I’m sorry – I can’t answer those questions – I’m really too busy to understand why anyone would want them answered – Good Luck
– Katherine Hepburn, quoted in Lesbian Rule (p. 3)
Amy Villarejo’s Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire opens by setting up a kind of primal scene, if you like, in cinematic terms, for the elaborate argument which will follow. That scene takes place in the form of a recollection. It begins with Amy Villarejo in her college years as she sits in a lesbian bar called Hepburn’s, decorated with production stills from the 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett. On all the tables sit small lavender writing pads and pencils for exchanging phone numbers. The ten-years-younger Villarejo sits alone, and writes on one of these lavender pads, not her phone number, but the words “Sylvia Scarlett. Why lesbian?”
Cut to the present day, ten years later, and Villarejo, of course, is still asking that question. Indeed, she asked Katherine Hepburn this question directly in a letter questioning Hepburn about how she felt about the mobility of her cross-dressing role in Sylvia Scarlett and the ways it had been appropriated by and for lesbian visibility and community, not least by the bar frequented by Villarejo in her college days. Hepburn’s answer, printed in full in Lesbian Rule and reproduced above as a prelude to this book review, is one that in many ways delighted both myself and Villarejo.
Of course, the conclusion Villarejo draws is that there is no final ground upon which to determine an answer to that question Villarejo composed on that lavender writing pad ten years ago, no final answer as to why the image of Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett signifies lesbian. And it seems that both Villarejo and myself are both very glad that there isn’t one, too. Rather, Villarejo embarks upon the investigation of a “liminal space, oscillating between visibility and invisibility” (p. 1) in a range of documentary films in Lesbian Rule, a liminal space which she believes Sylvia Scarlett also inhabits.
Villarejo is, in fact, critical of any push for the visibility of the lesbian image and of the belief, held by many, in the idea that by appearing, “lesbian” somehow then belongs and gains authority. Villarejo wants to move beyond the limits of rights-and-identity-based discourses dependent upon the paradigm of visibility.
In order to do this, Villarejo wants us all to ask ourselves one question about the importance of making lesbians appear: “at what cost?” (p. 4). Villarejo rightly points out that a focus on the project of visibility misses mobility, exchange, dynamism, the opportunity for the term lesbian to remain “permanently open and insubstantial, modifying rather than designating” (p. 16) so that we “keep the lesbian in mind even when she is not in sight” (p. 35).
There is great strength in Villarejo’s care to highlight the specific context in which each of the films she considers is accessed. She keeps the focus of her discussion anchored in considerations around the production, distribution, exhibition and circulation of those designated lesbian films. From the film festival circuit, to the archive, along with that all-important phenomenon for gay and lesbian audiences, straight to video home viewing (!) – Villarejo never fails to bring the context of reception into full focus. Looking at the industries that shape how and what we watch yields much stronger arguments, in my opinion. Much discussion and responsibility that otherwise unnecessarily and inappropriately weighs down a film is rightly linked to considerations of production, distribution and exhibition and this works particularly well in Villajero’s discussions of archiving and history-making in Chapters Two, Three and Five.
I also greatly appreciated Villajero’s close readings of particular films. Lesbian Rule operates with a definition of “lesbian” that considers the term as an adjective, rather than a noun. More specifically, Villajero proposes that “lesbian” operates as a catechresis, a metaphor without referent. She chooses to operate this definition throughout Lesbian Rule, however, with “a noun’s province” (p. 13) by focusing on lesbian people, lesbian places, lesbian things… Chapter Three, “Archiving the Diaspora: A Lesbian Impression” which centres on the lesbian impression of director Ulrike Ottinger’s documentary Exile Shanghai (1997) is an exemplary extrapolation of this definition. Villajero’s reading of Exile Shanghai allows identifications to remain unsettled and mobile, prompting us to consider how the lesbian behind the camera might appear.
Chapter Four, entitled “Absolut Queer: Cuba and its Spectators” addresses a number of issues of great interest to me as a someone caught up in many the considerations which circulate around the question of what is screened at gay and lesbian/queer film festivals and how these films are presented. I was already laughing when I read the “Absolut Queer” in the chapter title. My amusement, however, brings with it the uneasiness I share with Villarejo, herself a programmer for the Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival for a period of five years in the 1990s.
Villarejo outlines programming imperatives which must struggle to accommodate, firstly, audience demands for the already known “positive” images; as well as the tension between festival generated/promoted euphoria and films that are necessarily a bit of a downer; and most interestingly and indeed unfortunately, the tensions brought about by a community-identified audience whose “collective attention” is sold by the festival to corporate sponsors whose money pays for what is programmed in between.
The title, “Absolut Queer”, however, captures much more than these competing concerns in Villajero’s discussion – in fact, a much more significant concern indeed. Primarily this chapter focuses on undoing the logic of the 1984 film Mauvaise Conduite (Improper Conduct) directed by Nestor Almendros and Orlando Jimenez Leal, which makes a direct and false equivalence between the Cuban Revolution and the repression of “gays-and-lesbians”; a film which was shown at a large number of gay and lesbian film festivals and which influenced a number of others which followed.
“[W]hat does it mean to encounter Cuba under the sign of corporate America or its arts venues?” (p. 127) asks Villarejo. This is a major and very valid concern – the extent to which information about Cuba and the Cuban Revolution frequently comes to North American audiences comes through circuits of American capitalist culture and through festivals subsidised by corporate sponsors. Villarejo traces well the anti-Revolutionary debate in relation to gay and lesbian rights in Cuba among a number of films which respond to each other on the issue, and which find their audience primarily through the corporate-sponsored gay and lesbian film festival circuit.
Villarejo rightly addresses very specifically the North American context in which she encountered these films about Cuba and the debates within that North American context that arose around these films. However, my main criticism of Lesbian Rule is that this focus on a specific context of reception extends to Villajero’s assumption of a American-only readership for her book. While this may be largely accurate, it did still offend and alienate me somewhat as a reader located elsewhere, here in Australia. This ongoing assumption in Lesbian Rule becomes most blatantly apparent when in Chapter Four, Villajero’s discussions about the screening of Cuban films at gay and lesbian film festivals in North America makes reference to “those 90 miles of sea between us” (p. 124) among a host of other asides.
These references to her assumed American readership made me wonder, as an excluded reader, whether or not this geographically located “us” was a kind of straight-to-video assumption? Is Villarejo selling herself short? For all Villajero’s careful consideration of the production and circulation of lesbian, she underestimates the circulation of her own book by assuming she is speaking only to her own North American scholarly film community.
Yet this miscalculation failed to alienate me from the lucid arguments of Lesbian Rule, a book which retains trans-regional relevance. Villarejo provides real tools with which we can investigate the cinematic lesbian as she appears, or indeed, does not seem to appear, in the lounge rooms, the archives and at the festivals of those of us as far away as Australia.
Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire, by Amy Villarejo, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003.
Click here to order this book directly from