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'Bound' and invested: lesbian desire and Hollywood ethnography.

This essay(1) is grounded in the three triangulated premises suggested by my subtitle. My first premise is that lesbian desire has always haunted a mainstream, popular imaginary. Terry Castle demonstrates as much when she argues that "when it comes to lesbian ... many people have trouble seeing what's in front of them. The lesbian remains a kind of `ghost effect' in the cinema world of modern life: elusive, vaporous, difficult to spot--even when she is there, in plain view, mortal and magnificent, at the center of the screen" (2). My second premise is that such hauntings have equally lurked in and around Hollywood for as long as "Hollywood" has had meaning. My third: the relationship between such absent presences and "Hollywood" is completely overdetermined. Russo, Tyler, Dyer, and many many others have documented the history of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films, and so I will not duplicate that work. What I will explore here is the dialogic and noisy collision of three not unrelated discourses--a mainstream, popular imaginary as I construct it; "Hollywood" represented by "film noir" as a formal genre; and those who "do" identity/identification under the sign "Lesbian"--in one recent "queer" and, I would add, ethnographic film: Bound . This film's lead character, --Violet--signifies doubly as film noir's powerful, dangerous femme fatale but also as femme, thereby outing femme as a lesbian subject. Thus, my assertion here: Bound stages a crisis or failure in reading, indeed, misreading, practices for heteronormative masculinity.

Let me state my biases right at the outset: I confess an intense and mildly embarrassing attachment to this film. My own response surprised me, and like most scholarly work, this paper represents a desire to interrogate that response. Thus, the writing of this text is conditioned by a persistent, but entirely necessary, vacillation between the also triangulated subjectivities of "fan," "critic," and "scholar." I offer that response to the film--product of a desire for Violet (Jennifer Tilly); a willing identification with Corky (Gina Gershon); and a disidentification with Caesar (Joe Pantoliano)--not only as a measure of Bound's success, but also as a measure of the genre's own formal and historical preoccupation with the construction/deconstruction of masculinities, female masculinities included. Bound exhibits the highly stylized camera angles, low-lighting, and stereotypical characterization consistent with film noir. Settings are mostly city-bound and lit for night, camera angles are oblique and adhere to the choreography of the city, time-lines and plot sequencing are all convoluted, mirroring the disorientation of the male protagonist. But Bound also manipulates the recurring motifs of film noir. This is a genre seemingly ambivalent in its treatment of women; on the one hand, the femme fatale plays a significant role as an active, intelligent, powerful woman. She represents "unnatural" phallic power, mysterious, ambiguous, and deadly, empowered almost exclusively by her sexuality (Hayward 118). On the other hand, given that film noir is often about power relations and sexual identity, this powerful woman is seen as a threat to the male quest for resolution, and more often than not, she becomes the object of the hero's investigation. In the end, though, the ideological contradiction she opens up by being a strong, sexually expressive female must be closed off, bound, as it were, with the diegetic trajectory and visual strategies for closure. Bound manipulates these often contradictory elements of the form beyond the predictable generic endings, and thus queer(ed) subjectivities--femme and female masculinity--emerge as the privileged identificatory sites.

Furthermore Bound, as a "Hollywood" film, foregrounds mainstream or popular discourses about these queer subjectivities in transitional gender trouble.(2) The competing, dialogic, and often contradictory discourses which invest the term "lesbian"(3) are mapped onto the bodies of both Violet and Corky, and exist in a dialogic conversation with lesbian-feminism, lesbian-separatism, lesbian "chic," the recent reiterative citation of historical butch/femme cultures, the current privileging of gender transitivity as the mark of queerness, and an entire host of psychodynamics overlapping with each of these events.(4) Bakhtin reminds us that the significance of any given utterance has to be understood against both the background of language and the history of utterances which overdetermine that utterance's meaning. Bound not only remembers these competing conversations over the intelligibility of female same-sex desires, but shows them in direct dialogue with each other. The effect of the discursive heteroglossia in Bound is that it manifests that which both lesbian-feminism and Queer Theory have had trouble materializing: that is, a femme body, or as Duggan and McHugh write it, "a queer body in fem(me)inine drag" (153). Bound deploys the simulacra of film noir to stage a femme coming out quest, where she comes-out not to herself, or even to those audience members "in the know," but rather where she comes-out as a lesbian and queer subject in popular culture. Second, if film noir stages heterosexual masculinity in crisis, then part of what precipitates that crisis is a recognition of its own inability to recognize or read "femme" as similar to, but as a self-conscious queering of, both heterosexual femininity and film noir's femme fatale. Thus, in Bound, as a very unconventional film noir, a kind of "Homo Pomo" film noir, that failure in reading practices constitutes straight masculinities' inevitable and fatal undoing (Rich 32-33).

