"You Look Tense"


A coworker recently explained to me that one of her friends ardently believes all gay porn films begin with the phrase, "You look tense."

Which may explain why, as a whole, the French/American film High Tension revolves less discreetly around lesbianism than serial killing. In the film, French student Marie (channeling Maria Falconetti of Dreyer's classic The Passion of Joan of Arc) travels with gal pal Alex to her family's remote farm estate in the French countryside. Marie's a little on the butch side of things, but be warned: the girl is hot. Lithe, sinewed, with cropped blonde hair and tight jeans, she's basically sex with opposable thumbs.

The sexual tension between Marie and Alex becomes palpable. Alex, who is a bit horsey, seems not to notice Marie's desperate desire. But when Marie turns out to be the dangerous serial killer who has slaughtered her family (knowledge which Alex knows from early on but which is kept from the audience through a simple, stupid cinematic device), we're reminded again of just why lesbianism is such a danger: desire that cannot end in marriage ends in murder.

Marie's cinematic alter ego is a fat, hairy Frenchman with an eerie smile and who communicates through a series of grunts. This is who we see commit the murders and who Marie ultimately "hunts" in order to save Alex. My problems here are many. I can understand the natural, foolish impulse of heterosexuals to characterize the dangerous desire of lesbians as a male killer, but why is he a fat Frenchman when Marie is such a thin hottie? Why isn't her own self-visualization on her desire for women appear as, say, a shirtless Christian Bale?

Secondly, when heterosexuals express desire through homicide, they don't have to sacrifice their gender identity to do so. The confusion of Marie's sexual identity with her gender identity is a fundamental misrecognition of heterosexuals to understand same sex desire. Marie's desire for Alex masculinizes her, yet Alex herself remains unaffected. The impulse toward masculinizing lesbians reinforces a female-object/male-objectifier dichotomy that does not exist in same sex desire. Heterosexuals of the world are uncomfortable when desire becomes a level playing field. This begs the question: can a woman objectify another woman? And if so, what is the resulting power dynamic when the object objectifies the gazer right back? The desire might be considered oppositional were it not so fortutious for both parties. Love (or its physical expression) results.

High Tension ultimately reserves its violence not for the victims of Marie's chain saw, axe, straight razor, or shotgun, but for the lesbians in the audience. As representations go, I'm not sure we've seen something this horrific since Silence of the Lambs's Buffalo Bill. Oh, but who am I kidding? In horror films, gay folks are always on the right end of the knife. Heterosexuals beware: per your worst fears, we are not afraid to use it.


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  2. Charles, like you I don't really get the insistent masculinization of lesbians, and feminization of gay men. It may be a relevant reflection of the gender identification of some non-heterosexuals, but certainly I’m not the only bisexual woman, for instance, who is attracted to masculine-looking men and feminine-looking women with androgynous-type minds. That being said, I’m uncomfortable with the statement, “Heterosexuals of the world are uncomfortable when desire becomes a level playing field.” I think there’s an important difference between the culture of heterosexuality and heterosexuals themselves. In my own experience, straight men and women express their sexuality much differently across the pillow than they do in public—and usually there is a disconnect between what they feel and the heterosexual stereotype. But for many heterosexuals identifying their own homoerotic impulses with the homoerotic impulses of homosexuals is difficult. I imagine the reasons for that are very complicated, but the pervasiveness of the butch and queen stereotypes are part of it. In the homoerotic fantasies of the straight men and women with whom I’ve had occasion to discuss these things, those stereotypes are mostly absent. It’s manly men for the men, and feminine women for the women. Very interesting, and thought-provoking post!

  3. Ginger, most of the personal ads I've read over a lifetime were written by bi women interested in manly men and feminine women [grin]--so, yes, you are SO not alone. Charlie, I'd like to add what you already of course know--that desire by no means necessarily becomes a level playing field in homosexual relationships.

    While I like Ginger's distinction between the culture of heterosexuality and heterosexuals themselves, I can say from my own experience, dating and sleeping with men over a period of (admittedly only) three years, I found that culture impossible to escape. No matter how enlightened, wonderful, etc., the man was, there came inevitably that look in the eye in bed at which point I became a...woman? thing? hole? score? I'm not sure. It was sometimes almost imperceptible, but it was always there. The cooler and more amazing guy, the more freaked out it made me. I can't help but think it had something to do with his, or my own, growing up in this culture of heterosexuality--and let me explain that I am talking about some experimental men here, not frat boys--jeez, half were probably vegan. It didn't matter. The look arrived.

    I am somewhat sexually attracted to men, but I can't abide that look, which is why I've said (here before, I think) that if I woke up a man, I'd sleep with men, but not before then. And I probably wouldn't sleep with women. The whole male-female thing, while yes, obviously, there is much room for wonderfulness in individual straight couples, tons of room--but in general, the whole thing, given the backdrop of the (I'm tired of this phrase) culture of heterosexuality, makes me jump back. I fear that if I was a straight man, like one of the wonderful ones I dated, I'd somehow get that look in my eye, see a woman that way. I wonder if it's that deeply ingrained--the evolutionary need for straight males to make as many female conquests as possible--I could be the guy's best friend, his boss, whatever, and I still ultimately feel like a prize, that for one split-second he might as well throw me over his back and drag me to a cave.

    I have always wondered about the earliest people to have sex...I mean, how it went if they didn't immediately realize the procreation aspect...what was touched, who touched who, was there more group stuff, was there more homosexuality, etc.

    There are problems, of course, Charlie, with the feminization of lesbians too...lesbians so quickly become objects of straight male fantasy that way. And it is important to me, very important, that butch women and femme men not be vilified for their choices by the queer assimilationist (probably shouldn't modify assimilationist with queer, should I?) community. It bothers me that the last two women I've been with found butch women "scary"...I don't know why; I mean, obviously, they desire what they desire...but scary? I realize I have completely veered off topic. But yes, Charlie, good point about not getting gender identity confused with sexual identity...they are SO different. I've met so many people who couldn't understand why anyone born male would get a sex change and then be a lesbian...I mean, "Couldn't she just have loved women as a straight guy? Why go to all that trouble?" Well, she had a gender identity and a sexual identity.

    Whew. Ok. Sorry for the incoherent ramble. I haven't even seen the movie. I just pondered gender and sexual identity for a long time in my youth. I've moved on obsession-wise, so no one ever has to read those poems. [grin]

  4. PS--I am definitely looking tense these days.

  5. Let's run away together.

  6. Let's--it would be a lot more convincing than Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes!