Living on the Edge - Gay and Lesbian Representation in ‘Hollywood’s Motion Picture Productions’ and its Impact on the American Spectatorship

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 29 Pages

Gender Studies


Living on the Edge: The (Gay and) Lesbian Representation in ‘Hollywood’s Motion Picture Productions’ and its Impact on the American Spectatorship.

It's like somebody's just powdered me with fleas the entire time, I'm being irritated that they're not telling the truth.

by Susie Bright.[1]

Without considering the enormous impact of motion picture productions on the human subconscious, the great mass of population erroneously claims that it is ‘just’ another entertaining Hollywood movie that people are watching in order to momentarily forget about their personal daily lives. However, especially in Western culture, Hollywood, as the leader of all media industries, has had an incredible influence on every aspect of society over the last several decades - and this influence continues to gain power. In a world in which people are inundated with information and images, Glen Ward postulates that the consumption of movies is “comparatively unregulated and unpredictable.”[2] Whether it is consciously or unconsciously, from childhood on humans constantly pay enormous attention to the information that they receive from Hollywood. Because of this, all people from the most educated to the most mainstream of spectators do not simply watch a movie, but rather consider Hollywood fare as a media which informs and mirrors the world with reel/real images that impart to us social attitudes, concepts of the ideal, and knowledge of human desires and concerns that our culture supposedly commonly shares.

Because of this cultural information that the spectatorship receives, humans ingest and replicate. It is extremely important to answer the question of who is in control of this communication, whether it is a dialogue, in which society actively and fairly influences the production of movies and whether the medium arises from the needs of Western culture and life; or, if, instead, it is the media and those that are in control of the creation, language, and production of these films which controls the ways in which American people look, think and feel about themselves. Moreover, it is important to examine how issues of identity are actually presented on screen and in which way this depiction shapes and misshapes the American society.

One must especially be concerned with the depiction and messages that are imparted about the most marginal members of society, specifically, with the depiction of gay and lesbian characters on the American screen, as

More than any other topic of cultural diversity, sexual orientation and sexual identity in the United States is more controversial and confusing to many people. We receive less information about this issue than gender or race or even socioeconomic class. Many religions teach that to be gay or lesbian or bisexual is a sin or a sickness.[3]

Though some people still argue that male and female homosexuality should be treated as a private sexual behavior rather than as a form of identity, this must be seen as a pointed misinterpretation and oppression of gay and lesbian culture and life. On the one hand, as Jacques Derrida reveals, the dominant binary system in Western culture, including heterosexuality/homosexuality always weighs “upon the first term, which is held as [having] greater social value, but which also needs the second term to substantiate that value.”[4] This statement which bears close examination, is saying that every binary system is in fact a dependant relationship - one term cannot exist without the other and requires the other in order to remain viable, cohesive, and comprehendible. With this in mind, heterosexuals actually need their contrary partners, namely homosexuals, in order to define themselves as heterosexuals and to claim their heterosexuality. On the other hand, Queer discourse cannot and should not find its primary linkage to the private sexual behaviour. Instead, sexual identity is, as feminist theory argues, always culturally, rather than biologically, determined[5] and needs to be treated as such.

Gay and lesbian identity can and must only be examined in the broadest cultural context; it requires other discourses and aspects of life such as religion, economics, and cultural politics, in order to be understood in it’s full extent. As Jonathan Goldberg correctly states, “The point is that sexuality is only phantasmatically cordoned off to some private sphere; in truth, sexuality structures and destructures the social.”[6] Sexuality, which is, still today, predominantly connected to male powers, has strongly influenced cultural developments by shaping gender differences, family structures, principles of hierarchy, and the like.

Taking this as starting point, Hollywood movie corporations carry a more than a latent menace to American society by depicting American gays and lesbians in a false and grotesquely deforming way. In order to understand this threat arising from some of the most popular Hollywood movies over the last several decades and to analyse the actual consequences on the American spectatorship, a historical overview on gays’ and lesbians’ visibility in the American cultural development is necessary.

The act of both, male and female homosexuality has existed since the very beginning of history, but, contrary to common belief, it was not until the 19th century, when gay men were seen as “personage”.[7] A first clear definition of male homosexuality (there was no overall attention paid to female homosexuality, yet) can be found in Westphal’s article “Contrary Sexual Sensations” in 1869, which appears to be, as Foucault points out in his three-volume work The History of Sexuality (1976-1984), the homosexual “date of birth”:

We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized [...] - less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility [. ]. Homosexuality appeared as one forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practise of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberrations; the homosexual was now a species.[8]