There are two scenes in Bound which foreground its status as an unconventional discursive event. The first is the opening scene of Corky bound and gagged in Violet's closet; the second is the confrontation between Corky and Violet over sexuality and identity. Needless to say, the latter is completely overdetermined or conditioned by the former. Recall in that first scene that the camera's trajectory is one which moves from the wall of the closet, vertically up over shelves holding hat boxes, onto dresses hanging from hangers, back over to the wall where we see more vertical shelves only this time holding white high heels. At that point the camera's gaze has moved back down to the floor, our eye following the camera as it moves from white high heels, to Corky's black boots, to the white rope around her ankles. At this point, it moves horizontally over Corky's body, up her arm, lingering a moment on the black labrys tattoo, then back over her bruised face, then fades. The visual images do the work of establishing both gender and gender difference: Corky's masculinized body (the boots, pants, tattoos, and for those "in the know," the labrys, etc.) mark her clearly as gender transitive and in direct contrast with the signifiers of femininity the camera fetishizes: hats, dresses, high heels. However, the voice-over works with and against the visual images, inviting us to read these images in a very particular way, setting up the terms of both the film noir plot and the discursive conflict the film will work out. The first voice we hear is Jennifer Tilly's. "I had this image of you inside of me, like a part of me." Then Corky: "You planned this whole thing." Violet: "We make our own choices we pay our own prices." Corky: "Five years is a long time." Caesar: "Where's the fucking money," and so on, until the moment where the camera begins to pan Corky's body. This moment, as the camera lingers over the labrys, is where we hear yet another curious voice-over, Tilly's impassioned voice pleading: "I want out." Diegetically, the narrative goes on to contextualize Violet's imperative as her desire to leave the mob, the family business. But for "those in the know" (and I will return to how this knowing group is constituted a bit later), the setting of this scene --the closet--and the details of the voice-over--"I had this image of you inside of me, like a part of me," but, more importantly, "I want out "--suggest an entirely different narrative (emphasis mine). That is, this opening scene visually, discursively, and metaphorically, stages the performative act of "coming out the the closet," or, at least, establishes the desire to come out as Bound's subtextual femme quest narrative.

Recall again that Violet's "like a part of me" repeats just before the fade, suturing that scene to the one that follows. After the fade, the film cuts to Corky in the elevator hearing that voice again ("hold the elevator") as Corky first encounters Violet as the obvious subject of that closetful of feminine signifiers. Corky and Violet, both wearing leather jackets although Corky's is a short men's motorcycle jacket while Violet's is a longer more feminine jacket, are positioned behind Caesar, forming a triangle. I will return to this triangle and a discussion of the film's sexual geometries later. Violet removes her sunglasses, they exchange a smoldering look which seems to surprise Corky, and as Violet and Caesar exit the elevator, the camera, supposedly Corky's gaze, follows Violet's legs in slow motion down the hallway. By the end of this scene, Violet is ambiguously marked: she could be heterosexual and mob-moll or she could also be bisexual, connected to Caesar but flirting with Corky; she could also be a film noir femme fatale. Her name, in fact, signifies all of these very ambiguous possibilities. Add an "n" to the word Violet and she becomes "violent."(5) But violet also signifies a deep shade of purple, not an insignificant queerly marked color. Finally, as a color, violet comes from the flower so named for its color; but for those of us who know both our botany and semiotics, the violet is also cousin to the overdetermined "pansy."(6)

Either way, Violet is a figure of powerful and potentially dangerous female sexuality, and the tensions superimposed onto her come to the foreground in the second scene I want to look at: the confrontation between Violet and Corky over sexual and identity politics. This is one of the most important scenes in the film, where the epistemologies of that same lesbian closet--discourses of lesbian-feminism, lesbian-separatism, and butch-femme--dramatically rupture the surface of the narrative. By this time an important synchronicity has been established between Corky and Violet: Corky did five years in prison, Violet has done five years with Caesar in the "family business." Both have occupied homosocial spaces: Corky in the Watering Hole and prison and Violet in the almost exclusively male mob family business, but this synchronicity is one Violet embraces and Corky disavows. Once again, this scene opens with Tilly's voice repeating a line we heard in the opening scene. The camera shows us Violet on her bed as she repeats, "I had this image of you inside of me, like a part of me" and cuts to Corky dressing beside the bed. Corky is clearly having doubts about Violet, wanting to read her as heterosexual and merely curious about lesbians, or as bisexual. The dialogue is overdetermined, foregrounding the competing discourses investing the term "dyke" (Corky's term) but also showing those discourses--both historical and current--in transition. They quarrel, and indeed part company, because Corky insists they are "different." Corky arrogantly polices the essentialized boundaries of lesbian identity, her body marked as both lesbian and butch, by arguing that Violet cannot be lesbian because she "has sex" with men, and does not "look" lesbian. Violet, as part of her quest to get "out" both as lesbian and femme, deploys an alibi of ontological essence to insist that, despite how things might appear, she does not have sex with men. Violet: "I know what I am. I don't have to have it tattooed on my shoulder" (emphasis mine). Violet's rhetoric of ontology is both ironic and potent given the contradiction embodied in femme: here she is at once subject of both film discourse (film noir) and the technologies of white femininity in this moment of late capitalism as both the fashion industry and Hollywood "become lesbian" (Griggers 48, 9). But, as Martin so brilliantly puts it, she is all too often (mis)read as a non-performative subject of nature, as "a capitulation, a swamp, something maternal, ensnared and ensnaring" (1994 105). These contradictions, as Griggers notes, are part of the history of lesbian bodies as we know them today, a history that Bound quite cleverly remembers (50, 1).

Indeed, Bound manipulates this very tension between appearances and reality in a number of important ways. One of the primary features of film noir is its staging of confusion and betrayal for the male protagonist. For instance, part of Caesar's quest in Bound is to second guess Johnnie's supposed plot against him in order to recover the money and restore order. However, the viewer is sutured into the film by our knowledge that Johnnie isn't, in fact, the one who has "fucked" Caesar. But, like Corky, we as viewers are not certain through most of the film that Violet is actually sincere in her desire to escape with Corky and the money. Moreover, this uncertainty "works" precisely because the genre historically portrayed strong, sexy, and powerful female figures who, in the end, always betray the male protagonist. Corky herself is not certain she can believe what she sees. During the steamy seduction scene, Violet knows that Corky does not "read" her as lesbian. Violet addresses both Corky and the viewer when she slips Corky's hand under her dress and says: "You can't believe what you see, but you can believe what you feel." In other words, Bound works because it self-consciously manipulates generic characteristics and ultimately binds the trust of the viewer with Corky's.

Indeed, Bound binds the traditional features of film noir with the competing knowledge or truth regimes which have emotionally bound and politically invested "inversion" or "butch" as the signifier of lesbian, regimes both synchronic and diachronic which have either unintentionally or consciously cast femme as the suspect "lesbian." Sedgwick traces these twentieth-century epistemological regimes, or contradictory ways of organizing same-sex desire, onto a kind of orthogonal chart, a mapping which has profoundly troubling and overdetermined implications for femme (1990, 86-90). Sedgwick suggests that same-sex desire has been understood as an impulse of gender-separatism, where the members of one sex share so much that they bond on the axes of sexuality too. For same-sex female desire, this impulse produced lesbian-feminism/lesbian-separatism in the form of the woman-identified woman. On the other hand, Sedgwick also suggests that same-sex desire has been understood as an impulse of gender liminality or transitivity, where the appropriate gender crossings produced, and continue to produce, female masculinity, or the figure of "butch." Within these terms femme cannot appear. Indeed, the question then becomes not whether Violet is actually "lesbian," but rather how femme can mark itself as lesbian when most of the specular markers remain those of gender transitivity? Thankfully, though, even in this moment which continues to privilege gender-transitivity as the mark of "lesbian," femme persists. "She" poses productive challenges to the ways we conceive of the relationships between gender and sexuality. But these triangular terms--that is, butch (either marked or unmarked) as the "real" lesbian; her "girl" (ie. the femme); and the "real" man who eventually "gets" the girl--have bound lesbian identity, casting suspicion on femme as a supposedly "less-than real" lesbian identity since nineteenth-century sexology and since Mary "abandoned" Stephen Gordon and ran off with Martin Hallam in Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness.(7)

Interestingly, such triangulations continue to overdetermine what I am calling the "sexual geometries" of Bound. Earlier I noted that, in the elevator scene, Corky and Violet are standing behind Caesar, forming a triangle. I also noted that the building on North Franklin Street which houses Caesar's apartment has a three part structure, a central area with two wings on either side of it.(8) The grouping of things into motifs of three repeats consistently throughout Bound. In addition to the central triangle of Corky, Violet, and Caesar, we also see that during the initial elevator scene, the camera captures their triangle from over head. When they leave the elevator, the camera reveals three interlocking diamond shapes which form triangles on the elevator floor. Corky is working in apartment number 1003; there are three paint cans where she hides the money. Each apartment has three windows in the main room. The men always appear in groups of three. Corky has three hoop earrings in her right ear, where she later carries three lock picks to break into the money case. Most importantly, in one of the very early scenes where Corky is speaking on the phone with Mr. Beenkeeni, the man who hired her to do the renovations in the first place, the camera reveals a two-part triangle tattoo on Corky's right hand. This triangle is tattooed in black just where her thumb and hand meet, and just outside of each side or wall of the triangle, a small circle appears so that the inner triangle is contained by the three circles which form another triangle.

The outline of the black triangle on Corky's hand evokes the recent appropriation of pink and black triangles as symbols of gay, lesbian, and prostitute identities respectively. The triangle is also an important trope in psychoanalysis as Bound traces Corky, Violet, and Caesar working through their respective Oedipal or "family" dramas. But the triangular figures also foreground the struggle for dominance between male homosociality and female same-sex desire in this film noir. In her book, The Apparitional Lesbian, Terry Castle takes Eve Sedgwick to task for foreclosing upon lesbian desire in her earlier work Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). In that meditation on male homosociality, Sedgwick argues that English literature has been structured by what she calls the "erotic triangle" of male homosocial desire. Just as patriarchal culture has traditionally been organized around a ritualized "traffic" in women, so the fictions and cultural work produced within patriarchal culture have tended to mimic or represent that same triangular structure. Any system of male domination thus depends on two things: first, on the maintenance of highly charged attachments between men; and second, by maintaining the necessity of triangulation itself by preserving the male-female-male erotic paradigm as a way of fending off the destabilizing threat of male homosexuality. Sedgwick's evidence is a large body of classic English and American fiction where the triangular male-female-male figure returns at the conclusion of each story, (and, I would add, each film noir narrative) as a sign of heteronormative male bonding and the simultaneous remobilization of patriarchal control (Castle 68-69). Castle rereads Sedgwick's male-female-male triangle and notes that since it only remains stable when its single female term is unrelated to any other female term, it forecloses on the possibilities of female-female eroticization. Thus, Castle argues, in a passage which I think accounts for these recurring motifs in Bound: "Once two female terms are conjoined in space, an alternative structure comes into being, a female-male-female triangle . . . in the most radical transformation of female bonding--de., from homosocial to lesbian bonding--the two female terms indeed merge and the male term drops out" (73-85). In other words, where there is male homosociality, there is no room for lesbian desire.

Clearly, the shifting positions of the triangles in Bound suggest this very struggle for dominance. Tracing Caesar's isolation in this triangle and his eventual "undoing" also foregrounds the way Bound, in essence, manipulates the formal and contradictory elements of film noir to manifest lesbian desire. If Corky and Violet are successful in stealing (stealing as an activity which Corky likens to fucking) and in setting up Johnnie Mazzoni as the guilty party, then Caesar becomes the isolated term, "fucked" in his own homophobic imagination by the man he hates the most. In fact, Caesar is undone precisely because he stubbornly refuses to read Violet as lesbian. His repeated disavowals, his own refusal to know what he knows when he knows it, only accelerates the inevitable. "Everybody knows your kind can't be trusted," he tells Corky. Within minutes, though, he once against reinvests Violet with his trust, admitting he needs her help to convince Mickey everything is "normal." This moment is profoundly ironic and emphasizes Caesar's hysteria. He has already murdered the symbolic father, Gino Mazzoni, and even though the mob is beyond "official" laws and rules, Caesar's obsessive fear of detection and punishment furthers his undoing. He is not only alienated from the external structures of homosocial masculinity but is pitted against his own internalization of those structures as a kind of superego, or as an integral component of the properly coded masculine self (Krutnik 163). Whereas film noir is marked by its obsessive need to reorder these disruptions and schisms in masculinity and reconsolidate masculine homosocial orders of family and business, Bound refuses such uncomplicated and heteronormative consolidations.

With the exception of Corky, all the other figures of masculinity in Bound are similarly implicated in these sexual geometries. In fact, as the geometries work themselves out, heteronormative masculinity becomes increasingly fragmented and impotent. Shelly (and note the gender ambiguous name), the man who originally embezzled the money, functions as a kind of double for both Caesar and Corky. He is established as a figure of male masochism (Violet has previously suggested he in fact wanted to be caught), and as a feminized man, he is taunted as a "bitch" before and during his symbolic castration. He reminds both Caesar and Corky what is at stake in the possible plot resolutions. Caesar's name too is important. Recall Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar and the rather unfortunate end which his Caesar meets at the hands of conspirators. Recall as well that Shakespeare's Caesar trusts his friend Brutus, who, in the end, is one of the conspirators who betrays him. But what really interests me about the name Caesar is its similarity to the word "caesarean." The name "Caesar" is traditionally said to derive from the fact that he was born from the incised womb of his mother.(9) Presumably, there was a mother, but as Sylvia Harvey argues, mothers are conspicuously absent in film noir (33). Bound is not unusual in this regard. Recall again that one of the more interesting epithets Caesar uses to describe Johnnie is "motherless rat-fuck." The "business" in this context represents itself to itself as the "family," yet as Harvey notes, that "family" is characterized by ambiguous absences and disfigurements. "The absence or disfigurement of the family both calls attention to its own lack and to its own deformity, and may be seen to encourage the consideration of alternative institutions for the reproduction of social life" (33). That alternative, as I have suggested, is the imaginary and fetishized exchange of Violet between the male protagonists. Mickey too is fractured between his homosocial bonds with Caesar and his desire for Violet. She manipulates his desire for her for right up to the end, where we see her pitting the two men against each other. Mickey quite ironically anticipates not only his own weakness, but those potentially misogynist gender contradictions embedded within film noir when he says: "[Women] make us do stupid things."

As heteronormative masculinity diminishes, Corky's butch body, on the other hand, maintains its own contradictory relation to both femininity and masculinity. Eventually, the sexual geometries as well as the formal and diegetic features of film work metonymically to reconstitute Corky as the parodic or reiterative figure of masculinity in the narrative. Marked as masculine by her gaze, but also by tattoos, men's underwear, undershirts, boots, pants, etc., Corky is also marked as female by the labrys and by the camera when she is fucked by Violet. Femme's desire for female masculinity, evidenced by Violet's ability to read and desire Corky as both female and masculine, both re-orients female masculinity as a productive contradiction between a female inscribed body and a masculine gender performance, but also as the privileged site of masculinity in the film. Recall the way music functions to enable this metonymic slippage: Aretha Franklin sings "I never loved a man the way that I love you" in the background as Corky cruises Susie Bright in the Watering Hole, lyrically demarcating femme desire for female masculinity as profoundly different from, and not a simple imitation of, heterosexual female desire for men. After Corky gets fucked by Violet, Ray Charles sings as Corky spins around her truck in a post-Violet haze: "Let me tell you about a girl I know / She's my baby and she lives next door / Every morning before the sun comes up, she brings me coffee in my favorite cup / that's why I know I love her so," suturing this narrative back to the second meeting between Violet and Corky, where Violet does indeed live next door and brings her coffee. And finally, when Corky drives away in her new truck with both Violet and the money, Tom Jones ironically serenades them with his "She's a Lady": "Well she's all you'd ever want / she's the kind you'd like to flaunt and take to dinner." And at the strategic moment when Corky screeches away with Violet, we hear the all-important chorus: "She's a lady, and the lady is mine."

What intrigues me about this triangulation is the way it stages the metonymic and torsional (not orthogonal) queering of the traditional female figure in film noir as well. In her work on the women of film noir, Christine Gledhill argues that among the multiple stereotypes of women in film noir, the femme fatale stands out as the most popular and virulent (6). Both she and Janey Place argue that the source and the operation of the femme fatale's sexual power and danger to the hero exists precisely in the iconography of her image. That iconography is most often explicitly sexual and is a manipulation of the images that "Hollywood" itself has produced (Place 45). Recall Violet's short, lowcut mostly black velvet dresses, stocking clad legs, high heels, and most importantly, high sexy voice. Tilly's previous performance in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway catapulted her into public attention when she received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the stereotypical mob-moll with all of these same features. Gledhill suggests that part of the paradoxical work of film noir is to defamiliarize this sexual iconography in order to enhance the male protagonist's surprise when the femme fatale turns against him (13).

In film noir there is a proliferation of points of view

and a struggle within the text for one viewpoint to

gain hegemony. For the image of women in these

films ... the struggle may be between men for control

of the image; or more usually ... between the man

and the woman. [T]hough the heroines of film noir,

by virtue of male control ... are rarely accorded ...

full subjectivity and fully expressed point[s] of view

... their performance of the roles accorded them ...

foregrounds the fact of their image as an artifice and

suggests another place behind the image where the

woman might [actually] be. (Gledhill 17)

Bound stages a struggle over hegemonic interpretations of female sexual iconography, a struggle which turns out to be fatal for heterosexual masculinity. Both Jesse (Bright's character, whom Corky tries to pick up in the Watering Hole) and Violet poach this iconography for the purposes of making femme sexual identities visible. In Bound and for an audience "in the know," high heels, short and low cut dresses, slips, stockings, and garter belts all feature as doubly signifying objects, simultaneously gesturing toward both femme and femme fatale. The film expects us to read Violet as both, right up to and including the scene where Violet, playing her part as femme fatale and appropriately clad in a full-length, black silk robe, finally comes face to face with Caesar, who erroneously stakes his life on a (mis)reading of her. Both the reading practices, and by implication the epistemologies, of the straight mind break down in this struggle for dominance. Indeed, Violet reminds Caesar of the costs of such arrogant reading practices just before she shoots him: "Caesar," she says, "You don't know shit."

Violet's resignification of femme fatale into powerful femme simultaneously redresses similar misconceptions in lesbian and lesbian-feminist discourses about the supposedly mimetic relation between heterosexuality and butch-femme sexual practices. Books like The Joy of Lesbian Sex, for instance, show lesbian discourse in transition with regard to butch-femme (1977). While it carries all the markers of "scientific truth" (it was co-authored by "Dr." Emily L. Sisley; was promoted as part of The Joy of Sex series as an "compendium" and "sex-manual," etc.) it encapsulates much of the contradictory thinking about lesbian, butch, and femme identities and/or sexual practices: "Back in the days when role-playing in the style of straight couples was more common, butch referred to the "masculine" partner, femme to the "feminine" ... Pathetically, this behavior was generally a parody of the worst heterosexual coupling: the butch stomping and hen-pecked, the femme kittenish and nagging" (40). More specifically, femme was both suspect: "... the femme could even ... as easily go with a man and continue to play the passive, submissive role" and pathologized: "... these women [who adopt the "feminine" attire: "spike heels, tight skirts, lavish makeup, long fingernails, bouffant hair styles," etc.] have rejected contemporary liberation movements ... and find psychological and sexual satisfaction in passivity, submission and heterosexual game-playing" (40, 65). "Oddly enough," they continue, "lesbians who assume the opposite `masculine' role have the edge in terms of general mental health" (65). In many ways, Bound replies to and redresses these misreadings. Violet's role is completely active. We see her not only seducing Corky, but pursuing Corky after Caesar's intrusion. "I wanted to apologize," Violet tells Corky as she surprises her by following her into the truck. Corky responds by refusing what she anticipates as an apology for sex. Violet does not play the role of seductress and recipient of Corky's sexual attentions; she is sexual initiator, and as the scene jumps to Corky's bed we see Corky on her back and Violet/femme fucking Corky/butch. Thus, Bound refuses lesbian-feminist misreadings of butch-femme cultures which equated femme with passivity and butch with sexual aggressivity. Moreover, it is Violet who must play a far more active and direct role in the various plots, while Corky spends much of the time either waiting in the apartment next door or bound in Violet's closet. In the closing chase scene, for example, Violet runs down the long staircase of the building in order to lure Caesar away from Corky. And in the final scene where Violet shoots Caesar, Corky has been, yet again, knocked unconscious, and it is Violet who brings the plot to closure.

