Older Lesbians in Mainstream Cinema

A review of Exploring the Hypervisibility Paradox: Older Lesbians in Contemporary Mainstream Cinema (1995-2009), by Eva Krainitzki.

Eva Krainitzki’s thesis explores the intersection of age, gender and sexuality in representations of older (used here to describe women considered to be sixty years or above, i.e. female retirement age in the UK) lesbians and queer women in contemporary narrative film from both Britain and the United States of America, in order to offer a new interjection into debates surrounding the onscreen representation of aging and queer sexuality in lesbian (film) studies. Working from Kathleen Woodward’s suggestion that we need “to bring the representation of the older female body into focus, and we need to reflect on what we see and what we don’t” (“Performing Age, Performing Gender.” NWSA Journal 18, no. 1 (2006): 162), Krainitzki argues that her own research, an interdisciplinary approach drawing together lesbian film studies and aging studies, will offer much-needed reflection on two categories not frequently combined in research or cultural relations: “lesbian” and “old”.

Exploring the Hypervisibility Paradox opens with an overview of lesbian representation in mainstream British and North American film and television, those available to the author in Lisbon, Portugal, in the 2000s, alongside Krainitzki’s disclosure of her sexuality and an anecdote about the project’s origins: a trip to see Notes on a Scandal, the bleak portrayal of Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a lonely older woman whose desire is pathologised, coupled with Krainitzki’s realization that there are few positive images of older lesbians, which led to Krainitzki’s fearful questioning, “when I get old am I going to end up like that?” and, subsequently, this doctoral thesis (p. 10).

Hypervisibility, in Krainitzki’s work, is attributed to Ralph Ellison’s novel, The Invisible Man (1965), in which he analyses the hypervisibility of the black subject/object. Krainitzki argues that the term has found life beyond black studies in order to consider social marginalization’s relation to gender and sexuality, which is “everywhere and nowhere simultaneously” (p.14). Krainistzki declares that “the hypervisibility of postfeminist lesbian representations are characteristic of our post- L Word cultural landscape” (p. 14), before setting out to consider alternatives to the youthful aesthetic of the L Word’s “lesbian chic.”

Krainitzki then justifies her privileging of mainstream, and the absence of independent, film in her thesis, arguing that the latter “still reach only an elite set of film festival and art house cinemagoers” (p. 17). Broader reach and increased visibility are also justifications for her choice of English-language British and Hollywood film over other national cinema. The author has chosen a film corpus featuring not only explicitly defined lesbians, but also those with a (perhaps short-term) interest in another woman, and straight characters who can be queered via lesbian viewing strategies.

Chapter 2, “Approaching Age Studies,” is a thorough exploration of existing work on age and aging, monopolized by the health and social sciences, an issue Krainitzki wishes to redress. She outlines the interdisciplinary theoretical framework for the thesis, while challenging heterosexist assumptions surrounding aging, attractiveness and sexuality, with particular focus on aging as decline, biological versus cultural aging, positive aging or aging successfully, and the problematic notion of the “sexy oldie” (Merryn Gott. Sexuality, Sexual Health and Ageing. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press, 2005, 2); before considering the taboo of the older, naked female body and the paradox of the cultural construct of the old woman, simultaneously perceived as sexually unattractive and asexual, with the latter having the potential to contradict the sexuality category “lesbian”. The Chapter then considers feminist approaches to aging, lamenting the fact that aging has often been neglected within feminist studies, while acknowledging that contributions from lesbian feminist authors were among the first to identify various dimensions of discrimination: as a woman, as a lesbian, and as elderly. That lesbians may demonstrate a greater tolerance of diversity with regard to aesthetics leads Krainitzki to consider arguments about gay women placing less emphasis on youth and traditional standards of feminine beauty (Thompson et al. 1999: p.44). The Chapter then moves on to explore the representation of aging in relation to screened heterosexual women and the death of the “other”, before concluding with the recognition that a double standard of aging exists.

Chapter 3 reviews literature relating to the representation of aging femininities in film, onscreen lesbian images, and theories of (oppositional) viewing practices. It explores, and critiques, the “positive images” approach and questions where non-“lesbian chic” dykes are represented, before outlining seminal queer theories by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler, linking these to the New Queer Cinema and then considering theories of spectatorship, including lesbian viewing strategies.

Original analysis begins proper in the fourth chapter, with a series of readings of older self-identified lesbians in films such as Love Actually (including the deleted scenes of lesbian desire), Hold Back the Night, and The Shipping News to consider the older lesbian in relation to terminal illness, death, and mourning, drawing on Terry Castle’s concept of the apparitional lesbian (The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) to consider the general lack of happy endings for older lesbians in film. One of the thesis’ highlights is Krainitzki’s re-reading of Edith and Abby’s story (1961) in If These Walls Could Talk 2.

Chapter 5 considers a single film, the aforementioned Notes on a Scandal, to read the protagonist, Barbara, in relation to discourses of monstrosity, before arguing that the lack of a label for Barbara can be aligned to queer theory’s refusal of fixed identity categories. Analysis of Dench continues in the following chapter, where she is read “against the grain” (p. 236) to consider how the succession of transgressive female characters she has played, including “lesbian” roles, contrasts somewhat with her star persona as “national treasure” (p. 27).  Krainitzki reasoning that such intense focus on Dench is justified is threefold: because the latter’s personae present “a set of refreshingly alternative roles for older women,” because Dench “started her film career at the age of 61” (p. 242) and she “contributes (by way of her acting pedigree and status) to an increased visibility of the lesbian roles she performs” (p. 27). Krainitzki then employs a range of lesbian viewing strategies to read films, including Goldeneye, with the intention of appropriating characters and films for lesbian use, aided by the intertextuality of Dench’s lesbian and bisexual roles.

The work’s seventh and concluding chapter draws together the themes explored throughout the thesis, before considering the implications of the findings and pointing forward to useful avenues of future research, particularly the intersection of aging and lesbian desire within both independent cinema and documentary film. Eva Krainitzki concludes that, despite mainstream cinema’s hypervisibility paradox, characters who transgress norms relating to age, gender and sexuality can offer opportunities for lesbian identification in a lively thesis that could be of use for those working in Gender and Queer Studies, as well as academics with an interest in lesbian representation within Film Studies.

Leanne Dawson
School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures
University of Edinburgh
leanne.dawson@ed.ac.uk

Primary Sources 

GoldenEye, directed by Martin Campbell, UK and USA, 1995
If These Walls Could Talk 2, directed by Jane Anderson, Martha Coolidge and Anne Heche, USA, 2000.
Love Actually, directed by Richard Curtis, UK, USA, France, 2003
Notes on a Scandal, directed by Richard Eyre, UK and France, 2006
The Shipping News, directed by Lasse Halström, UK, 2001 

Dissertation Information 

University of Gloucestershire. 2011. 300 pp. Primary Advisor: Ros Jennings.

Image: Judy Dench at premiere of “Notes on a Scandal” in Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply