In the chilly postwar climate of conformity and concealment captured to perfection in the movie Carol, same-sex desires constricted by conflict often went unexpressed.
If compliance to the heterosexual norm was compulsory, it was all a game of charades.
A stunning portrait of sexual angst, repression and ultimately confidence, the chemistry in Carol is palpable.
The story of a strong attraction between Carol, an older moneyed suburban housewife and a younger shop girl Therese is filled with slow burning ardor, erupting into deep passion. But because it was a time when desire walked hand in hand with discretion and denial, curiosities and carnal desires were best consummated in the shadows of what was referred to as twilight love.
By necessity, clandestine encounters were conducted with great caution, covert meetings arranged with the honed skills of a cold war secret agent. Gaydar had to be finely tuned or face the consequences.
But unlike other cautionary tales of the time, this one had a surprising happy ending.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
When Patricia Highbrow’s book Price of Salt ( from which the movie is adapted ) was published in 1952 it was revolutionary.
Unlike most cautionary tales of its day, it’s portrayal of female desire was decidedly different from lesbian pulp fiction of the time because it was a love story between two women neither of which end up crazy or dead.
In most lesbian pulp fiction of the time, the casualty of non conformity could be catastrophic.
There was always a price to pay for not toeing the line.
As Highsmith herself wrote about other lesbian pulp fiction : “Homosexual male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their throat, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or switching to heterosexuality.”
Never was the insistence that everyone fit into heterosexual model more powerful than in mid-century America, The media was obsessed with defining and exaggerating codes of gender.
Images of the nuclear family and happy heterosexuals as the norm exploded in advertising books and magazines scattering its potent assumptions of family and marriage and who we should love deep into our collective psyches.
In a country long priding itself on endless choices of toothpaste and shampoo there was really only one choice who you could love.
You stuck with the brand you knew.
Heterosexuality was the right brand. Time tested. AMA approved.
Failure to conform to these confining roles had devastating consequences.
The American dream of reinventing yourself took on a more disturbing quality when many homosexuals reinvented themselves into happy heterosexuals in order to fit in.
When Carol and Therese’s relationship is revealed, Carol is quickly chastened and sent to a psychiatrist who chalks up her homosexual adventures to a temporary lapse in sanity, the conventional wisdom of the time.
Homosexuality was part of the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual listed under “Sexual Deviation.”
Gay and lesbians were thought to be inherently heterosexual suffering from a psychic disorder on par with borderline personality or schizophrenia.
Therefore there was a cure. A few sessions on the couch with a Viennese trained psychiatrist and their disordered thinking would be set straight.
Despite risking losing her custody battle with her estranged husband, Carol in a statement of affirmation decides to quit therapy refusing to capitulate.
It’s easy to forget how terrifying it once was and still is for many people in parts of the world to live openly as LGBT . As long as the connection between two people are hampered by censure and condemnation we are still living in a 1950’s shadow of Carol.
Tomorrow : I Am Curious
During the same time period as Carol takes place, Madison Avenue perfectly captured that culture of concealment and curiosity with a series of ambiguous, winking ads called “I am Curious.”
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
This is a very good post Sally. I can relate in a few personal ways.
One would be our family’s dear departed close friend who was born intersexed. A few months before cancer took her, she shared with us just how hard and often inhumane society was toward her — at birth her parents and “doctors”, she always felt, made the wrong binary only sex-decision operation. Consequently, most of her life sank into alcohol-drug abuse, psychological and physical abuses by peers and society, all leading to one or two failed suicide attempts in the 70’s. It wasn’t until she had available modern Intersexed Support Groups, therapists, and more relative snail’s pace change in Conservative culture — of which you allude to here — that in her last 17-years of life she became renown in this part of Texas for four separate Battered Women’s Shelters, four different women’s Halfway Houses, and Director of this region’s AA/NA support groups. Thank GOD she was around for my 35-yrs-addicted sister and more importantly immeasurable emotional/mental weekly support for my Mom’s motherly suffering…and ironically WE (my family) were the “normal ones” of society?
Great read. Thank you Sally. 🙂
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That is such an important and timely story you shared. That your dear friend was finally able to find some understanding and help and turn her pain around to helping others is an inspiring story. Let’s hope we have moved beyond those days of complete lack of understanding.
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(raises his Bohemian glass of Absinthe!) 😈
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Oh, to be in Paris in the ’20’s!
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