[Spoilers for Carol and also for The 100’s season three premiere.]
I finally saw Carol. I’ve been hearing about this film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt forever, but a variety of scheduling conflicts prevented me from seeing it until yesterday. Also, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I would connect with an arty film about two upper-classy white femmes fallings in love in a time of repression.
I didn’t need to worry. I thought it was brilliant. I connected.
Lately, the internet (especially the queer women I read and follow) has been abuzz over the Oscars’ snubbing of Carol for Best Picture and Best Director. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who play Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, respectively, both got nominations for their acting, which they richly deserve. But with a 95% positive score on Metacritic showing that almost all critics adored this movie, it is a bit head-scratchy that it did not get an Oscar nomination.
Of course, plenty of people have theories why. I really like Autostraddle’s take on it (“The ‘Carol’ Oscars Snub: The Problem Isn’t Lesbians, It’s Misandry”), as well as this post at The Atlantic (“Why Carol Is Misunderstood”), and this one at The A.V. Club (“By mostly snubbing Carol, the Oscars continue to exclude queer cinema”). I’ve heard the criticism that Carol is too distant and too chilly, and I can see why some people would come out of the movie thinking that, but I think that criticism is based on a lack of experience in how to see — to really truly see — two women falling in love with each other.
Our world today, the world of 2016, is much more open to same-sex love than the world of the 1950s where Carol is set. However, our world shares something with the 1950s, something that has never changed. Stories of same-sex love, particularly of lesbian love, are so rare that it is still shocking to see it portrayed realistically on the big screen. I’ve been watching and writing about lesbian popular culture since 2002 and have endured countless terrible films and TV shows about lesbians, but even I was shocked by the way lesbians were shown in Carol: With grace. With respect. And with love — genuine, open-hearted, hope-filled love.
I believe that director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy understood how challenging Carol would be for viewers steeped in The L Word at best and so-called lesbian porn at worst. Carol actually teaches viewers how to see two women together as lesbians through the repeated use of one scene. As the movie opens, we see Carol and Therese having tea together in a hotel lobby. It looks like nothing at first, even though we suspect it must be something because the movie is about them. But their attitude and words and posture are blank to us — they appear to be casual acquaintances, just friends.
Then the entire movie happens, and their romance is told with all the luxurious flair of Top Shelf Hollywood. These women are beautiful together; their midcentury world is beautiful around them; and all this beauty gives their story a coat of glamorous gloss that could be mistaken for a lack of depth. But no. That gloss is the lacquer that coats these women’s secret lives. It is makeup, with all its symbolic meaning: mainstream respect, traditional femininity, women’s armor. Therese and Carol can see through the lipstick and the furs to the truth of their hearts. Hopefully, as their story progresses, the viewer also learns how to see through it.
As the movie draws to a close, we return to that scene of Carol and Therese having tea, and after everything we’ve experienced, this scene now takes on a much deeper, more urgent meaning. This repeated scene teaches the viewer how to see the two women in a different light. It shows the viewer that what might appear to be casual and distant on the surface is actually about something that a random passer-by could never understand. Two people’s interactions are never as simple as they seem.
This is how lesbians have lived their lives in public for centuries.
The part of Carol that affected me most deeply — well, other than the last scene, which was incredible — was the love scene. All too often, lesbians getting in bed together are depicted these days in sex scenes, not love scenes, but Carol had a love scene. It was made all the more clear to me because later in the same day I watched the season three premiere of The 100, a TV show that I absolutely love and that is basically the complete opposite of Carol. However, this episode also had an intimate scene between two women, and it was absolutely a sex scene.
This is the difference: In Carol, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara made me feel as if these two characters cared for each other deeply. It was intimate in a way that the vast majority of sex scenes between women are not. It was shot from Carol’s perspective at first as she gazes at Therese, and that framing of the scene — from Carol’s perspective, not an unknown (male) viewer’s — was so important. Sex scenes are so often shot from the male gaze. We watch (or leer) as the women do it. But not in Carol. It quickly closed in, moved from Carol to Therese’s perspective, and then zoomed in closer and closer until the scene faded into the narrowing space between the two women. It was about Carol and Therese together, loving each other. It was so tender and warm, so charged with the characters’ feelings of amazement that this was finally happening. It was about love rather than titillation, and I had never seen that play out between two women on the big screen before. It was extraordinary.
