otherness of Pitch Perfect‘s aca-world.

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Pitch Perfect and The Breakfast Club are very different movies, from different times with different messages and memes but there’s a reason they have been linked because they share themes and (stereo)types. The Breakfast Club may seem a little extreme to the audience of today – sexuality, teenage life, outsiders were discussed differently back then, they were different back then, maybe more open, maybe more harshly expressed… the 80s, if you haven’t lived through them, were a time of inner change, of young themes, youth cult – much like the 60s but even more liberating. While we adopt a lot of themes of the 80s today, we seem to have conventionalized some of them, erased others from our memory (whatever happened to androgynity?)… Picking up The Breakfast Club in Pitch Perfect was quite daring, I think. Referencing a movie (tv show, book), practically calls for a comparison and in most cases the newer version falls flat before the referenced material. But while Pitch Perfect may never gain the same place within today’s movie culture as The Breakfast Club inhabits within its own – due to non-sensical labels such as chick-flick, or its placement in the genre of musical – it is no less valuable. Pitch Perfect is a great movie, not because it is like The Breakfast Club but maybe because it is not.

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The Meta of Pitch Perfect: the Shower Scene

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That infamous shower scene. A discussion of the movie would not be complete without at least mentioning it. Its function within the movie is obvious and yet, as a mere plot device, the movie could have done without it. The scene is unconventional on different levels and the fact that it has made it into the script (and ultimately into the movie) is probably due to one deciding factor: it is a parody/reference to another (popular) text – Glee.

You don’t have to look far to see Pitch Perfect’s symbiosis with Glee, the whole concept of the movie seems to build on the show’s popularity with criticism and mockery thrown in for good measure. The shower scene is put in as a reference to what I coined ‘locker room gaiety.’ There are several instances on the show where recruitment is preceded by a shower scene – Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison) hears Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) sing in the shower and although he refrains from entering the shower stall, he recruits Finn on the grounds of having heard him sing in the shower. This scene is paralleled by one where Finn hears Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet) sing in the shower and recruits him later.

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Pitch Perfect takes this up but follows through, if you want. Chloe (Brittany Snow) barges into Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) shower and makes her audition for the Bellas. But this is just the part of the plot that could have been established differently. The important part is the popcultural reference to Glee, the laugh it elicits among those who love or hate the show.

But the scene has another meaning, another purpose – one that may have been underestimated by the makers of the movie. The lesbian innuendo. While the scene is meant as a comedic nod toward another text, it quite effectively unleashes ‘the gay.’ And it doesn’t matter that gray sweater guy/Tom (Cameron Stewart) is put into the scene as a heteronormative convention, a buffer to contain the homoerotic tension between Beca and Chloe – the mere fact of two women, naked in a shower stall, singing to each other while looking deeply into each other’s eyes… it’s too gay to not function.

And the scene works on this premise, and it works for several reasons: one is that it is a scene between two women. Considering the plot of the movie, it, of course, had to be two women. The premise of the plot works with two same-sex a cappella singing groups and the focus is on the Bellas and Beca Mitchell as unrivaled lead. But even if the premise was another, it would not have worked with another pairing. A man walking into the shower of another man? Unthinkable (Hollywood is too sensitive toward its male audience; just ask the makers of Glee why they never actually did it). A man walking in on a woman showering? Sexual harrassment! A woman walking in on a man showering… well, that could work in a society which does not constantly perpetuate the male as the dominant and the female as the passive part of a heterosexual relationship. The dominant female in Hollywood is a man-eater, not a likable lead character in a mainstream Hollywood production.

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Another reason the scene works is Chloe’s character – someone who is insensitive to personal boundaries. She is the one person who the audience can ‘forgive’ this indiscretion, and also the one Beca would forgive. There is an underlying reasoning of ‘she doesn’t know better.’ Of course, this is also meant to disable the homoeroticism of the scene, same as Tom. These obvious devices, however, do not work; and one can easily argue that they are not supposed to work either. Neither Chloe or Beca are ultimately labeled as straight. Sure, there are Tom and Jesse (Skylar Astin) who act as love interests but the great thing about Pitch Perfect is that it does not focus on these heterosexual love stories; it focuses on the Bellas as a diverse group of strong women who come together as friends, allys and – in possibility, at least – lovers.

