The Queer Sixtiesby Patricia Juliana Smith
The Queer Sixties assembles an impressive group of cultural critics to go against the grain of 1960s studies, and proposes new and different ways of the last decade before the closet doors swung open. Imbued with the zeitgeist of the 60s, this playful and powerful collection rescues the persistence of the queer imaginary.
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Strategies of Vision in Pro-Lesbian Pulp Novels,
DESPITE THE ADVANCES in gay community formation encouraged by the dislocations of World War II, for lesbians, the 1950s and early 1960s in the United States were a difficult time. Dominant culture sought a return to a mythical pre-War, pre-Depression "normality," visioned in ideologically conservative terms in which "men were men and women were housewives" (Whitfield 43). This, alongside increased public discourse on homosexuality as a psychological disease and the Cold War notion that homosexuals were a pressing political threat, made the fifties, as Lillian Faderman writes, "perhaps the worst time in history for women to love women" (Odd Girls 157). Despite their benign Father Knows Best image, the 1950s and early 1960s were, to some extent, an age of paranoia, fed by deep fears of the bomb and communism. Both assuaging and mirroring such anxieties was a general atmosphere of voyeurism; for example, in popular culture Hugh Hefner began Playboydisplaying scantily clad women for the man who looksand James Bond's "license to look" (at women) was more important to the success of the Ian Fleming thrillers than his license to kill (Denning 102). On a political front, visual technologies of spying and surveillance dominated public life and discourse as the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss spy trials threatened every all-American boy's (and girl's) presumed innocence. Indeed two potent Americanfearsfear of the communist conspiracy and the fear that a member of one's family might be homosexualwere linked in the perceived threat that homosexuals could be blackmailed into becoming communist spies (Epstein; Whitfield 43). As a result, even extremely closeted homosexuals and lesbians were barred or dismissed from federal jobs and the military; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began broad surveillance of homophile organizations and gay gathering places; and urban police heightened their harassment of homosexual citizens (D'Emilio 60).
Given the fierce public disapproval of homosexuality, lesbian representation was scarce and lesbians of the time repeatedly attest to the frustration of their desire for such images in popular culture. In every public art, lesbianism was invisible: the Hays Code banned the depiction of homosexuality in Hollywood films; the nascent television industry never showed recognizable homosexuals; and mainstream New York book publishers offered only a trickle of covertly lesbian literary texts. Outside the pathological images proffered by psychiatry and occasional scandal magazine articles that capitalized on the fear of homosexuality, lesbian pulp novels were the only medium that afforded a large stock of these images. Marked by their explicitly lesbian, sensationalized covers, which advertised "twilight women," "forbidden love," or the "limbo of lesbianism," these books were mass-market, cheaply made paperbacks with lesbian themes. The genre of lesbian pulp novels came into existence thanks to the "paperback revolution" begun by Pocket Books, which in 1941 greatly increased its distribution channels, and thus sales. Book outletsmostly bookstoreshad numbered around 1,000 before World War II, but Pocket Books's new use of newspaper distribution outlets such as newsstands and grocery store racks created an impressive 100,000 outlets for cheap paperbacks. Pocket Books's success was imitated by many other mainstream East Coast presses, notably Fawcett, Beacon, and Midland-Tower, which promoted paperback originals of genres such as Westerns, mysteries, thrillers, and, most important for my focus here, lesbian pulps, with astonishing success.
These new mechanisms of distribution meant, in essence, that more books with lesbian themes were cheaply and widely available during this time than at any previous time in U.S. history. While their existence is only briefly noted in a few publishing histories, millions of lesbian-centered texts were bought during this time. Tereska Torres's Women's Barracks (1950), for example, a story of a houseful of French women living in England during World War II, quickly sold over 1 million copies; by 1968, over 3 million copies had been printed (Adams 259, 273), and as of 1975 it ranked as the 244th best-selling American novel (Hackett 16). Even Radclyffe Hall's lesbian classic, The Well of Loneliness, when reissued as a lesbian pulp complete with a sensationalist cover that proclaimed in large, red type: "Why can't I be normal?" achieved sales of over 100,000 copies a year. Claire Morgan's 1952 The Price of Salt, a tale of two women who fall in love in New York City, had sold over a half-million copies by 1958, and by 1963, the Ladder estimated that there were over 1 million copies in print (Highsmith, pbk. cover; "Crosscurrents" 14). Given that best-selling hardcover novels in the 1950s sold an average of 30,000 copies and the sales of typical trade hardcovers today can be as little as 5,000 copies the first year, these figures are extremely high. Clearly, the publishers had a new, successful genre on their hands.
Lesbian pulps thrived from 1950 to 1965. The genre began with the publication of Women's Barracks in 1950, followed in 1952 by Vin Packer's best-seller Spring Fire, a story of love between two midwestern sorority sisters. These two relatively unhomophobic books, both written by women (one of whom described herself as a lesbian), made publishers aware of a potentially large market that was (at least at first) assumed to consist of heterosexual men. This belief led to the publication of many poorly written, fast-paced tales involving frequent sex and written from a male point of view, a kind of lesbian pulp that I call "virile adventures." In contrast, my focus here is pro-lesbian pulpsa subset of lesbian pulps, often written by lesbians, with generally more positive lesbian representationwhich were published in quantity only toward the end of the 1950s. Ann Bannon's famous Beebo Brinker series, for example, is a series of six books featuring the same characters, published between 1957 and 1962, and Randy Salem's ten books appeared between 1959 and 1965. After 1965, however, what some called "the golden age" of lesbian paperbacks was over: mainstream publishers no longer published lesbian pulps because of the changing times and the increased incorporation of lesbian themes either in fiction of more established literary quality or in the new openly pornographic fiction published by small, opportunistic, nonmainstream presses.
Clearly lesbian pulps flourished largely because of the publishing industry's ability to make money from homosexual themes, but there are other reasons as well. First was the form: true, pulp novels made money, but they were a devalued form of writing; and few of their editors were concerned about their content. Second was gender: the lesbians depicted were still womenwhich meant, to more men than just Hugh Hefner, that they were still sexually available to men and, moreover, nonthreatening to depict (to heterosexual men, of course); not coincidentally, fewer pulp novels were published with gay male themes. Third was the use of vision: voyeurism in particular worked as a form of pleasure and reassurance over anxieties about social hierarchies; it reinstated the power of men over the objects of their gaze. While looking/surveillance was a precipitate of the culture at large and expected for novels with sexual adventures, it also provided narrative structures in which to "show" lesbians and often placed a man in the scene with the two women. While he exists as an assumed reader/audience when not explicitly in the narrative, more often he is a real character in the novel, as the man who always gets the girlat least, the most feminine girlin the end.