The scene in The 100, in contrast, started with a distant shot. The male gaze was still there at first, and it was clearly supposed to be sexy. That made the scene ordinary. Don’t get me wrong: the ordinariness of The 100’s same-sex sex scene was revolutionary in its own way because it is a television show aimed at young adults (!) in which the main female character doesn’t have anxiety about her bisexuality (!) and clearly is only interested in distracting herself for a moment with sex (!). I mean, I am OK with the fact that The 100’s sex scene was ordinary; it put queer women on the same level as men, and that’s something to be happy about too.
But it drove home, for me, how extraordinary the Carol scene was.
Two other scenes in Carol show how the young and inexperienced Therese develops her ability to see beyond the obvious. In the first half of the movie, she goes into a record store to buy a gift for Carol. At this point in their relationship, things are very new, and Therese is still becoming aware of the fact that she is unusually drawn to this older woman. At the record store she sees two butch women together, and they eye her as she eyes them. She recognizes them as lesbians because they appear to fit the stereotypes that most people know about lesbians.
Toward the end of the movie, Therese is at a party where she meets a woman played by Carrie Brownstein. This woman is not outwardly butch; she passes as straight, just like Carol. But this woman (I can’t remember her name but Carrie Brownstein!) deliberately approaches Therese, and it seems quite clear that she is hitting on Therese. Therese recognizes this, because she has learned how to see queerness beyond the obvious. She has learned to see beyond facades.
The question is: By the end of the movie, has the viewer learned this as well? Obviously, no movie can work for every viewer, but this is a very difficult lesson to learn. It has to undo decades of visual art that depicts lesbians quite differently: as ugly, as unnaturally mannish, as oversexed, as vampires. It has to cross the gulf between straight and gay that is as wide as the Pacific for some people. And it has to do this through directorial choices and acting.
I think there are aspects about Todd Haynes’s direction that may not suit some people. It is a bit slow to start; it is deliberate in its pacing; and it asks that the viewer be patient. It has a veneer of taste and respectability, a veneer that some people simply may dislike. It is also, however, truly revolutionary that a lesbian love story has been given this tasteful and respectful treatment. The problem is, respectfulness can feel dry and distant. If the viewer only sees the surface beauty, they never feel the emotion that lies beneath.
I think that novels have it a little easier than movies, because in a novel the writer can explain how a character feels through words. A film relies on the actors (and other elements like the art direction and the music — oh, the music!) to relay emotions. Though I feel that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara were revelatory in their emotions, I have the advantage of being sympathetic to their feelings because I have experienced some of them myself. That initial fuzzy shock of inexplicable attraction. That complicated, gut-churning confusion about what is real and what is not. That moment of pure unadulterated awe when you realize that the truth is exactly what you hoped it was. Beneath all that is the devastating knowledge that much of the world thinks what you’re feeling is wrong.
I can recognize parts of my life in their story. I’m sure that some straight viewers can also do this, but frankly, I think it does take quite a leap. I’ve read and seen enough representations of lesbians created by straight people to know that plenty of straight people, well meaning though they are, can’t quite make that leap, though they may get close. It's not even their fault, really. They may believe they've created a deeply felt story of lesbian love, but to a lesbian audience, it may feel like a superficial imagining of our interior lives. (This is not always the case of course; sometimes straight creators can tell a queer story very well.)
But. There is a gulf. It is unbridgable for some. This is the challenge that media about queer women faces in the mainstream. It’s something I think about all the time as I write my novels: Will straight readers get this? You can never tell. (I don’t always care if straight readers will get it. But if you’re working in the mainstream, it has to cross your mind.)
I wish Carol had been recognized by the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. I loved it. I’m so glad that I saw it and that it exists in the world. It has definitely moved representations of lesbians forward, and I hope that the next time a movie like this is made, more viewers will be better able to feel it.
P. S. I am on a social media hiatus as I write this, so I won't be able to respond on social media. Apparently being on a social media hiatus, though, makes me really want to write blog posts, so there's a chance I will write more blog posts.