The shower scene conveys this possibility. And it is not the only scene which hints at it, either. This could easily be interpreted as ‘queer baiting’ but for the fact that there is a nonchalance about these scenes, they are not drawn out, there are no flashy neon signs pointing them out to the audience. They are altogether too subtle, too unselfconcious, more endearing than sexy. They live from the one thing that is so rare, so special and at the same time inexplicable: chemistry. The chemistry between two characters that more often than not equals the chemistry between the actors portraying these characters. Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow alias Beca Mitchell and Chloe Beale have it. And that’s the ultimate reason the shower scene works.

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The New Lesbian

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The 1920s saw the birth of the “New Woman,” (Miller, 1992) a sophisticated breed, independent of men and free to explore love in all its facets. 60 years later, Donna Deitch took a novel that was already twenty years old and created a “new lesbian” for the American movie, a breed that claimed its happy ending against all odds. This “new lesbian,” however, did not replace existing lesbian stereotypes; it merely gave female homosexuals a mirror image they did not have to fear.

Until the 1980s lesbian representation in American movies was closely linked to the theories of scientists and psychoanalysts like Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud. While “congenital inversion” was seen as a hereditary disease and the invert therefore a victim, it still insisted on homosexuals being doomed to a life in misery. And lesbians – however few there were – in American movies before the 1980s were also doomed, often not even to live. (Rule, 1976)

In 1961 The Children’s Hour, a movie version of Lillian Hellman’s controversial play of the same title, was remade. The play, as the 1960s movie, is about two female school teachers who are accused of being lovers by one of their students. Though the girl who made the accusations is protected by her innocence the movie shows the cruelty of an adult society towards people who are (supposedly) different and results in the death of one of the teachers – because she realizes that the accusations may be right in her case. The lesbian dies, and a stereotype is born: the suicidal lesbian that is hopelessly in love with her best heterosexual friend, or teacher, or fill-in-the-blank. This lesbian stereotype is not exclusively linked to movies since it originated in literature but movies are the media that holds it up to this day. One has only to watch Lost and Delirious (2001) to be confirmed that lesbianism and suicide are still closely linked together.

Desert Hearts is based on a novel that was published just three years after The Children’s Hour was shown in American movie theaters. The novel, Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, tried to eliminate some of the myths that were engraved in the American mind where lesbianism was concerned. Rule created female characters that discovered their homosexuality and embraced it. Lesbians finally achieved a happy ending – in literature.

But it took twenty years for the novel to reach the big screen; having finally reached it, however, it showed the same effect on movie-making as the novel had in its respective media: it established a positive image of female homosexuality.

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 In Comparison

Despite the similar accomplishments of novel and movie their differences are significant. Without even having read the book or having watched the movie one difference immediately catches the eye: the titles. Desert of the Heart. Desert Hearts. While the first one seems to poetically describe Reno, Nevada, as the place where marriage finds its final resting place in a divorce, the second sounds like a reno-vated version of “the Lonely Hearts Club.” And the titles also predict the endings of both: where Reno is romanticized the two protagonists stay, where it is trivialized the female lovers leave.