Thus, Violet's marking as both lesbian and femme, and as the agent of queer rage and closure, brings about a long overdue shift in the terms of femme intelligibility as well. Lynda Hart's Fatal Women traces the emergence of two tropes in nineteenth-century criminology and sexology: the congenital invert and the female offender. Hart argues that the inversion model of same-sex desire, a model sexologists like Havelock Ellis deployed to account for female same-sex desire, facilitated the entry of the lesbian into the visual field by establishing a set of (physical) characteristics that could presumably be interpreted/read, while at the same time making it impossible for her to be seen as a woman: "the female invert was a woman minus the possibility of representing herself as a woman" (7-9). Similarly, criminology also produced the female offender as masculine, suggesting that because crime is symbolically masculine, she too, like the invert, is "more like a man than she is like a normal woman. She retains the sex of a female but acquires the gender attributes of masculinity" (13). Thus, Hart argues that both the congenital invert and the female offender marked the limits of cultural femininity. "They did so as a couple, not separately, but together. [And] this is a wedding that has continued well into the twentieth century" (13). But what Hart's inversion model does not and cannot account for is the non-inverted woman, or the figure of Violet, who is not marked by those supposedly physical characteristics which might facilitate her currency within a queer specular economy. Violet is indeed marked by her ability to represent herself as feminine. In fact, it is that very overdetermined sexual iconography and those paradoxical signifiers of femininity which mark her as both lesbian and female. And her rage at Caesar's arrogant misreading of her constitutes an act of queer violence not only to the homosocial order of the film but to those nineteenth and twentieth-century truth regimes which have bound her as an utter impossibility (Halberstam 1993).

Similarly, Violet as femme survives past the predictable endings that have bound traditional film noir. In the scene right before Violet and Corky drive away, the camera returns us to Caesar's former apartment, only now, empty and lit for daytime. This movement beyond the formal film noir ending is emphasized by the stark white walls of the apartment in sunlight, and as the camera pauses on Violet's empty closet, we see it too has been emptied. The camera cuts to Violet saying goodbye to Mickey outside in the sunlight, where we learn Caesar has somehow mysteriously "disappeared" with the money. Mickey is still bound by his desire for Violet, but as she maintains her refusal of that role she continues to glance over her shoulder outside the frame and beyond the law of the father toward the "space-off" where Corky waits for her (De Lauretis 25-26). Violet's quest is over; her closet is empty; she has indeed come out. Thus, my assertion: the film opens with the triangle--Caesar: Violet: and either Shelly, Johnnie, or Mickey (who all vie for that third spot)--which is quickly transformed into the female-bonding triangle--Violet: Caesar: Corky--which is, in the end, reoriented and queered into a butch-femme triangle: female (Corky and Violet): femme (Violet): masculine (Corky).

Ultimately, Bound has been produced and oriented toward a very particular audience. Earlier in my introduction I referred to this film as an ethnographic film. In her essay, "Are All Latins from Manhattan? Hollywood, Ethnography, and Cultural Colonialism," Ana M. Lopez makes the very compelling argument that Hollywood cinema does not portray Latin Americans in film via popular stereotypes. Rather, Lopez suggests we understand Hollywood functioning as an ethnographic discourse which creates, invests, and indeed co-produces those very images themselves (405). Drawing on the theory of postmodern ethnographers such as Stephen Tyler and James Clifford, as well as that of postcolonialist Edward Said, Lopez writes,

... it means to think of Hollywood not as a simple

reproducer of fixed and homogeneous cultures

or ideologies, but as a producer of some of the multiple

discourses that intervene in, affirm, and contest the

socioideological struggles of a given moment. To think of

a classic Hollywood film as ethnographic discourse is to

affirm its status as an authored, yet collaborative,

enterprise, akin in practice to the way contemporary

ethnographers have defined their discipline ... "not as

the experience and interpretation of a circumscribed

`other' reality, but rather as a constructive negotiation

involving ... conscious politically significant subjects."

(Lopez quoting Clifford, 405)

In her insistence that Hollywood be understood as collaboratively coproducing subjects, Lopez provides us with a way to account for not just the verisimilitude of the signifier "lesbian" in Bound, but also to account for the privileged viewing position in terms of the film's audience.

If ethnography provides access to "community" or the shared codes, meaning systems, visual iconography of cultural sub-groups, then clearly Bound deploys an ethnographic method and functions as a discursively collaborative event (Clifford 16). Notorious "sex radical" Susie Bright plays the role of "narrator," or "native informant," in the production of the film. Bright is listed as a "technical consultant" and co-authored "lesbian sex" onto the silver screen. Indeed, much of the lesbian "realness" of the film can be attributed to Bright's involvement. Halberstam notes that the bar scene "is on the money in terms of finding the right combination of cool anonymity and cozy ... familiarity. Bound proves that if filmmakers wanted to know how to represent lesbians, all they had to do was ask" (1997 14). Bright's career as a "sexpert" began in San Francisco's sex toy store Good Vibrations, and "Susie Sexpert" was the pen-name Bright chose for her advice column "Toys For Us" in the debut issue of the lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs. Since then, many of Bright's columns, essays, interviews, and lectures have been published in her four books which interrogate and critique the state of sex in America.

Her irreverent wit and razor-sharp political critique have built her reputation outside of lesbian communities as well. Bright's most recent book Sexual State of the Union--published by Simon and Schuster in hardcover with a dustjacket sporting a photograph of a naked white woman draped in an American flag--was marketed primarily to a "mainstream" audience (Findlay 1997). One essay in particular, "I Love Being a Gender," shows Bright's at her best as both a theorist and translator of femme desire. The piece shows Bright's working through her own ambivalences about a young butch planning to begin sex reassignment surgery by going on male hormones, wanting to be supportive but also aware that such a transition is not without effects for her as femme. Bright articulates the difference between the "butch" she had known and the "femmy guy with a beard" she was facing, especially the ways such transitions configure her own desire for female masculinity.

I took my time to notice him, and s/he let me look her [sic]

up and down. S/he had changed - yes, a lot had changed;

s/he was wearing men's clothes, not ... jeans and boots

and her complexion had changed, her hair. S/he looked like

a man, a soft, decidedly un-macho man; she didn't look

like a bulldagger anymore ... I wasn't attracted to her

anymore. I was hot for a butch dyke ... a femmy guy with a

beard and a suit left me cold. (96)

Moreover, Bright identifies the precision of butch-femme desire, a precision which in Bound also constitutes Violet's desire for Corky.

[D]id you have a femme lover, did you have someone in

your life who respected your masculinity and treated you

like a butch in bed? (97)

By structuring these verisimilitudes into the narrative (recall Violet's qua the camera's gaze on Corky's hands, upper torso as she is painting, etc.), Bound both relies on and produces a very particular viewing subject, one "in the know" by virtue of her ability to recognize, "read," and decipher those visual and erotic codes. It is this subject "in the know" who is required to invest her trust in Violet as "lesbian" and who is thereby sutured, or bound, by the narrative in order for it to do its work. Conversely, and despite his efforts to outwit the narrative which will inevitably bring about his down-fall, Caesar neither recognizes nor reads those codes. In fact, he continues to disavow their dangerous currency right up to the time Violet shoots him.(10)

But Bright also appears within the film as Jesse, the femme Corky tries to pick up in the lesbian bar scene. Bright's appearance within the film she helped produce, especially in a 1990s lesbian bar scene which "cites" or reiterates butch-femme as the trope of lesbian identity, foregrounds both the conditions of Bound's production and ethnography's poststructuralist turn." Clifford reminds us that such self-reflexive awareness of the discursive aspects of cultural representation characterizes a new ethnography which draws attention not to the interpretation of cultural "texts" but to their relations of production (16). By crediting Bright as "technical consultant" and then marking Bright's appearance within the narrative as part of the very culture, and by implication the audience the film is marketed towards (Jesse is marked as femme through her manipulation of feminine sexual iconography: long hair, tight fitting leather vest, deep cleavage), Bound reveals itself to be a product of both lesbian representational and textual history and the reiterative performance of that history. The film diegetically creates, but then subtextually and extra-diegetically manipulates and privileges the "in the know" viewing position, simultaneously weaving both the context of its production and the context of its consumption into the narrative itself.

This leads me to a final set of questions: why Bound, and why now? Krutnik counsels us when considering cinematic and generic production to ask why "certain genres are in favour at one time and out of favour in another" (14). Sylvia Harvey similarly reminds us that film noir, in particular, captures and magnifies those moments where hidden foundations, or dominant systems of values and beliefs, are shaken or disrupted. "Film noir offers us again and again examples of abnormal or monstrous behavior, which defy the [established] patterns ... and which hint at a series of radical and irresolvable contradictions buried deep within the total system of economic and social interactions that constitute the known [epistemic] world" (22). I suggest that a recent episode of that great barometer of American culture, The Simpsons, reveals at least a partial answer to my question. "Homer's Phobia" aired on February 16, 1997, with the guest voice performed by John Waters. Marge has just told Homer John is gay. Homer screams. Marge tells Homer that John has invited them all out for a drive. Homer says he won't go. Why? Well, the dialogue at this point is telling. Homer: "Not because John's gay, but because he's a sneak. He should at least have the good taste to mince around and let everyone know that he's [pause] that way." Marge: "What on earth are you talking about?" Homer: "You know me, Marge. I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals FLA-AA-MING." As he utters these words, Homer holds both hands up with limp wrists. In other words, Homer was unsettled because he "couldn't tell" John was gay. Homer wants his queers to look like queers. Bound struggles with a similar phobic hysteria. In this context, Corky is not so threatening because she "looks" queer; Violet, on the other hand, is a threat precisely because she does not look the part. I am not suggesting that we rank butch or femme as either "more subversive" or "less subversive." However, I suggest that if film noir stages a failure in masculinity as a sign of a disjunction between the contemporary representational possibilities of the masculine self-image and the traditional cultural codifications and reconsolidations of masculinity, then Bound marks the current limitations and anxieties of heteronormative masculinity and its discontents (Krutnik 91). Krutnik suggests that the popularity of film noir in the mid-to-late 1940s is perhaps evidence of a crisis of confidence with the contemporary regimentation of white masculinity. One can only hope that Bound, as a hybrid and accidental collision of film noir, recent girl buddy films, the reiteration of butch-femme sexual practices as well as post-sex war politics and a paradoxical fetishization of the "queer" in popular culture, signals a similar, but perhaps more productive crisis in the 1990s.


