By Jacob Engelberg
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of reflections on the political aesthetics of 1980s inclusive queer feminisms, alongside Jenn Thompson’s essay on REBEL DYKES, Irenosen Okojie’s meditation on A PLACE OF RAGE, and Lucy Howie’s reading of A PRAYER BEFORE BIRTH. We’d also include the Culture Club conversation between filmmakers Lizzie Borden and Jessie Rovinelli, which speaks to the resonances between then and now, and why it’s important to value and re-evaluate the radical work of the 1980s.
Club des Femmes screened SHE MUST BE SEEING THINGS at the ICA in 2015, as part of our Feminist Film Wiki-a-Thon, and we continue to hope/agitate for a UK DVD release! If you’re based in North America, She Must Be Seeing Things is currently available on US (Region 1) DVD from First Run Features for the unbelievable price of $2.99! You can stream She Must Be Seeing Things via Kanopy with a US public library card or university login.
She Must Be Seeing Men
Where Sheila McLaughlin’s 1987 lesbian-feminist film She Must Be Seeing Things goes, heated discussions follow. A film forged within political, social, and theoretical debates around feminism, women’s filmmaking, lesbian identity, and desire, Seeing Things tackles head-on issues that were animating lesbian-feminist thinking in its contemporary setting. The film doesn’t, however, provide simple answers to the questions of power, gender, desire, and paranoia that it raises. Instead, Seeing Things stays with the tensions and contradictions around these issues, giving form to them in ways that have proven, over time, both alluring and troubling.
Seeing Things tells the story of Agatha, who is staying at her lover Jo’s apartment in New York while she is out of town. There, she finds Jo’s old diary, which chronicles the men with whom Jo has had sex. Following this discovery, Agatha begins to suspect that Jo is cheating on her with a man. Agatha’s paranoia begins to take over to the point that she thinks she sees Jo behaving romantically with men, but she cannot be sure. Neither can we. As Agatha is thrown into perceptual turmoil, so too are we as viewers, to such an extent that we no longer know if we can believe what we see.
In July of 1988, excerpts of Seeing Things were screened at the Lesbian Summer School in London. At the event, rumours circulated that the film contained “brutal scenes of lesbian sado-masochism… heterosexual rape… violence against women.”1 When the screening began, some participants tried to rip the film from the projector.2 Unsuccessful in their attempts, a group of women, including Sheila Jeffreys, set up what they called a “Porn-Free Zone,” a safe space away from this troublesome film.3 Seven months later, strong reactions to the film in the UK showed no signs of waning upon the announcement that Seeing Things would be screened at the Manchester Cornerhouse. In the weeks leading up to the film’s theatrical release, the cinema’s fire alarms were set off in a series of protests, and when the film began its run, it was met with pickets, ambushes of the stage, and a bomb hoax.4 At a cinema in Bradford, cement was poured down a toilet in protest at the film being shown.5
What was it about Seeing Things that caused such impassioned reactions? Was a misogynistic, lesbophobic film masquerading beneath the pretence of lesbian-feminist cinema? If we return to the film itself, it’s plain to see that the whisperings around it prove either inaccurate or exaggerated: as Cherry Smyth recalls, “the film was never marketed as a lesbian SM film, and indeed those who went to see it as such were bitterly disappointed”.6 It’s no coincidence that, beyond the film’s depiction of sex between a woman and a man, the other issues with which film’s detractors took umbrage were things the same lesbian-feminist thinkers considered indelibly heterosexual. Butch/femme, S/M, menswear, and powerplay were, for thinkers like Janice Raymond, “male power modes”.7For Raymond, as for Jeffreys, lesbianness must exist in strict opposition to their notion of heterosexuality, which is understood to be insurmountably patriarchal. Where strict divisions between gay and straight are sought, bisexual trouble lurks. The threat spelled by the presence of desire towards men in lesbian space can’t accurately be described as heterosexuality; instead, it’s the threat of a bisexual amalgam of desires in a body once assumed to be lesbian. If we take a closer look, we can begin to discern what’s likely to have sparked the reactionary hyperbole around the film: its treatment of female bisexuality.
Between the late-1960s and the 1990s, lesbian-feminist movements flourished across Western Europe, North America, and Australasia. Although the political and ideological beliefs of these movements diverged, a recurrent issue observable across these disparate contexts was female bisexuality. The root of this supposed problem can be found in the belief of some in political lesbianism, which generally refers to the idea that lesbianism or ‘woman-identification’ – directing one’s social, romantic, and cultural attentions towards other women – is essential to feminist liberation as praxis. A woman who retains her attraction towards men would thus fall short of this credo.
