Lisa Ben's “Cinema Ramblings” in the 1940s underground publication Vice Versa mark some of the first media reviews to focus on homosexual themes, representations, and subtexts from a self-proclaimed lesbian perspective. While still largely unknown, the critical lenses and stylistic methods she employed set a precedent for the kind of radical queer media criticism that reviewers engage in today. Her writings deconstruct heteronormative frameworks by redefining the borders of the “normal” and the “natural”; look to the margins of media texts, often placing more focus on secondary figures than on main characters; rely on intertextual understandings that read films against their adaptation sources; and actively participate in a form of “subtexting,” or, as she puts it, “playing up” suggestive representations. Ben's film reviews present an important and relevant counterframe to cinematic deliberations on the instability of sexual and social relations. This counterframe existed among other counterpublic discourses available at the time and enables a queer reading of 1930s and ’40s film representations such as Children of Loneliness (1934), Club des femmes (1936), and Turnabout (1940). Drawing from reviews and essays published in Vice Versa, I propose a way of reading media representations of transgressive sexuality and gender—an analytic and a vocabulary—that predates queer theory as an institutionalized concern.
One of the most expressive scenes shows Alice, bending lovingly over her friend…. How beautiful and melancholy her eyes, how wistful her voice as she dictates, three or four words at a time, the simple verse which says, “Come away with me, we two shall live together….” And the blonde studiously copies it, unmindful of the meaning Alice reads into these lines.lisa ben, review of club de femmes, vice versa 1, no. 2 (july 1947): 14
Behind her desk at RKO Pictures in the 1940s, secretary Edyth Eyde (figure 1) penned film criticism that today we would no doubt call queer. In June 1947, the twenty-six-old launched the magazine Vice Versa, a guerrilla publication espousing identification with and pride in alternative sexualities.1 Dedicated broadly “to those of us who will never quite be able to adapt ourselves to the iron-bound rules of Convention,” Vice Versa's premiere edition was written entirely by Eyde at her typewriter and reproduced secretly using the studio's carbon paper.2 According to Eyde, her boss told her to always present herself as busy and “didn't care what I did as long as I got his work done first.”3 Eyde, who later wrote for the lesbian magazine The Ladder under the alias Lisa Ben, an anagram of lesbian, is generally referred to by her chosen pseudonym in LGBT histories.4 For this reason, I call her Lisa Ben as well, though it should be noted that Ben penned Vice Versa anonymously, referring to herself alternatively as “your reporter” or “the editor.” Scholars Larry Gross, Lillian Faderman, Stuart Timmons, Eric Marcus, and John D'Emilio have all cited Vice Versa as one of the earliest documented American gay or lesbian publications. However, their accounts neglect to offer what might be of particular interest to media studies scholars: close readings of “Cinema Ramblings,” Lisa Ben's film criticism column. Ben's columns mark some of the first media reviews to focus on homosexual themes, representations, and subtexts from a self-proclaimed lesbian perspective. On the creative interpretive strategies of her reviews, Ben remarked in an interview with Eric Marcus that if media portrayed the “slightest tinge of two girls being interested in one another, I would take that story within the movie and play it up and say, ‘Such and such a movie has a scene in it with two young ladies and they seem to be interested in one another.’”5 While still largely unknown, the critical lenses and stylistic methods that Ben employed set a precedent for the kind of radical queer media criticism engaged in today. Her writings deconstruct heteronormative frameworks by redefining the borders of the “normal” and the “natural”; look to the margins of media texts, often placing more focus on secondary figures than on main characters; rely on intertextual understandings that read films against their adaptation sources; and actively participate in a form of “subtexting,” or, as she put it, “playing up” suggestive representations.
Ben's film reviews present an important and relevant counterframe to cinematic deliberations on the instability of sexual and social relations. This counterframe existed among other counterpublic discourses available at the time and enables a queer reading of 1930s and ’40s film representations such as Children of Loneliness (1934), La bandera (1935), Club de femmes (1936), and Turnabout (1940). Drawing from reviews and essays published in Vice Versa, I propose a way of reading a way of reading media representations of transgressive sexuality and gender—an analytic and a vocabulary—that predates queer theory as an institutionalized concern. Excavating media texts using intertextual connections and broad cultural analysis, this method of reading media hinges on what we might now call a queer critical framework, yet it dates back to the years before the formal institution of media studies as an academic discipline.
While in the vanguard in many ways, Vice Versa likely had low distribution numbers.6 Ben mailed small numbers of copies of each issue to her friends, with no return address, and passed them around at clubs such as Los Angeles’ If Club and private parties.7 It is therefore difficult to ascertain what reach the magazine had through word of mouth or beyond Ben's immediate social group. Ben distributed the magazine at bars, as noted, and gave it privately to the few people she knew from gay circles in Los Angeles, including the magazine's first documented reader, a gay man who wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in the second issue.8 In this way, Vice Versa offered a forum for both men and women to dialogue about alternative sexualities during the late 1940s. Ben did not charge for her magazines but offered them gratis through these local networks, allowing for the dissemination of counterpublic discourses divorced from concerns of commerce and financial gain.9
Social historians John D'Emilio and Lillian Faderman have described the post–World War II era as a time of increased societal stigmatization of alternative sexualities and nonconforming gender presentations.10 While male homosexuality evoked special panic in the public, homophobia enacted in policies of the time also affected lesbians both in federal positions and in their everyday lives. Sexual activity between women within the Women's Army Corps, for instance, was purposefully overlooked during World War II. Yet, after V-Day, the Army and the Air Force began issuing dishonorable discharges to women under suspicion of “lesbianism.” As Faderman documents, women were baited by the military's Criminal Investigation Division, which infiltrated women's softball teams and entrapped soldiers at off-base bars.11 Given that many servicemen and -women had been stationed near the port of Los Angeles and stayed or returned there after World War II, L.A. became something of a refuge for growing gay male and lesbian communities, as Faderman and Stuart Timmons report in their book Gay L.A.: “L.A.'s gay underground expanded greatly with the influx of these new populations, as did places where gay people could meet one another,” they conclude.12
Though it was written by and mainly focused on lesbians, Vice Versa consistently relayed a sense of connection to a larger community that shared a commonality of difference from the so-called norm. Each issue included book, film, and theater reviews; fiction and poetry; editorials; the “whatchama column,” designed to encourage readers to express their opinions; and commentary on mainstream articles, lectures, and other forms of public discourse on the subjects of homosexuality and “inversion.”13 Nine monthly issues were printed in total, from June 1947 to February 1948, at which time Howard Hughes bought control of RKO and instigated massive layoffs. Ben was soon out of the job that had offered her the autonomy, time, and supplies to produce the magazine. She expressed regret that Vice Versa had folded, since “at the next job, I did not have an opportunity to do the magazine because the work load was heavier and there was no privacy.”14 Ben emphasized the necessity of privacy during her production and distribution of Vice Versa to protect herself from potentially being fired or facing prosecution. Thus, this important proto-queer periodical remained underground.