Though the movie claims to be based on the novel it pretty much changes all essentials, even down to the names of the leading characters: Ann Childs becomes Cay Rivvers, Evelyn Hall becomes Vivian Bell. But there is a reason for this as the novel uses several biblical images that the movie erases. The names are a not very subtle hint toward Adam and Eve with Evelyn saying at one point to Ann: “You could almost imagine there were no other people.” The desert surrounding Reno leaves the English teacher in “catholic desolation,” although she is of protestant upbringing. Christian symbolism is a cross Deitch does not care to bear on her shoulders and she eliminates it together with the criticism of Freudian theory which Jane Rule has once called “a religion to parallel, without needing to replace, Christianity.” Evelyn’s interdependent marriage to George had provided this criticism but in the movie Vivian says of the reason why her marriage to Martin failed: “[It] drowned in still waters.” There is nothing left of the dominant figure that terrorizes his wife because he cannot compete with her professionally. Vivian has to find her own way our of a marriage that left her unfulfilled without her knowing why, while Evelyn is more or less forced to end her marriage. “The new lesbian,” therefore, has to find her way out of dependencies on her own; she has to choose to free herself of male dominance. For very much the same reason, Deitch explains Cay’s father’s death with a heart attack, not as a suicide. Ann’s struggle with the way her father died is the reason for many of her decisions – or indecisions – but it ties her to a dominant male figure, a provider. In the movie Frances is the only one obsessed with the absent Glen, and it makes her cling to Cay who is a female version of her father. Deitch inserts a slightly incestuous theme through Frances’ lingering love for Glen through Cay and puts Frances’ intolerance towards homosexuality in a hypocritical light showing her own homoerotic feelings toward Cay. In the novel, Frances does not even disapprove of the relationship between Ann and Evelyn; she only wants her step-daughter to be happy.

These differences are the most striking but not all of them are listed. Only the basic frame of the story is left intact: A woman comes to Reno to get a divorce and falls in love with a younger woman. They stay together. Apart from that the movie interprets the novel freely and becomes a piece of modern interpretation of homosexuality because of the changes made. Desert Hearts would not have become a lesbian classic had it clung to Jane Rule’s original ideas; it needed to become a movie about “the new lesbian” for “the new lesbian.” And this is why, though the plot takes place during the 1950s, Desert Hearts is very much rooted in the 1980s.

Let us have a closer look at this “new lesbian” the movie provides us with: deserthearts2

Introducing Cay Rivvers

On their way to the ranch, where Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) will spend her six weeks of residency that are required to get a divorce in Reno, Frances’ and Vivian’s conversation is interrupted by the introduction of Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), Frances’ “daughter.” The scene is induced by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley) exclaiming: “Oh, brother,” then we hear a car go by, before the scene is cut from Vivian’s turning head to Cay’s – giving it the indication that they turn towards each other – as she puts her own car into reverse with screaming wheels and in the following cut pulls up next to Frances’ car driving backwards. Vivian and Cay are introduced by Frances, a bizarre setting for a first meeting but taken in strife by Frances who is quite used to her step-daughter’s exuberant nature. Cay makes a quip about having to call Vivian “professor” but has to put her car back into drive due to an oncoming car.

As soon as Cay pulls up to Frances’ car we hear Buddy Holly singing “Rave On” as if out of Cay’s radio. Her car itself is a black convertible that misses its backseat, as we are to learn later on. Everything about Cay is young and daring and modern. Most of her clothes leave the viewer wondering if the actress left her own clothes on when she entered the 1950s movie set, this especially applies to a set of cut-off jeans. With all these indications it really is no surprise when the audience learns that Cay is not only a lesbian but an out lesbian. Her self-assured attitude toward her sexuality frustrates Vivian later in the movie when she herself is struggling to be out in Cay’s presence. She exclaims: “No fear, no confusions, so self-assured…” Only to be interrupted by Cay shouting: “I don’t act that way to change the world. I act that way so the goddamned world won’t change me.” It is their only real argument, their conflicting views stem out of their different experiments with homosexuality and the fact that though Vivian is older she does not have Cay’s sexual experience. And she never had to fight with the kind of social marginalization Cay hints at in this scene.

It is also another car-scene. There are quite a number of scenes that take place in a car – not the least of them the first kiss of the two leads –, the one between Vivian and Frances being the first. It puts the people in the car into a frame, one could also say a cage, as the audience’s perspective becomes a voyeuristic one. In the scene with Frances the close confines make Vivian, who is a private person, uncomfortable. She is forced into an intimate setting and a conversation with a stranger. Frances’ easy-going nature is a direct contrast to Vivian’s awkwardness; the two women could not be more different. The car represents Vivian’s situation: she is trapped in a strange place she does not want to be in. Her only shield from the outside world – and the blazing sun – are her sunglasses. She puts them on just before she meets Cay. However, both women take their sunglasses off as they are introduced.