(1) This paper owes several debts. Thanks to the brave and ever-irreverent members of the graduate seminar EN6972.06, York University, Toronto. Thanks also to Jane for the copy of Bound. Finally, this paper would not have been possible without the extremely helpful and highly memorable Monday-afternoon homework sessions with graduate student and femme-extraordinaire Connie Carter, to whom this work is dedicated.

(2) Clearly, what makes Bound unusual is that it is NOT part of what B. Ruby Rich identifies as as a gay and lesbian independent film-making history, although it does seems intended for that audience. See Rich's "New Queer Cinema."

(3) Curiously, the word "lesbian" is never uttered in the film; neither do we hear the terms "butch" and/or "femme." Instead, Bound deploys the term "dyke" three times and "queer" once, even though all of these subjectivities condition the film's intelligibility. "Dyke" is first spoken by Corky long after the sex scenes between her and Violet during the "quarrel" they have over identity politics. Corky: "Ah, let's see. This is the part where you tell me what matters is on the inside and that inside you there's a little dyke just like me;" to which Violet replies: "No. She's nothing like you. She's a whole lot smarter than you are." Caesar later calls Corky a "dyke" when he is trying to wake her up after knocking her unconscious: "Wake up you fucking dyke." In this same scene we hear the term "queer" used by Caesar as well: "Fucking queers. You make me sick." Finally, Caesar uses the term "dyke" again in relation to Corky, only this time, he's addressing Violet after he finds out where Corky hid the money: "Let's go see if your dyke lied." The slippage between terms is part of the collision of discourses which have produced Bound. "Dyke" seems consistent with Corky's identity as a working-class ax-convict, but seems inconsistent with Violet's identity as both femme fatale and femme. These inconsistencies, as I will suggest later in this essay, are a fundamental part of the narrative tension of the film as it attempts to "catch up" with these same changes and debates in lesbian cultures and theory.

(4) See, for instance, Julia Creet's "Daughter of the Movement: The Psychodynamics of Lesbian S/M Fantasy."

(5) Acknowledgements here to Dr. Bob Wallace for his observation of the slippage between "violet" and "violent."

(6) For more detailed accounts of the semiotic history of the color violet as a sign of lesbianism in literature, film and theater, see Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984); Andrea Weiss, Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992); and Kaier Curtin, "We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians": The Emergence of Lesbians and Cay Men on the American Stage (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987). Curtin notes that the second play to portray an "erotic female relationship" on the American stage, a production of Edouard Bourdet's The Captive (the first was a production of Sholem Asch's The Cod of Vengeance), shows Irene, the beloved, stroking a bouquet of violets given to her by her lesbian admirer. That admirer, Mdm. D'Aiguines never appears on stage, and is represented instead only by the violets.

(7) Such femme-phobic triangulations have been brilliantly challenged. See Newton (1984), Nestle (1987 & 1992), Feinberg (1993), Chrystos (1993), Davis and Kennedy (1993), Newman (1995), Pratt (1995), Cvetkovich (1995), Martin (1996), Duggan and McHugh (1996), Carter and Noble (1996), and Harris and Crocker (1997).

(8) It is no accident that the camera pans the street sign (North Franklin Street) as it traces the verticality of the building which houses the film's action. Later we see Caesar clad in an apron literally "laundering" (washing, drying, and ironing) the two million dollars. As he hangs the money in his apartment to dry, the camera zooms in on one of the hundred dollar bills to reveal the smiling face of Benjamin Franklin.

(9) Adrian Room. Brewer's Dictionary of Names. New York: Cassell, 1992: 134.

(10) Caesar's death maintains Bound's intertextuality with Shakespeare's play. In the latter, Caesar recounts his wife Calphurnia dreaming his death. This recounting occurs in front of Decius, one of the conspirators against him, thereby generating the first triangle in the play as Calphurnia attempts to dissuade Caesar from going to the Senate. (The second triangle is set up among Caesar, Portia, and Brutus.) Decius successfully persuades Caesar with the argument that Calphurnia's fears "unman" him. The details of the dream are significant: "She dreamt to-night she saw my statute, / Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood." (II, ii, 76-78). In the former, Caesar's death is filmed from overhead and shows him standing in a pool of white paint, his immobile body spurting blood from the many gunshot wounds inflicted upon him by Violet. The whiteness of the paint on the floor also functions to create a typically film noir contrast between the film's male protagonist and its femme fatale, who is still shrouded in her black, full-length robe; however, the white paint also sutures this scene to the one which follows, where the camera pans Caesar's vacant apartment in daylight, revealing its freshly painted white walls and Violet's emptied closet. Finally, Bound's staging Caesar's death amidst a "wash of white" paint also dramatizes the racial politics of the film, in that the racialized "Others" are "whitewashed" by the unmarked operations of white supremacy.

(11) In the Introduction to Bodies That Matter, Butler argues that sex is a performative produced or constructed and installed through the repeated reiterations of gender. "Construction not only takes place in time, but is itself a temporal process which operates through the reiteration of norms; sex is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration. As a sedimented effect of a reiterative or ritual practice, sex acquires its naturalized effect, and yet, it is also by virtue of this reiteration that gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which escapes or exceeds the norms, as that which cannot be wholly defined or fixed by the repetitive labor of that norm" (10).

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Author:Noble, Jean
Publication:Film Criticism
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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