While existing as a technology of power within the larger culture and within representation, voyeurism was also a technology of power in the realm of lesbians' lived experience. For example, lesbian bars from the forties to the early sixties were subject to quite blatant heterosexual tourism. In their history of the lesbian community in Buffalo, New York, Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis write that "most bars ... had straight observers. Lesbians used humor to deal with the inevitable objectification and were successful at deflecting the tension" (62). They go on to quote an interviewee, a lesbian, who says, "back then you had an awful lot of your soldiers, sailors, straights come in, it was like going to the zoo and seeing the monkeys dance" (62). Lesbian-designed strategies for engaging with vision, in fiction and in life, were thus both necessary and difficult.
What were embattled lesbian readers to do, given their strong desire for lesbian representation and the inevitable proximity of voyeurism and homophobia in the only readily available books with lesbian themes? They did the only thing they couldthey compromised and turned a blind eye, so to speak, to the homophobic looking relations installed in these texts. For example, when, at the end of the 1950s, a group of American, white, middle-class lesbian readers assembled a bibliography of lesbian titles, called simply Checklist 1960, they were "not averse" to the representation of frequent sex in the novels they listed, but rather developed a special designation for the books that incorporated frequent sex without a "reasonably well written story":
[I]f the story is just a peg on which to hang up a lot of poorly written, gamy erotic episodes, with no literary value, and just evasive enough to keep the printer out of jail, then we have given it short shrift with the abbreviation "scv"which cryptic letters are editorial shorthand for "Short Course in Voyeurism"and have been the basis of a lot of jokes in the tedious business of passing reviews around the editorial staff. (Bradley and Damon, Checklist 1960 5)
The "scv" label seems to mean: do not bother to read this book; it borders on pornography and is not for "us." Though critical, the editors do not keep "scv" books out of their bibliography, saying "we shan't spoil your fun" (5). This reluctance to judge, plus the scarcity of lesbian fiction overall, precluded their rejection of these books. Voyeurism in some form pervaded so many lesbian novelssince the majority were lesbian pulpsthat it could not serve as an effective basis of exclusion. In Checklist 1960, of all the novels listed, over thirty-five lesbian pulp novels were given the highest rating as "of considerable value"; of the total, thirty-eight were rated "scv," all of which were lesbian pulps.
The editors of Checklist 1960, like many lesbian readers of the time, were caught in a bind. On the one hand they felt discomfort at the evident repeated proximity of the two concepts of voyeurism and lesbianism in their book list. They write: "the paperback originals reek with drooling voyeuristic stripteases about lesbians, for the sake of men who like to enjoy pipe-dreams about lesbians making love, and about some Big Handsome Hero who eventually converts the girls to `normality' with some secret formula of caresses" (Bradley and Damon, Checklist 1960 52). On the other hand, in their desire for representation, they collected and read any books with lesbian themes, despite homophobia and voyeurism. Most lesbian pulps were virile adventures aimed at a male readership, but there were also, beginning in the late 1950s, a subset of pro-lesbian pulps, the set of books most often written by lesbians and characterized by the most positive lesbian representation. Like the editors of the Checklist, lesbian writers who wrote lesbian pulps were caught in a similar bind: they wanted to write about lesbians, which the genre encouraged, but they were also compelled to conform to generic imperatives such as homophobia, sexism, frequent and gratuitous sex, voyeurism, male-centeredness, and sad endingstypically, ones in which the lesbians do not end up happily together. Using an exemplary novel of the genre, Randy Salem's Man among Women, this essay analyzes the representation of voyeurism in pro-lesbian pulps to argue that these pulp novels resisted and subverted the publishers' (and readers') expectations of how voyeurism should be treated in the genre. I conclude by suggesting that the genre's openness about lesbianism, even though often voyeuristic and homophobic, opened up an important space in public discourse because it allowed more articulation of lesbian issues than the few literary novels with lesbian themes existent at the time.
Subversion in Pro-Lesbian Pulps:
Randy Salem's Man among Women
Given the context of a homophobic, male-oriented genre, pro-lesbian authors themselves have asserted (sometimes in the pages of the lesbian periodical of the time, the Ladder, but also in a post-Stonewall context) their desire to improve the inaccurate and sensationalized depiction of lesbians that the virile adventures created. These authors were typically more invested in creating positive lesbian representation than other lesbian pulp authors, often because they themselves were bisexual or lesbian. In 1989, pro-lesbian pulp author Valerie Taylor describes the late fifties:
There was suddenly a plethora of [gay novels] on sale in drugstores and bookstores, and most were absolute trashmany written by men who had never knowingly spoken to a lesbian.... I wanted to make some money, of course, but I also thought that we should have some stories about real peoplewomen who had jobs, families, faults, talents, friends, problems; not just erotic mannequins. ("Those Wonderful" 1)
These authors' desire to write against the genre's norms also constituted a refusal of cultural norms: lesbianism as sick, immoral, or criminal. The writers tried to show "real," "true" depictions of normal, "well-adjusted" lesbians to the public (Bradley, "Those Wonderful" 4; Christian, "Those Wonderful" 4). However, publishers imposed strict limits on what they could do. Although Paula Christian claims that she "got away with quite a bit" (Amanda 1), March Hastings tells of the basic limits: "[My editor said:] `The heroines cannot end up happily together.... It's against the moral code' ... I heard conviction here, not to be argued, not to be negotiated" ("Those Wonderful" 8). While these authors' intentions, stated many years after the books were published, may be skewed in order to please a gay audience, their consistency invites belief. Overall, the multiple instances of tempered idealism, self-doubt, and self-censorship that are manifest in the encounters described between lesbian writers and their publishers support a reading of these texts as contested, contradictory sites of self-representation. Overall, lesbian authors' impulses to self-representation correlate with markedly more positive lesbian representation in their books.
Unlike post-Stonewall lesbian fiction today or literary fiction at the time, pro-lesbian pulps are fully immersed within, and indeed obligated to attend to, the discourse of voyeurism because of the constraints of their mass-market cultural form. Lesbian authors of lesbian pulps must have each taken a "short course in voyeurism" themselves to publish successfully in the genre. How did they implement that knowledge? How did they navigate the simultaneous generic mandates for overt lesbianism and objectifying imagery while still portraying well-adjusted, perhaps even happy, women? In contrast to contemporaneous literary fiction, which rarely and only covertly addressed lesbian themes, pro-lesbian pulp writers could write openly about lesbian heroines, lesbian bars, and, to a lesser extent, cultural structures of homophobia. However, again in contrast to literary fiction, homophobia, racism, and sexism were also expected to be more overt in their texts. Despite their location in the middle of a homophobic discourse, pro-lesbian pulp novels resisted the legacy of this genre. Their authors' tactics often resulted in obvious contradictions within the texts, such as perfectly content lesbians who suddenly commit suicide or marry men at the very end of the book. From today's point of view, these efforts at resistance may well seem like failurestheir overall homophobia is easily recognizable. Nonetheless, pro-lesbian pulp writers did resist, and they did so in a genre that gave them more possibilities for openness about lesbian issues than the more elite work of literary lesbian writers of the time.
The pro-lesbian pulp genre is comprised of almost 100 novels by over fifteen different authors. Their authors implemented three strategies in reaction to the conventional voyeurism of the genre: refusal to acknowledge its existence in their writing, appropriation, and subversion. In deploying the first, and least utilized, technique, refusal, some writers managed to ignore the constraints of a sexy/erotic adventure tradition while still achieving publication within the genre. The paradigmatic example here is Valerie Taylor, whose Erika Frohmann series, in books like A World without Men and Journey to Fulfillment, successfully avoided sensationalism and extraneous sex scenes and worked to normalize, humanize, and desensationalize the lesbian characters while keeping them central to each story. The second strategy, deployed in books like Ann Bannon's I Am a Woman, embraces looking relations but does so in a female-centered context that reverses who looks and the meaning of the look. Randy Salem's Man among Women is representative of the third strategy, subversion. Her novel is the most self-contradictory of these three types, in that it accommodates the genre's insistence on a male voyeurism but resists the male power that traditionally accompanies it.
Randy Salem is one of the five or six pro-lesbian pulp authors most highly regarded by the Ladder and its readers, and, according to Barbara Grier, the woman behind this pseudonym is a lesbian (1991 interview). Her work covers a wide range of texts, from Chris, an entertaining lesbian love story that remains sellable today (and indeed was republished by a lesbian press in the 1980s), to titles like The Unfortunate Flesh and Tender Torment, which are more like virile adventures. Her Man among Women (1960) is a useful and typical example of a pro-lesbian pulp because it conforms in part to generic constraints but nevertheless represents lesbians positively. Narrative voyeurism is both encouraged and subverted in this book; often the male protagonist is allowed to look at lesbians but always with painful consequences, from jealousy to physical pain due to a fall after watching. In short, the text is simultaneously voyeuristic and antivoyeuristic.
Because of its history of engagement with issues of vision that also are central to these books, this essay in part uses film criticism to analyze the written text. For example, in Man among Women, Ralph, a photojournalist and thus a kind of voyeur by profession, is the hero of the book and narrates the story. This structure of seeing the world through Ralph's eyes offers the reader an easily recognizable place of identification with the feelings, power, and gaze of the white, male protagonist. In her well-known article, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey makes the identification between protagonist, spectator (reader), and vision explicit: "As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence" (34). Mulvey here also draws our attention to the issue of power, arguing for the identification of the spectator with the male protagonist, and thus with his sense of power. Randy Salem's work, I will argue, grants maleness as the gender of the look but aims to separate this look from what Mulvey calls "active power" or "omnipotence" Thus, Ralph can look, but his look carries no power.
The book's story is simple: boy meets girl but girl is already with girl, boy waits for girl, boy gets girl. Using a common pulp tactic, heterosexual sex starts the book, which is set in the "exotic" locale of the Bahamas. A sensitive, likable, handsome young man on foreign assignment who is bored by his overly efficient fiancée back home, Ralph finds a beautiful woman named Alison on a deserted tropical island, which is completely inaccessible except with scuba equipment due to a ring of coral circling the island. They make love, swim, and eat raw seafood in an extended romantic idyll, yet Alison remains reticent, elusive about her past or future and mysteriously distant, Though the book tells the story of Ralph staying close to Alison and eventually winning her, the story emphasizes lesbian, not heterosexual, primary relationships, and this early sex is the book's only heterosexual lovemaking. Ralph in fact spends most of the book ancillary to, and jealous of, a successful lesbian relationship. The narrative depicts Alison and her lover, Maxine, showing their devotion to each other as well as their group of lesbian friends, who are working together to create an all-lesbian resort on the same tropical island where Ralph and Alison met. The lesbian relationship is not permitted to be seen as too wholesome, howeverMaxine is also Alison's aunt. In addition, Maxine serves as the guardian of Alison's fortune until she turns twenty-one ("in a year or two"), and the narrative implies that Maxine's use of Alison's fortune to establish the resort might be more in the aunt's interest than the niece's.
While voyeurism occurs throughout Man among Women, it especially pervades two scenes in which Ralph sees Alison and Maxine having sex. In the first scene, after Ralph and Alison return from the island, Maxine and Alison pay the hotel manager to make sure Ralph drinks too much liquor so that he will pass out and wake the next morning to find Alison irrecoverably gone. Instead, Ralph drunkenly talks the maid into giving him the dinner the women had ordered from room service, and when they neglect to answer his knock, he pushes his way into the room. Salem writes:
As he catapulted headfirst into the room, his eyes riveted on the bed. The two women lying together on itnaked and locked in a close embracestruggled apart, wide-eyed in horror and shock.
One of them was Alison. (43)
This scene also constitutes the teaser page at the front of the book, evidence of the publisher's belief in voyeurism (and lesbianism) as an effective hook. But after a single additional sentence that describes Maxine, Ralph and the readers are cut off from further sights because the chapter immediately ends. Ralph has finally been rendered unconscious by the alcohol. The next day, unable to even think the word lesbian, he acknowledges that Alison "is a...." Realizing that he has a challenger, he asserts that he can win Alison away since he "knows firsthand" her "deep and fiery need for the male" (45). In this scene, Ralph's loss of consciousnessaccompanied by a loss of sighteffectively halts the structural power of his looking.
