Teaching Old Tropes New Tricks

I’ve always liked going to the movies. I like the giant screen, the darkness, and sneaking in half pints of coffee Haagen Daz to inhale. As a kid, going to the movies was the greatest thing; you could get soda and candy-a rarity in my household. Funny enough, on this last trip to the movie theater, I was met with ultimate childhood nostalgia. A fellow Fem-filmer and I went to the Riverview Theatre in the Longfellow neighborhood, two blocks away from my old house. riverviewcafe


Our tickets were only $2.oo *poor college students everywhere shed a single tear* and the popcorn was a pure buttery delight! We joined the stampede of mostly middle-aged white women and men into the mid-century-mod lobby to see the novel adapted movie, Carol. I had never seen the movie before, but went in with high expectations due to glowing reviews and a handful of nominations at the Oscars…but also because Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, and Sarah Paulson are all QUEENS. The movie going experience was nothing  spectacular or out of the ordinary for this film. There was maybe one or two moments of collective laughter among the audience, but what do you expect from a period drama? I’m usually pretty talkative during movies, but this was clearly not one to be cracking bad puns at every few minutes…At the end there was an applause as if we were at a live theater and then people shuffled out; murmuring to their companions their thoughts and reactions.



From the fragments I heard of other’s conversations, they were all praising the beautiful piece; the acting, the production quality, the costuming, the detail…so well done. Despite being such a large theater, the movie itself felt so intimate and the muted pastel colors of the film were just too perfect for the vintage Riverview on a rainy day. 

The Story

Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, is a drama/romance adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The story follows the lives of two women, Carol Aird and Therese Belivet. Carol (Cate Blanchett), is a soon-to-be divorced housewife with a sophisticated and entrancing air. Therese (Rooney Mara) is a department store shop-girl with the dough eyes and curious manner of the late Audrey Hepburn. Both women are sort of mystical to each other, and the audience, from the moment they locked eyes at the toy store where Therese was working. The film follows the course of their relationship through a series of awkward (yet endearing) scenes. the story begins to pick up when Therese, known for “never saying no”, packs her bags and ditches the men her life to embark on a roadtrip with her curious new companion. It’s both a journey cross country and a journey of self discovery as the simmering tension between the women collapses into a passionate and loving relationship. The conflict of the movie deals with the unjust circumstances of lesbian and queer relationships in the ’50s and a tumultuous love story. Carol is wedged between being who she is with who she loves or succumbing to the threats of her husband to maintain access with her daughter-the apple of her eye. Here’s the trailer so you can bask in the immaculate aesthetic and wrap yourself in Blanchett’s raspy voice. Bless.


So obviously I have a thing for how this movie looks, but I think it’s story and plot are beautiful too. Of course, there are problematic parts, like the fact that I don’t think I saw a single person of color…I know it’s in the ’50s and focuses on a white upper class woman…but it felt very whitewashed. However, I do think the way the women and their relationship is portrayed is liberating without being blatantly rebellious to how movies so often portray queerness. Despite being visually appealing, Carol makes feminist meaning out of the camera perspectives and scopophilia that enhance female gaze and it’s unusual and refreshing breed of female characters.

Scopophilia, being “in which looking itself is a source of pleasure”(Mulvey, 835) is essential to the movie industry-we watch movies for the pleasure. Often times, however, movies are filmed to enhance the male viewing pleasure. Carol is no exception to the voyeurism and pleasure in looking that comes with most romance movies, but it does almost completely disengage the male dominant view. Being a queer story, the camera perspectives often take the gaze of Carol or Therese or are framed to accentuate their active gazing.

In this scene, there is a combination of those perspectives mentioned above. We get to feel Therese’s timidness in her quick glances at Carol’s hands and experience her curiosity as they camera lingers on her face. Through her eyes, we get to feel the surrealism of the experience. We also see a frame of Carol staring right into the camera, right at us, which exercises her agency of looking. Mulvey states that women, “in their traditional exhibitionist role are simultaneously looked at and displayed…[they] hold the look, play to, and signify male desire”(Mulvey, 837), but this is ruptured in Carol as the male desire is completely irrelevant.

Throughout the movie, the male influence and opinion is something the women are actively avoiding or disregarding. This is what I find refreshing about how the characters are displayed. Neither Carol or Therese are created to further enhance or benefit a male’s character. While their personalities and demeanor are reminiscent of old tropes, they are still fully developed characters. Therese, for example, is a spitting image of a young Hepburn, and embodies her ‘manic pixie dream girl’ aura.rooney and audrey

Unlike the the MPDG trope, Therese is not there to fix a man’s problems through curious adventures or break his heart by being such a free spirit. She doesn’t even serve that purpose for Carol. The couple develops together, each gaining knowledge and character with the experience of the other. So while they may resemble classic film conventions, they disavow the traditional expectations for those “types” of women by being mutually important and of depth. This accentuates the film’s queerness being “not an ‘instead of’ but and ‘inclusive of'”(Doty, 2) not only in terms of the lesbian relationship, but by truly including both female characters instead of assuming a typical principal character to focus on like in hetero-normative romance films. In the scene below, you can see how they both serve as a sort of spectacle to each other; each seen as a sort of curiosity of the other. Where in typical romance movies, the woman is seen as the sole spectacle and the wonder is not mutual.



Mulvey, Laura. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”Screen. 16(3), 6-18.

Doty, Alexander. (1993) “There’s Something Queer Here” in Making Things Perfectly Queer, 1-16.




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