Since the early 1980s (when B. Ruby Rich’s “From Repressive Tolerance to Erotic Liberation” first appeared) Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931) has enjoyed canonization as a lesbian film classic, all the more remarkable for having been made by a female director, Leontine Sagan, in Weimar Germany. Rich’s early essay, written at the dawn of gay and lesbian criticism, spends much of its time trying to convince people that Mädchen in Uniform even is a lesbian film; seen today, the film’s sapphic sexual tension feels so thick that it’s a wonder people ever needed convincing. This is a movie set entirely within the world of a militant boarding school for girls (with nary a single male actor to be seen, it might make an interesting double bill with George Cukor’s The Women ) in which a rebellious young charge named Manuela develops an intense passion for the kindest and most humane of the school’s teachers, Fraulein von Bernburg. Shockingly, the attraction is mutual, and both Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg find themselves moved to defend their feelings for one another to the school’s sadistic, dictatorial principal (pictured above).
The principal, addressed as “Fraulein Oberin,” is cruel, severe, humorless, and unfeminine. Her only pleasure appears to derive from wielding administrative authority over both her teachers and students. She’s part of a long line of what Judith Halberstam has called “predatory butches”—prison matrons, headmistresses and governesses who are all the more terrifying to straight audiences for having sublimated their “natural” femininity into a fascistic will to power. Other noteworthy predatory butches include the calisthenics instructor in G. W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1928), Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), Hope Emerson in Caged (1950), Stella Stevens in Chained Heat (1980), and Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). While they appear to be virtually asexual, however, it’s telling that they often turn up in homoerotically charged, or at the very least homosocially organized, environments such as women’s boarding schools or prisons (and what is Mädchen in Uniform if not a women-in-prison movie, really?). Uninterested in men, they spend most of their on-screen time locked in psychic battles of will with other women, and yet their very butchness virtually guarantees that they will also be written out of the lesbian narrative that a film like Mädchen dares to provide for its femme characters. At the end of Mädchen, teacher and student reconcile while Fraulein Oberin skulks away into the shadows, alone. A true queer villain, her sexuality isn’t even made tangible enough to vilify; it registers as an outright absence. Rich reads the film solely in terms of its validation of lesbian love between Manuela and Fraulein von Bernburg, but we should also pay attention to how other sexualities in the film are marked and delineated. What is the sexuality of a figure like Fraulein Oberin? Of Hope Emerson’s character in Caged? Of Disney’s Maleficent? How can we begin to read the absences that structure these characters’ sexualities? The predatory butch sulks in her lair, waiting for a queer criticism of her own.