Lesbianism as a Political Weapon: The Struggles in Film and in Reality
"A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion"
“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”
This was the incipit of the Radical Lesbians’ manifesto Woman identified Woman published in 1973.
By the time the earliest silent movies with implied homosexual tendencies came out, such as Pandora’s Box (1929), lesbianism was not a sexual orientation anymore. It had already transformed into a feminist political weapon as a reaction against male power.
A phallocentric society, which depicted heterosexuality as the Leibnizian best of all possible worlds, brought women towards the extremist rejection of masculinity and manhood in reality, even before it was portrayed in film.
Hollywood treated lesbianism as a deviation from the norm and considered it a threat to be dealt with by either the use of censorship or by presenting it as evil. For instance, lesbians were often depicted as vampires (i.e. Les Biches by Claude Chabrol, 1968) or violent, perverted figures (i.e. Windows by Gordon Willis, 1980) doomed to death or punishment.
This implied that women who disrespected the “lanam fecit” and “casta fuit” role [Latin expressions about the way a woman should behave: “to knit wool” and “be chaste”] and its heterosexual bound must be punished to be reintegrated in the society or permanently expelled. Moreover, mainstream or independent porno-movie productions perfectly paid lip-service to the male dominant view since it exorcized the lesbian threat as a bland erotic fantasy for men.
Hence, fighting the pornographic voyeurism which tried to bend the lesbian world to its own advantage, the second-wave feminists (1970s-1980s) encouraged lesbianism as the most logical choice. It was a rational alienation caused by women’s dissatisfaction with the heteronormative institutions like capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and marriage, to which we could add some contemporary manifestations in Italy, such as Family Day and Fertility Day, as a primitive recall of the Platonian vision of women as instrument filii (“child-makers”). In regards to this, Cheryl Clarke wrote in her essay “New Notes on Lesbianism”:
“I name myself lesbian because this culture oppresses, silences, and destroys lesbians, even lesbians who don’t call themselves “lesbians.” I name myself “lesbian” because I want to be visible to other black lesbians. I name myself “lesbian” because I do not subscribe to predatory/institutionalized heterosexuality.”
In relation to this, the 1972 article “Heterosexuality in Women: its Causes and Cure,” published in the lesbian journal Libera (Berkeley, California), perfectly supported the officially politicized lesbian practices. Indeed, in response to the American Psychiatric Association which had classified homosexuality as a mental disease, this article depicted heterosexual orientation as the truly pathological condition, deviant from “what is normal.”
Therefore, lesbianism not only fuelled the fight for women’s independence in the feminist movement but also offered a conscious view of sexual orientation. While the LGBT community usually claims sexual orientation to be a natural expression of oneself rather than a choice, the second wave lesbian feminists suggested a more thoughtful perspective. Indeed, asking for lesbianism to become the most logical choice, they particularly managed to reinforce and concentrate women’s energies in creating a new space and dialogue against the surrounding sexist, social structure.
Lastly, in consideration of how the patriarchy attempted to depoliticize lesbianism in cinema as well as in real life, I want to conclude with an inquiry: since lesbianism was depicted as a necessary reaction against male social institutions, could lesbian feminists turn back to heterosexual relationships if men were not so oppressive? And if so, was lesbianism merely a temporary punishment for men and, again, something that put him at the center of the world in a post-humanist way as an omnipresent, catastrophic pharmakos (“outcast”) to be rescued?
In short, could women, even lesbian women who consciously fought and rejected men, be still considered appendix to men by making such a politicized choice?