The coming out narrative occurs time and time again in queer cinema. Circumstance, Beautiful Thing, Coming Out, First Girl I Loved, But I’m a Cheerleader and Geography Club are only a few examples. Disclosing a sexual orientation or gender identity to people that you love is an individual process and journey, so it is no surprise that representations of this complex experience abound in cinema. But, for many, coming out is a continuous experience, not a definitive, easily traceable moment. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes, “even to come out does not end anyone’s relation to the closet.” That is, whilst coming out can “crystallise intuitions or convictions” (Kosofsky Sedgwick again) one might have felt for a long time, coming out can be a never-ending process and, for many, one that may never even begin. While a multitudinous array of coming out narratives are important – there are beautiful, devastating and celebratory examples in the history of queer cinema – this aspect of queer life is one of the most commonplace offerings of many LGBTQI* films. And so it is worth questioning what other aspects of queer life might be eclipsed by the ubiquity of this particular narrative and what other stories, bodies and histories might be neglected by the prominence of a dominant narrative.
April Mullen’s Below Her Mouth, shown at this year’s BFI Flare Festival, typifies the coming out trope of queer cinema, and even goes one step further through its portrayal of the stereotypically butch, affirmed dyke (in this case a carpenter who has no “emotional stamina for intimacy”) who falls madly in love with an engaged, straight woman. Jasmine (Natalie Krill) meets Dallas (Erika Linder) at what Jasmine’s friend refers to as a ‘ladies bar’. As we would expect from the image of Dallas as lothario-lesbian, Dallas operates smoothly; it is clear that she has the attention of everyone in the bar, including the bartender, who her best friend has “been after for months.” Having recently, and brutally, broken it off with her ex-girlfriend, who she has dispassionate sex with in the opening scene, Dallas is restless, languishing in the fetid malaise typical of someone who can seemingly have whatever girl she chooses. The stereotype of Dallas as lothario is a neat, if not an obvious and somewhat unrelenting portrayal. This is no more evident than when Dallas notices Jasmine and her interest is instantly piqued. Jasmine is the unobtainable; the holy grail of straight-girl-dom. Dallas asks Jasmine when they first meet – “Come to girl parties often?” – to which Jasmine replies earnestly as she applies lipstick in the mirror, “I don’t come at all.”
So begins a familiar story: affirmed, striking and confident dyke woos beautiful and curious straight woman. Jasmine is sincere and unassuming and very quickly taken in by Dallas; mystified by the potential of an unknown experience. Dallas has never felt this way before. She has had all the girls she could have ever wanted, yet has no space for emotional intimacy. Somehow it is Jasmine, the beautiful straight stranger, that has managed to change everything within the space of the evening.
After spending the night together, the couple spends the morning drinking coffee, Jasmine in Dallas’s t-shirt, playing guitar and divulging secrets. At one point, they take a ferry ride and walk together arm in arm, both recounting sentimental stories about their parents. As they sit on the beach, Jasmine tells Dallas about when she was a “teenager and she had a summer thing with Denise.” The story is meant to strike an emotional chord; her mother punishes Jasmine, and her feelings for Denise are quashed by what has been ‘prescribed’ by the single heteronormative model her parents have set out. However, as the story unfolds, this proverbial anecdote only registers as trite. They continue to look longingly into one another’s eyes, as the film cuts back and forth between Dallas and Jasmine on the beach and the pair stealing onto a carousel. The carousel is a fitting backdrop for this scene. It speaks to innocent, childhood days, gleefully galloping through the hot breeze of a summer’s afternoon on an enamel covered tin horse. Jasmine walks to pick her horse as Dallas begins to push the circular structure into movement. The effervescent lighting reflects Jasmine’s naivety, whilst the closed merry-go-round clearly signals her movement into another, previously forbidden threshold of sexual identity.
However, despite the film’s clichés, the scene does tacitly gesture towards a more complex representation of the coming out narrative. In a moment that is executed as flirty but also offers a glimpse of the potential anxiety around coming out, Jasmine asks, “How old were you when came out?” Dallas responds disconsolately, “I don’t tell my coming out story.” She continues, “Why do I have to have one? … Which story do you want? It’s not one that ever ends.” The film then cuts to Dallas walking on the carousel as it spins; “last month I came out to the forklift operator at the roofing supply store.” Dallas epitomises the revisionary, incessant nature of coming out; it doesn’t just stop with telling family or relatives because embedded deep within the heteronormative social fabric are assumptions that force an embodied confrontation with coming out on daily basis.
Soon after, Jasmine clarifies, “the first time you were with a woman.” In this instance, Jasmine reveals the ignorance of many representations of the coming out narrative itself, articulating an assumption that having sex with a woman for the first time is an equivalent to coming out, or at least that sex is the threshold through which one comes out. But Dallas is used to outlining coming out’s social and psychological contours and the way that coming out operates in a heteronormative world: it is not simply possible to have sex with a woman and simply be initiated into the fun, lesbian world that Jasmine seems to assume as queer people are forced to come out in relation to the world habitually.
Jasmine and Dallas lie on the beach and talk: the film again cuts to them riding the carousel. This time they sit facing one another on the same horse. The pair kiss as they ride the carousel and Dallas tells Jasmine, “I don’t want to lose you.” The carousel gestures towards the youthful innocence of their burgeoning relationship. However, the soft, redolent lighting reflects the nostalgia often associated with coming out; the stories we tell about coming out, the ubiquity and idiosyncrasy of our own individual memories of it. As the scene is split between this intimate, coming out conversation on the beach and Dallas and Jasmine on the carousel, the carousel scene seems to register as the aesthetic image of coming out, parceling and containing it within a narrative. It is as if we are seeing a memory of coming out in the making. However, the way in which this story is parcelled up with a particular soft, aesthetic sheen speaks to how we repeatedly look back on those stories with nostalgic indulgence, ignoring the work they have to do to maintain a certain level of access to queer authenticity: the way in which these stories are often maintained to shore up the notion of coming out as a rite of passage that is socially necessary, and often, required.
Below Her Mouth tries to unpick the nuances of what it might mean to come out, but instead offers a relatively simplistic version of a dominant narrative, in which a straight, engaged woman meets a self-affirmed lesbian and falls madly in love with her. Whilst doing much work to articulate the epistemologies of the closet, it solidifies a particular and singular idea of what coming out might look like. So many films that follow this same narrative trajectory present coming out as an ontological conundrum: showing us what it might mean to become a lesbian, in order to try and understand what it might mean to be a lesbian. However, by offering these dominant coming out narratives, which cater to the perspective of white, wealthy heterosexual women, they eschew representations of other embodied, queer experiences.
So Yong Kim’s Lovesong, also shown at this year’s Flare, provides almost an anti-coming out narrative: it is an ambitious transformation of the usual tale played through the story of two women who ultimately refuse to come out and instead return to heteronormativity. The film follows Sarah, who is restless and frustrated with what seems like the relatively mundane day-to-day preoccupation of raising her daughter Jesse singlehandedly, while her husband works away from home. In an effort to pull herself from what seems like imminent depression and shattering boredom, she invites her friend Mindy to stay. The three go on an impromptu holiday, with the adults drinking by the pool as Jesse makes friends and refuses to have dinner. If Below Her Mouth involves protracted conversations and emotional outpourings, Lovesong is its sparse and emotionally unavailable opposite, where the characters work hard to avoid the expression of feeling. Whilst the depiction of sexual chemistry between these two women is often thin and unbelievable, Kim portrays the friendship of Sarah and Mindy as repeatedly teetering on the brink of a relationship. However, how these two get to this moment is left unspoken and we are offered very little backstory or understanding of their connection with the other. While their commitment and love for one the other is meant to seem ephemeral and unspoken, it fails to produce the resonance of deep-level, mutual care and commitment that it seeks to establish.
The one exception to this rule is Lovesong’s amusement park scene, which strikes a parallel with Below her Mouth’s carousel equivalent. Kim delicately and movingly employs an alternative familial vision as Mindy and Sarah begin to form a relationship that sidesteps heteronormative kinship. As Sarah, Mindy and Jesse sit in the Ferris wheel car, the sun sets behind them. Sarah and Mindy stare into one another’s eyes and an ineffable conversation takes place in silence. The look is suggestive of the comfort they find in one another and communicates the unspoken desire that drives the film. That night, Sarah and Mindy play ‘truth or drink’, using a teenage game as conduit for getting to the heart of the other. After Sarah has thrown up from drinking too much, the pair kiss. We never know if the two actually have sex; even this bodily, communicative act is denied a presence on screen. The night after ‘truth or drink’, the two talk over breakfast. Their conversation is strained, entirely inconclusive and lacking in any mutual communicative understanding. Eventually, Mindy books a bus ticket and disappears with little explanation. Both Sarah and Mindy reach an impasse: their communication with one another is shown through intimate side-glances or smiles but is never allowed to occur openly. Coming out about how they might feel about one another seems like a distant possibility.
So many films that follow this same narrative trajectory present coming out as an ontological conundrum: showing us what it might mean to become a lesbian, in order to try and understand what it might mean to be a lesbian.
Whilst this year’s BFI Flare Festival offered an exciting and eclectic mix of stories, it is still undeniable that the coming out narrative in cinema is ubiquitous. Is it that it provides a skein of authenticity to the queer experience? Or are filmmakers simply reflecting the complex struggles, both the difficulty and the joy that so many of us have faced during the journey of coming out? In many ways, coming out narratives perhaps offer visions of another world; they may, in fact, be ‘world-making’ as Jose Esteban Munoz once characterised queer performance. Crossing the threshold into a visible queer life – whether this is coming out to parents, employers or your GP – is often a difficult one and coming out narratives offer us images of agential individuals who are in charge of their own sexuality. It is essential that these narratives offer models of possibility — but I sometimes wonder if the presence of this narrative mode is unhelpfully overwhelming, that perhaps the sheer volume of coming out narratives in queer cinema functions to premeditate, monitor and maintain the contours of what coming out should look and feel like.
When, Marni A. Brown argues, “coming out of the closet and sharing a disclosure narrative is considered an essential act to becoming gay”, I wonder how cinematic representations of coming out might end up controlling what sexual identity must look like, and what social processes, codes and agendas it needs to fall in line with. The idea of owning a coming out narrative makes it an object of property that often signifies one’s authenticity as queer person. When the cinematic representation of Dallas and Jasmine’s relationship offers a relatively easy coming out narrative, one which elevates the experience of a white, straight woman, what complexities of this experience, and other queer narratives, are eclipsed? What does this access to authenticity do as a process of queer legitimisation; might coming out narratives privilege certain stories and bodies and how do these negatively shape the processes of coming out for those whose stories don’t conform to what they happen to experience on screen?