Where is my knight?

Erin MacKenzie on the subversive history of lesbian photography

 

 

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Our self-representation, the way we define who we are, also takes the shape of the story we tell. What we remember, what we stress as significant, and what we omit of our past defines our present. And since the boundaries of our self-definition also delimit our hopes and aspirations, this personal history affects our future. If we see ourselves as victimized, as powerless and overwhelmed by forces we cannot understand or control, we will choose to live cautiously, avoid conflict and evade pain. If we see ourselves as loved, grounded, powerful, we will embrace the future, live courageously and accept challenges with confidence.[1] – Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters, 1997.

 

 

A minority community is empowered by and seeks legitimacy in its own history; being able to place itself on a historical trajectory, it can then envisage a better future for itself based on its progression through time. For queer communities this is complicated slightly by shifting understandings of human sexuality over time. As Michel Foucault pointed out in A History of Sexuality, homosexual acts (‘sodomy’) have always existed, but it is only recently that these acts came to be associated with one’s identity as fundamental to our sense of being: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”[2] The identities of heterosexual and homosexual were first constructed by nineteenth century sexologists who focused almost entirely on sexual activity, but as homosexual identities came to be developed by gay men and lesbians they became much more than sexual acts and began forming a basis for understanding one’s sense of self. This means that the few women we know of today who actively desired other women prior to the nineteenth century, such as Sappho and Anne Lister, never understood themselves as lesbians in the way we do today. Lois Rita Helmbold has likened what we know of lesbian history as being comparable to the archaeological excavation of an ancient pot that has shattered into tiny pieces, writing: “These are some pieces of the pot which we have excavated, but we still don’t know the contours or even the size of the pot.”[3] Our history is deeply fragmented, with much of it remaining hidden and inaccessible; what is more, it is important to bear in mind that, the little that is available often exists because of factors such as an individual’s fame, notoriety or wealth. This is a history overwhelmingly populated by privileged, wealthy women.

Despite its difficulties, an important segment of lesbian community-building is carried out through the counteraction of both historical and contemporary under- and mis-representation. “There are so few representations and so many unfulfilled desires,” writes the photographer Tessa Boffin, whose 1991 series The Knight’s Move combines historical figures and fantasy in order to combat the challenges of lesbian representation.[4] Martha Vicinus has pointed out that lesbian history “will remain a history of discontinuities” because there is so much that can never be retrieved:

Our history includes teen-age crushes, romantic friendships, Boston marriages, theatrical cross-dressing, passing women, bulldykes and prostitutes, butches and femmes, and numerous other identifications which may – and may not – include genital sex. When we can’t even claim a specific sexual expression as a key to our past, we must accept a fragmentary and confusing history.[5]

In attempting to create a collective lesbian history historians are limited by the documentation available and the fact that, as was previously observed, those who left such documentation behind, many of whom were artists and writers, often came from privileged backgrounds. Our history is dominated by middle and upper class women, while the voice of those who were illiterate, or of women whose lives were perceived as unremarkable, is absent. Therefore, while looking to the past for role models has been a powerful means of situating lesbians within the wider historical framework, it problematically employs that tradition of privileging public lives over private that patriarchal history depends upon, perpetuating the very system that excludes them in the first place. In terms of providing representation it is, then, limited. What Boffin attempts to do in The Knight’s Move is counteract such limitations by treating fantasy as being equally as important and resonant as historical fact.

In the first image in the series, photographs are littered among bushes in front of an ornate tombstone. These photographs relate to a number of culturally important figures in lesbian history: Sylvia Beach and Janet Flanner photographed by Berenice Abbott, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Cecil Beaton, and two self-portraits by Alice Austen.

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The work is accompanied by a short poem:

Somewhere in a cemetery

Down a dark pathway

Underneath a stone angel

I stumble across your photographs

Where is my knight

My knave

My angel

My casanova

My lady in waiting

I could hardly find you

In my history books

But now in this scene

You all come together. [6]

The narrator of the poem desires more than what she can find in her history books. A Knight’s Move is borne out of frustration not just with the lack of history, but also with the patriarchal mode of the means of its production. Flanner, Beach, Stein, Toklas and Austen remain important figures in lesbian history, but Boffin warns about being limited by historical documentation:

For subcultures such as lesbians’ that are consistently unrepresented then, the notion of roles [sic] models is both essential, and simultaneously restrictive. Essential in that it is necessary for representations of our communities to be both visible to us, and acknowledged by the ‘general public’, of which we are also a part. Restrictive in that we as a marginalised group have so few historical lesbian images upon which to model our psychic or social selves. [7]

Creating a lesbian history requires imagination and re-invention – “we have to produce ourselves through representations in the present, here and now.” [8] The lesbian knight or page may not have been actual historical figures, but these photographs allow us to imaginatively construct a history that compensates for the absence of documentation. It is important to remember that our interest in the past is informed by our own historical circumstances, and that lesbian identity as we understand it is a fairly recent reading of the self. If women before the twentieth century did not view themselves as lesbians in the sense we do today, then fantasy might be a particularly appropriate way to respond to this problem of history as opposed to attempts to interpret the past through a present day understanding of gender and sexuality.

