We are Not Your "Girl-on-Girl", Chris Rock: On 'Carol' and Lesbian Shame

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By Zoë


Carol was beautiful. While watching it in the cinema, I wanted to throw myself through the screen and into Carol and Therese’s world. Cate Blanchett as Carol was intoxicating, and it wasn’t hard to understand how Rooney Mara’s Therese could fall in love with her. It felt like a revelation to see a film about lesbians that was both exquisitely made and featured a happy ending.

On Monday, during the Oscars ceremony, Chris Rock referred to Carol as the “third best” “girl-on-girl movie” he’d seen this year.

When I heard that, I cringed. Because here was a movie I had loved not just as a cinemagoer, but as a bisexual woman. Carol, for me, captured the beauty and terror of being a woman attracted to a woman, something I’ve experienced. I saw myself reflected in Therese. So when Chris Rock referred to the film as “girl-on-girl”, linking it to lesbian pornography, I too felt denigrated.

It was shame that I felt, a feeling well known to same-sex attracted women. In fact, you can see this shame depicted in Carol. In the scene where Therese first meets Carol at the department store, her attraction to the older woman is instant. But immediately after her wide-eyed, starstruck attraction, Mara depicts Therese’s confusion, her anxiety over what she has just felt. Did I just feel that? Surely not. But she’s a woman. I can’t feel that way about a woman. In Therese’s flushed cheeks and nervous gestures is not just the delightful shock of being attracted to someone, but the panicked confusion of attraction that is taboo. How could I feel that? What’s wrong with me?

 Cate Blanchett (left) as Carol and Rooney Mara (right) as Therese in Carol

Both the film’s director, Todd Haynes, and writer, Phyllis Nagy, are openly gay. Together they capture same-sex attraction with all of its complicated emotions: wonder, joy, confusion, fear, shame. With Carol, I saw for a film that represented lesbian love as being as valid as any other romance, while also acknowledging its separate challenges. I saw represented on screen the feelings I too have known, the shame I too have felt.

Carol is of course set in a different world to our own. Lesbians and bi women obviously face significantly less oppression now than they did then. But the shame still persists because the prejudice against us does. Every time I mention being bisexual, no matter how liberal the company, it is prefaced by at least thirty seconds of anxiety. Because for every ten situations where it is accepted without question, there is one that goes badly: The date who immediately asked me if I’d ever had a threesome, the friend’s father who called me a “dyke”, the middle-aged man who propositioned 17-year-old me and asked if I could “turn straight” for him. These instances are rare, and without doubt, others have it much worse. I am lucky. But these rare instances are the ones that haunt me, that make the words catch in my throat the next time around.

Chris Rock’s remark is yet another comment that brings that shame to the fore. It’s a reminder that female same-sex attraction is mocked and fetishized, still, in 2016. Even when it occurs within an elegant, romantic, critically-acclaimed film, lesbian sexuality is discussed as something hyper-sexual, seedy, pornified. The description “girl-on-girl” suggests that our very identity is a porn category. Apparently, we still cannot find other women attractive without lecherous men assuming it is for their benefit.

Mara and Blanchett in Carol

When Therese reacted with shame over her attraction towards Carol, I first felt amazed: here was my experience reflected up on the big screen, in a mainstream movie, by an A-list actress. Here was the rapid heartbeat and sweating palms, the confusion, the incredulousness that you could be attracted to her. I am so thankful to Haynes and Nagy for representing this, for allowing all the lesbians and bi girls still wracked by insecurity to feel a little less alone. But at the same time, I’m immensely sad that we still feel this shame felt sixty years ago. We are still made to feel ashamed, and we should not.

Our sexuality still cannot exist on its own terms. It is bound on all sides: by politics, by societal prejudice, by the leers of men who think they’re far cleverer than they are. When Chris Rock called Carol “girl-on-girl”, I felt that shame, that feeling that there is something inherently weird and exotic about our sexuality. That it is something to be gawked at and sexualised by spectators. Society has evolved greatly since the time period of Carol. Things are definitely much better than they are. But while comments like Rock’s persist, shame, the legacy of our deviant existence, lives on. 
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