The glimpse we get of Cay is the same Vivian gets: it is quick, it is loud and it is wild. In the commentary to the movie, director Deitch tells us that there had been a couple of actresses who wanted to play Cay just to be in that scene, doing what Cay is doing. It is a daring introduction, but it is also a superfluous one. We are yet to learn that Cay’s “wild streak” is an act she puts on, often to impress women. But this is not the person Vivian falls in love with; Vivian falls in love with a young woman who is sensitive and thoughtful and does not dare to step out of the confines of her surroundings. She also falls in love with her friend, because that is what Cay becomes to her after she sheds the aggressive act.

Female relationships

As I have already written, Deitch focuses her attention much more on the female relationships than Rule did by eliminating dominant male figures. Walter (Alex McArthur) is pretty much the only man who is tolerated in the midst of strong female characters. The combinations of the female encounters are an interesting mix of friendship, comradeship born out of necessity, but also antagonism. Lucille (Katie Labourdette), another divorcee in Frances’ care and painfully reminiscent of Lucille Ball, verbally attacks Vivian early on but cannot compete with the quick intelligence of her opponent. However, as time on the ranch passes slowly, Vivian finds herself in Lucille’s company yet again when the two are out riding with Cay and Buck (Tyler Tyhurst), the ranch hand. Lucille relates to Vivian that she had been in a mental institution because she could not cope with the guilt she felt over the failure of her marriage but that Buck is helping her getting back on her feet. Vivian agrees, saying that Cay’s friendship is helping her also. This revelation compels the redhead to warn Vivian about getting too close to Frances’ daughter as she was “kicked out of college for unnatural acts, as they say.” The English professor is not to be deterred, however, and Lucille makes it clear that she does not approve of homosexuals, which only earns her another witty remark by Vivian that she is not above criticism just because she is straight.

As with many of the one-on-ones between the characters the pace of this scene is deliberately slow. The characters talk, relating not only their opinions but also their inner selves. Vivian is not shocked by Lucille’s revelation of Cay’s sexuality as Cay has been far too open about it, already, even if not in words. At some point in the novel, Vivian’s stance toward homosexuality is described: “If she had never actually made love to another woman, she was intellectually emancipated in all perversions of flesh, mind, and spirit. Her academic training had seen to that.” I do not necessarily approve of the choice of words here but the short passage accurately pinpoints what some writers of lesbian fiction try to ignore: you do not have to have slept with a woman to intellectually know how to do it. In the movie, Vivian’s knowledge is expressed in boredom with Lucille’s intolerance. In her line of work, Vivian has probably encountered quite a few lesbians – among faculty as well as students – and she cannot even pretend to be shocked anymore. But her knowledge is theoretical and does not prepare her for the force of her own or Cay’s feelings as they are later discovered and explored.

The desert acts as the local setting of the conversation but the backdrop is a metaphorical one. Lucille is eager to share with Vivian the nature of her relationship with Buck. She says: “Amazing what a little understanding will do.” All that is missing at this point are her fingers making quotation marks as she is clearly not talking about “understanding” at all. Vivian does not take the bait, though. Her reluctance to talk about any intimate details of Lucille and Buck’s relationship is clear and she steers the conversation to seemingly safer grounds mentioning her own friendship with Cay. But this leads Lucille to talk about Cay’s sexuality instead. We have a recurring theme in this sequence: Homosexuality before a heterosexual background. The whole movie seems to work on this premise as the setting is Reno, which is known for three things: marriage, divorce and gambling. Though gambling may not necessarily be a heterosexual institution, marriage and divorce are. In detail these scenes emphasize the aforementioned theme: Frances and Vivian watching a romantic movie and talking about Cay, Cay and Silver (Andra Akers) in the bathtub with Joe (Antony Ponzini) preparing dinner in the kitchen, and, of course, Vivian and Cay leaving the courtroom after Vivian’s divorce is finalized. But what is accomplished with these scenes? Are they an indication that “the new lesbian” has to stick out, or come out, against heterosexual conventions? Or are they merely underlining what is obvious: the majority of people is heterosexual and will always be the background before which lesbians and gays have to live their life? And does that have to inevitably mean having to put up with intolerance from people who are not educated enough to see that love is love whether it is between a man and a woman or members of the same sex?