Sight is crucial to the narrative's progression. Maxine believes Ralph has "seen more than he should," and decides she wants him under her control. Jealous of him, she also cannot allow him to use his knowledge of the couple's lesbianism against them since their group is composed of well-known, wealthy women whose plans for a lesbian resort would be a perfect topic for the scandal magazines. Thus, after Ralph again tracks them down, Maxine decides to keep him close at hand and, since he has (conveniently) been robbed, she is able to keep him financially dependent on them:
[S]uddenly he knew what was expected of him. He shrugged.
"I'm willing to do whatever I can for you both."
Alison grinned with obvious amusement. Maxine nodded at the acceptance of her terms. (54)
After this, Ralph is kept under surveillance, his maleness used to prop up the legitimacy of their business negotiations. He is given food, clothes, shelter, and cigarettes, but no money, symbolizing Maxine's continued control over his life. While these are putatively Maxine's terms, they also give Ralph what he then most wants, access to Alison. With Ralph as a disempowered adjunct, manifest control and power are thus kept by the women for most of the book.
Whereas Ralph's invasion of Maxine and Alison's hotel room allows him sight but also knocks him out, the second voyeuristic episode, which is the only scene of lesbian lovemaking described in the book, is similarly double-edged, allowing Ralph to look, but at the expense of realizing his own inadequacy. The scene occurs after Ralph has agreed to help the women set up the all-lesbian resort in the hopes that his extended proximity will allow him to win Alison back. Angry that Maxine and Alison were retiring to their hotel room (undoubtedly to make love) after a day in which he and Alison had become closer, Ralph decides to "throw away all scruples" and take a look at them, since he has to "know what he is fighting." Voyeurism is here redoubled through fantasy and memory, as Ralph "pictur[es] what might be happening between the two women now that they were alone. With terrible vividness, he recalled the image of them naked together at the hotel" (93). He is portrayed as desiring to own Alison:
There was no doubt in his mind that Maxine was even now preparing to possess the girl. His girl.... He had a sudden impulse to whirl around and bash down the door of the room. He wanted to do violence, to smash forever all the bonds between them.... He meant to get a look at themat any cost. (93-94)
Note here that the narrative answer to Ralph's desire to smash lesbian bonds is to look. He finds a neighboring terrace, and "disgusted, yet hypnotically fascinated, he watched, dreading to see, yet not daring to leave" (94). Ralph here is the ideal relay figure for the voyeuristic look. Fear and pleasure mix as he looks at the women. He is fascinated yet disgusted; he watches, he dreads, yet he does not dare leave, preoccupied as he is with "demystifying the mystery" of woman, in Mulvey's terms (35).
The scene emphasizes, not the objects of the look (Maxine and Alison), but Ralph's reactions as a voyeur; the reader watches him watch them. Ralph is fascinated, yet looking hurts: "Blinded by emotions of loss and grief, overwhelmed by a murderous rage, he rushed in a daze from the terrace" (95). He is so shaken that "[h]e wanted to forget what he had seen. He wanted to erase it so completely that he would never recall it again." Paradoxically, his structural and cultural position as viewer is so painful that it has given him a desire not to see. The reader as relayed voyeur "sees" even less, since out of the episode's nineteen paragraphs, only four describe the women. In the end, this scene, which constitutes the most extended and dramatic episode of voyeurism in the book, depicts more the cost of Ralph's sight than sex between women or any pleasure in watching.
Looking results in pain, but also knowledge. Curiously, this knowledge is all about Maxine, not about Alisonall about identification, rather than desire. In a fashion typical of lesbian pulps, the older, "real" lesbian functions as a "male" antagonist for the hero, whereas Alison, the "woman" (read: straight woman) is the "prize," someone without agency of her own. The back cover confirms, even proclaims, this structure: "Calling into play all the masculine weapons he possessesand he has manyRalph engages in all-out war with striking Maxine Carpentier, with Alison's body the prize." Maxine is an adversary with whom Ralph identifiesshe is powerful, knowledgeable, and desires Alison just as he does. He concludes, despite his own blinding homophobia, that she is a worthy opponent.
Maxine had been to him a creature to be pitied, one of life's misfits who had temporarily captured Alison through sheer accident. And just what was she now? Not pitiable, certainly. And certainly not someone to be lightly dismissed. She was a creature of powera formidable enemy who could do anything he could do. Differently, perhaps, but maybe better. She was a person who knew more about Alison, more about pleasing her, more about teasing her, than he would be able to know for many a year.... [He wondered] if he really had a chance against Maxine after all. (95-96)
While lesbian lovemaking skills are not infrequently figured as threatening in pulp novels, the actual fact that Maxine can make love better than Ralph can is not the usual assessment of male heroes. His spying here renders Ralph figuratively impotent. His (in)sight in part becomes punishmentknowledge that a man, privileged by a sexist homophobic culture, does not (want to) know. Ralph sees what his culture tells him is impossible: not only is the male not the hero, not the love of the beloved, but he is an inferior lover. This rupture in the sanctioned formula must, of course, be recontained, with Ralph winning the woman by the end of the book.
The text offers a third scene about sight, though one completely lacking in sex, that perhaps says the most of any scene about this period's view of voyeurism. It is the only incident, significantly, that Ralph himself notes as voyeuristic, and the results are again painful for him. While waiting to pick up Alison and her friends from a Greta Garbo film (the book's most noticeable such subcultural due), Maxine takes Ralph for a ride in her convertible. Maxine is in a good mood and chats with him about her favorite subject:
"[Alison's] plenty stubborn, all right," she said. The affection she had for
the girl was obvious in her tone and in the soft lines around her eyes....
Ralph listened to her as she spoke at length about Alison. She spoke with such evident relish and openness that one might have thought they were mother and daughter. It made Ralph distinctly uncomfortable. He felt like a Peeping Tom treated to a keyhole view. He wanted to shut Maxine up, to shout her down with the side of Alison he knew, that he alone knew. Miserably he realized that Maxine would not talk so freely if she considered him any kind of threat. (129)
In this passage again Ralph "peeps" yet deeply regrets seeing (actually, only hearing) what men are supposed to want to see. While he feels as if Maxine is offering him the sexual thrill of a "keyhole view," in fact she is feeling open and generous and is simply talking about her lover's personality. The two are not hidden in a hotel room or having sex as in previous scenes; only in his rendering of the situation is this voyeurism. Yet this culturally sanctioned "treat" called voyeurism is not palatable. Ralph feels like a Peeping Tom in part because he is in love with Alison himself and cannot bear to hear of her intimacy with someone else, but also because Salem here mocks the male (reader's) desire to see lesbians having sex by showing the love as "normal" and the looking as "perversion." The available conceptual frame to understand the women's love is twisted so that an "open" display of the fact still makes Ralph feel like a voyeur. The text criticizes voyeurism as the culturally normative mode of understanding lesbianism. In other words, the link between lesbianism and voyeurism here is so strong and automatic that the mere image of a lesbian couplestructurallymakes a voyeur out of the nearest straight man. Alternately, the connection can only be figured as nongay, as a mother-daughter bondevidently, the only other possible way to understand such "evident relish" and "openness" in the affection between two women. The culture mandates that either lesbians are not really lesbians or they are sexual objects whose role is to satisfy the owners of the gaze. There is no possible community-sanctioned place for them to even inhabit, other than within a male-controlled economy of sex. It is, therefore, no wonder that their main form of representation is in pulp novels and no wonder that they need a remote island.
Lesbian Bars as Racial Sights/Sites:
Hierarchies of Looking
Representations of the lesbian bar, the only public lesbian space available in the culture, is standard in lesbian pulps. In most lesbian pulp novels, heterosexual looks control even that space, which is typically figured as one of heterosexual tourism. Virile adventures might show the lesbian bar from the point of view of a heterosexual couple that is there for a "thrill." Pro-lesbian pulps construct bar scenes that often refuse this normative structuring, recreating the bar as a lesbian-centered, liberating space despite occasional heterosexual patrons. Salem's bar in the Bahamas is an enjoyable space where lesbians can dance, flirt, and talk with each other, despite a heterosexual presence. But the refusal of male voyeurism exacts a tollapparently, if lesbians are no longer to be the object of the gaze, the power vacuum must be filled, in this case by creating black people as spectacle instead.
In Man among Women's bar scene, lesbians, all of whom are wealthy and white, are in control of their own territory. While they are planning the resort, Alison, Maxine, their lesbian friends, and Ralph spend time in a tropical "closed" town in the Bahamas only for the very richidle white tourists, not rich natives, despite its location. Alison, her friends, and Ralph go to a local bar that is mostly gay. Here Ralph, our supposedly masculine, strong hero, is in fact a "kept man," who is taken along only as nominal heterosexual cover for the women. When Ralph realizes that the bar is really more lesbian than not, "He sighed and leaned back in the chair, his high spirits beginning to fade" (77). Ralph's gaze lacks an object or desire and the reader is given no images of him looking at lesbians. Rather, we see looks between and among lesbians. While Ralph gives up and leans back in his chair, Alison, in a similar but opposing motion, "lean[s] forward eagerly and her eyes were amused" (77-78). The lesbian gaze is valorized as Alison looks, trying to pick a likely woman out of the crowd for her friend Judy to approach.
In the beginning of this scene, Salem switches the location of spectacle from (white) lesbians to (heterosexual) blacks. Apparently to do something so daring as depict one group appropriating the white male look and refusing to function as its object, one must refocus the power of that look onto another Other: hierarchical looking relations must have an outlet. As they first enter the bar, Salem describes at length three "Negroes" with bongos in the center of the bar, with a fourth on a reed instrument, playing music. The beat gets louder and more intense as a "barefooted Negress" "pad[s]" out into the spotlight and dances in an erotically charged manner. The narrative animalizes and primitivizes the Bahamians with stereotyped racist, sexist, and colonialist images. For example, the woman dances with "thighs flexed, ribs heaving and breasts hanging naked. Her stark white eyeballs rolled upward as her frenzy mounted" (77). In Man among Women, the hierarchical look is displaced onto a convenient Otherthe natives of the Bahamas. In racist fashion, Salem "softens" the blow to straight American (white) male readers caused by (white) lesbian rejection of the gaze by thrusting black people as spectacle onto the stage, thus creating a new and reassuringly familiaralso exotic and eroticOther. As Judith Mayne writes about a film that works similarly, "The racial stereotype appears when the sexual hierarchy of the look is deflected or otherwise problematized." Thus, Salem's move toward increased racial objectification works in two ways: to reassure the reader that the basic structures of dominant power remain intact, and, concomitantly, to allow subversive, unobjectified images of a different "Other"in this case, lesbians. The problems with, and futility of, reinforcing oppressive structures in one place while trying to break them in another are manifest.
The racist mechanism of the look is supported by other, more obvious racist assumptions. The natives of the Bahamas are consistently portrayed as inferior and as "types" rather than people. Whether the maid, the manager of the hotel, or the policeman, all are either subservient, docile, feminized, wily, and money hungry or alien and eroticized. Alison and Maxine have an American black man working for them named Noah, who is portrayed as a domesticated Other; the epitome of the physically powerful, helpful servant, he is a noble, selfless, asexual, Uncle Tom figure. Nonverbal, gentle, and patient, his is a masculinity domesticated for white female use. Alison explains Noah to Ralph in a way that establishes hisand herhistorically unchanged (and implicitly unchangeable), structural positions: "Noah is our man of all work. So was his father. We used to have lots of servantsbut not anymore" (56). He does traditionally masculine tasks for the lesbian group, such as drive the boat. American maleness in the sense of sexuality, however, is defined as white, in that white males are sexual and have agency whereas black men are helps or hindrances only. Noah's blackness renders him "not male" in a culturally useful or privileged sense. For example:
[Ralph] felt a nudge at his back and turned to see Noah beside him, leading the dog on a chain. "You go with the lady" he said to Ralph, and nodded toward Maxine, walking ahead of them.
Ralph was about to refuse, but Alison ... smiled in agreement. "He's right," she said. "Maxine shouldn't go ahead unescorted" (69-70)
Thus, the black man knows, not only his place, but Ralph's: Noah cannot be the (white, middle-class) "man" who should escort Maxine (neither can Alison). Noah knows that Ralph, even though despised by, and despising of, Maxine, can and should escort her. This repetitive fixing of structural positions reassures the white, male reader that the dominant cultural structures are or will be reasserted by the novel's end, as indeed they are.
The character of Noah is profoundly racist, yet in this lesbian text his character is the only male needed for the heroines to succeed, unlike other men such as Ralph or their gay male friends. According to the narrative, Noah provides the strength, the nonthreatening and domesticated maleness, needed to carry through the dream of a lesbian-only resort. Finally, by his name and captaining of the boat, he recalls the biblical Noah and his ark. In a twist on that narrative, the new Noah's purpose is not heterosexuality incarnate in saving two (male and female) of each creature and not to start his own clan (having no desire or independent agency); rather, he serves as a midwife. His function is to land white lesbians on their own island, presumably to start the lesbian community anew.
Man among Women's Conventional Ending:
Male Sight Restored
Just as sight is diverted to benefit the women in the bar, the three scenes analyzed here show voyeurism as evident, yet twisted to benefit the women. In the first, Ralph blacks out; in the second, he feels inferior; and the third, he wants not to have seen at all. In all three and for most of the narrative, Ralph suffers because of what he has seen, as opposed to feeling omnipotent. In the last episode of the book, however, Ralph becomes for the first time a culturally "successful" distanced observer, in that his sight is aligned with power instead of pain. The ending leaves Alison injured but safe and calling Ralph "darling"; Ralph having saved, and probably won, his girl; and Maxine surely dead, having chosen to give her own life to divert a barracuda that attacked Alison. Though successful, Ralph's viewing activity is the only "action" this passive hero takes to get the girl.
At the beginning of this final scene, Maxine, Alison, and Ralph are diving to film the easiest way through the coral reef that circles the island so that the film can serve as a guide to wreckers who will bomb the coral to allow boats to approach. Ralph had made vague plans to kidnap Alison on this trip but Maxine thwarted him by coming along (there is no indication that Alison would have consented; she has not grown noticeably less enamored of Maxine or more enamored of Ralph). This sequence initially depicts Alison and Maxine as swimming together, and Ralph as separate, distanced from the couple by his camera (150). Through Ralph's investment in photographing the sea, the text uses vision to distance him from the action and he forgets everything except his own ability to see. The cameraa device for looking and, in fact, for eternalizing lookingmarks the reinstatement of the male look as powerful, not coincidentally in an event that occurs alongside the obligatory heterosexual ending. This scene recalls the beginning of the book, which also depicts Ralph as a professional underwater photographer. Ralph had initially remained in the Bahamas longer than expected because he had not yet managed to photograph one of the sea's predators. At the end of the book, suddenly, Ralph sees exactly his desire, in the form of a barracuda, through his viewfinder: "This was what he had been after. What a brute!" (150). Immersed in his work, Ralph had wrongly thought that the other fish appeared riled due to a recent tropical storm, not a barracuda. His mistake deepens since he does not, even now, take cognizance of the possible dangerhe is too enthralled by the opportunity of shooting his prey (thus, with vision as shot, as gunshot, and as power).
Even after the barracuda snaps up a fish only a yard above Alison's shoulder, Ralph remains absorbed in filming his beloved (the barracuda? Alison?) rather than saving her.
In his excitement, Ralph moved nearer, hoping for a close-up of the slanting head, the vicious teeth protruding from the lower jaw. The barracuda was floating just above the women with an ominous placidity that was like the lull before the storm. As if by telepathy, Ralph realized the sinister intent just a split second before it happenedand by then it was too late. (151)
Salem makes Ralph part of the sea, aligning him "telepathically" with the barracuda. While my rendering clearly shows Ralph's guilt in Alison's wounding, Salem is more subtle: the text scripts an ambivalent, ambiguous scene that can be read by both her audiences, straight male and lesbian, with some degree of pleasure (and displeasure).
Because of its underwater setting and the rendering of the sea as an extension of Ralph (doing his tacit bidding, as it were), the scene seems a dream world, a fantasy in which Ralph finally gets what he wants: punishment for Maxine (and, incidentally, Alison, who is severely hurt), and Alison without her lover and thus free to be with him. Maxine and Ralph realize that only one of them can take Alison to safety while the other one must act as decoy, luring the barracuda away and in the process certainly dying. Since they are described as "equally" good swimmers, and both love Alison, this decision is left up to Alison. Curiously, this is the "woman's" only moment of agencybleeding, in shock, unable to talk since they are all underwater, she first looks deeply at Maxine and smiles, and then turns and puts her arms around Ralph for him to carry her. The text leaves unclear the question of whether Alison knows she is sending Maxine to her death and showing a suddenly long-term preference for Ralph. Thus, even as Ralph "wins" his girl, the text grants agency to everyone and everything but the manto Alison, Maxine, and even the barracuda.
Thus, with the exception of the final scene, Randy Salem twists a generic convention to refuse the man the pleasures and power of the male gaze. Each moment of voyeurism becomes, not a moment of control over/desire for the object seen, but of actual exclusion and forced impotence. Voyeurism is not simply about lust or objectificationrather it means pain, unwanted knowledge, looking without pleasure or powerthe impotent theater viewer or reader is thrust back in his seat, being separated from the power of the gaze. Despite substantial concessions to a heterosexual male audience, Man among Women shows the structure of a system of looking and its costs, and it begins to dismantle voyeurism as an uncontested place of power for straight men.
The white, middle-class lesbians who commented on Man among Women when it first came out had contradictory responses to the book. In the Ladder, in June 1961, Barbara Grier calls it "superior," a "top-notch Lesbian paperback," despite a "surprisingly ... male oriented" story ("Lesbiana" 22). A review in Checklist Supplement 1961 offers split opinions: "Editors disagree; some liked this, some said `scv and gaah at that.' Read it yourself, if you can stand it" (Bradley and Damon 26). "Scv," as the reader will recall, stands for "short course in voyeurism"; "gaah" evidently is an expression of disgust. The conflicted nature of the opinion here, in labeling a title both "superior" and "scv," points to the text's central contradictions. Leaving aside the death of the "real" lesbian, which readers might well have acknowledged as a necessity of the genre, male-centeredness and scenes of the hero looking at lesbians are countered by an in-depth depiction of a supportive lesbian community, positive gay characters, and a strong, loving, long-term lesbian relationship.
Perhaps what Randy Salem has accomplished here is a simple publishing trade-off: she was allowed to depict a strong community of lesbians if she made the central character a male who got his girl in the end. Though I have not discussed this community here, the book depicts a likable set of nonhomophobic lesbians, all of whom seem reasonably contented in their gayness, including a friendly doctor who lost her practice because of her lesbianism and an elite, upper-class woman who is Maxine's lawyer, some of whom are coupled, and some single. The book looks ahead to the utopian and science fiction literature of 1970s lesbian feminism, envisioning the surprisingly utopian in lesbian literature: the separatism and protected space of a lesbian-only resort. The book also resists homophobic generic constraints by refusing to sensationalize lesbian lives.
Readerly Ambivalence and Multiple Identifications
How might a lesbian reader negotiate the complex set of identifications and desires proffered in Man among Women? What are the relations between reader and text? Many feminist and queer film critics since Mulvey have convincingly critiqued her position and have insisted on multiple points of identification and a desire for a range of spectatorial subject positions. Similarly, feminist literary, reader-oriented, and especially reader-response critics, as well as some film critics, have convincingly argued for versions of a "wary," "resistant" or "perverse" reading position for the reader/viewer, allowing her or him flexibility in negotiating the ideologically hostile text or the text in which a certain subject position remains consistently invisible. Lesbian pulp novels, especially the virile adventures but also, to a lesser degree, the pro-lesbian pulps, are so unsubtle that they initially beg for a strict Mulveyan reading, which would see these books as locking the male reader into a voyeuristic, sadistic position and the viewed woman as stuck in the position of sexual object; they are all too obviously products of a dominant ideology. What I find especially useful when looking at pro-lesbian pulps, therefore, is to keep both Mulvey's idea and the multiple, actual possible identifications simultaneously in mind.
In "Desire in Narrative," Teresa de Lauretis confirms the complexity of possible identifications for women as well as the different modes of identification: "Clearly, as least for women spectators, we cannot assume identification to be single or simple. For one thing, identification is itself a movement, a subject-process, a relation: the identification (of oneself) with something other (than oneself)" (Alice Doesn't 141). A multiplicity and complexity of identifications for lesbians are thrown into relief in an early scene on Maxine's boat. First, the scene sets up the reader to identify with male voyeurism: "Ralph decided to remain silent and stay where he was so that he could watch them" Second, taking up a position opposed to the first, the reader is also allowed to identify with the women being watched: "The fingers caressed Alison's cheek and then slipped around to the back of her slim neck. Alison looked up at Maxine and smiled tenderly." Here one can identify with Ralph's, Alison's, or Maxine's desire. Third, in the text's clearest encapsulation of its dictate that voyeurism causes pain, one can identify with the actionthe punishment for looking:
Ralph could not take his eyes from Maxine's hand. He wanted to break it off at the wrist.... In his anger he half arose. As a wave careened the boat, his feet slid out from under him on the slippery deck and he crashed over the edge and down to the duckboards below, landing with a thud on his back. A wild pain tore through him. (62-63)
This third identification is not with a character, but with the sequence itself. The pleasure for a lesbian reader is ambivalent; she simultaneously likes being able to see what Ralph sees and likes the serious pounding Salem inflicts on him for daring to see it.
Though a lesbian reader may enjoy Salem's trouncing of the male gaze, the text also implicates her in the mechanisms of sight. Torn between different identifications, she will tend to vacillate between wanting to halt Ralph's invasive looking for the sake of the women's privacy (identification with lesbian characters), pleasure in a punishing feminist fantasy where a voyeur gets what he deserves (identification with the action), and wanting to encourage Ralph's voyeurism so that she can watch the progress of the story (identification with Ralph, but also with the lesbian characters). A lesbian reader of Salem's narrative must align herself with Ralph's eyes, if not his motivesa perspective that channels, simultaneously, voyeurism, Ralph's love for Alison, and the lesbian reader's independent desire to see lesbian representation. For example, in one scene we are told, "They clung ecstatically and Maxine whispered words into the girl's ear that did not reach Ralph" (95). If he does not hear them, neither do weand "we" do want to hear them, even if we do not particularly want them heard by Ralph. The lesbian reader is thus complicit. Despite this possible complicity with voyeurism, the choice to read pro-lesbian pulps, it must be remembered, was made in a cultural context in which these books were some of the only, and definitely some of the most positive, representations of lesbianism available. As Bertha Harris writes, in defense of her enjoyment of lesbian pulps, in an article on lesbian literature: "when you are starving, a soda cracker will do" (51). Though probably few wanted a short course in voyeurism, many were eager for a short course in lesbianism. The proximity between the two, in sum, was fraught, yet could not be ignored.
A lesbian reader's ambivalent and complex reactions can be clarified through comparison with Kobena Mercer's thoughtful reconsideration of his reaction as a black gay man to Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of black gay men in his essay, "Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary." Mercer argues that Mapplethorpe's photos possess undecidability:
[T]he difficult and troublesome question raised by Mapplethorpe's black male nudesdo they reinforce or undermine racist myths about black sexuality?is strictly unanswerable, since his aesthetic strategy makes an unequivocal yes/no response impossible. This is because the image throws the question back to the spectator, for whom its undecidability is experienced precisely as the unsettling shock effect. (Welcome 192)
Whereas Mapplethorpe's images remain undecidable and polyvalent, and in this way shocking, the pro-lesbian pulps' images of lesbians are predominantly polyvalent and predictable. That is to say, they are decidedly polyvalent, yet already "decided" in favor of the hegemonic. The form so embraces the dominant ideology that discordant images are either hidden or, even when obvious, overpowered by the weight of the popular form. Instead of a crafted polyvalence that grates and demands attention, this is a polyvalence buried under stereotype and poor writing. Pro-lesbian pulps as a result are often both homophobic and not homophobic, for example regularly calling the same lesbian heroines "strange and twisted" in one paragraph and "noble and beautiful" in the next.
If the Mapplethorpe photos and the pulp texts are differently polyvalent, the reactions of the viewer/reader to each are similar in their polyvalence. Mercer elaborates a theory of readerly ambivalence that stresses the importance of context, writing of the complex set of feelings he experiences when he admits both identification with, and desire for, the black gay men in the photos of this white gay artist. He writes:
[S]haring the same desire to look as the author-agent of the gaze, I would actually occupy the position that I said [in previous work] was that of the "white male subject." ... I would say that my ambivalent positioning as a black gay male reader stemmed from the way in which I inhabited two contradictory identifications at one and the same time. ("Skin" 180)
Thus Mercer identifies simultaneously with the (white) gaze (of desire) and the gay black men being (objectified and) imaged. Similarly, in the case of Man against Women, the lesbian reader sees the object, lesbians, through a straight male gaze, which offers her an ambivalent, contradictory set of locations for identification, desire, and objectification.
Mercer has an advantage over 1950s pulp readers because he knows more about the artist than lesbian readers knew about Salem; in fact, attention to the specific authorial location (Mapplethorpe as gay, white, and male) is crucial to how Mercer revisions and revalorizes the photos of which he had previously been so critical. Mercer is ambivalent about identifying with the photographer, while Salem's readers could not know the gender or sexual orientation, much less race, of this pseudonymous author. Mercer experiences identification with or desire for on two levels: with the photographer and with the black men photographed. The lesbian reader has three levels from which to identifywith the lesbian couple, with the male protagonist, or with the pseudonymous author. These sometimes irreconcilable multiplicities may account for the book's "scv-yet-superior" rating in the Checklist. In the end, neither Mercer nor the lesbian reader identifies with the subject position of Mapplethorpe or Ralph, only with their desire. The white male is, in each case, the most readily available point of entry to their own desire; thus, identification does not necessarily mean identitythough sharing a location can mean complicity. The difficulty, or even impossibility, of disentangling this complicity between lesbianism, voyeurism, and homophobia may be one reason why lesbian pulps have been generally ignored in contemporary lesbian literary scholarship.
Conclusions: Pro-Lesbian Pulps
as Lesbian Literature, or,
The Advantages of the Obvious
What the pro-lesbian pulps offered at their best was a restructuring or deflection of prevalent cultural representational norms; in this case, the expectation of voyeurism. Some work, like Valerie Taylor's, showed that a text published within the pulp genre could contain an openly lesbian story about realistic lesbians without incorporating voyeurism into the text. Other work, like Ann Bannon's, seeks, not to refuse voyeuristic sight, but to harness it to a pro-lesbian agenda, thus appropriating some of its cultural power. Salem's text in the end disempowers the heterosexual male gaze, despite representing the voyeurism expected of the genre. In this way, pro-lesbian pulps begin to rework the structures of sight through refusal, escape, or refiguration so as to make a space for lesbian representationand lesbian readersother than the pre-established one.
Feminist film critic Carol Clover, in an article on slasher films, argues that the same characteristics that make these films "lowbrow" also allow them to better bring to the surface the structures of the surrounding society. She writes, "[T]he qualities that locate the slasher film outside the usual aesthetic system ... are the very qualities that make it such a transparent source for (sub)cultural studies toward sex and gender in particular[,] ... giv[ing] us a clearer picture ... than do the legitimate products of the better studios" (188). By analogy, I would argue that the "low-brow" lesbian pulps display the very mechanics that structure society, as opposed to ignoring or simply incorporating them. Lesbian pulps are blatant about power, voyeurism, racism, and homophobia. The ideology is so obvious that it may have allowed lesbian readers of the time to see the structures of heterosexism instead of simply internalizing them. The pro-lesbian pulp subgenre, specifically, also begins to undermine these oppressive structures, by offering spaces, moments, and even whole stories with incipiently pro-lesbian representation.
In contrast to the era's literary lesbian novels, the fact that pro-lesbian pulps, following the lead of Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness, named, confrontedand sometimes acceded todominant structure, also gave lesbian readers of the time more of a language with which to name their oppression. Unfortunately, literary novels that eschewed the depiction of voyeurism altogether often also were unable to name homophobia. The literary novels with lesbian themes of the fifties and early sixties faced a different set of cultural and "generic" constraints than did their pulp counterparts. Generally, these texts, such as those by May Sarton, Mary Renault, Rosamond Lehmann, or Brigid Brophy, were made antihomophobic through the normalizing and humanizing of the presence of a lesbian character in the text. Thus, while literary novels do not have obviously voyeuristic scenes (voyeurism generally is seen as tied more closely to pornography than "high-brow" literature), I want to look briefly at what they lose by this omission.
May Sarton's The Small Room (1961; rpt. 1976) narrates the lives of a lesbian couple on a New England college campus, one a professor and the other a wealthy trustee, as a normal and accepted part of campus life. However, their status as lesbians is barely discussed by any of the characters themselves, including the couple, except for the general rumor that a specific professor has power because she is "Olive Hunt's pet" and a quick defense: "It happens to be a real relationship. The fact is that they love each other and have done so for twenty years. Beyond our recognition of that fact ... it is none of our damned business" (151-52). Although lesbians are allowed in this world, then, the word lesbian is never mentioned and homophobia, by which I mean any idea of structural oppression, is never raised. It is none of polite (middle-class, white) society's businessand thus, a sort of knowing silence becomes the best for which a lesbian (reader) can hope. This mode of literary representation argues for an acceptance of lesbianism through a discourse of normality that works to make gayness a topic it is best to notice but never discuss. In her review of The Small Room in October 1961, Barbara Grier praises exactly this invisible presence: "Without exception this is the very best novel yet written using the device of introducing in a wholly natural manner a major lesbian love affair treated in a completely frank, sympathetic, offhand, and unconcerned way" ("Lesbiana" 24). Yet the representation of lesbianism here is severely limited. Though these women are characters with depth and their love for each other is discernible, the most concrete evidence of their relationship is the fact that they call each other "darling." On the other hand, they are represented arguing, they never touch each other, and by the end of the book their twenty-year relationship appears doomed. Homophobia is not even possible as an idea in this text. In other words, the fact of lesbianism is in the text, but with a closet around it. It is, both to the reader and to the other characters in the book, a "spectacle of the closet," as Eve Sedgwick puts it in her discussion of Prousta closet that is known and seen, though not discussed. Another definition of closet, indeed, is, a very "small room."
Meet the Author
Patricia Juliana Smith is Assistant Professor of English at UCLA.
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