Sex Lives of Cult Television Characters

In the essay, The sex lives of cult television characters, by Sara Gwenllian Jones, Sara focuses on the work of slash (male/male or female/female) fanfiction writers. Sara is a teacher of television and digital media at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. She also wrote a book called Cult Television, where she and other scholars examine show that are categorized as cult television to find defining characteristic to place them in this sub culture.

41WMNKJP2ZL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_ (Book cover for Cult Television by Sara Gwenllian Jones)

This essay exemplifies the fact that cult television is a great basis of slash fanfiction.   The fact that in cult television literally anything can happen and be an acceptable outcome, spurs on fanfiction writers to the erotic relationships that are portrayed in most slash stories. The main writers of slash fanfiction are females, whom, aim to change normative gender constraints for males, to more emotional and sensual emotions that are generally found in romantic novels. With this shift to a more romantic/emotional man, this dictates a change in the masculinity and sexuality of men.

As stated by Marie-Laure Ryan in this essay in respect to fanfiction,

“Every act of reading constructs the text and actualizes its world in a different way”.

So in cult television, when an author writes a story, they open doors to allow for different worlds to be seen for that specific show. This then allows the characters to be portrayed in a different light, more specifically, to have slash relationships as a norm.

In this essay it makes a clear statement that with fanfiction, especially fanfiction of cult television, it allows the author to explore whatever they feel like. Whether it be objectively real or fake, right or wrong, true experiences or something they want to explore, what was once thought as myth and many other things, these are all acceptable things to see in fanfiction. This allows both the fans, who read the fanfiction, and the stories authors themselves to explore whatever desires they might have while still being connected to a character they already have a strong connection to.

In Audre Lorde’s, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as a Power, she talks about how women use the erotic as a source of power for their unexpressed or unrecognized feelings.  In her essay she states,

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves”.

This relates perfectly to what these writers do when they write their stories.  Both writers and readers alike, search within their-self to what their desires are that they have yet to try out for whatever reason, and put their slash characters through it so people are able to experience it.  This then enables the writes and readers to know what they like and do not like specifically through characters in the cult television shows that they watch.

The Price of Salt

Patricia Highsmith published The Price of Salt (or Carol) in 1952 during a period of popularity for lesbian pulp fiction novels. Because the characters were lesbians and the plots followed love connections between women, it was most common for the story to end with one of the women committing suicide, being murdered, or going insane. During this time in history homosexuality was not accepted, so the unfortunate endings seemed to be the only option for lesbian fiction. Patricia Highsmith changed that patterned with The Price of Salt. Because this novel pushed the boundaries of lesbian fiction, Patricia Highsmith used a pseudonym when the novel was first published. The Price of Salt was one of the first lesbian pulp fiction novels that depicted lesbians in a positive new light and gave them the opportunity for a happy ending.

The novel opens with Therese working seasonally at Frankenberg’s, a department store in Manhattan. Therese is a young struggling artist trying to make it in New York (sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?). She is juggling her job, set designing, and her boyfriend, Richard, when she meets Carol at Frankenberg’s. Carol is an elegant, classy married woman who catches Therese’s attention the second she steps onto Therese’s vision. Therese cannot get Carol out of her mind, so she sends her a Christmas card without knowing what to expect in return. Carol finds the card endearing and decides to meet with Therese. The two women spend the next few weeks spending time together and getting to know one another. As Therese becomes closer with Carol, she loses interest in her relationship with Richard, and he struggles with the growing bond between Therese and Carol, eventually ending the relationship. When Therese visits Carol’s home she learns that Carol is going through a terrible divorce and custody battle. As Carol waits for her dates in court, she decides to take a road trip and asks Therese to go with her. They head west, away from the drama that they have been facing at home. It is not until they get to Chicago when their relationship goes to the next level and they spend their first night together, as lovers. As their blissful travels continue, Carol’s best friend (and former lover) calls to inform Carol that her husband hired a detective to follow Carol and Therese on their trip. The mood of the novel immediately shifts to panic and the women’s paranoia is translated through the pages. Therese and Carol cannot lose the detective, so Carol decides to return home to face her divorce and custody battle. While Therese waits patiently for Carol’s return, she receives a letter from Carol informing her that she has lost custody of her daughter due to her relationships with Abby and Therese. In order to see her daughter, Carol must not see Therese anymore. The tragic news sends Therese on an emotional downward spiral and eventually, she heads back to New York. The lovers decide to meet one last time. When Carol invites Therese to move in with her, Therese refuses only to realize hours later that she cannot picture living her life with anyone but Carol. The anticipation of a happy ending builds through the last few pages ending with Therese walking towards Carol with an open heart ready for a new beginning.

The main conflict of the novel, Carol’s custody battle, shows the harsh stigmas that were placed upon homosexuals at the time, the stigmas that may have caused Patricia Highsmith to use a pseudonym. The only factor that played into the court’s decision in Carol’s custody battle was her sexuality. She was forced to choose between her daughter and her lover. Her husband’s violation of privacy and spying proved to the court that Carol was a lesbian, and therefore an unfit mother. During this time period, if one parent was queer, custody was automatically given the to straight parent, regardless of parenting capability or attentiveness to the child. Carol’s pain was felt by many at the time.

Today, courts are not allowed to make custody decisions based on a parent’s sexual orientation. Rightfully, courts are making decisions based on what is best for the child. Feminist advocates helped make this change in our judicial system. These decisions that directly affect people’s lives should not be based on bias like they have in the past. Since The Price of Salt was written, the familial structure has reformed to incorporate the diversity of people. Marriage equality, adoption rights, and custody battles are evolving. This shift in “where to draw the line,” as Gayle Rubin says, is part of the reason these situations are changing. The idea that lesbians were not fit mothers has crossed the line and is now on the side along with all other acceptable things. Non-normative family structures are becoming common and accepted; therefore, if Carol was going through her custody battle today, it probably would have had a different outcome.

The Price of Salt is a beautifully written novel that explores sexuality and makes readers think about the evolution that has occurred since the novel was written. Catch it in theaters starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara soon!

(Re)Writing Black Lesbian History through The Watermelon Woman

watermelon womanOften referred to as the “lesbian version” of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), and winner of Best Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival, Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman is an unusual and revolutionary mock-documentary. Created on a relatively low budget of $300,000, the film is acclaimed as being the first ever feature film by a black lesbian filmmaker. Frequently narrated by Cheryl, who acts as the main character, the film presents her personal life as she embarks on a journey to learn everything she can about a black woman called Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, who starred in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 1940’s. At the beginning of film, Cheryl talks directly to the camera, and outlines the basis for her documentary project:

“Hi, I’m Cheryl, and I’m a filmmaker. I’m not really a filmmaker, but I have a videotaping business with my friend Tamara, and I work at a video store… so I’m working on being a filmmaker. The problem is, I don’t know what I want to make a film on.  I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told…”

While the film brings forth several overlapping themes, including interracial relationships, racial subjectivity, and identity politics, I would argue that Dunye’s main purpose in creating her film was to both deconstruct and reconstruct images of a historically invisible figure—the black lesbian. Black Feminists in “The Combahee River Collective Statement” declare, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” I would claim that these overlapping oppressions are also what led to the invisibility of the black lesbian figure, both historically and in the present.

Cheryl first brings visibility to the black lesbian simply by acting as the main character in the film. She provides further visibility through the inclusion of her best friend, Tamara, as well as Tamara’s girlfriend. Cheryl’s friendship with Tamara displays varying lesbian identity politics as Tamara often chastises Cheryl for dating a white lesbian, claiming Cheryl is not an “Authentic Black Lesbian” or “True Sister”. In addition to these representations in the film, Cheryl works to create more historic images of the black lesbian through her search to uncover as much as she can about Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards. At the conclusion of the film, Cheryl reflects upon what remembering this actress means to her in a monologue:

“It means hope, it means inspiration, it means possibility. It means history. And most important, what I understand, is it means that I am gonna be the one who says, ‘I am a black lesbian filmmaker,’ who’s just beginning, but I’m gonna say a lot more and have a lot more work to do. Anyway… what you’ve all been waiting for—the biography of Fae Richards, Faith Richardson.”

The film ends with Fae’s biography, a compilation of images and short film scenes overlapped with Cheryl’s voice-over. At the end of the biography and during the credits, Dunye explicitly declares the fictional status of the film stating, “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is a fiction.”

Dunye’s creation of a fictional black lesbian from the 1930’s further emphasizes the invisibility of the black lesbian. More discomforting, viewers realize that what she said in her previous monologue was somewhat of an illusion. As Laura Sullivan states in “CHASING FAE: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility”,  “Dunye had to make up a history of a black lesbian actress; in other words, she had to create her own hope, inspiration and possibility through the creation of a history that was not, but could have been, in some ways should have been, there.”

Through her film, Dunye attempts to (re)write a black lesbian history that was previously non-existent. With the help of New York City based photographer, Zoe Leonard, numerous images of this fictional black lesbian character were created. Made up of 78 images, the collection was later exhibited in galleries, and a book of the images was created as well.Fae Richardson