Carol: A Respectful Portrayal of Lesbians (but the Patriarchy Sucks!)

Intro by Brandon

Quick, picture a movie about lesbians! If you’re at all influenced by pop culture and its shortcomings, you may have pictured something not so flattering. Maybe you thought of the stereotype of the butch lesbians that hate men, or maybe you thought of the stereotype of the sexy lesbians that exist for sexy entertainment for men. Most of the time, when you see lesbians in film, it’s one of these two tropes, and it’s unfortunately really rare to see a well-written lesbian character that’s neither a joke nor a set piece.

And that’s why the 2015 movie Carol is so important. In most films, lesbians exist in relation to men: either as something they joke about, or something that performs for their entertainment. In the rare cases when you do see a smart and realistic lesbian character, she’s usually a side character, sitting back while other characters move the plot forward. Carol shows us a relationship between two women in the 1950s, a time that’s not exactly known for its acceptance of gay people or its empowerment of women, and it shows us the hardships of both of these aspects of these characters’ lives.

This is a smart romance that says a lot about lesbian relationships without forcing anything. In fact, there’s less contrived plotting here than most of the other romances I’ve seen between heterosexual folks. But we get to see a lot of the bullshit that lesbians, and women in general, put up with in society, and the film doesn’t water this bullshit down into something more palatable. Because, really, how can you make bullshit more palatable? Like, a bullshit banana smoothie? There is no such nonsense here.

Anyway, Maria and I talk pretty openly about this bullshit and what it means for lesbians and women today, decades after this film is set, and decades after it should have stopped, but sadly didn’t. Also, Maria runs some stats on how diverse our film selection has been—or hasn’t been. We’re working on that, which is part of why we’re doing this movie. Anyway, there’s some good conversation here, and you should listen, because it’s good. This is Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health.

Show Summary

Overall Thoughts: Lesbian writers face hardship and don’t see enough thoughtful representation

M: Our diversity statistics suck; first time seeing this movie

B: Based on a semi auto-biographical book whose author had to write it under a pseudonym (and this lasted until the 1980s); book questioned standards especially by having an older woman falling in love with a younger woman and being pretty vulnerable and having a balanced relationship; directed by Todd Haynes: one of the pioneers of New Queer Cinema; respectful portrayal of a lesbian relationship; first time seeing this movie

Like: A truly happy ending, the patriarchy fails these women

M: Really liked this film; the tone and the pace was spot on; kept my interest; characterization of Carol and Therese was complex and touching; movie read my mind re: pronunciation (haha); love the “happy” ending; definitely would see it again

B: No man gets Therese’s name right, and Carol gets it right and likes the name; patriarchy is a central theme: we see the characters suffer from it and are affected by it; the film’s point is smart and isn’t forced

Dislike: Repression made it a little hard to get attached to the characters

M: I’d love to have more background on both Therese and Carol; it was slightly confusing at first because the movie seemed to set Carol up by intimating that she has anxiety problems 

B: Carol and Therese’s relationship looks repressed, which was probably intentional, but at the same time, I felt disconnected from them because of that repression; perhaps a little slow…?? 

Mental Health: The patriarchy expects lesbians to entertain men

M: No overt discussion except that perhaps being gay is seen as not being stable or mentally healthy; this may seem like a movie that has “old America’s” problems in it, but we really didn’t legalize gay marriage and adoption until recently; being that “other” can make you have deeper mental issues and problems

B: Men still attack women and lesbians because men believe they exist only for the enjoyment for men; of course women and lesbians are going to feel anxiety being outside because of how they are treated—catcalled and being beaten, etc.; with male catcalling, the intimidation is the point


M: You want to scream at [Carol] to run away with Therese and follow your heart, but there’s this whole other aspect of her having a daughter, the custody battle, and it makes it so complicated. You can’t just leave your child. You don’t want to leave your child. You love your child. And it’s just heartbreaking having to watch her go through this, and I love that she, for the most part, prevails at the end.

M: Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that everyone accepts it and everyone is treated equally and fairly in this society, so I think it’s interesting because you tend to think of these things as issues about back then. This is set in the 50s, but this is still new to us. 

B: The movie didn’t try to sugar coat anything and have the fairytale happily ever after ending. It didn’t try to dumb down how hard it was to be gay or lesbian in that time.

B: We see the patriarchy affecting everybody in this film, and so I think it hits Harge pretty hard because of the expectations at that time. He just felt very inadequate and even threatened by this relationship and just Carol being who she is. So when the scene came with her in the courtroom and she says, “No, this is not who we are,” I think there was some relief on his face there where he was given permission to not be a monster. 

B: The patriarchy is not just a women’s issue. We talk about toxic masculinity, and that’s just front-line soldiers for the patriarchy. And it hurts men, too. It’s something that everybody needs to be talking about. The film doesn’t sacrifice parts of itself to make this point, but this film does make the point that there is a system that not only favors males but enforces traditional gender roles and sexuality, and that hurts everyone.

B: So lesbians are there to entertain in one of two ways: to be the butt of jokes or to be sexy entertainment for men, and there’s very little of what actually goes on when the men aren’t around. So most of the lesbian characters in film are usually the stereotypical butch lesbians or the sexy lesbians or, if they’re not, they’re usually the background character. And so that’s why this film is so important because we actually get to see a lesbian relationship without any men around, and that is very rare in film.

Next Film…

Up next, we will be discussing the 1983 Brian de Palma film, Scarface.

2 thoughts on “Carol: A Respectful Portrayal of Lesbians (but the Patriarchy Sucks!)

  1. One of my fav movies ever. Love your coverage of it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Glad we’re getting some representation in our podcast. (Although the film is good in its own right.)

      Liked by 1 person

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