Up to this period, same-sex female relationships had been generally categorized as being harmless. These friendships were commonly treated as being “asexual,” and women who appeared to be close to each other were “rarely perceived as a significant threat to the patriarchal social order.”[9] In the 1920s though, the sexologist Sigmund Freund clearly demarcated the modern view of lesbians in Western culture. Freud argues that lesbians behave “promiscuously] and aren’t capable of a grown-up romantic relationship.”[10] In his article “The Sexual Aberrations”, he describes lesbians as women who suffer from a “childhood trauma” and are incapable of any further development.[11] Freud’s theories quickly became well-known beyond the medical community; his theories influenced other sexologists who finally “classified [lesbianism] as a disorder.”[12] Ultimately, this lead to the widespread conclusion in American society that lesbianism was, indeed, a mental illness. Freudian psychoanalysis as well as the Post-Freudians’ influence drastically “changed people’s perceptions of female "romantic friendships" from a state of near harmlessness to the “unnatural”. From this, mainstream America became more and more “suspicious of love between women”, and a cultural climate was created that “sought to eliminate any images that might be perceived as condoning such perverse behavior”.[13]

In the 1930s, the period of ‘the Great Depression,’ Americans began to pay more and more attention to Hollywood movies. Though the first movie studio in Hollywood had already been founded in 1911,[14] it was not until the thirties, when people’s needs to escape their daily difficulties rapidly increased. Because of this great social crisis, the yearning for entertainment that made them forget about their emotional pressure, accumulated. As Hollywood became a greater part of American life, external censorship threatened the movie industry to “place restrictions on certain types of material which were considered morally unsuitable for American audiences”;[15] the Hollywood industry cooperated immediately.

The newly invented ‘Motion Picture Production Code’, also known as the ‘Hays Code’, named after its first administrator, Will Hays, was soon established and later gained strength through alliance with the ‘Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency’. Their mutual goal was supposedly to keep the American cinema ‘morally’ clean. Hollywood studios, which had not paid any attention to these ‘moral’ values before, were now forced to rewrite all “scenes and references that fell outside of the established guidelines,”[16] including anything that pictured, or merely named, gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters on the silver screen.

From 1930 to 1956, the movie industry censored itself under the "Hays Code", which prohibited the showing of a woman's inner thigh or navel, as well as submachine guns and toilets, among other weird items. The code also required that lesbians and gays [were] not be[en] portrayed, unless they were shown in a negative light.[17]

With these restrictions, Hollywood went through a great shift. From the 1930s onwards, only America’s traditional, conservative, and ‘morally clean’ images could be presented, leaving anything out that did not conform with the ideal American society: in essence, a role model was born.

Though Hollywood movie industries managed to a small extent to write homosexual subtexts into their stories and left some space for multiple interpretations, the movies that managed to do this were few. In the 1930 movie Morokko, for instance, the actress Marlene Dietrich “scandalously wore a men's tuxedo [...] and accepted both a rose and a kiss from a young lady in the cabaret audience - one of the earliest (if not the first) female-to-female kiss”.[18] Because everybody seeks to be represented, gay and lesbian viewers clutched to this straw and made Marlene Dietrich into an underground, lesbian icon. In addition, the movie Queen Christina, directed by Rouben Mamoulian in 1933 and starring Greta Garbo, offered what has been described as “subtle undertones of lesbian tendencies”[19] and made the gay and lesbian consumer culture dream of an age in which Hollywood would better represent their sense of identity. However, in the following decades gays and lesbians continued to see movies with a sense of deepening disappointment; because of this lack of representation, they felt more than unwelcome in American society and definitely often questioned their own identity in moral terms.

In the 1950s, approximately twenty years later, social self-representation of homosexuals began to increase and the code slowly started to loosen its boundaries; its control of the content of motion pictures began to wane. Now, even though gays and lesbians were becoming more visible in all aspects of American society and began to gain inroads into the consciousness of mainstream Americans, it was not until the 1960s, when gays and lesbians were gradually depicted in the American media. Despite these inroads, the representation of homosexuals in realistic, non-villainized, perhaps even heroic ways, was far from finding its place in Hollywood film. On the face of it, it would appear that the ‘Motion Picture Association of America’ was about to make some important changes to the code; the truth though was far from positive, when “On October 3, 1961, the ‘Motion Picture Association of America’ approved a change in the Production Code to allow the depiction of homosexuality and other sexual aberrations when treated with care, discretion and restraint.”[20] By demanding a ‘careful’ and ‘discrete’ depiction of homosexual characters on screen, this new set of restrictions, which at first seemed to open the gates to lesbian and gay characters, moreover, reified and codified what had only been implied before: the idea that these characters had to be pictured as villains, outcasts, murderers, or victims of society. The outcome of this act and supposed new ‘approval’ was to create an even greater cultural divide between homosexual and heterosexual American societies. After 1961, when homosexuals did appear on the silver screen, these characters were now presented as either people to laugh at, people to fear, or people to pity. The only images allowed were those that showed desperate, unhappy, and even suicidal homosexuals.[21] The pattern was clear: characters with any ‘unnatural’ sexuality needed to suffer and were clearly shown as victims who paid for what they were.