The inversion of heterosexual media to produce alternative and new meanings readable to lesbian audiences has been another important feature in the creation of lesbian visual culture. Jean Fraser’s decision to reference Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the series Celestial Bodies, for example, updated the transgressiveness of a canonically important painting, questioning anew how sexuality is viewed within the dominant culture. While Le Déjeuner‘s contemporary subject matter and flatness of paint defied convention, Michael Fried has outlined the way in which this early modernist image was not simply an outright rejection of tradition, but directly referenced the works of masters such as Raphael, Girogione and Watteau. [9] An engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael, The Judgement of Paris , provided the composition for the three foreground figures, but Manet gave it a contemporary twist by dressing the male figures in modern clothing, thus bringing the accompanying female nude out from the realm of classicism or mythology and, obscenely, grounding her in the present. [10] Just as Manet referenced the past to produce a sexually transgressive painting of an immodest female nude in the company of men and caused a scandal in 1863, Fraser’s Celestial Bodies challenges the tradition of the female nude by recoding it within a specifically lesbian context. The art historical canon and visual representation of female sexuality more specifically, is overwhelmingly dominated by white, western men, and so what Fraser does by reinventing one of the most canonically important paintings of the nineteenth century is ask us to consider alternative readings and approaches to images of female sexuality that decentre men.

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Adrienne Rich’s notion of compulsory heterosexuality suggests that patriarchal society presupposes that all women’s sexuality is innately orientated towards men, meaning that lesbian lives, which defy this assumption, are as a result “seen as deviant, as pathological, or as emotionally and sensually deprived.”[11] In Manet’s painting, the female nude exists to be enjoyed by the fully-clothed men who accompany her as well as presumed male viewers, but what Fraser’s photographs do is challenge the inherent assumption that the female nude exists to desire and be desired by men. It also alters our relationship with the original painting, as demonstrated by Starla Stensaas:

After viewing Fraser’s “inverted” use of Manet’s placement of clothed men in relation to the nude women, the objectification of the woman and the privilege of the dressed men as a heterosexual icon becomes clear; it is the inversion and revision of the heterosexual icon that gives us pause to consider its meaning as a heterosexual icon.[12]

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The intelligibility of heterosexuality, therefore, depends on what is other to it but we are only forced to consider its meaning when it is directly confronted by this other. I do not mean to argue for the possibilities of a queer reading of Le Déjeuner, but instead consider how this unquestionability of heterosexuality as the default sexuality in society marginalises, even erases, those who exist outside of it. As Monique Wittig outlines:

… the straight mind cannot conceive of a culture, a society where heterosexuality would not order not only all human relationships but also its very production of concepts and all the processes which escape consciousness, as well… to reject the obligation of coitus and the institutions that this obligation has produced as necessary for the constitution of a society, is simply an impossibility, since to do this would mean to reject the possibility of the constitution of the other and to reject the “symbolic order,” to make the constitution of meaning impossible, without which no one can maintain an internal coherence. Thus, lesbianism, homosexuality, and the societies that we form cannot be thought of or spoken of, even though they have always existed. [13]

At another point in this essay Wittig famously stated that ‘lesbians are not women’ because, she argues, lesbians exist outside of the heterosexual system of thought: if woman is defined through her relation and in opposition to man, and lesbians do not fit this definition of either man or woman then, in terms of linguistics, she must be something else for which heterosexual ideology does not provide a language. [14]

Wittig’s claim is radical and while Fraser’s work does not necessarily follow the same argument it does nonetheless question the way we read visual material and our relationship to it.

How we read visual material is also the subject of much of Deborah Bright’s groundbreaking practice. The relationship between popular media and lesbian identity is, for example, explored in work such as Dream Girls, a series of photomontages in which Bright inserted images of herself into stills from old Hollywood films. Like Boffin, Bright is operating here within the realm of fantasy – fantasies that manifested themselves during adolescence when she first encountered these films. In one photograph that uses a still from the 1949 film, Adams Rib, Spencer Tracey kisses Katherine Hepburn while Bright, taking the position of their driver, looks away as though bored. Her arm stretches out behind Hepburn and her insertion into the scene alters the dynamic between the two stars – instead of being a romantic embrace, we can read the kiss as platonic with the understanding that Bright is really the romantic interest.

