Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema

Robert J. Corber,
Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema
Duke University Press, 2011
ISBN 978-0-8223-4947-1
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Cold War Femme is the third of Robert Corber’s inquiries into Cold War cultural formations and their regulatory relationship with sexuality. In the first book, In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (1993), Corber read the major works of Alfred Hitchcock – Rear Window (1954), Strangers on a Train (1951) and Psycho (1960) among others – as texts that both affirmed and complicated the agenda of the 1950s Cold War liberal consensus, which sought to shield liberalism from the stain of Communism. The book built on (but also revised) auteurist and psychoanalytic approaches to Hitchcock with detailed politically and historically situated analyses to develop an argument about Cold War culture that now seems virtually axiomatic: the liberal consensus (and popular culture more generally) ­cultivated a particular brand of nationalist homophobia in which homosexuality, gender non-conformity and the taint of Communist sympathies were fused together in a treasonous compound tropology. Corber furthered this interest in the intimate political sphere of this period in Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity (1997), but with a more specific emphasis on gay male counter-cultures. This second book offered dissident readings of 1950s literary and popular culture – the ‘gay male gaze’ of film noir; the nascently political gay culture envisaged by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and James Baldwin ­– through which homosexual men were able to resist dominant models of post-war masculinity and thus struggle against the broader national invisibilization of same-sex desire. In addition to its aggressive homophobia, the book suggests, Cold War culture paved the way for the radical politics of Gay Liberation in the next decade. This third book in the Cold War trilogy is again concerned with Hollywood, Hitchcock, histories of sexual anxiety, and the complex, paradoxical ideological work of Cold War popular culture. In this sense, Cold War Femme is a companion to the earlier books, completing a tripartite study of 40s-60s American sexual culture that enriches claims for the significance of this era’s construction of modern categories of gender and sexuality, and confirming Corber’s status as a leading scholar on the subject. As we have come to expect from his work, Corber’s textual analysis is nuanced and situated in rich historical detail, producing a portrait of a sexual and political culture riddled with contradictions.

Cold War Femme turns its attention to the feminine-acting woman who makes a lesbian object choice, a figure around whom Corber identifies a potent, if peculiar, form of sexual anxiety emerging at this time. A concentration on the femme enables him to return to Hollywood films that have become somewhat of a scholarly locus classicus of the homophobic tenor of Cold War cinema under the Hays Code, and to develop fresh, sometimes astonishing re-readings of them. These include All About Eve (1950), The Children’s Hour (1962, as well as its prior stage and screen incarnations), Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Marnie (1964), and the 1963 horror The Haunting. Among the book’s various provocations is Corber’s suspicion that these films might in fact be queerer than has been imagined. The second half of the study is organized by a star studies approach, which works to produce a more comprehensive account of Corber’s claims about Hollywood’s regulatory relationship with women’s sexuality than a straightforward collection of film analyses might have. These accounts of gender anxiety and its management in the latter halves of the careers of Doris Day, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford also constitute striking and original case studies in their own right.

Corber’s Introduction explores Cold War culture’s unease and fascination with the femme via a 1965 bestseller by journalist Jess Stearn called The Grapevine: A Report on the Secret World of the Lesbian. Stearns book is not only amusingly prurient and sensational, it is emblematic of a range of the discourses about lesbianism that were circulating at the time, including the alarming idea that lesbianism was ‘on the rise’ in the context of increased opportunities for woman in public life and their expanding political claims.  Under Corber’s scrutiny, Stearn’s book also documents a culture in the midst of an uneasy sexual paradigm shift. Influenced by psychoanalysis, this is a transformation from a model of homosexuality as gender inversion to a model of sexuality defined primarily by object choice. In a manner that mirrors anxieties about communist sympathisers, the feminine acting lesbian becomes an object of paranoid fascination at this time partly because she is more difficult to detect than the butch, who was easily identified by her masculine gender performance and, therefore, easily excluded from participation in mainstream American society. But not only that – and very crucially for Corber’s thesis in the book – as a lesbian who doesn’t renounce a feminine gender presentation the femme confounds the model of homosexuality-as-gender-inversion, thus confusing the older sexual paradigm and becoming the unintelligible harbinger of a new system of sexual classification. This makes the femme particularly threatening to the culture at the time.

