There’s a moment in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, an exploration of the exclusion, persecution and representation of gay and lesbian individuals in Hollywood film of the 20th century, where Harvey Fierstein defends the offensive portrayal of the “sissy” character in early era cinema. He says, “The hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was not to be alone” and he argues in favour of “visibility at any cost”. While the documentary is now dated (and I continue to hope for an updated version), it’s a worthwhile watch to see how far we’ve come, and it asks a crucial question we still face with culture today: Should we accept clichéd, stereotypical and potentially offensive depictions of LGBTQIA individuals in film and other mediums if the other option is for them to not be there at all?
I’ll come back to that question eventually but I wanted to bring up an example of what Fierstein discussed and provide some historical context to justify a time not so long ago when it meant the world to see yourself in fiction, however flawed it may be. Plus it gives me a chance to talk about books with titles like “Satan Was a Lesbian”. I loved my degree.
During World War Two, with the men out to war, the wives and women were left to fill the roles in the factories left behind by their male counterparts. Massive government campaigns were mounted in both the UK and USA to encourage women to pick up the slack, with images like Rosie the Riveter becoming iconic to generations of women. That image of a strong, muscled and decidedly non-feminine woman was a marked contrast from the image of the homemaker popular throughout that period. While the government also pushed the idea of a woman’s patriotic duty being a natural extension of her role in the home (a large portion of women in the factories were full-time mothers who also had to continue domestic and childcare duties on top of work) and they were paid less than men were in the same roles, the move signalled a dramatic shift in gender roles in society. Unfortunately, once the war ended and the soldiers came home, the government threw their power behind returning to the status quo.
The new campaigns positioned a woman’s return to the home as her next patriotic duty, a return to a supposed pre-war normality that allowed men to be men and women to be supportive spouses in the most traditional sense. The majority of female factory-workers were laid off by their bosses so it’s not as if many of them were left with a choice, with or without what essentially amounted to patriarchal propaganda. Women were supposed to be passive and feminine, and anything that deviated from that heteronormative ideal was positioned as abnormal, both morally and scientifically.
At the time, homosexuality was still seen by the wider medical community as something that could be ‘cured’. Lesbianism wasn’t
just seen as immoral; it was positioned as a downright destructive force, out to bring the very foundations of society to its knees. In the military, particularly the women’s branch of the American Navy (WAVES), recruits were given set lectures which asserted the “normality” of traditional marriage and the demonization of homosexuality. Lillian Faderman, author of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th Century America, summed things up:
“The WAVE [women’s branch of the navy] recruits in turn had to listen to set lectures which told them that sexual relations are appropriate only in marriage and that even though they were in the military they were expected to conform to the norms of femininity. Lesbians were presented in the cliché of sexual vampires who seduced innocent young women into sexual experimentation that would lead them, like a drug, into the usual litany of horrors: addiction, degeneracy, loneliness, murder and suicide (page 123).”
The doomed consequences of homosexuality described in the sex hygiene lectures were common features in the lesbian pulp novels, which rose in popularity throughout the post-war era of the 50s and 60s. Their covers were typical pulp stylings – gorgeous women, suspicious glances, lurid colours and titles that would fit in at home with an after-school special or a porno: No Adam For Eve, The Third Sex, Take a Lesbian to Lunch, and of course, Satan Was a Lesbian. Gay male equivalents did exist but were less numerous, although many of them followed the same tropes as their lesbian counterparts.
These novels, cheaply printed and mass produced for sale in places like drug stores, were more or less formulaic in their plots, characters, settings and situations. More often than not, these novels ended with the gay woman (usually the stereotypically weak and overtly feminised lady) either being ‘converted’ to heterosexuality by a virile and masculine male figure, or ending up ‘miserable, alcoholic, suicidal or insane. So the surface “message” wasn’t a subtle one. A lot of these novels were written by men for men, although the ones that have stood the test of time (and the ones I studied at university) are by women. Even within the confines of a homophobic society and a genre seen as being solely for titillation, lesbian writers were writing that they wanted to see, and often what they wanted to live.
Women like Ann Bannon may have been bound by the conventions and expectations of the genre and the market, but several of these novels did manage to break beyond these expectations and produced more sympathetic portrayals of lesbianism in their pulp novels that lesbian readers could identify with. Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker novels offered a more pro-woman point-of-view than the novels explicitly intended for male readers, placing an emphasis on female love and desire, with lesbian sex described in highly romanticised terms, such as in this scene from I Am a Woman:
“She felt like a column of fire, all heat and light, impossibly sensual, impossibly sexual. She was all feeling, warm and melting, strong and sweet (Page 390).”
That’s some high class romance novel territory right there! The novel itself is actually very readable. Trashy, yeah, but
surprisingly affecting. The assertion and pleasure of same sex desire in the fiction of the time provides a validation of lesbian relationships in a manner that bypassed popular form’s expectations and appealed to a gay readership. Yet, while the quality and depiction of lesbian representation differed wildly throughout the genre, the true value of these pulp novels lies in their pioneering of homosexual representation and visibility in a popular form. Such novels were key in their depictions of and the creation of a burgeoning lesbian community. It gave many women something to identify with, and a small but crucial reminder that they weren’t alone.
Lesbian pulp fiction fell out of favour by the late 60s but by then the world was changing. The Stonewall riots broke down closet doors across the country and the new wave of feminism hit the mainstream. Their place in the grand narrative of queer fiction remains an important one, even as we look upon them with contemporary eyes. Then again, they’re not entirely outdated. The “dead lesbian” trope still appears more often in our modern pop culture than it should, butch women are still often punch-lines, femme lesbians fetish objects and stereotypes reign supreme. That’s not representative of all LGBTQIA characters in our extensive field of pop culture, but with such advances being made day after day and our tolerance for bullshit weakening as it does, do we really need to stick with Fierstein’s call of visibility at any cost? We have the right to demand better, and not just in queer representation: women are still greatly outnumbered by men in terms of film leading roles, directors, producers, writers, and so on, and that doesn’t even take into account race, sexuality, disability and so on. We don’t have to accept second best anymore. We can demand the right to tell our own stories.