Lesbian Live Action Movie: Carol

March 17th, 2016

CarolOne of the goals here at Okazu is to not only give fans of manga and anime a broad idea of everything that’s available to them, but also to provide historical and critical perspective on the things we’re reading and watching. If you’re a long time-reader, you’ll know that myself and guest reviewers often include references to fine art, dance, literature and other non-fannish forms of art and entertainment. When we watch Japanese anime and read manga, there are often references that are missed by western fans and so I point out the sources of these references, whether they are older anime, or novels, or whatever.  I do this in part, to remind us that nothing exists in a vacuum, and also to establish the literary, artistic and historical lineages of the cartoons we watch and comics we read. It’s not a capricious thought, it’s a calculated ploy to educate. ^_^

And sometimes, I want to remind you that while we’re mostly focused on Japanese media here at Okazu, the LGBTQ community has a rich, diverse and fascinating history here in the west as well – a history with which we should all be familiar.

Carol, (available on DVD, Blu-ray or Amazon Instant Video) directed by Todd Hynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is a film that shows an accurate  – if narrow – vision of that history. Based closed on the book The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, it tells the story of a upper middle class housewife and the shopgirl she falls in love with in mid-20th century New York City.

Carol meets Therese while shopping for her daughter, but leaves her gloves at the store. Therese returns the gloves and sets in motion a slow-spiral of Carol’s rejection of everything that she had become.

Both the time and place are central to the movie, in a way that only stands out now, as we are so far removed from it. And it is critical to remember that the story takes place in the early 1950s, when even so much as being gay was cause to lose one’s children, job, home… and worse, to face criminal charges, being sent to a sanitarium, even electroshock therapy.

It’s important to remember all this, not because anyone in Carol is sent off to a madhouse, but because no one is. Both Carol and Therese are middle-class, white, urban women. I’ll come back to this in a second.

Blanchett and Mara are stellar in their roles, especially as so much of the story remains unspoken. A criticism I read of the film was that it is quite slow, very tentative and overcareful. The reason of course, is that gay people were very careful in the 1950s. They had to be. There is a wonderful moment midway, when Therese asks Carol “Are you frightened?” And she does mean, not just about the way she feels, but also about their physical safety. Carol’s husband, Harge is not an angry man, but is clearly feeling the stress of their divorce and has begun lashing out.

Harge being a sympathetic character is a slight change from the book and in a lot of ways, I thought it a good one. It’s all too easy to make the soon-to-be-ex-husband a jerk. Stereotypical and even more exhausting now than it was in  2001 in Moonlight Flowers. Yes of course, it is a thing that happens, but a little empathy for a character never hurts.

Another change from the book is the final scene…and again, I appreciated the change. It’s definitely done to make the end more satisfying and in that, it works.

The slow pacing and quiet dialogue means that you are forced to watch the body language, expressions, listen to tones of voices and make too much of them – just as  anyone at that time might have had to do, to read the subtext, to trust that they heard what they thought they heard.

The thing that impressed me most was the feeling that Todd Hynes actually understood the book, in a way that very few movie adaptations ever feel. (Interestingly one of the few other movie adaptations of a book I felt really managed this was Desert Hearts, another mid-century lesbian story, based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule.)

But let’s go back to the topic of privilege. Carol and Therese are not just rounded up and thrown in jail or an asylum. But not all lesbians are urban, middle-class and protected. If you’d like to read a novel about working class white lesbians in the 20th century that isn’t a pulp novel, I recommend Madelyn Arnold’s Year of Full Moons, or for a grimmer, less hopeful tale, the semi-autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (which was also made into a movie, directed by Angelica Huston.) If you choose the latter, be prepared to rage. It’s a hard book.

But if you want a window on a world we are slowly leaving behind, in which merely loving a person of the same sex is enough to lose your children forever, do take a look at Carol.


Overall – 9

Now. There’s one more thing I’d like to address. All of the books/movies mentioned in this review are about white lesbians. I hope you’ve all asked yourself at some point while reading this “Um… Erica, where are the women of color?” Because I know I did.

Unfortunately mid-20th century history still pretty regularly erases women of color, but there were and are lesbians of color whose stories should be known. Here’s some suggestions of good books and movies:

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community
by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Madeline D. Davis Nonfiction on my to-read list

The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman – Nonfiction, and possibly foundational for generations to come. Reviewed here: http://okazu.yuricon.com/2016/04/10/the-gay-revolution-the-story-of-the-struggle/

Zami by Audra Lorde – semi-autobiographical fiction by a master of writing

Living as a Lesbian by Cheryl Clarke – Poetry by and about an openly gay black women when people were still insisting there was no such thing.

Watermelon Woman is the earliest African-American lesbian movie I know.

Oh but look, Paris is Burning is older. About ballroom dancing, but featuring queer folks of color.

Latina Lesbian Writers and Artists by Maria Dolores Costa – this is a look at contemporary creators, mostly.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Tally is a YA novel set in the Civil Rights period in which a black and a white girl find themselves on opposites of the issues, but attracted to one another nonetheless.

Lisa Freeman’s Honey Girls is another YA book, which looks amazing, about a Hawaiian girl coping with mainland life and race…and liking girls.

Oh and for contemporary Queer Japanese creators, the Queer Japan Project documentary was just funded on Kickstarter! These stories ought to be amazing.

This is not meant to be, and isn’t remotely, comprehensive, just a few suggestions to get you started. If you have any suggestions for works set in the 20th century by and/or featuring lesbian woman of color, please write them in the comments! I have a summer coming up and need to line up some good reading. ^_^

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4 Responses

  1. “If you have any suggestions for works set in the 20th century by and/or featuring lesbian woman of color, please write them in the comments!” I’m sad about how difficult it is to think of examples for this, but: When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Córdova (1970’s) and Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas (1990’s). And Lorraine Hansberry was a lesbian… I’ve only read A Raisin in the Sun by her (great, but no lesbian content), but I see she wrote To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: An Informal Autobiography, where I assume her sexual orientation is acknowledged somewhere. For films, Deepa Mehta’s film Fire (1990’s, I think) and Nisha Ganatra’s Chutney Popcorn film (1990’s).

  2. Also, thank you for providing the list you did! I really enjoyed this movie and do need to try the book it adapts, but your critique is valid and it’s cool to see the other books and movies you mentioned highlighted.

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