Jeffreys is most emphatic in her articulation of this politics, contending that “The choice to love only women resists a fundamental principle enforced by male supremacy… that of man-loving. Gay men, heterosexual women, bisexual women, heterosexual men, all love men. They are conformists.”8 Elizabeth Reba Weise describes this position, which characterises bisexual women as ignorant to their oppression: “they were merely women who hadn’t yet overcome the false consciousness of thinking they chose to be with men.”9 These convictions are taken to what are perhaps their logical end by Marilyn Murphy, who deduces that “Women who call themselves ‘bisexual’…are the only women who are really heterosexual. They are the only women who chose to relate to men after having known and experienced a non-compulsory alternative.”10
In this context, suspicions emerged towards bisexual women and their commitment to lesbian-feminist politics or community. We might recall key moments from American lesbian-feminist cinema in which characters convey these ideological positions. In Cheryl Dunye’s The Potluck and the Passion (1993), Meaghan is irked at her lover Tracy’s flirting with a woman who had dated a man while holidaying in Liberia. “She’s not even a lesbian!”, Meagan jeers. In Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994), lesbian Daria sleeps with her male friend and imagines a kangaroo court of women interrogating her for her transgression. It’s instructive that films by Dunye and Troche – filmmakers renowned for their dry and self-referential portraits of lesbian community – feature memorable appearances of anxieties around female bisexuality.
It’s important to note, however, that these anxieties around bisexual women aren’t intrinsic to all lesbian-feminist politics; indeed, some of the most vehement critics of lesbian-feminist biphobia, like Amber Ault and Sharon-Dale Stone, are lesbian women aligned with lesbian-feminism.11 Nevertheless, perusing historical accounts of bisexual women in lesbian-feminist communities, it’s obvious that many were treated with disdain, suspicion, or – as Elizabeth Armstrong and Jan Clausen’s writing attests to – complete excommunication.12 As bisexual theorist Clare Hemmings writes, paranoia around the “bisexual double-agent” in lesbian space “is the fear of infiltration, the fear that the secrets of lesbian subculture will be sold to the dominant heterosexual culture at the price of a one-night stand.”13 This is the sociopolitical context in which She Must Be Seeing Things must be seen.
When Agatha discovers Jo’s diary, the effect is disorienting. In one scene, Agatha reads the diary as both she and the camera pivot around a fulcrum, the apartment moving around her as she is centred in the frame. This is the film’s first and most defamiliarising break with cinematic conventions of spatial continuity; the impossible movement of the apartment around Agatha disorients a viewer just as Agatha’s perception of Jo is being disoriented.
Queer theorist Sara Ahmed writes that ‘becoming lesbian’ involves “a reorientation of one’s body” away from the axes of straight culture and towards lesbian objects.14 This reorientation recalls what Clare Hemmings terms the “due process of repudiation” involved in becoming gay or straight: the dominant sexual identities are made meaningful through the rejection of one or other gender.15 It’s apt, then, that in Seeing Things, the film makes a dizzying 360-degree panorama of space that has previously been cut out, at the same time that the men from Jo’s past make a dizzying return. Evidence of bisexual desire produces a contrapuntal cinematic disruption.
Later, Agatha is looking out her office window when she thinks she sees Jo romantically entangled with a man. When Agatha rushes down to the street, she finds that the woman in question is not, in fact, Jo, but a woman who looks similar to her. Agatha’s discovery of Jo’s bisexuality has begun to affect her perception of the world. Similarly to the previous scene, Agatha’s frenzied perspective affects the film’s form itself. As she misrecognises someone else for Jo, so too do we as viewers. Here, the film performs a kind of bait-and-switch—using two different actors to play the same woman (one of whom is the director McLaughlin herself in an irreverent cameo). By making us confuse fantasy with reality, Seeing Things places us, vicariously, in the position of the lesbian woman paranoid over her partner’s bisexuality.
It’s likely that aspects of Seeing Things’s heated reception were related to this portrayal of frenzied paranoia over female bisexuality, its diagnosis of this phenomenon in certain strands of lesbian-feminist thinking and community-making. McLaughlin herself wanted “to try to confront and be iconoclastic towards what have become lesbian feminist taboos… to deal openly with the ultimate lesbian horror, the fantasy of having sex with a man.”16 Implicit here is a questioning of how desire towards men has been afforded such ascendance in the feverish imagination of certain strands of lesbian-feminism, a paranoid projection of what Amber Ault identifies as its own phallocentrism.17 McLaughlin’s audacity lies in her reflexive portrait of the turmoil this kind of perception can engender, a turmoil in which queer friends and lovers alike become the objects of suspicion, lest their desires lead them astray.