D'Emilio's and Faderman's accounts both identify emerging gay and lesbian self-identification and community building during this period.15 Seen as a deviant identity threatening the “norm” and policed by the church, the psychiatric community, and governmental and military institutions, homosexuality nevertheless began to be described by such bodies as an identity in the postwar years, D'Emilio and Faderman argue, and thus it was an identity homosexuals could purposefully describe as their own, and they could actively seek out other individuals like themselves.16 In a polite challenge to such a timeline, George Chauncey, in Gay New York, details the histories of gay male communities in 1920s and ’30s New York that had distinguished their own “queer,” “fairy,” and “trade” taxonomies years before the postwar era, demonstrating that marking the World War II period as the “beginning” of gay community building is nearly as problematic as arguing that it was “born” with 1969's Stonewall revolt.17 Indeed, social constructionist accounts of the history of sexuality in the United States (among which I include my own) tend to stress one particular “origin” story or another. One thesis seems to suggest that gay and lesbian identities and communities were constructed from the top down—by social, political, and medical discourses marking off a sexual, abnormal “other” that individuals then identified with and collected around. Another thesis concentrates on a bottom-up formation, in which individuals find gathering spaces, build subcultures, and reclassify themselves as well as their own distinctions from the norm. Determining exactly when such a construction, either top-down or bottom-up, “occurred” is not, perhaps, as useful as highlighting periods when discourses around homosexuality intensified and detailing areas of accretion. The categories, borders, and discourses of homosexuality (and homosexual community) were created, manipulated, and influenced by all individuals, parties, and powers involved. Both top-down and bottom-up constructions took place, and lines between the normal and the other were constantly reinterpreted and redrawn.
Recognizing these dynamics, for the sake of the story I am about to tell, I privilege the late 1940s as an identifiable time when homosexuals flocked to major metropolitan hubs, and to Los Angeles as a place where their burgeoning counterpublic intersected with a culture of media production. I first provide the context of the Hollywood in which Ben worked and which she critiqued during the postwar period: specifically a studio-run, self-regulated environment that encouraged viewers to read sexuality, including homosexuality, between the lines of films even as regulators went to great lengths to excise explicit references to sex—especially of the “perverse” variety. I consider the ways in which media scholars, too, have read between the lines of films, Production Code Administration memos, and film reviews to understand the ways in which cinema contributed to discourses about homosexuality. A detailed discussion of Lisa Ben's film reviews and their significance for queer media scholarship today closes the essay.
During the early twentieth century in Hollywood, producers, public relations executives, talent agents, and stars did not need to be convinced that sexuality was a construction. Starting in the early 1920s, studios required stars to sign contract clauses allowing studios to cancel their contracts if the actors committed acts that “outrage public morals and decency.”18 Faderman and Timmons document the effect that these morals clauses had on gay Hollywood, including publicity-driven couplings known as “lavender marriages” between gay men and lesbians: “If homosexuality was immoral in the mind of the general public,” they argue, “gay and lesbian actors needed to convince the public that they were straight, even to the extent of concocting pap for the media about their personal lives.”19
In fact, studio publicity continued concocting pap even as the handling of sex and sexuality on screen became increasingly scrutinized. In 1925, the Hollywood studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. (MPPDA), Committee on Public Relations, a self-regulatory Hollywood agency designed to preemptively avoid state or federal censorship of the film industry. The MPPDA considered the concerns of citizen groups about film content and suggested measures the studios could take to minimize social outcry and economic risk. To enforce the agency's list of rules and suggestions, called the “Don'ts and Be Carefuls,” the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), headed by director Colonel Jason Joy, directly checked treatments, scripts, and films for problematic areas that could be rewritten, reshot, or cut to avoid offending audiences. In The World According to Hollywood 1918–1939, Ruth Vasey argues persuasively that Joy may have actually encouraged the ambiguous treatment of sexual themes so that they could be decoded by sophisticated adult audiences while going over the heads of innocents who did not pick up on the “innuendo and ellipsis,” always with an eye to maintaining deniability of explicit sexual content. Vasey suggests that both deniability and ambiguity seemed to guide Joy's approach and that “for a world that eschewed any explicit representation of sex, [Hollywood] was strongly erotic.”20 In The Wages of Sin, Lea Jacobs makes a similar argument about female sexuality in the “fallen woman” films of the 1920s to the 1940s, specifically speaking to how “‘failures’ on the part of industry censors provide interesting cases for feminist criticism, in that they indicate how films which seemingly observed the sexual status quo could simultaneously call it into question.”21
