Todd Haynes’ Carol is a film that not only shows the female gaze, but a gaze of female desire towards other women. Kristen Cochrane explores this, as well as other aspects of the same-sex relationship portrayed in this beautiful new film.
Since the beginning of motion pictures, critics have taken note of how the viewer gazes upon the female body. Our gaze is led by the cinematography—camera angles and slow pans up and down the female form that allegedly adopted the male gaze. At least, this is what film theorist Laura Mulvey thought when she inadvertently created one of the biggest and perhaps most overused phrases of cultural criticism. But what about other gazes? Is it just the male gaze that surveys the female body? And Is it always exploitative?
Todd Haynes’ Carol is a film that not only shows the female gaze, but a gaze of female desire towards other women. To call this a “lesbian” gaze would be reductive and would contribute to a history of monosexism, where one is either heterosexual or homosexual. Haynes motions towards the notion of gazing with motifs like cameras, mirrors, and even more abstract motifs like divorce when a child is involved, and psychotherapy. These topics involve surveillance, where one is being watched, either through a concrete apparatus like a camera, or through an ideological one, like lawyers, a jilted ex-husband, and a doctor who engages in gaslighting. The camera motif is what Haynes toys with the most, as Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) lover Therese (Rooney Mara), takes candid shots of the imposing Carol, whose stature becomes more commanding by the large fur coat she wears.
Like many same-sex relationships, the power imbalance that occurs within heterosexual relationships is surgically removed in Carol. The differences lie in Carol’s age, as a middle-aged woman and as a wealthier woman, but the disparity does not fetter their courtship. Carol does not control or suffocate Therese, giving her the space she needs to reflect upon her needs. The film’s narrative accentuates Therese’s character development, where she is conveyed at the outset as timid, oblivious, and unable to decide what to eat for lunch when Carol invites her for a rendez-vous.
In a film that could almost be called Carol and Therese, Carol is the impetus for Therese’s awakening as a fellow flâneuse, a term that queer cultural studies theorist Sally Munt described as a response to cultural theorist Walter Benjamin’s flâneur. For Munt, the lesbian flâneur is a woman who evades the gendered and spatial restrictions that are imposed on her body:
“The familiar construction of woman as excess has radical potential when appropriated by the lesbian flâneur. The image of the sexualized woman is double-edged, a recoupable fantasy. Swaggering down the street in her butch drag, casting her roving eye left and right, the lesbian flâneur signifies a mobilized female sexuality in control, not out of control.”
While Carol is explicitly femme, she embodies these habits. She leisurely walks down the streets of New York City, unaccompanied by a man, even in 1952. Her desire for Therese is brazen, but not lascivious. It’s only until the climactic throes of the film that the two women consummate their affair—a scene that would likely be considered to fall under the erotic rather than the pornographic. With Hollywood’s historic fetishization of lesbian and bisexual women, this scene is a watershed moment in dignified representation of love and desire that just happens to be between two women.
Sadly, love between two women is still stigmatized and fetishized today, but it’s not difficult to imagine how this kind of love would be received in 1952, when the book in which this story is based on was published.
Twenty-seven-year old writer Patricia Highsmith penned The Price of Salt (on which Carol is based) under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. During this time, lesbian pulp fiction did not have the kind of tasteful representation that Highsmith had articulated. Even The Times reviewed it favorably, defining it as “low voltage,” ostensibly because it “was more literary than most lesbian pulp,” Margaret Talbot writes in The New Yorker.
As far as sex scenes go, Carol is no Blue is the Warmest Color. The allegedly “pornographic” scenes of Blue are eschewed in favour of an emotional and sexual build-up that goes beyond heterosexual or homosexual desire. And maybe this is exactly what we need.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, “Why are Women so Self-Conscious about the way we Smell,” HERE :)