Stark parallels can be drawn between the ostracisation of bisexual women in lesbian spaces and the fear-mongering around trans women by today’s so-called ‘gender critical’ movement. Nonbinary queer theorist Judith Butler calls the imagined threat of trans women “a rich fantasy, and one that comes from powerful fears, but it does not describe a social reality.”18 These powerful fears have a strong hold—one rooted in the security afforded by attachment to dominant categories of gender and sexuality. As bisexual and genderqueer scholar Shiri Eisner writes, “the most obvious common ground that bisexuality and transgender share is that of subverting binaries.”19 Within liberal strands of LG(bt+) politics, the binaries of man/woman, gay/straight are reified in order to establish cisgender homosexuality as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. The fear around bisexuality and transness that plagues these spaces of gay community and politics lies in these identities’ attestation of the mutability, nonsingularity, and contingency of both gender and desire. One way in which these troubling potentials has been realised is through film.
In a liberal gay politics of representation, sexuality is understood to be something representable. This approach seeks inclusion within dominant screen culture, a representation of queers commensurate with that which is afforded heterosexuality. McLaughlin’s politics of representation, however, is more radical. A director who began her career with experimental film and worked with the avant-garde Collective for Living Cinema, McLaughlin’s foray into narrative fiction retained a certain avant-gardist sensibility. Where a liberal representational politics states that sexuality must be seen to be believed, Seeing Things rejects this visual logic, asking, instead: What doesn’t the image tell us? What are the limitations of our perception? What import does fantasy yield over our understanding of reality?
When Agatha follows Jo to a meeting she is having with a male coworker, Agatha suspects deception might be afoot. Staring at the two as they meet in a diner, Agatha’s vision blurs as she imagines them leaving and going to fuck in a car. As she snaps back to reality, Agatha realises that she has been imagining things. Jo and her coworker have now left the diner and Agatha is alone, staring at her reflection in the window. The fears with which Agatha comes face to face are her own: that there exist in the world desires that cannot be seen, identities not definitively representable, pasts and futures unknown.
- Susan Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan, “Sex in the Summer of ’88,” Feminist Review 31, no. 1 (1989): 127.
- Veronika Koller, Lesbian Discourses: Images of a Community (Routledge, 2008), 82.
- Cherry Smyth, Lesbians Talk: Queer Notions (Scarlet Press, 1992), 40.
- Sonia Andermatt, “Sheila McLaughlin’s Controversial Film – Back in the News Again,” The Pink Paper 60 (18 February 1989): 6.
- Emma Healey, Lesbian Sex Wars (Virago, 1996), 115-116.
- Smyth, 62.
- Janice G. Raymond, “Putting the Politics Back into Lesbianism,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 1, no. 2 (1997): 273.
- Sheila Jeffreys, “Bisexual Politics: A Superior Form of Feminism?” Women’s Studies International Forum 22, no. 3 (1999): 283.
- Elizabeth Reba Weise (editor), “Introduction,” in Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism (Seal Press, 1993), xii.
- Marilyn Murphy, “Thinking About Bisexuality,” Resources for Feminist Research 19, no. 3-4 (1990): 88.
- Amber Ault, “Hegemonic Discourse in an Oppositional Community: Lesbian Feminist Stigmatization of Bisexual Women,” in Queer Studies: A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Anthology, edited by Brett Beemyn and Mickey Eliason (New York University Press, 1996); Sharon-Dale Stone, “Bisexual Women and the ‘Threat’ to Lesbian Space: Or What If All The Lesbians Leave?” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 16, no. 1 (1996).
- Elizabeth Armstrong, “Traitors to the Cause? Understanding the Lesbian/Gay ‘Bisexuality Debates’,” in Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Visions, edited by Naomi Tucker, Liz Highleyman, and Rebecca Kaplan (Routledge, 1995).
- Clare Hemmings, “Resituating the Bisexual Body: From Identity to Difference,” in Activating Theory: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Politics, edited by Joseph Bristow and Angelia R. Wilson (Lawrence & Wishart, 1993), 130-131.
- Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke University Press, 2006), 100. Ahmed is drawing upon ideas from: Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Indiana University Press, 1994), 300.
- Clare Hemmings, Bisexual Spaces: A Geography of Sexuality and Gender (Routledge, 2002), 25.
- Sheila McLaughlin, interviewed by Alison Butler, “‘She Must Be Seeing Things’: An Interview with Sheila McLaughlin by Alison Butler,” Screen 28, no. 4 (1987): 21-22.
- Ault, 212.
- Judith Butler, interviewed by Alona Ferber, “Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in ‘anti-intellectual times’,” New Statesman (22 September 2020).
- Shiri Eisner, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (Seal Press: 2013), 240.