The Oscar-nominated film Notes on a Scandal is the latest bone of contention to set lesbians screaming blue murder about media representation.
Rachel Charman takes a long, dispassionate look at the movie, and the reaction of her co-lesbians to the “mad dyke” role taken by a Dame better known as M.
The message boards on every lesbian website of note are wailing that in Notes on a Scandal Judi Dench has portrayed a twisted and obsessive lesbian spinster.
And she has. But how much significance should we give to that?
The online lesbian community also cry that the film industry has stabbed them in the back (or the Brokeback), providing gay men with a positive blockbuster last year, and leaving the girls the tired tale of the dried-up old dyke.
This, of course, assumes that film-makers form a single collective entity with shared aims, and a personal responsibility to the LGBT community; a little naive, perhaps?
It is made blindingly obvious that Dench’s character is a lesbian, from references to her previous neurotic relationships with women and her gut-wrenching adoration for fellow teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett).
It is clear, too, that she is mentally unstable, desperately lonely, and bitterly critical of those around her. What is not made explicit is the connection between Barbara’s sexuality and her psychosis.
If the two are meant to be connected, it is more likely that Barbara’s repressed nature is being represented as the product, albeit in an extreme form, of a homophobic society.
It is hinted also that her bitterness is perhaps a product of the thankless and draining job of teaching violent and disenchanted teenagers. When asked how she survives in the depressing environment of a failing school, Barbara casually replies, ‘Well, I’m a battleaxe.’
The dialogue between Barbara and her relatives halfway through the film is particularly significant.
In one painfully awkward scene, Barbara’s sister privately offers her sympathies that Barbara’s previous object of desire, Jennifer, moved away.
The sympathetic sibling supportively asks ‘Is there anyone else?’
This shows that homosexuality is not the issue being dealt with here; it is Barbara’s compulsive behaviour that is the crux of the story.
The scriptwriters even gently mock the sister’s timid avoidance of explicit reference to homosexuality. Her references to Barbara’s ‘friends’ (wink wink) are purposefully comical, pointing out simultaneously her deep-seated support for her sister, and the silliness of her inability to openly address the issue.
It is pity, in the end, rather than terror, that viewers feel for Barbara.
The scenes of Sheba beating her and swearing at her are disturbing, as Sheba is transformed briefly into a violent monster and Barbara into a vulnerable old woman.
This pity is for the way in which Barbara has been made to feel by the outside world that her sexuality is unacceptable, not for her sexuality itself.
Sheba’s vicious disgust at Barbara’s attraction to her is deliberately shocking, reminding the viewer that Barbara too is a victim.
In a way, it is Sheba who is the true baddie in the film.
Her teenage daughter’s foul language, her inability to impose discipline in the classroom, and her pretentious bourgeois home life are all subtle digs at middle class bohemia.
She is portrayed as ungrateful for the life she has, and selfish and irresponsible in her relationship with 15-year old student Steven Connolly. The other focus of the film that everyone seems to ignore is the careless, irresponsible woman, hurting everyone around her in the pursuit of her own pleasure, as well as the focus on Barbara, the traditional ‘mad woman in the attic’.
In short, the film may not be the best to show to a homophobic or a misogynist. But that does not make it a homophobic or misogynistic film; the preconceptions of the audience take care of that.
Personally, I would love to see a lesbian Brokeback Mountain , but Notes on a Scandal is not a homophobic polar opposite.
The film is also brilliantly-executed, boasting an extremely capable, all-star cast, and deals out suspense, subtle black comedy and delightfully understated sadness in equal measures.
Angsty lesbians could perhaps put down their flags and rainbow whistles for an hour or two, sit back, enjoy the competent performances of Dench, Blanchett and the excellent Bill Nighy, saving their venom for more important homophobic issues.