With rising domestic criticisms of the film industry, spearheaded by the Catholic Legion of Decency and economic unrest in the United States, the chairman of the Republican National Committee and first president of the MPPDA, Will Hays, chose to reconstitute the SRC as the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934. In the process, Hays sought to strengthen the organization's oversight of studio productions to pressure producers, who he saw as being lax under Joy's administration, to more strictly adhere to the code. Under its chief, Joseph Breen, the PCA attempted to dispose of even unexpressed “immoral and salacious” thoughts that a picture might invoke in its viewers.22 This was a task that not only naturally proved difficult, but also ended up backfiring; the tighter restrictions multiplied the ways in which sexuality could be encoded or decoded in enigmatic texts, as Vasey explains:
Breen required viewers to work harder in the construction and elaboration of the action than Joy had done. In the process Breen necessarily handed audiences a wider range of imaginative options. The harder the industry worked officially to regulate content, the less control it exercised over the activity and experience of its consumers.23
Arguably, by producing more titillation, curiosity, and puzzle-solving than it tried to “protect” against, the Production Code trained viewers to become more active and complex in their interpretations. The code also encouraged viewers to share news of material that had sneaked past the censors with other viewers, encouraging alternate reception practices around these films. Reviewing available PCA memos, Rhona J. Berenstein points to a complaint that the Catholic Legion of Decency filed with the MPPDA about the ghostly thriller The Uninvited (1944), surmising that one correspondent, Father Brendan Larnen, uses cloaked language in a 1944 letter to Hays to indicate the presence of a lesbian reception for and interpretation of the film. Larnen condemns the picture for attracting a particular “type” of theatergoer, who brought the film's content into question: “In certain theatres large audiences of questionable type[s] attended this film at unusual hours. The impression created was that they had been previously informed of certain erotic and esoteric elements in the film.”24
In UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Patricia White rereads films from Hollywood's studio era, concentrating on those films from the 1930s to the 1960s that lend themselves to lesbian reinterpretation and retroactive reclamation through their “queer-able” female stars (e.g., Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Ethel Waters), subtexts, original adaptation sources, or interpretive texts ancillary to the films that hint at their sexually transgressive meanings.25 Using a wide variety of source materials outside the filmic texts themselves, White examines how Hollywood both knowingly and unknowingly produced female characters and stars desirable to women during the studios’ implementation of a self-regulation code that strictly prohibited “sex perversion or any inference to it.”26 Yet the PCA left the exact definition of sex perversion unexplained and therefore ambiguous; thus White notes that Breen, in a letter to Mädchen in Uniform's distributors, explicitly names the “tag and flavor” of the film's offense: “[The German version] was definitely tagged as a picture with the definite flavor of sexual perversion (lesbianism).”27 In this letter, Breen openly admits that the “spirit of the Code precludes the development of any theme whatever possessing the flavor of sexual irregularity or perversion,” yet also concedes “the fact that the Code does not name perversion, only enhances the implied condemnation.”28 White highlights that Breen's message “asserts that an implied condemnation is more authoritative than an explicit one. It also suggests that not naming sometimes enhances a meaning, that it is the ‘spirit’ of the text that prevails.”29
To examine the lesbian fantasies produced through and despite censorship, White neatly sews together Michel Foucault's idea—presented in his History of Sexuality—that censorship, by its very efforts to curtail knowledge, also always produces knowledge, with Sigmund Freud's concept of the dream's “conditions of representability,” or how content must be symbolized through different means in order to convey meaning that would otherwise remain in the dreamer's unconscious. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud claims that one method employed to sneak unconscious “dream thoughts” past the mind's censor and into “dream content” is by translating these ideas into overdetermined visual images.30 Of course, in the analogy she carefully draws, White replaces Freud's dream, dream censor, and dreamer with classical Hollywood film, the PCA, and the film viewer. Setting her work apart from other queer media studies, White smartly emphasizes her wish to explore not lesbian representation (the manifest; the recognizably so) but the lesbian representable (the latent, presented through image-making).31
Half a century earlier, Ben had engaged in a similar enterprise. In her “Cinema Ramblings” column, Ben concerns herself less with what producers purposely signify or leave out in a film than with the rich subjective process of producing alternative readings and sharing these interpretations with others. Perhaps Ben's somewhat magnifying approach to film analysis—her acts of “playing up” suggestive scenes—bears resemblance to the efforts of contemporary queer critics, who, in their attempts to “recuperate a history of homosexual images from the censored screen,” arguably risk, chides scholar Chon Noriega, “‘subtexting’ censored films from a singular presentist perspective.”32 There is, of course, a crucial difference: Ben is writing the film history of her own time. In “Queering the (New) Deal,” David M. Lugowski takes exception to Noriega's critique of retrospective queer readings (or queerings), suggesting that such a “policing of reading strategies, the productiveness of reading, and the limits of meaning” acts “as if the text speaks only a self-evident discourse for all spectator-readers, in effect closeting both readers—historical and contemporary—and texts.”33 While an impassioned response to a historiographical quandary, Lugowski's dismissal of Noriega's rebuke obscures Noriega's seminal point, which is not about closing down the production of queer meanings or disparaging subtexting, but rather about finding such interpretations elsewhere, within the era in question.
Noriega writes that examining media reviews from earlier decades might provide a sense of the “‘frames of reference’ reviewers [then] disseminated,” suggesting that the “discursive acts that surround” a media product “play a sometimes central role in shaping its meaning(s).”34 He shows that in their columns, critics of Ben's era explicitly textualized the associations that the films they reviewed left ambiguous. By focusing on using film criticism in mainstream venues to understand how certain films were decoded or read intertextually, Noriega helpfully uncovers constructions of homosexuality prevalent in culture at the time. Indeed, Lugowski ends up taking a cue from Noriega and emphasizing the importance of and difficulty inherent in trying to understand the historical spectator's experience. Lugowski submits two potential resources for researchers: first, recorded interviews of gays and lesbians recalling their cinematic experiences; and, second, the work of “another group of readers whose very focus was on the films themselves, whose writings from the time exist and who, though hardly queer-identified, nonetheless did a great deal of queer reading, namely, our friends at the PCA!”35 Recognizing that interviews with viewers recalling their impressions of films are “necessarily retrospective,” Lugowski concentrates on interpreting the PCA memos; like Noriega, he skillfully analyzes discourses that are centered on the topic of “sex perversion” in the movies contemporaneous to the time and yet are, as he admits, written by readers who were “hardly queer-identified.” To put it simply: Neither Noriega nor Lugowski references the discourses of gay-identified film viewers writing at the time.
White, Lugowski, Berenstein, Noriega, and others have produced influential analyses of film portrayals (or the lack thereof) of homosexuality during the PCA through reference to the self-censoring agency's records, available at the Margaret Herrick Library. These discursive analyses of 1930s and ’40s mainstream film reviews, PCA memos, and recollections from gay and lesbians about their spectatorship practices demonstrate brilliantly how film censorship produces knowledge about sexuality (à la Foucault) and that spectatorial identifications and disidentifications can take place nostalgically and across times. However, despite this important work, scholars of queer media seem to share a common presumption about the absence or unavailability of discourses written about film by self-identified lesbians and gays during this era. To some degree, even as current scholarship has dynamically challenged the “up from invisibility” thesis of queer media representation, an “up from invisibility” thesis of queer media theorizing/historicizing remains in place.
During the Production Code era, Hollywood traded on the racy appeal of adapting from plays and novels with explicit homosexual content, advertising these films suggestively only to sell tickets to films that often excised, mutilated, or unrecognizably displaced such content. Films retained faint links with their literary adaptation sources, and yet any links to erotic or taboo content, however indistinct, served the film's box office success and increased talk about it “around town.” Sometimes substitutions made to “straighten out” the characters and plots of these sources resulted in absurd disconnects between small transgressions and the level of drama surrounding them. Patricia White explains how, in the case of These Three (1936), an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour, the substitution of a heterosexual affair for a lesbian scandal did not quite suffice: “Because even fairly mild forms of misbehavior were prohibited under the Code, Hellman's task of finding something ‘shocking’ to replace lesbianism was in some senses a rather easy one. However, because the allegation of a straight love triangle did not really shock, the frisson of an implied abnormality was preserved despite the change.”36
In the first film review to appear in Vice Versa's “Cinema Ramblings,” Lisa Ben draws focus to the translation at work in Hollywood incarnations of outwardly lesbian literary texts. Her review of Children of Loneliness (1934), based on Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), derides the film's claim to relate in any way to the book:
It was with great anticipation that I went to see “Children of Loneliness,” based, according to newspaper advertisements, upon “Well of Loneliness,” that most admirable novel penned by Radclyffe Hall. The only resemblance between book and film was the last name of the main feminine character, “Gordon.” The story, unfortunately, in no way resembled the book upon which it was purportedly based, and the acting was so poor as to make the picture practically unsitthroughable…. Those in the audience who hoped to view scenes of lesbian love were sorely disappointed. There was not the slightest demonstration of affection between two women displayed on the screen, aside from a brief flash of one girl with her hand upon the shoulder of another, a casual gesture indeed.37
Children of Loneliness (figure 2) condenses down the sexual relationship between the two principal female characters in Well of Loneliness into a brief flash, a casual gesture. In many ways, this quick image of the women touching carries the wealth of intensities that it displaces, as well as the brunt of their absence. Ben hooks on to it and reports it to her readers for this very reason—a touch that might otherwise mean very little here at once signifies both homosexuality and its unrepresentability. In a slippage reminiscent of modernist experiments with indirect discourse, Ben's review switches its voices. She first personalizes her viewing experience by opening in the first person: “It was with great anticipation that I went …,” but then distances herself rhetorically from other viewers with dashed hopes while simultaneously including herself in a larger, hypothetical community: “Those in the audience who hoped to view scenes of lesbian love were sorely disappointed.” She then reappropriates this very disappointment with the understated exclamation “a casual gesture indeed.” Ben's appeal to an unknown but decidedly plural number of audience members hoping to see lesbian content construes a counterpublic and at the same time naturalizes it. Rather than reporting on the screening from an isolated subject positioning, she connects her spectatorship to others, and by so doing she suggests a set of looking relations: queer spectatorship.
Certainly reports about Children of Loneliness's run at the Los Angeles Criterion Theatre indicate that gays and lesbians attended. William R. Weaver's 1937 review in the Motion Picture Herald after the film's screening at the Criterion relays how he overheard “the lispy comments of the young men on his left and the throaty whispers of middle aged women.”38 As Eric Schaefer points out in his history of exploitation film, such an account suggests, albeit through the crude prism of stereotypes, that Weaver sensed homosexuals were among the other cinemagoers at the Criterion, thereby providing an account, beyond Ben's, of a gay and lesbian reception of the film.39
Ben refers to newspaper advertisements for Children of Loneliness that marketed the film as a literary adaptation of The Well of Loneliness, and such ads ran in large metropolitan areas. However, many ads for the film failed to mention Radclyffe Hall's novel at all, including a large picture ad for screenings at the Colonial Theater in Ogden, Utah (figure 3). Instead, the Colonial's promotion directs its address to heterosexuals, to destigmatize the act of seeing the film in the theater with the suggestion that “every normal person should see this, an amazing picture.”40 The ad's illustration depicts two women—one dressed in a man's suit and necktie, her hand resting on her traditionally feminine partner's shoulder. Obviously, advertisers fixated on the same brief, “casual gesture” Ben relished as a sign of affection, seeing it as loaded enough to represent the theme of the picture. Pitching the film as an exploitation picture, the Colonial ad plays on discourses of pity to describe the women's love affair, which it presents as a biological joke with the taglines “Life's a Grim Jest! Love's a Hideous Travesty!” and “Born to Tragedy! Their Love Outlawed by a World That Refuses to Understand!” Though the advertisement never names this outlawed love, it sensationalizes the notion that these female characters (and other “children of loneliness”) are “capable of love, but incapable of marriage.”41
The few reviews for Children of Loneliness that address its subject matter also do so in veiled idioms without using the word homosexual. A review entitled “Daring Subject Is Delicately Handled” in the San Antonio Express, for example, never quite specifies “the subject” that is so daring in the first place: “Dealing in ‘nature's misfits,’ ‘Children of Loneliness’ tells of the heartache suffered by those whom society scorns instead of pitying. Prepared not as a defense but as a study, the picture offers entertainment of a type seldom seen on the American screen. Though the subject is daring—the treatment in story and production is delicate enough to offend no one.”42 Though presented in a “free-speech” medium (newspapers), advertisements for and reviews of Children of Loneliness operated in an oblique fashion, much as Production Code films did themselves—teasing and redirecting, obscuring the very subject they concerned, while also producing the conditions of lesbian representability.