The Party’s Over

After an evening spent at Silver’s and Joe’s engagement party, with heterosexual love but also convention surrounding them and not even the possibility to dance with each other, Cay and Vivian are yet again in deep conversation in the private confines of Cay’s car. Both are a little drunk but unwilling to end the evening and because they are a little drunk the conversation between them takes on a flirtatious note. They drive out to the lake where they continue their conversation and Cay finally confronts Vivian first with her supposition that the professor is attracted to her, later with a kiss.

The focus of attention at this point is not on Cay’s frank intentions toward Vivian; it is on Vivian’s inability to rein in her own feelings. She struggles with her reasons for divorcing Martin, her feelings for Cay, and the chaos that is raised in the aftermath. Helen Shaver gives the audience a first glimpse at her character’s vulnerability, but also of the passion that lies underneath the surface. The fight within Vivian is an old one of conventions one was brought up to and the pursuit of what will make one happy. If these two clash, and they usually do when one discovers one’s homosexuality, one has to chose. For the drive in the car Vivian lets her inebriated state take the blame but this does not work when Cay finally kisses her. And she kisses her back. Vivian is coming out and this is a process that director and actress show in a teasingly slow development. But it is believable, because one does not cope with one’s own homosexuality over night.

Although not the center of attention, Cay’s life alters as well. She relates to her best friend Silver that she may have “found somebody who counts,” a phrase she had also used earlier with Frances. While her behavior – and Frances words – attests to the fact that she is sexually active with a number of women, though we are only introduced to Gwen, her words assure the audience that she is looking for love, a convention that was hitherto a privilege granted only to heterosexuals in movies.

Love as a privilege of heterosexuals. This may seem odd to viewers of today’s generation, a generation that has seen two cowboys fall in love on Brokeback Mountain and women sharing their lives on The L-Word. But up to Desert Hearts homosexuality in the movies was reduced to sexual acts, often linked to violence and social outcasts. Lesbians in the movies before 1985 were prison guards, criminals, or other manipulative women in a power position to another woman who was than exploited by the lesbian character. These lesbians often had to use force to get what they wanted: sex. Love was not part of the equation.

It is, however, in Desert Hearts. And it is even put in the context of the heterosexual stereotype of “the one.” It is not any woman Cay falls in love with, it is Vivian, and she tells her new lover frankly that she has never been in love before. And one could at least assume that the same holds true for Vivian also. Has she been in love with Martin, or did she merely bow to conventions in marrying him? The novel says she did. But even if she had been in love with her husband once this feeling is long gone. And as the desert can be seen as a metaphor for her life with Martin, the lake, Cay leads her to, signifies the end of it; the end of her marriage, the end of her life without love, the end of the cruel dryness of the desert. The rain acts as the surprising effect of recognition and leaves her drenched and kissing Cay. And as much as this moment signifies the end of order for Vivian, which she is afraid of, it is also a beginning she does not recognize as good at first – though she does not see it as a total disaster either.

deserthearts3

Lovers and Critics

In 1986 Vincent Canby wrote about Desert Hearts in “The New York Times”: “The film is the first fiction feature to be directed by Donna Deitch, whose previous experience in documentaries and commercials appears to have left her with a terribly literal idea of what movies should be. ‘Desert Hearts’ has no voice or style of its own. It’s as flat as a recorded message from the telephone company.”

In 2003 Sarah Warn, then chief editor of Afterellen.com1 wrote about the movie: “But overall, Desert Hearts is just as interesting and compelling as it was almost twenty years earlier when it won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1986, and serves as an example of the heights you can achieve without a big budget if you have strong actors, the right story, and a director who knows how to pull it all together.”

One of the differences between these two reviews is that the first one was written by a man and the second by a lesbian. Is that also the reason why the second is so clearly in favor of the movie and the first one is not? There is no question that Desert Hearts has its value in American movie history, but is this value limited to its accomplishments for the lesbian audience?

The focus of this paper lies on proving that Desert Hearts created a “new lesbian” (as I have called her). A female homosexual that was neither a sexual predator or a social outcast, a woman that, recognizing her difference, does not despair and commits suicide. It is the most important aspect of the film and probably the reason that it is still recognized today – even if predominantly by the lesbian community. But I would not have written a paper about if I had thought that it was a bad movie. The criticism in “The New York Times” is harsh. It reduces the movie to parts of the dialogue that even Sarah Warn admits is “clunky and corny.” The features that make Desert Hearts a compelling story, the acting and the groundbreaking love-scene, are dismissed or left out.

In his review for the “Chicago Sun-Times” Roger Ebert calls the movie: ”[a] spiky debut, with a tumultuous love scene, which is more than a nostalgia trip despite the redneck 50s setting.” And although he does not entirely praise the movie as many reviews by lesbians have done and still do he acknowledges the strong acting, especially of Helen Shaver, and the “undeniable power” that for him comes “from the chemistry between Shaver and Charbonneau.” His conclusive statement is the following: “The movie makes no large statement; it is not a philosophical exploration of lesbianism, just the story of two women and their attraction. It’s not a great movie, but it works on its own terms.”

I think, I can almost agree with that assessment as I can also agree that some of the lines are indeed “corny.” But does that answer my question of the significance of the movie for non-lesbian viewers? No, it does not.

The DVD cover quotes the “Sunday Times,” that stated that the love scene in Desert Hearts far exceeded the eroticism of the love scenes between Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke in 9 ½ Weeks. This comparison is a strong one as I can still remember having read a lot about 9 ½ Weeks and its effect on representation of sexuality in movie encyclopedias. So is this Desert Hearts ultimate value for the heterosexual mainstream movie-goer? A love scene that has a greater appeal than the ones in 9 ½ Weeks? As sad and bizarre as it sounds, yes, that seems to be the case. In preparation for this paper I have read that the actresses who were signed up for playing lesbians on The L-Word, a television show that bows a lot to stereotypical representation of lesbianism despite the fact that it is done by lesbians, were required to watch the love scene between Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau because of its authenticity as well as its erotic power. Sad and bizarre, indeed.

24 Years Later

“The new lesbian.” She is strong, independent, out, and proud. And she is also beautiful, which she has not always been, especially in the prison movies of the 60s and 70s. But where is this lesbian that was new in the 1980s now? She’s still there, and she has not changed much. The L-Word is yet again a perfect example of the representation of “the new lesbian,” but we can also look at some movies that would probably not have been done if it had not been for the groundbreaking Desert Hearts, or at least not in quite the same fashion:

In It’s in the Water a Texan socialite falls for a lesbian nurse of a hospice for AIDS-patients. The story is eerily familiar as the dark-haired nurse is a little tomboyish, and the blonde socialite struggles with her unfulfilling marriage. Luckily, director Kelli Herd adds a gay couple and a cast of Texan originals to the plot or it would probably have been called a rip-off of Desert Hearts.

Another set of the tomboy and the beauty is The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, where two teenage girls fall for each other, the tomboy being a daughter of lesbian upbringing, who has to work at a gas station after school. Young women are also in the focus of the plot of Better Than Chocolate. Luckily, in this comedy both women are already out and nobody has to struggle with the drama of recognition. But once again, we have a tomboy who struggles economically.

The bottom line of lesbians in movies seems to be: you have two beautiful women with one of them being a tomboy, but by no means a butch. The tomboy is the out lesbian, while the femme of the duo often struggles with her sexual identity but never financially. She is usually also the one with the higher education level.

The new lesbian” has become an old stereotype in the more than twenty years since Desert Hearts. But she is still the one positive representation of lesbian life we have. She stands out among the lesbian killers of television crime shows, the suicidal lesbians of the teen drama, the experimental straight girls caught in a lip-lock that one can see on most television programs during sweeps weeks. Desert Hearts has introduced her and she is here to stay.

Sources

Articles:

Miller, Nina, “Making Love Modern: Dorothy Parker and Her Public,” In: American Literature 64.4 (1992) 766-784

Books:

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. New York: POCKET BOOK, 1976.

Rule, Jane. Desert of the Heart. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press, 1983.

Sobek, Daniela. Lexikon Lesbischer Frauen im Film. München: belleville, 2000.

 

Movies:

Desert Hearts, produced by Donna Deitch, directed by Donna Deitch, screenplay by Natalie Cooper, based on the novel “Desert of the Heart” by Jane Rule. Cast: Helen Shaver (Vivian Bell), Patricia Charbonneau (Cay Rivvers), Audra Lindley (Frances Parker). Samuel Goldwyn Company. 1985.

9 ½ Weeks, produced by Mark Damon, directed by Adrian Lyne, screenplay by Sarah Kernochan, Zalman King, Patricia Louisianna Knop, based on a novel by Elizabeth McNeill. Cast: Mickey Rourke (John), Kim Basinger (Elizabeth), Christine Baranski (Thea). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). 1986.

Better Than Chocolate, produced by Sharon McGowan, directed by Anne Wheeler, screenplay by Peggy Thompson. Cast: Christina Cox (Kim), Karyn Dwyer (Maggie), Wendy Crewson (Lila). British Columbia Film. 1999.

Brokeback Mountain, produced by Diana Ossana, directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, based on a short story by Annie Proulx. Cast: Heath Ledger (EnnisDelMar), Jack Gyllenhall (Jake Twist), Randy Quaid (Joe Aguirre). Paramount Pictures. 2005.

It’s in the Water, produced by Dee Evans, directed by Kelli Herd, screenplay by Kelli Herd. Cast: Keri Jo Chapman (Alex Stratton), Teresa Garrett (GraceMiller), Derrick Sanders (MarkAnderson). Kelli Herd Film Company Inc. 1997.

Lost and Delirious, produced by Greg Dummett, directed by Léa Pool, screenplay by Judith Thompson, based on the novel “The Wives of Bath” by Susan Swan. Cast: Piper Perabo (Pauline “Paulie” Oster), Jessica Paré (Victoria “Tori” Moller), Mischa Barton (Mary “Mouse” Bedford). Lions Gate Films. 2001

The Children’s Hour, produced by Robert Wyler and William Wyler, directed by William Wyler, screenplay by John Michael Hayes, adapted for the screen by Lillian Hellman, based on a play by Lillian Hellman. Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Karen Wright), Shirley MacLaine (Martha Dobie), James Garner (Dr. Joe Cardin). United Artists, 1963

The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, produced by Dolly Hall, directed by Maria Maggenti, screenplay by Maria Maggenti. Cast: Laurel Holloman (RandyDean), Nicole Parker (EvieRoy), Kate Stafford (RebeccaDean). Fine Line Features. 1995.

The L-Word, produced by Ilene Chaiken and others, directed by Rose Troche and others, teleplay by Angela Robinson and others. Cast: Jennifer Beals (Bette Porter), Mia Kirshner (Jenny Schecter), Pam Grier (Kit Porter). Showtimes Networks. 2004-2009.

 

Informations on Movies

http://www.imdb.com

Reviews

Canby, Vincent, “Film: ‘Desert Hearts,’ About Women in Love.” The New York Times: <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9A0DE5D9133FF937A35757C0A960948260&gt;

Ebert, Roger, “Desert Hearts.” http://www.robertebert.com:

<http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19860606/REVIEWS/606060301/1023&gt;

Warn, Sarah, “Review of ‘Desert Hearts’.” http://www.Afterellen.com:

<http://www.afterellen.com/Movies/deserthearts.html&gt;

1 AfterEllen.com was founded in 2002 by Sarah Warn and has since “become the leading entertainment site for and about lesbian and bisexual women, with news, reviews, interviews and commentary on lesbian and bisexual women in TV, movies, music, and more.”