Susan Potter is lecturer in film studies at the University of Sydney. She recently answered some questions about her new book, Queer Timing: The Emergence of Lesbian Sexuality in Early Cinema.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
When I started on this project I wanted to consider lesbian representation in early film as a progressive project of historical recovery, but I had a limited idea of what exactly that might entail. For starters, I had assumed that I understood what lesbian representation meant. But when I looked at some of the extant films in the archive—which can initially seem quite alien to us modern viewers—and then the rich scholarship in early cinema studies since the late 70s, as well as the array of histories of sexuality undertaken since Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, Volume 1, I soon realized that I was asking the wrong kinds of questions and making certain assumptions that I needed to revisit. That’s by way of a preface to saying that my interest is less in discovering previously hidden lesbian representations than in tracking the historical and uneven emergence in early cinema of an intelligible sexual category, identity and subjectivity. The book tries to model a historiographical approach to some aspects of this incredibly complex story which isn’t just of interest to so-called sexual minorities or, as I prefer to say, following Robyn Wiegman, the sexually minoritized. A counter-history of the emergence of lesbian representation and spectatorship is inevitably a partial history of a more privileged, yet historically less visible, sexual identity and discourse, a seemingly timeless heterosexuality.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
This seems like this is an opportunity to write an acknowledgement, however brief and inadequate, that supplements the genre of the book acknowledgement. If I think about the work I keep returning to and being inspired by that would include the books and essays written by Miriam Hansen, Valerie Traub, Arnold Davidson, David Halperin, Patricia White, Heather Love, Annamarie Jagose, Lauren Berlant and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Such a high-powered cluster of film historians, historians of sexuality, and queer theorists attests to the ways in which one’s own scholarly work is enabled by that of others, and to my interest in developing a supple critical-historiographical practice alive to the opacity and ephemerality of the archive as evidence of historical formations and experience. Others whose work has influenced and helped my own, as well as providing models of historical scholarship and theoretical rigor, include Christine Gledhill, Constance Balides, Mark Lynn Anderson, Linda Williams, Catherine Russell, and Jennifer Bean. As this second but not secondary list indicates, the book seeks to offer a contribution to the rich field of feminist film history.
Q: How did you conduct research for your book?
In some ways this book is more concerned with film historiography even while it also offers a partial counter-history of the emergence of lesbian sexuality in early cinema. I’ve undertaken research in person and online in some wonderful archives and libraries—from the BFI National Archive in London to the Media History Digital Library collections—but the aim was never to track down lost or unidentified films in the archive. Otherwise, I’ve been engaged in watching films closely, and reading the literature, not only in film studies but also cognate fields such as performance and visual culture studies, as well as Anglophone and European histories of sexuality. I look forward to future work that can take this further and build on that of other colleagues, such as Laura Horak’s recent book Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-dressed Women and the Legitimation of American Cinema (Rutgers).
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
The most interesting discovery for me was the Rudolph Valentino archive and what I call Valentino’s lesbianism. The appearance of Valentino in a book dedicated to lesbian representability might seem unexpected or even antithetical to everything I’ve just said about what this book is about. Yet if you look at some of the Valentino artefacts—films, fan magazines, and newspaper articles—one can detect a historical female spectatorship shaped by both identifications with and desires for the feminized matinee idol. These spectatorial relations are often associated with Valentino’s negation of cross-sex desire, whether through his on-screen relationships with mannish or asexual female figures, or his off-screen relationships with well-known sapphists. The spectatorial possibilities that accrue to Valentino are suggestive of the unpredictable but also generative possibilities of the Hollywood star system by which the seeming impossibility of desire between women might register in more diffuse terms as a kind of recognizable queer affect or structure of feeling. The book argues that these and other elements of Valentino’s contradictory image comprise a more obscure fantasmatic supporting female same-sex desire and a new kind of sexual identity that could be shared by women and men.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
It’s hard to predict how a book will be received and what individual readers will take away from it. I do hope that it will make readers think more about how it is that certain figures represented on screen are understood as sexual in the first place, and then in terms of a specific sexual category. Such seemingly easy interpretations are the culmination of an array of sexual knowledges, practices of viewing and reading, and aesthetic forms that extend well beyond cinema itself. In one sense what the book argues is that the sexual intelligibility of such figures has a longer history when seen in the context of late nineteenth-century cultures of performance and visuality, and their intersections with new scientific and medical discourses and practices of reading the body. In other words, the recognition of specific figures as lesbian is only the most visible but belated effect of modern sexuality. I have to mention one other ‘myth’ that the book seeks to dispel: that one can undertake a history of the emergence of lesbian sexuality in early cinema without considering its more privileged ‘other’, heterosexuality. One of my claims is that the visibility of lesbian figures in early cinema by the late 1920s masks the historicity of heterosexuality as modern sexual discourse and identity formation.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
I find this hard to say so let me suggest two basic ideas. First, that film scholars should always be thinking about and re-evaluating historiographical methods, even of the most simplest kind, in light of the pervasiveness of sexuality’s effects. Second, the erotic modalities of early cinema are different to those of the present and part of the excitement of working with the archive is to recover not an erotics or identities continuous with our own in the present, but rather other—queer—ways of being in the world enabled by early cinema that we have since forgotten.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I have diverse tastes and probably don’t want to admit to everything that I read, watch or listen to for fun, but I do shamelessly love the TV show “Queer Eye,” even while I know quite well its template formula, lux branding, and US centred-ness. It is cruelly optimistic (as Lauren Berlant might say), and that optimism is tied to the possibility, however compromised, that popular culture can be a location for utopian thinking and feeling. I’m also lucky that what I watch for my work can also be incredibly fun. I recently viewed the restored version of Filibus (1915) which screened at the 5th EYE International Conference, that hosted the 10th Women and the Silent Screen. (For transparency I should mention that I’m Past President of Women and Film History International, the umbrella organization that helps facilitate the Women and the Silent Screen conferences.) A heady cross between a Tin Tin cartoon and a Nancy Drew murder mystery, Filibus is absolutely mesmerizing, the perfect amalgam of early cinema’s planar styles of mise-en-scène, delicate color palettes, and themes of crime and deception. And of course the figure of Filibus, the cross-dressing sky pirate, seems ready-made for queer appropriation.