During the mid-1930s, significantly censored and mistranslated versions of an imported French film, Club de femmes (1936), with a central lesbian character, were shown in the United States to mixed reviews (figures 4–5). The original uncut version of the film also circulated in areas where state censor boards did not get involved. One unnamed Variety critic muses that director Jacques Deval just “wanted to show off a score of French bathing beauties” and predicts that the picture “probably won't be a hit with the American public.”43 A follow-up review the next year, undoubtedly by a different critic, finds the film “lively, satirical entertainment, based on the loves of bachelor girls in a Parisian clubhouse for women. Despite the most vigilant precautions by careful chaperones, love, barred from the door, creeps down the chimney.”44 Strikingly, the second reviewer seems nonplussed about the lesbian subplot and references it fairly directly: “Picture develops the love-lives of several inmates of the club. One is mischievously romantic. The second goes on the loose. A third, a la ‘Maedchen in Uniform,’ is attracted to a girl friend. All of them get in trouble.”45 Two weeks after this review, Variety reported that French officials took offense at the New York State Board of Censors’ insistence that Club de femmes undergo “numerous cuts in the picture and alteration of the English titles,” seeing this censorship as “a slur on French taste.”46 The Los Angeles Times printed a piece on the “controversy”:
Periodically, according to film observers, the ever-smoldering dislike of censor boards felt by motion-picture exhibitors and serious movie fans flames into open warfare…. If the story [of Club de femmes] at moments goes beyond the pale of convention, this is to serve its purpose of “reflecting contemporary life,” leaders in the movement against censorship declare.47
Though the state censors’ requirements were carried out in a version that played in New York, changing the plot of the film in some places, reportedly the “French dialog has not been altered so that anyone understanding the lingo will know what it's all about.”48 Thus, for bilingual viewers, the effects of censorship created a film that was as much about American anxieties around sexuality as it was about young French women.
Lisa Ben's review of Club de femmes revels in the fact that “one sees energetic ‘tom-girls’ romping with boxing gloves, or at play on the trapeze. A few vie with their more fragile sisters splashing about in the pool. Action shots indicate much gaiety everywhere, much flashing of strong young limbs and scantily-clad femininity.”49 In just a few sentences, Ben captures this scene as both playful and erotic; she celebrates the women in their diversity of interests, actions, and gender presentations while hinting at the girls’ various states of undress. In this way, she models a sex-positive, decidedly proto-queer approach to enjoying cinematic looking. Through drawing out missing or subtextual elements in the films she analyses, Ben boldly explicates and reauthors media with any suggestion of homoeroticism or lesbian difference. She brings a magnifying glass to her projects, relying upon powers of meticulous description to suggest how to identify with and eroticize cinematic characters from a lesbian perspective.
Ben describes characters such as Club de femmes’ Alice with care and identification, constructing potential lesbian subject positions within the movies she encounters: “Throughout the film, with serene dignity and grace, moves Alice, a strange sort of girl who is aware that she is ‘different,’ but does not know why. The audience is first made aware of her during a swimming pool scene, when the girl's eyes yearningly follow the progress of a young, curvaceous blond, tastefully attired in a brief bathing suit.”50 Again, Ben's prose nearly pulls her readers’ eyes along with hers, Alice's, and the camera's to follow this blond girl's curves. Ben's remarks imply that she (and her readers: the film's queer viewers by proxy) can guess and decipher the particularity of Alice's difference—a difference the character cannot yet comprehend. In her rendering of Club de femmes’ unhappy ending, Ben enforces her own perspective over the moral that the film constructs, drowning out the punishing narrative: “Dr. Aubry denounces Alice as an unnatural monster, and when the girl declares no further interest in life, the despicable creature takes advantage of Alice's dejected mood to banish her to a leper colony far across the sea.”51 Through her phrasing, Ben demonstrates that the question of who is the real monster in this situation is subjective. She dubs Dr. Aubry a despicable creature as a name-calling retort and describes Alice's dejected mood as a relatable characteristic—she is human, after all. Ben articulates what she believes to be Alice's misunderstood sexuality (explicitly naming her as a lesbian), while defending the heroine's murder of the man who raped her beloved:
One could not help but admire the character of the quiet, self-contained lesbian who bore such great affection for her girlfriend…. Possessed of beauty, both spiritual and physical, Alice was reserved, dignified, intelligent and honorable at all times, even when perpetuating her crime, which was, to her, a justifiable revenge.52
Ben troubles the film's ending, renarrating the text within a pro-lesbian framework. Her diction is authoritative and yet refuses once again to adopt the first person. By abstracting the authorial “I” to “one” here, she opens this spectatorial/editorial space up to others like her—again, she invites her imaginary public to share her critical positioning. In some ways, this rhetorical play with indirect discourse, whether intentional or not, elucidates how queer readings/viewings can sometimes do more work than they get credit for. Ben's reviews do not just express a willy-nilly personal experience of lesbian spectatorship (though that itself is a coup). They are prismatic—they enable positions of agency for subsequent readers/viewers.
Although she wrote the majority of Vice Versa's content, Ben sought to exchange ideas with, not just address, a queer public. She envisioned a magazine produced broadly by her peers. In Vice Versa's second edition, Ben repeats a request for contributions she made in the first issue, inviting her readers to write themselves into print. “So, sharpen your pencils, tykes,” she encouraged—using a word that denotes “young upstarts” yet rhymes with dykes—“you've never tried writing, why not make an attempt?”53 Ben hoped to expand the literary and reviews sections of the publication and implored other film reviewers to join her cause: “You may have seen a rare or unusual film which others may never be able to view because of time or distance involved. If you've seen such a film, don't keep it to yourself. Tell others about it through the medium of vice versa.”54 Ben also encouraged readers to send in “stories, articles and verses.”55 An unnamed poet, described as “a blond, curly-topped tyke who is a medical student at a university,” sent in a note along with an original poetry contribution: “We have enjoyed reading them [copies of the magazine] and I, personally, felt that sought-after feeling of belonging to a group somewhere in ‘society,’ while reading with you.”56 Delighted with this letter, Ben printed the following response: “This is precisely the feeling that I would like to impart through this publication—a feeling of camaraderie—that even though readers may never actually become acquainted with one another, they will find a sort of spiritual communion through this little magazine, which is written by and for those of our inclinations.”57 Ben's inclusionary language and confident address to a hypothetical community naturally interested in reading a magazine catering to their interests discursively produces that very community.
Ben emphasizes cultivating camaraderie between gay men and lesbians and creating a linked social environment. The spiritual communion that Vice Versa envisions and provides for readers through this anonymously written, virally spread magazine is especially vital during a postwar period full of homophobic panic and fear of “otherness.” The stress on normalcy and homogeny and the rabid fear of difference so prevalent during the late 1940s seemed exacerbated after a time of great global social upheaval, and these currents would fuel not only the policing of sexuality and gender, but also the Cold War and the racial discrimination of the time. Hand in hand with the imaginary, discursive community that Vice Versa nurtures, Ben's project includes promoting concrete, real-world community building by homosexuals and gender transgressors. The magazine promotes both projects simultaneously. Ben acknowledges the strategic benefits of banding together in “‘gay circles’ with tykes and laddies enjoying platonic friendships which to outsiders probably give the illusion of so-called ‘normality’ in social relations.”58 But she does not advocate passing just because one can. She complicates this choice for the reader, and leaves it to them:
Life is short. Is it worthwhile to deny oneself the company of friends of similar inclinations? Or to go to so much effort to achieve an appearance of “normal” social relations? Such actions might be construed as an apology for our very existence. But these are questions that each individual must answer to his or her own satisfaction.59
Ben also calls for alternate terms to denote homosexual commitments. Given that “marriage usually involves a legal ceremony of some kind,” Ben prefers terms that have significances outside of the legal system, such as “‘coupled,’ or even ‘teamed.’”60 Ben's phrasing—using even preceding teamed—additionally suggests her acknowledgment of relationships involving more than two individuals.
Ben challenges not only assimilation, but also the medicalization of queerness and gender “inversion”—a radical stance during the’40s—and doubts that merely working toward the decriminalization of homosexuality goes far enough. In response to a doctor's declaration that “the invert is a patient to be studied to the ultimate advantage of normal society” in Magazine Digest's 1948 treatise “Doctors Plead for the Homosexual and Lesbian,” Ben retorts:
“To their advantage …,” yes. But perhaps to our disadvantage…. I, for one, consider myself neither an error of nature nor some sort of psychological freak…. Most assuredly some of us might be cases of arrested emotional development—surely it is preferable to be considered such rather than as degenerate criminals—but still is it not possible that we are just as natural and normal by our standards as so-called “normals” are by theirs? Regarding humanity's idiosyncrasies the world over, by the same token redheads, people with green eyes, or perhaps albinos, might have been the ones to be cast aside from society as inferior or “degenerate.”61
Throughout her writings, Ben promotes the idea that the “third sex”62 has its own culture and variety of roles, rather than being structured in strict opposition to heteronormativity or reproducing gendered behaviors wholesale along lines of femininity and masculinity. She asserts, “We gay folk have long needed an adequate vocabulary to express the terms and phrases which pertain to us and our way of life.”63 Ben's concern for self-naming and for establishing understandings about alternative sexualities from within homosexual communities rather than accepting the labels or thinly veiled distaste of the scientific community arguably result in her establishment of a proto-queer critical stance. A critical positioning that, as I have shown, Ben uses to guide her analysis of visual culture in her film columns. Ben's clear, if unspoken, recognition that sexuality and gender are constructions may have been strengthened by her interest in the failures and possibilities of cinematic representation.
Ben brought her readers’ attention to portrayals of cross-dressing, tomboys (or “tom-girls”), and transgressive heterosexuality as well as same-sex desire. In Ben's review of Club de femmes, she details how a student dresses up her male lover in “feminine garments” in order to sneak him into a girls’ school as her cousin. Ben remarks that the “style looks very natural upon him” and offers the following aside: “There are several intimate love scenes between the dancer [the female student] and her boyfriend, which probably would afford a vicarious thrill to those who like that sort of thing.”64 Ben's descriptions of a café scene from a French film she refers to as Escape to Yesterday (likely La bandera ),65 note gender-nonconforming entertainers in the background and offer the following directions for viewing: “If one can tear one's attention away from the dancer long enough to observe the other entertainers, one will notice that at least two of them are female impersonators. There is also a brief flash of a young girl with closely cropped hair among the spectators.”66 Although mainstream film reviewers, for the most part, acknowledged the controversial (if often unnamed) themes of the films Ben reviewed, the popular press failed, for the most part, to recognize transgressive content in La bandera. By providing a detailed guide to images of alternative gender presentations as well as sexualities within film, Ben helps her readers learn to read films against (or with) the grain, even in the absence of supporting opinions. Ben engages in a contagious decoding project of film texts, meanwhile presaging the potential for a more substantive queer and transgender subjectivity and visibility.
