Lesbians are one of the most highly codified social demographics to have ever existed on film. In comparison to their male counterparts, the lesbian image is years behind in terms of realist acceptability among mainstream American audiences. In most cases, a lesbian who appears on screen and is not depicted as sexually active appears as butch. Meanwhile, a lesbian who does appear sexually active on screen is highly feminized. This latter variety is often depicted as two femme’s, whose appearance caters to the heterosexual male idea of fetishized lesbianism as exemplified by David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). These tactics polarize the lesbian community into two separate parts, and each part is void of any sort of character dimension as pertaining to their sexuality, thusly informing the popular consciousness that this plastic approximation of lesbianism is in fact realistic.
In 1973 film critic Joan Mellen wrote, at the height of America’s New Hollywood, in her book Women & Their Sexuality In The New Film that lesbians were predominantly depicted as predatory characters. In the course of the chapter Lesbianism In The Movies she cites Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing Of Sister George (1969) as just two of many films that support her thesis. Mellen writes “they (lesbians) appear either compulsively sadistic or masochistic, always possessive, jealous, hateful, and indeed ‘sick’ (page 74)”. She then singles out Radley Metzger’s Therese & Isabelle (1968) as a notable exception to this rule. Though Metzger does in fact strip his lesbian characters of their predatory nature, in contrast to the characterization of lesbians in his previous films such as The Alley Cats (1966), he does not stray away from the masculine gaze of his camera work nor the heterosexual fetishism of lesbian lovemaking.
The removal of this fetishistic approach to the depiction of lesbianism would come some five years after Metzger’s film in the form of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1973). What Fassbinder is interested in is not the sexual fulfillment that David Lynch and Radley Metzger derive from lesbian sex between two femmes, but rather he seeks to imbue his lesbian characters with a dramatic and intimate struggle for power over the other. Superficially this may appear to be a digression into the predatory characterizations of early films, however, Fassbinder does not polarize this characterization, Fassbinder is democratic, endowing every lesbian character equally with predatory traits just as he also permits his characters to exist with greater dimension than Metzger. Still, Fassbinder’s film is only capable of freeing his lesbian characters within an intimate setting in which these characters do not interact with the world at large. Lesbianism, even in Fassbinder’s hands, is still relegated behind closed doors.
By contrast, the male homosexual dandy and comic relief of classic Hollywood was always out in the open. Though these characters were often not explicit about their homosexuality, they were permitted to move through a number of locales and were afforded a variety of different interactions with various characters. Homosexual filmmakers sought to liberate their subjects in a manner opposite to that of the lesbian image. Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour (1950) was scandalized, was labeled pornography for its depiction of homosexual males interacting intimately, despite there being a literal wall between the characters in the film. As lesbians sought to move out of the bedroom and away from fetishism, homosexuals endeavored to move in. If one compares the visual langue of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s My Hustler (1965) with that of Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) it is clear that in exterior shots the lesbians in Franco’s film are highly predatory, the total opposite of the passive flirtations in My Hustler. Likewise, Franco’s interior scenes of lesbian sex are essentially soft-core porn while My Hustler becomes intimate, real, and at times gentle in its depiction of male homosexuality.
The next step towards liberation for lesbians in film would come in the eighties and would be totally indebted to the feminist films of the early seventies. Films like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) featured female protagonists who, when motivated by masculine suppression and societal mandates, rebel by running away, taking to the road as in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) in search of a better America and a truer self. German filmmaker Monika Treut transposed the aesthetic of Wanda and The Rain People into the milieu of San Francisco lesbian counter culture in her film Virgin Machine. What Treut does is realign the sociological components of these films to suit a lesbian protagonist. In her film it is fetishism that must be rebelled against as well as the two dimensional codification of femme or butch, and opened public spaces must be sought for non-predatorial acts of lesbian love. Virgin Machine is so successful in retaliating against the heterosexual control of lesbianism in film that it provided the blueprint for more aggressive homosexual male narratives in films by Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki.