lesbians psychoanalysis tv

Gentleman Jack: (Un)settling lesbians (1/x)

1. I haven’t thought much about butch-femme dynamics. Maybe I am not particularly interested in them; maybe I find lesbian subcategories stressful. I am on the butch side of the butch-femme continuum, and I fit Ann Cvetkovich’s discussion of butch-femme healing (An Archive of Feelings, chapter 2, 2003) to an extent, but I’m not super butch. I am a little butch.

2. Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack lends itself to butch-femme analysis. Since, as I said, I am not very knowledgeable about this topic my thoughts will be informed by other studies or by my general knowledge of queerness and, of course, by my personal experience. This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts.

3. There is no world in which Ann Walker (AW) could express the absolute delight she feels at seeing Anne Lister (AL) again for the first time since she was a young girl if

  • they were of two different genders
  • they were two men.

The endless latitude of feelings and expression of feeling allowed women is one of the blessings and one of the curses of lesbian existence.

4. A blessing because closeted lesbians, or even out lesbians in non-romantic female friendships, get to enjoy a high level of intimacy with women they are romantically/sexually interested in but who are not equally interested in them.

5. A curse because this intimacy, this closeness, is always in tremendous jeopardy — no one knows what will happen the instant the love that dares not speak its name is named.

6. Women can actually get quite far along the physical intimacy road as long as that love, the one that dares not speak its name, remains unnamed.

7. Or at least they can in a fairly repressive, homophobic society. Because, the more that love is assumed not to exist, not to be possible, the easier it is for everyone to ignore it.

8. In cultures that accept same sex love, it may be harder. Girls who get too close are immediately capable of telling themselves that this is too homoerotic, too gay, and will pull back if they don’t want to go there, or can’t go there.

9. Intimacy is almost always erotic. We are all well trained to channel this eroticism into socially-approved feelings and behaviors. Close female friendships — friendships in which women spend a lot of time together, touch a lot, disclose a lot of person stuff, talk a lot — will tend to the erotic. Straight women are trained to channel this eroticism in socially-approved ways. So are lesbians.

10. In order to do so, lesbians who long for more must live in a perpetual state of (self-)denial. This (self-)denial is multiform. At its outermost end, that means treading the intimacy line so as to satisfy desire without threatening the other; at its innermost end, it will entail hiding one’s own desire to oneself.

11. In an extremely homophobic society this state of constant self-denial comes with great agony. In a less homophobic society (say Miami in 2020), when the possibility of finding a partner and living a lesbian life is there, there is less agony because there is hope.

12. But you have to get there. You have a find a woman who returns your love. You have to find a woman who accepts to live openly with you. You have to find a woman who is brave enough and gay enough to live out her sexuality.

13. The road to finding this woman is full of emotional hide-and-seek, and disastrous misreadings and ruinous declarations.

14. AL is phenomenally assured in who she is and what she wants, and also in the viability and righteousness of the fulfillment of her desires. When she first approaches AW she does so with exactly the same calculus that leads to heterosexual unions in her social environment. This calculus takes into account financial benefit, compatibility in social class, desire to achieve a comfortable and stable domestic situation, and finding the other person at least moderately appealing. AL would be quite fine with obtaining all that with a woman she is not in love with but who is not distasteful to her, because, just like her heterosexual counterparts, she would be counting on growing fondness. She could never marry a man because her distaste towards men, romantically speaking, is absolute.

15. The show doesn’t make clear whether AL likes men in non-romantic contexts. Almost all her positive interactions in the show are with women (unless the men work for her), but we know that she studied with men abroad.

16. This is a complicated point. Women who are not interested in men romantically but enjoy them in general, as friends for instance, can still marry them, either because of heterosexual social pressures or for other reasons, and be more or less okay. But now my mind goes to Gertrude Stein, who only liked the company of men and deeply disdained the company of women. Yet I cannot for the life of me imagine her married to a man. Her devotion to Alice was absolute.

17. And now I go back to AL: does she enjoy women socially? We do not know. Wainwright shows her mostly engaged in flirtatious/romantic/sexual interactions. Maybe she will let us know in the next season.

18. AW, who is a femme and therefore better able to disguise herself, is, luckily for AL, also fairly clear about her desires. She knows she doesn’t want to birth children, which I take to be the show writers’ (Wainwright hired lesbians for writing and historical consulting) way of telling us that she doesn’t like having a penis in her vagina (this seems a safe way for AW, who is not only a woman of her time but also traumatized by rape, to talk about sexual intercourse). We also know that she has always refused marriage and that she does not desire to get married at all. We do not know if she has loved any woman other than AL, but of course we wouldn’t know because —

19. she herself didn’t know that she had always been in love with AL (see above re: infinite capacity of lesbian denial). We, on the other hand, immediately recognize in her ecstatic welcoming of AL back into her life the lesbian desire we will be proven right to see.

20. Not only that. We absolutely rejoice in the fact that AL may have found, not a possibly straight woman she must endeavor to conquer, but, maybe finally, another lesbian!

21. Which takes us to a key motif, both within the show and possibly for the spectator herself: the devouring lesbian who “cannot be trusted with women” because, with evil lures, she invariably manages to seduce them and utilize them for her own perverse desires. (Representations of this trope abound; the first that comes to mind right now is the 2006 film Notes on a Scandal).

22. The trope of the voracious predatory lesbian (always older, as lore would have it) rests on a true feature of (female) sexuality and two mainstays of patriarchy.

  • The true feature of female and maybe all sexuality is, as I have discussed above, the erotic component of intimacy. In other words, people who love each other love each other, and sex, in all its manifestations, is a component of love. That women may be more in touch with all this is simply a feature of our culture.
  • The first mainstay of patriarchy is that women are for men and when a woman seduces another woman she ruins her for all men, who are rightfully entitled to her through birthright.
  • The second mainstay of patriarchy is that men get to seduce women freely and abundantly, whether they (men) want them or not, whether they love them or not, even whether they like them or not. In other words, it is a sport and a habit and simply second nature. Moreover, they don’t just seduce them with spirited, flirtatious conversation and “accidental” brushing of fingers, but with all those other ways we are coming to recognize as sexual harassment or outright abuse. It is men who are entitled to this seduction of women. It is for them to practice. It is their province alone.

23. I was surprised by my own reaction to this show. Alongside the intense delight, the suspense, and the pain I felt, I also found myself somewhat squeamish about AL’s forwardness, the way she went about finding a companion, and the lack of compunction she had about getting AW to love her. I had to think hard about this feeling of distaste. Was it coming from a lifetime of timid lesbianism — from internalized fear and disapproval? Or was it the product of an ethical code about the way we should all relate to each other?

24. Then I thought about Jane Austen. I thought about eligible bachelors and unmarried young women, about poor relations and parsons in search of a wife, about more poor relations and the out-of-their-league men they aspire to. Love, when it happens, is a felicitous side occurrence. The main goal is marriage. Settling down, as AL’s aunt would have it.

25. When AL sets out to get herself a wife she does it in exactly the same way as men and women of her time and class set out to get themselves spouses. We don’t feel distaste at Elizabeth Bennett’s plans on her eligible bachelor, nor at Bingley’s decision to cast his lot with the calmer Bennett sister of compatible age.

(Next installment: Did she have to have sex with her though?!)