Ben also takes note of films in which male and female identities are entirely swapped. She includes, for instance, a review of the Hal Roach comedy Turnabout (1940) (figure 6), starring Carole Landis and John Hubbard, a predecessor to more recent “body switching” films such as All of Me (1984) and Switch (1991). One unnamed critic at the Observer snubs Turnabout's premise: “The exquisite blond (Carole Landis) becomes stridently masculine; the dominant male (John Hubbard) chirrups and postures. The joke—if that is the word—is carried right through to its ultimate implications. It's a matter of taste.”67 A reviewer from Box Office finds Turnabout's screwball adaptation of the Thorne Smith novel “to some extent, at least, expunged of its risqué motivations.”68 Ben's description, however, emphasizes Turnabout's playfulness with gender scripts. The film, she writes, deals with
a most unusual and fantastic theme—the mutual exchange of a wife's and husband's personalities. Thus, “Turnabout” is fraught with amusing innuendoes and ambiguous significance…. Sally, her sheer, clinging nightgown stretched around her husband's large, brawny body, replies in an unmistakable feminine voice … the husband uses masculine gestures, swaggers about, and speaks in his own deep baritone, which goes incongruously indeed with his daintily-attired feminine appearance.69
Variety suggests that while most audiences would tolerate the female character's presentation of masculinity, the husband's feminine mannerisms might upset conservatives, especially rural ones: “In the metropolitan areas, the swish characteristics assumed by Hubbard might pass, but there is a chance that audiences in the hinterlands and family houses might take offense. The masculine attributes of Miss Landis will be taken as a matter of course.”70 Ben clearly finds the film's treatment of gender nonconformity, even of the magical kind and played for laughs, worth covering for readers of “Cinema Ramblings.” In other articles, Vice Versa devotes space to discussions of “gender inversion” and butch self-presentation that demonstrate enthusiasm for celebrating diversity within Vice Versa's imagined community.
While discussing butch and femme identities, Ben makes clear that they are not equivalent to male and female roles; neither are they the only presentations or identifications available to lesbians.71 In collaboration with her readers, Ben discusses and creates a lexicon for describing differences among lesbians that might be adapted to understanding media representations of transgressive female sexuality from the post–World War II period. Sometime contributor Laurajean Ermayne writes in to suggest a new name for a masculine lesbian woman; instead of “butch,” she suggests “Lescourt”: “This has a double meaning. First of all, it may be regarded as a combination of ‘lesbian’ and ‘escort.’ It is the butch who is the escort, so—Then, too, you can look at it from the standpoint of courting, which is also in the butch's line.”72 Ermayne also suggests the term “Clyffe,” after Well of Loneliness novelist Radclyffe Hall, for the “tom-boy type.” She claims she is stumped for another term for “fluff” (the term then often used for a femme).73 “You are not the first to seek other adequate expressions to designate the aggressive and passive lassies,” Ben responds:
I have been told that at one time, for some unfathomable reason, the titles “Masons” and “Orders” were in vogue. Evidently these words did not retain their popularity, for they do not seem to be in current use today. Although I have not seen the words “butch” and “fluff” appear in any printed books, one reason I think they are so widely used in conversation is because they are brief and self-explanatory…. Some may argue that in objecting to the “slanginess,” we may be placing a semantic barrier in our path.74
Ben particularly approves of Ermayne's suggested term “Clyffe” because it “conveys the idea of masculinity, and at the same time is derived from the name of a woman whom we all should admire,” thus articulating a distinct lesbian history and culture. “As to a substitute for the word ‘fluff,’” Ben writes, “I see no great objection to the present term except that at first hearing it suggests frivolity and fickleness rather than femininity. The word ‘femme,’ which is common in gay parlance and synonymous with ‘fluff,’ is more suitable, I think.”75 Ben also suggests a need for terms beyond butch and femme to describe sexual models without defined “aggressive” and “passive” roles:
But there are many more words needed to complete our special vocabulary. For instance, we need a word to describe a tyke who is at ease with either a passive or an aggressive partner. In New York, so I am told, the expression is “Ki-ki,” but no one elsewhere seems to be familiar with this peculiar term, which does not seem to have its origin in any sensible derivation.76
Audre Lorde's recollections of her experiences in 1950s New York in her biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, corroborate that the term “ky-ky” (spelled in Lorde's version with ys rather than is) circulated in New York lesbian cultures at the time. Lorde describes feeling like an outsider in a butch-femme bar scene and understanding the term as an insult directed at her and her friends’ refusal to identify with either role: “We were both part of the ‘freaky’ bunch of lesbians who weren't into role-playing, and who the butches and femmes, Black and white, disparaged with the term Ky-Ky.”77 Ben's discussion of the term in Vice Versa occurs a few years before the experiences Lorde recalls. Including “Ki-ki” in her proposed lexicon complicates the butch-femme model of lesbian role-playing practiced at the time by describing women who desire female sexual partners of both roles or between (or possibly outside) them. Ben's search for adequate terminology to describe different types and desires of lesbians stages a moderately public debate in order to practice an communal act of self-naming. This exchange also openly battles the popular misconception that feminine lesbians did not exist—a stereotype that saw femmes as straight women corrupted by predatory butches. Not only a proto-queer film critic, Ben importantly produces her own complicated and careful theories of sexuality in Vice Versa.