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The subversion of heterosexuality Bright was able to imagine during her childhood is visualised explicitly in her photomontages. The turn-on lies in the disruption of heterosexuality:

My pleasure in these montages is with the power relations among the characters they depict; with the sabotage of the heterosexual Hollywood set-up by a supplementary or substitute character of ambiguous gender who upsets the heterosexual economy of the scene. [15]

In considering the relationship between Hollywood stars of the 1930s and lesbian viewers, Andrea Weiss has argued that lesbians were drawn to unconventional displays of femininity. Rumours that circulated about the sexuality of certain actresses and the ‘inconsistent images of femininity’ created by Hollywood’s star system enabled lesbians to project their desires and identifications onto the scenes of stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn. [16] In the absence of representation lesbians identified themselves with Marlene Dietrich’s masculine attire and flirtation with a woman in Morocco (despite it being narratively for the benefit of a male suitor) and in Greta Garbo’s refusal to marry in Queen Christina. In representations of ambiguous femininity lesbian viewers could find subtext and project their desires onto the screen. This process is not unique to 1930s lesbian film-goers, but one that much of lesbian history itself depends on according to Weiss:

Something that, through gossip, is commonplace knowledge within the gay subculture is often completely unknown on the outside, or if not unknown, at least unspeakable. It is this insistence by the dominant culture on making homosexuality invisible and unspeakable that both requires and enables us to locate gay history in rumour, innuendo, fleeting gestures and coded language… [17]

These films could never explicitly represented homosexuality in a positive light due to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code and any suggestion of lesbianism encouraged by Hollywood marketers was not for the benefit of lesbian viewers but the titillation of men. [18] Dream Girls takes the subtext and makes it ‘maintext’, imagining a rewrite of the history of cinema that gives lesbians more than a slight acknowledgement by way of  ‘fleeting gestures and coded language’. Homosexuality is no longer censored in such a way in our media today, but queer viewers still do not find themselves satisfied with what is offered. A recent phenomenon to occur has been termed ‘queer-baiting’, in which writers of shows offer enough subtext between same-sex characters to hook queer viewers, but nothing is ever made explicit in order to ensure the show’s heterosexual audience does not lose interest or feel alienated. [19] Queer viewers are toyed with; savvy show-runners exploit the desire queer individuals have to find themselves represented by offering the possibility of such representation without ever allowing it to be fully realised.

Being able to find subtext and traces of oneself within a world so dominated by heterosexuality is arguably a staple of the ‘lesbian experience’. Through processes that creatively reimagined, reinvented and recontextualised, lesbian photographers like Boffin, Fraser and Bright critically engaged with the often barely tangible history of their community and sought to contribute to its moulding and understanding, becoming important interlocutors. “If we are to form an enduring community,” as Lucia Hoagland has written, “…if we are to transform subculture to community, it will be on the basis of what we create, not what we find.” [20]

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 199.

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990) 43.

[3] Lois Rita Helmbold, “A Historical Introduction,” in A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists (Oakland: Waterwomen Books, 1987), 14.

[4] Tessa Boffin, “The Knight’s Move” in Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, eds. Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser (London: Pandora, 1991) 49.

[5] Martha Vicinus, “They Wonder to Which Sex I belong”: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove (New York: Routledge, 1993) 433-434.

[6] Boffin, 43.

[7] Ibid, 50.

[8] Ibid, 49.

[9] Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism: Or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 57-58.

[10] Ibid, 56.

[11] Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995) 220.

[12] Starla Stensaas, “The Transformed and Transforming Image in the Shift from Print to Digital Culture” in Allegory Old and New: In Literature, the Fine Arts, Music and Theatre, and its Continuity in Culture, eds. Marlies Kronegger and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994) 234-235.

[13] Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (London: Routledge, 2003) 133.

[14] Ibid, 134-135.

[15] Deborah Bright, Dream Girls in Stolen Glances, 152.

[16] Andrea Weiss, “A queer feeling when I look at you: Hollywood stars and lesbian spectatorship in the 1930s” in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: Routledge, 1991) 290-291.

[17] Ibid, 287.

[18] Ibid, 290.

[19] How Do We Solve A Problem Like “Queerbaiting”?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext. Autostraddle.com (http://www.autostraddle.com/how-do-we-solve-a-problem-like-queerbaiting-on-tvs-not-so-subtle-gay-subtext-182718) Accessed 1/08/15

[20] Lucia Hoagland. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. (Palo Alto, Calif.: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988) 155.

 

Images:

[1] Untitled (The Knights Move), Tessa Boffin, 1991. From: Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, London: Pandora, 1991, 45.

[2] Le Déjeneur sur lherbe. Edouard Manet. 1863. Oil on canvas, 208 x 264,5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

[3] Blasphemy/Communion (Celestial Bodies), Jean Fraser. 199. From: Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, London: Pandora, 1991, 82.

[4] Untitled (Dream Girls), Deborah Bright. 1990. From: Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, London: Pandora, 1991, 148.

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