The shift away from the homosexuality-as-gender-inversion model produces problems for queer representability under the Hays Code with its rigid proscription against the representation of ‘sex perversion’. Under the older model, figures like the butch lesbian or the effeminate homosexual man were easily intelligible to urban audiences as coded – or indeed conspicuous – images ­of queerness; gender and sexual non-conformity were neatly aligned as part of the same hermeneutic of queer representation. But in the shift to a model oriented around object-choice, queerness becomes both harder to portray and harder to detect. How do you represent lesbianism when object choice has displaced masculinity as the primary trope of that lesbianism? How do you do this in the context of an industrial model in which the open depiction of that kind of sexual object choice is heavily circumscribed? In the films under investigation Corber finds some curious, often rather queer answers to these questions, all of which highlight the incoherencies of this culture in transition. Curious, queer and sometimes frightening, for the cultural disarticulation of gender and sexual nonconformity not only meant that failed performances of gender no longer functioned as a reliable signifier of homosexuality, it meant that homosexuality could remain threateningly ambiguous; it could, in fact, lie anywhere. Enter the femme who posed an especially insidious – yet also titillating – threat to the institutions of heterosexuality, not only because of her ability to pass as a ‘normal’ feminine woman, but because of her privileged capacity to recruit other women into the ‘secret world’ of lesbians. “One consequence,” Corber writes, “of the circulation of [these] two conflicting discourses of lesbianism in Hollywood movies was that female femininity emerged as a powerfully ambiguous signifier of sexual identity” (5); the femme “could infiltrate the institutions of heterosexuality and destabilize them by continuing to participate in the lesbian subculture” (34). This is why the presence of a femme in a woman’s film or domestic melodrama may automatically conjure the generic sensibilities of film noir. The allure of the femme fatale is, to some extent and in some cases, a lesbian appeal, and this seems to be the case in the sex mystery Marnie (1964) and in Mildred Pierce (1945, Chapter Four) where the lesbian/incest subtext emerges through noir conventions.

This sexual paradigm shift put pressure on Hollywood to find new ways of encoding and then containing the presence of a (potential) lesbian. Corber’s ingenious analysis of the sexually maladjusted, ‘frigid’ protagonist in Marnie (Chapter Three) showcases these innovations and suggests that, in spite of these film’s attempts at recuperating the femme for normative womanhood, the consolidation of object choice as “an overriding principle of social and sexual difference” (94) made traditional patriarchal modes of containing female sexuality somewhat impotent. His reading of Marnie starts to account for why this film is so often regarded as one of Hitchcok’s failures: it is a film stuck between the two models of sexuality. Its failure, Corber asserts, isn’t the attenuated filmmaking techniques (like painted backdrops), but the film’s being literally in-between these two models of lesbian subjectivity. Marnie is a feminine woman who is terrified of intimacy with men, an aversion that the film explains through the revelation of a traumatic childhood experience. This ostensibly means that she can be reclaimed for the institutions of heterosexuality. However, if we read Marnie as a femme whose desire is directed towards her mother, as Corber suggests, the film starts to read as another compelling example of Cold War femme panic. There is a risk that readers may make the mistake of over-literalizing this interpretation of Marnie as a queer figure, which is what Cassandra Langer appears to do in her review of Corber’s book in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide ( The point is not that a repressed or latent lesbian Marnie will supply the missing piece of the film’s puzzle, but rather that Corber’s theory of femme panic explains so much else about the film, particularly the sexually violent obsession of the Sean Connery character, which reflects the confused response of the culture at large to the figure of the femme. Marnie is situated against a comparative analysis of Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s notoriously homophobic (but again, paradoxically enabling) earlier invocation of (butch and femme) lesbian panic. Putting these two films into dialogue enables Corber to demonstrate shifts in discourse over time: whereas in Rebecca the emphasis is on the corrupting powers of female homosociality, Marnie reflects the Cold War obsession with perverted mother/daughter relationships.

In spite of the rather extraordinary thought experiments enacted in the Marnie chapter, All About Eve (Chapter One) provides a clearer and therefore stronger thematization of the shift and vacillation between the two models of sexual epistemology that Corber identifies in Cold War culture. The threat posed by Eve resides in her ability to ape conventional femininity, masking and invisibilizing a (lesbian) butchness that only reveals itself at key moments in the film and that therefore serve to confirm Eve’s ‘true’ sexual orientation. The film has long been considered a thinly veiled coding of lesbian menace, however Corber distinguishes Eve from previous images of the mannish lesbian and identifies her performance of femininity as the key means through which the film articulates lesbian threat. There is a political resonance here too in the construction of the femme as a figure who may stealthily undermine American society from within. All About Eve registers femme panic through the trope of imitation: the central narrative surrounding Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter)’s usurpation of the theatrical fame of Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a study in a pathological sort of copying, or what Corber calls “a perverse form of reproduction” (38). In this model of (lesbian) tutelage and imitation, there is, he argues, an imagined distinction between female star and female spectator whose boundary is constantly breaking down. In the interplay of the gaze of the adoring, imitative fan (Eve) at the female star (Margo) the distinction between identification and desire collapses. This works to reinforce the homophobic construction of the lesbian as a woman fixated narcissistically with her own identity, but also queers the very act of female spectatorship. Ultimately, the film’s recuperation of Margo’s heterosexuality and its demonization of Eve’s queerness is heavy-handedly homophobic, and yet, the spectre of the femme suggests that Cold War sexual culture may be queerer than we might have imagined. Corber writes:

… if the femme could pass as a “normal” woman, then there was no necessary or causal relationship between femininity and heterosexuality. Moreover, femininity emerged as a role that even the lesbian could master through imitation and repetition. In other words, the Cold War discourse of female homosexuality unintentionally foregrounded the performative aspects of femininity, and in the process demonstrates the lack of congruity between gender identity, sexual practice and object choice (29-30, emphasis added).

Without entirely dismissing the conventional wisdom that views the 1950s and 60s as the sexually repressive era par excellence for lesbians and gays – a sort of ‘Dark Ages’ of homosexual modernity – Corber’s femmes all demonstrate that, actually, relationships between sex, gender and sexuality were surprisingly mobile. Cold War Femme’s recalibrated emphasis on the disarticulation of gender and sexuality during this period, therefore, makes a very significant and rather Butlerian claim about Cold War culture’s construction of both the (femme) lesbian and the (normatively feminine acting) woman.

Hollywood adapts and adjusts to the changing constructions of sexuality, but only gradually, and always in ways that are always riddled with contradictions and incoherencies. As Corber is also at pains to remind us, Hollywood still relied on the older model of sexuality as gender nonconformity, and this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in All About Eve’s masculinizing of Eve as evidence of her lesbianism. And yet, parts of the conclusion to All About Eve shores up the newer model of Cold War sexuality by attempting to re-stabilize Margo’s heterosexuality through her renunciation of her preoccupation with her acting career and her reaffirmation of a male object choice as the sin qua non of normative female desire. Eve is a femme lesbian who is indistinguishable from straight women but only until Margo concludes that being a woman depends on a particular type of object choice: having a man.

The star textual analyses in the second half of Cold War Femme all revolve to some extent around the appropriation of a type of masculinity in the star narratives of Day, Davis and Crawford. There is a backlash against all of these stars during the period because of the motif of gender non-conformity from earlier in their careers. In the cases of Crawford and Davis, the perceived camp aspects of their performance get used to contain the threat of masculinity as part of this backlash. Davis, for example, continues to be cast as dominant, autonomous, slightly butch characters even against the backdrop of the more domesticated femininity of the 1950s; this gets read as a type of feminine anachronism, and therefore as camp. Day, on the other hand, largely manages to avoid the backlash because of her wholesome screen image.

What makes Cold War Femme a particularly distinctive contribution to sexuality studies is its disentanglement of the Cold War lesbian from gay histories and her re-insertion into American women’s history. This disarticulation of sexuality and gender enables Corber to illuminate the strange peculiarities of Cold War lesbian panic and its imbrication in broader post-war discourses of womanhood, including anxieties about the masculinization of female identity and women’s abdication of their maternal duty to model normative womanhood to their impressionable daughters. This works toward a more universalizing consideration of the regulation of lesbian sexuality as one part of the broader governance of women and femininities in post-war America. It also redresses the lumping together of lesbian and gay histories and the dominance of those histories by gay male stories that have “tended to assume that its conclusions apply equally to lesbians” (4). Corber acknowledges his own earlier work’s contribution to this imbalance, and aims to rectify it in the current book “by showing how Cold War homophobia transformed the category of the lesbian” (4). The book is somewhat of an heir to Patricia White’s seminal work on lesbian representation in classical Hollywood cinema, Uninvited (1999). However, Corber’s portrait of the femme in Cold War culture as both agent and symptom of a broader sexual paradigm shift from homosexuality as gender-deviance to a model more strongly anchored to object-choice seems to me to be a wholly new innovation in the field. Among lesbian-focused histories and scholarship, it repositions the femme as a queer figure who isn’t overshadowed by the heroic masculinity of the butch. And, amidst queer studies more generally, it develops a historical exploration of less visible queer figures who aren’t gender crossers or transgressors. Cold War Femme should be compulsory reading for all those interested in these themes.


About the Author

Dion Kagan

About the Author

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan works on film, sexuality and popular culture. He recently completed a PhD entitled ‘Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘post-crisis’ (c.1996-)’. He lectures and tutors in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University and is currently teaching Contemporary Issues in Sex and Sexuality at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University.View all posts by Dion Kagan →