Living Against Her Grain: An Analysis of Gender and Sexuality in Carol
In 1950s Manhattan, Therese (Rooney Mara), an aspiring photographer, works at a department store where she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant housewife, searching the doll displays for a gift for her daughter, Rindy. Carol conveniently leaves her gloves behind and Therese mails them back to her. To thank her, Carol asks her to lunch, and later invites her to come spend time with her at her home.
While at Carol’s house, Harge, Carol’s soon to be ex-husband, unexpectedly shows up. Due to Carol’s past homosexual tendencies, Harge becomes suspicious of Therese, which causes an explosive argument and forces Therese to leave. However, the women continue meeting one another and grow closer.
Enduring a messy divorce and custody battle, Carol discovers Harge has filed a “morality clause” against her to get full custody of Rindy. Carol decides to go on a road trip and invites Therese, who happily agrees. This upsets Richard, Therese’s boyfriend, and accuses her of having feelings for Carol, causing the couple to break up. Carol and Therese consummate their relationship but soon realize that a man, hired by Harge, recorded audio of their sexual interaction. Broken up by this event, Therese gets a job at the New York Times and Carol goes to psychotherapy in order to be able to see Rindy. However, Carol refuses to agree to Harge’s demands and gives up custody to Rindy. Carol invites Therese to have dinner, where Carol confesses her love. Therese’s friend interrupts and invites her to his party. Therese leaves with him; however, after arriving she ultimately decides to return to Carol.
The Novel that Started it All
Carol (2015) was directed by Todd Haynes and was based off the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. The original novel was based off a real experience of the author. Highsmith was a retail employee behind the toy counter at a Manhattan Bloomingdale’s and met a beautiful blonde woman, Mrs. E. R. Senn (Isabella Luizzi, 6). They only exchanged a few words, but Highsmith became infatuated with her, and obsessed over a slip of paper Senn had left behind (Luizzi, 6). From this experience, Highsmith was inspired to write The Price of Salt which later turned into Carol. The film’s message regarding gender and sexuality mainly focuses on suppression into a heteronormative world, which is enhanced greatly by Todd Haynes filmmaking techniques, and the dynamics of lesbian relationships.
Societal Norms of the 1950s
The film’s main theme revolves around female suppression into heteronormativity and shows what happens to women when they do not coincide with societal norms. The film constantly reminds the audience that the 1950s is an era of suppression for homosexuals and any hint of homosexuality is crushed by heteronormativity. For example, Therese’s and Carol’s activities at Carol’s home are squandered by angry Harge. Similarly, at the climax of the film, as Carol confesses her love to Therese they are interrupted by Therese’s friend, Jack.
Another form of this is when Therese notices Carol for the first time across the department store floor. They hold a prolonged, mutual stare of interest until a disgruntled mother and child interrupts to ask a retail question. Therefore, this interruption provides a reminder of women’s expected family roles. Throughout the entire film, the words “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” are never uttered once. In turn, they use phrases such as “aberrant behavior” or “conduct” to describe Carol’s sexual and romantic interactions with women. This reinforces the idea that even the mere mention of lesbianism was taboo.
In the end, Carol breaks free from heterosexual expectations. Carol gives up custody to her daughter Rindy and in a passionate monologue says, “what use am I to her if I am living against my own grain?”. Therefore, without explicitly saying so, Carol rejects being further damaged by false heterosexuality and a heteronormative lifestyle.
Visually, Todd Haynes communicates the domineering nature of heteronormativity through his use of space. Victoria L. Smith states, “Space—the literal, the imagined, and the filmic—is key to understanding the film. Through his meticulous attention to the framings, colors, textures, patterns, and spaces, Haynes encourages viewers to consider what the space consists of, who occupies it, and in what ways” (1). The first mentionable space is the narrative’s setting. 1950s America was a time where homosexuality was socially unacceptable.
Additionally, Haynes stages the narrative at Christmas time, which causes a “temporal disruption”, making the film occur during holiday time rather than regular time (Smith 1). Christmas is the embodiment of heteronormativity and marketed towards the perfect nuclear family. Another setting to consider is Therese’s place of work. Therese is trapped at the department store by stern 1950s conformity where she is expected to abide by a set of rules (Walter Metz, 3). Her shrewd boss scolds her for making a personal phone call, forces her to wear silly Santa hats, and requires her to stay behind the counter at all times (Metz, 3). The department store metaphorically represents heteronormative lifestyle and the rules that Therese is expected to follow mirror the expectations of society. Conversely, an alternative shot shows Therese reading through a book containing the store’s employee guidelines, suggesting that Therese is trying to desperately navigate a world that she is familiar with but does not completely understand.
An alternative way Haynes uses space to represent oppression via heteronormativity is by the literal space in the camera’s frame (Smith, 1). At the conclusion of the film, Therese attends her friend’s party where heterosexual couples dominate the small apartment. Therese shows no interest in the people around her until an attractive woman arrives by herself with no man by her side. A subtle question lingers in the air of whether or not this woman is a lesbian or even interested in Therese.
The most telling visual moments of the scene occurs with a shot of the exterior windows looking into the building. The shot shows two windows, separated by a section of wall, with Therese in one window and the single woman in the other. The exterior wall and the interior blockade of heterosexuals between the two women represents Therese’s longing for women hindered by heteronormativity. Eventually, the woman makes her way over to Therese. Thus, from the exterior view, the camera shows them in the same window. Therese was clearly emotionally affected by the exchange as the film immediately cuts to Therese alone and locked in the bathroom. The exchange with the woman and domineering space of couples pushes Therese to return to Carol. Consequently, like Carol in the court scene, Therese breaks through the barriers of heteronormative expectations and takes the initiative to be in a relationship with Carol.
Furthermore, Haynes uses the camera to communicate Therese’s desire for Carol. Therese’s growing obsession is shown through the camera’s focus on Carol’s physical features. The camera is just as infatuated with Carol as Therese is. The lack of dialogue increases the tension between the two characters. The lingering shots on Carol’s hands and the prolonged gazes between the two of them communicate a longing they are unable to verbalize. Luizzi makes the important point that, opposed to popular opinion, the couple does not have these tension-filled silences by choice, and they are not meant to create sexual tension to the viewer (8).
Instead, it is suggested that Carol and Therese have these moments due to the fact they are oppressed by their society and are afraid of what will happen if they express their love openly (Luizzi 8). An alternative scene communicates a similar message of visual tension. Therese goes into a store to purchase a record for Carol when she notices two women staring at her from the other side of the room. These two women shown wear very masculine or “butch” clothing. While it is never explicitly said, the clothing and the suggestion of the exchange clearly marks the two women as lesbians. However, the staring is not suggested to be predatory, but is used as a visual tactic to decipher if Therese is truly one of them.
However, some dislike the portrayal of lesbian women in the film and believe Carol and Therese are stereotypes. Patricia White argues that Carol is portrayed as the older “predatory lesbian” while young, naïve Therese is portrayed as the “innocent school girl” (11). Therese is shy and submissive, while Carol is confident and in control. Carol is in control of the relationship for the majority of the film. Since Therese is so enraptured by her, she follows along willingly. When Carol and Therese are having lunch together, Carol immediately puts in her order in as soon as they sit down. Therese barely looks at the menu before asking for an identical meal. In a later scene, Therese is filled with guilt over the audio-tape debacle and blames the situation on her inability to say no to people. Similarly, Jenny M. James notes that the narrative’s strategy to replace Carol’s motherly bond with her daughter for a romance with Therese relies on the trope of the “pathological and menacing older-lesbian” (296). Therese’s association with girlhood (young age, selling toys, etc.) associate her with Rindy, which sets them up as competitors for Carol’s maternal love (James, 296). Therefore, Carol has to “choose” whether to be in a relationship with Therese or to be a mother to Rindy.
In contrast, Lee Marshall offers another perspective. “For Carol, the relationship is about possession – she mentors Therese the way she mothers the daughter she is losing.For Therese, desire becomes an obsession that she navigates with childlike confusion” (111). Carol serves as a role model and teacher for Therese. During one of their phone calls Therese says to Carol, “I want to ask you things but I’m not sure that you want that”. Carol responds, “Ask me things. Please.”. Carol is aware of Therese’s curiosity and wants to help her. However, these good intentions are derailed when their relationship is outed by Harge, and Carol is forced to go into psychotherapy to gain the right to see her daughter. Carol writes a letter to her and in it says, “you seek resolutions and explanations because you are young.”. Therese seeks to find an explanation to her sexuality and pursues Carol because she does not know how to hide her homosexuality in a heterosexual society. Even though Therese sees Carol as an information booklet, Carol does not have all the answers on how to be a lesbian in an oppressive society, which are evident in her troubles with Harge.
In conclusion, Carol explores an example of lesbianism in the homophobic and heteronormative 1950s era. It does so by portraying heteronormative society as oppressive and nearly inescapable through the narrative and visual filmmaking techniques. Narratively, Carol successfully escapes using direct references to homosexuality in order to allude to a time where same-sex relationships were unmentionable. Visually, director Todd Haynes emphasizes themes of authoritative heteronormativity through his use of space, including the setting and the literal space in the camera’s frame. Haynes additionally uses filmmaking techniques to enhance Therese and Carol’s forbidden relationship with soundless, lingering shots on either actress. Carol and Therese are portrayed as stereotypes such as an “innocent school girl” and “predatory lesbian” as a result of narrative devices that distort balances of power and motherly bonds. However, predatory stereotypes are somewhat redeemed by portraying Carol as a mentor to Therese and helping her through her confusion about her sexuality.
James, Jenny M. “Maternal Failures, Queer Futures: Reading the Price of Salt (1952) and Carol