Exemplifying this new code of morality governing the representation of gays and lesbians, is the film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children ’s Hour, directed by William Wyler in 1961.[22] Dealing with the consequences of a child’s lie, teacher Martha discovers her sexual desire for her best friend Karen, also a school teacher. Ultimately, Martha is incapable of dealing with this new awareness of her ‘inverted’ and ‘wrong’ physical attraction towards Karen and commits suicide. At the climax of the film, this character cries out to all viewers, terrified homosexuals and relieved heterosexuals alike, “I've ruined your life and I've ruined my own... Oh, I feel so damn sick and dirty I can't stand it anymore!"[23] Martha enacts and performs public shame, misery, and guilt over what she has discovered in herself. The American spectatorship is confronted with the tragic fall of a once well-respected teacher, who is now responsible for the downfall of her school, for the destruction of Karen’s reputation (who is accused by the child of being Martha’s lover), and also for the loss of her own. As society, the Americans can clearly see demands that suicide is the only solution to this dire set of circumstances.

The Children’s Hour clearly and powerfully delivers the message to the American spectatorship that lesbians (and all homosexuals, really) need to suffer for the ‘misguided’ and ‘inverted’ identity they represent. As Martha utters, “There will never be a place for us to go. We are bad people”:[24] This type of scene has the power to reify the traditional patterns of the, what Adrienne Rich calls, system of “heterosexual compulsory”;[25] it acts as a warning to all that the ultimate consequence of acting against the constraints of societal conventions - is death. Jay Presson Allen describes the message of The Children s Hour as the following: “These women were a warning to ladies, to just watch it and get back to the kitchen, where God meant them to be.”[26]


[1] The Celluloid Closet: Special Edition, dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, perf. Lily Tomlin, Susie Bright, Whoopie Goldberg, Richard Dyer, and Sharon Stone, DVD, Columbia/Tristar, 1995.

[2] Glenn Ward, Postmodernism (Chicago: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2003) 60.

[3] Linda Holtzman, Media Messages: What Film, Television, and Popular Music Teach us about Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2000) 256.

[4] Donald E. Hall, Queer Theories (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) 62.

[5] Maggie Humm, Feminism: A Reader (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992) 409.

[6] Jonathan Goldberg, Queering the Renaissance (USA: Duke University Press, 1994) 6.

[7] “Utopia and Castration. How to Read the History of Homosexuality,” Genders. Presenting Innovative Work in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Theoriesm, ed. Jeff King, Issue 38, 2003, University of Colorado, Boulder, 15 September 2004 <http://www.genders.org/g38/g38_king.html>.

[8] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, vol. 1 (London: Penguin Books, 1978) 43.

[9] Sherrie A. Inness, The Lesbian Menace: Ideology, Identity, and the Representation of Lesbian Life (USA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997) 34-35.

[10] “Study Trashes Freudian View of Gays and Lesbians,” The Gay.com Network, ed. Ben Towley, 15 April 2004, San Francisco, 15 September 2004 <http://uk.gay.com/headlines/>.

[11] Donald E. Hall, 37.

[12] “Decades of Denial: Hollywood Portrayals of Lesbianism, 1930-1997,” Loyola Student Historical Journal, ed. Alison A. Grounds, August 1997, Loyola University of New Orleans, 15 September 2004 <http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1997-8/Grounds.html>.


“Decades of Denial,” 15 September 2004.

[14] “Hollywood, California,” Brainy Encyclopaedia, ed. Unknown, 15 September 2004 <http://www.brainyencyclopedia.com/encyclopedia/h/ho/hollywood california.html>.

[15] “Decades of Denial,” 15 September 2004.

[16] “Decades of Denial,” 15 September 2004.

[17] “Censorship: Alive and Well in the U.S.,” IMPACT Press. Enlightening Readers since 1996, ed. Morris Sullivan, April 2000, University Blvd., Orlando, 15 September 2004 <http://www.impactpress.com/articles /aprmay00/censor4500.html.>.

[18] http://www.filmsite.org/sexualfilms.html.>.

[19] “Queen Christina,” Internet Movie Database Inc, ed. Unknown, 1990-2004, USA, 15 September 2004 <http://www.imdb.com/Title70024481>.

[20] “Decades of Denial,” 15 September 2004.


[22] The Children ’s Hour, dir. William Wyler, perf. Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and Fay Bainter, DVD, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1961.

[23] The Children’s Hour, DVD, 1961.


[25] Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existance,” Blood, Bread and Poetry. Selected Prose 1979-1985 (1986): 23-75.

[26] “Homosexuality in Hollywood,” Lesbian Cinema, ed. Unknown, 1997, Universiät Wien, Vienna, 15 September 2004 <http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/easyrider/data/Homosexuality%20in% 20Hollywood.htm.>.


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Gay Lesbian Television Representation Hollywood Homosexuality Basic Instinct Bound Fried Green Tomatoes It's in the Water Monster Showgirls The Celluloid Closet The Children's Hour The Sum of Us Wild Things

Title: Living on the Edge - Gay and Lesbian Representation in ‘Hollywood’s Motion Picture Productions’ and its Impact on the American Spectatorship