Lisa Ben's criticism attempts an “unbound” reading of media that fits with Vice Versa's brave political stance and disregard for convention for convention's sake. Significantly, Ben's articles demonstrate a savvy understanding of the media's potential for disenfranchising or including sexual minorities, while she wields a wry, self-assured writing style, reminiscent at times of Dorothy Parker's. Her heavily detailed synopses and analyses of domestic and foreign feature films raise the question of the relationship between her media literacy, as evidenced by her reviews, and her position as an executive secretary at a major movie studio. Ben exhibits a familiarity with film conventions and an ardent and self-aware practice of spectatorship. Perhaps Ben's role at RKO, which likely included typing and correcting script coverage and interoffice memos, provided her with an insider's look at Hollywood's production processes and censorship policies. This may have primed her especially for turning what she called “America's Gayest Magazine” into America's first venue for meticulous media reviews focused on the representation and representability of alternative sexualities. Lisa Ben's subtle yet expansive perspectives, exhibited in Vice Versa media reviews, editorials, and articles, offer us a toolbox for reading Production Code–era representations of transgressive female sexuality at the very time that they emerged and circulated.
The author of this essay accessed issues of Vice Versa at the One National Gay & Lesbian Archives, University of Southern California Libraries.
Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 107; Larry Gross, Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 24.
Gross, Up from Invisibility, 24; Vice Versa 1, no. 1 (June 1947): 1.
Ben quoted in Eric Marcus, “‘Gay Gal—Lisa Ben,” in The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics, eds. Larry Gross and James D. Woods (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 443.
Ben quoted in ibid.
Vice Versa 1, no. 1 (June 1947): 1.
Marcus, “‘Gay Gal—Lisa Ben,” 444; Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 106–07.
Marcus, “‘Gay Gal—Lisa Ben,” 443; Vice Versa 1, no. 2 (July 1947): 17–18.
Vice Versa 1, no. 2 (July 1947): 2.
John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, 152.
Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A, 73.
The term inversion dates back to the late nineteenth century, when it was used more widely than the term homosexuality. The former term was likely coined by German sexologist Karl Westphal in his article “Contrary Sexual Feeling,” Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankeiten 2 (1869–1970): 73–108. German writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs also published pamphlets, beginning in 1864, that suggested, according to Neil Miller, that “homosexuality was not just an ‘inversion’ in the choice of sexual object but an ‘inversion’ of one's broader gender characteristics as well.” K. H. Ulrichs, Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Leipzig: n.p., 1898); Neil Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present (New York: Alyson Books, 2006), 14–15.
Ben quoted in Marcus, “‘Gay Gal—Lisa Ben,” 445.
D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities; Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 1–29.
Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 61.
Ruth Vasey, The World According to Hollywood 1918–1939 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 11.
Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928–1942 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), xi.
Vasey, The World According to Hollywood, 126.
Letter from Father Brendan Larnen to Will Hays, May 10, 1944, MPPDA file, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, quoted in Rhona J. Berenstein, “Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in Rebecca (1940) and The Uninvited (1944),” Cinema Journal 37, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 16.
Patricia White, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
“The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930,” quoted in White, UnInvited, 7.
Letter from Joseph Breen to John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran Inc. Distributors, October 4, 1935. Production Code Adminstration files, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, quoted in White, UnInvited, 19.
White, UnInvited, 7.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books,  1990); Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon,  1980).
White, UnInvited, 1.
Chon Noriega, “‘Something's Missing Here!’: Homosexuality and Film Reviews during the Production Code Era, 1934–1962,” Cinema Journal 30, no. 1 (Fall 1990): 21.
David M. Lugowski, “Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood's Production Code,” Cinema Journal 38, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 10.
Noriega, “‘Something's Missing Here!’”: 20–41.
Lugowski, “Queering the (New) Deal”: 10.
White, UnInvited, 23.
Vice Versa 1, no. 1 (June 1947): 9.
William R. Weaver, review of Children of Loneliness, Motion Picture Herald (November 20, 1937): 35.
Eric Schaefer, “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 211.
Advertisement for Children of Loneliness at the Colonial Theater, Ogden Standard-Examiner, Utah, February 13, 1938, 11B.
“Daring Subject Is Delicately Handled,” San Antonio Express, June 17, 1934, 10D.
“Club de Femmes,” Variety, July 1, 1936, 23.
“Club de Femmes,” Variety, October 13, 1937, 17.
“Anyway, It's Good Adv. for ‘Club de Femmes,’” Variety, October 27, 1937, 23.
“‘Club de Femmes’ Stirs Controversy in New York,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1937, 10.
“Anyway, It's Good Adv. for ‘Club de Femmes,’” 23.
Vice Versa 1, no. 1 (June 1947): 13.
Vice Versa 1, no. 2 (July 1947): 1.
Vice Versa 1, no. 6 (November 1947): 11.
Vice Versa 1, no. 9 (February 1948): 11.
Vice Versa 1, no. 6 (November 1947): 11.
Vice Versa 1, no. 9 (February 1948): 10.
Vice Versa 1, no. 1 (June 1947): 10.
Vice Versa 1, no. 6 (November 1947): 9.
The American title of this film was actually Escape from Yesterday (not Escape to Yesterday).
Vice Versa 1, no. 2 (July 1947): 15.
“Other New Films: Turnabout,” Observer, September 29, 1940, 3.
“Turnabout,” Box Office, May 11, 1940, 45.
Vice Versa 1, no. 3 (August 1947): 9.
“Turnabout,” Variety, May 8, 1940, 12.
Vice Versa 1, no. 6 (November 1947): 9–11.
Laurajean Ermayne in ibid.: 9.
Vice Versa 1, no. 6 (November 1947): 10.
Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1982), 178.