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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Girl meets girl: re-writing cultural scripts

Priya Khaira-Hanks advocates forming your own unique queer identity outside of the boundaries of heteronormative culture

In Carol, the Todd Haynes film that tells the story of two women who fall in love in 1950s New York, silence dominates. The love of Carol and Therese is primarily expressed not in gushing speeches or poetic declarations, but in looks, photographs, and visual motifs. Their blossoming relationship is shared perfume, a presence in the passenger seat on a long drive, and a twin bed left empty.

As two women in an bigoted world, they haven’t been provided with an vocabulary for their feelings—the glib words on the inside of Valentine’s day cards and the love-songs trilling from the record player aren’t for them, and thus they are left to forge their own way with no easy model to follow. Unlike the toy train set that Therese sells to Carol, there is no track laid out for them, as they cannot easily click into place and start the automatic, pre-planned journey of heterosexuality.

Mainstream culture provides the blueprint for a straight relationship. Smash open the film industry, for example, and you will find ‘boy meets girl’ written through it like words in a stick of rock. It is steeped and saturated in men loving women, sagging under the weight of men who care and the women who fall into their open arms.

True, each new trailer might scream that this time it is different— the hero is unconventionally attractive, the heroine is ‘goofy’, there are characters who are above a size 10—but essentially it is the same cookie-cutter, different icing. If cinema is to be trusted, it seems that the standard mating-ritual involves the man behaving like a spoilt child, who the woman must be angry with for a short while before winning him round with her sweet personality and an artfully deployed sundress.

Perhaps this is why—brace yourself—I hated La-La Land. Originality does not consist of the heroine ending up on the arm of a different identikit white man to the one you first suspected she’d go for. In The Waves, Virginia Woolf captures this structure of heterosexuality, which supports so many books, films and songs: “Among the lustrous green, pink, pearl-grey women stand upright the bodies of men. They are black and white; they are grooved beneath their clothes with deep rills”.

Heterosexuality is a language of difference, comprising of the strong, steady male and the decorative, delicate female. One of the joys of being queer is that your love and desire, or lack thereof, resists and rebels against this narrative.

By not fitting into the conventional equation of ‘cis man+ cis woman= stuff of dreams’, you are re-writing gender. However, as exciting as this is, every writer needs inspiration, and much joy can be had from using culture to help write your own queer storyline. You might have to search a little harder, but you may one day end up with an identity more truly your own than that of a straight person: you have had to draw your own picture, rather than simply colouring in the lines.

For me, this involves seeking out art about women loving women. I discovered the Birmingham-based lovers, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together under the pseudonym of Michael Field, during my first term at Oxford. During a time when their monarch, Queen Victoria, supposedly did not believe that it was even possible for women to be sexually attracted to each other, they penned their own interpretations of Sappho and wrote poems about the female orgasm, living together in a fairly public queer relationship.

They wore scandalously clingy dresses in peach, gold, and green, dedicated a collection of poetry to their dog, Mr Chow, celebrated good reviews of their work by dancing around the Bacchic altar they made in their back garden, and just generally had a fantastic time. With #relationshipgoals like this, who needs the heterosexual mythology peddled by Hollywood?

More recently, Ali Smith has provided me with women loving women in breathless, star-bright prose. How To Be Both and Girl Meets Boy are especially magical when it comes to queer love: set in Renaissance Italy and early 2000s Scotland respectively, their heroines fall in love with painting, Ovid, the Highlands and, most importantly, with women, all in one ecstatic breath. Smith writes sex better than any other writer I have encountered, perhaps because she is unafraid to blend the physical mechanics with metaphor, fairytale and unapologetic femininity.

Other finds include graphic novel A Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg, where two female lovers in an fictional Early Earth protect themselves with stories, à la Scheherazade, and the fleeting New York scenes in Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, where Bond’s own bisexuality effortlessly blends into her phenomenal debut novel. We all cobble together our identities from the culture we consume, and when we are queer, we are excluded from what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the ‘lockstep’ of heterosexuality. Instead, we operate in the hazy, amorphous space outside of the typical cultural milieu—and there is no better place than this to start writing your own story.

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