11.15.2012

The homosexual in the text: Greta Garbo as "Queen Christina" (1933)



“Positivity and negativity, finally, are obviously not the best standards to use when measuring the political impact of any given representation,” writes Judith Halberstam—commendably—in Female Masculinity.  “We need to be more creative in our interpretations, more willing to use Hollywood, and quicker to ‘queer’ supposedly hegemonic and traditional depictions of masculinity and femininity.”  We might apply this line of thinking to the narrative structure of Queen Christina (dir. Rouben Mamoulian, 1933), in which Greta Garbo gives a downright electrifying performance as the imperious Swedish monarch who abdicates the throne out of love for her paramour, the Spanish envoy Don Antonio (John Gilbert).  Tragically, he is killed in a duel while she is on her way to sail off to with him to Spain; they exchange a final kiss before he dies in her arms.  The final shot of the film (above) depicts her once again alone, sailing aimlessly, looking like the prow of the ship itself, her face impassive.  It seems that she may very well live out her own prophecy of dying “a bachelor.” 

Halberstam does her own reading of Queen Christina, focusing on the gender-bending aspects of Garbo’s persona in the film (which qualifies for Halberstam as that of the “transvestite butch” lesbian) as well as on the queer sexual tension that arises between Christina and Don Antonio while she is disguised as a man.  (Shakespeare’s comedies seem to be the influence here.)  Halberstam’s reading provides us with one alternative to the argument that, because Christina turns from masculine solitude (what she calls “bachelorhood”) to heterosexual romance, becoming a “real woman” in the process, the film is anxiously trying to exorcise the specter of queerness that it has itself raised in its first act.  Halberstam’s advocacy of a queer spectatorship allows us other ways into the film, and accounts for much of the pleasure that such a film can afford queer viewers.  We need not grumble that Christina has thrown over her lady-in-waiting for Don Antonio; their relationship is something of a gender-bender in its own right.

We can also appreciate the film on queer terms by bracketing its narrative sequence of events (in which Christina “goes from” x to y, chromosomologically speaking) and thinking instead about its use of what might be called a queer iconography.  Even after she takes up with Don Antonio, Garbo remains defiantly masculine in her dress and her manner.  Like other contemporary representations of butch lesbianism (ex. Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness), she’s associated with a variety of masculine accoutrements: horses, big dogs, riding clothes, breeches.  That spectacular final shot also underscores her position as a queer loner: men (and women) may come and go, but Christina is fated to remain alone, an intrepid solo traveler.  Brilliant, self-reliant and androgynous, she appears to need no one to complete her; she is man and woman in one.  Whatever the film may try to tell us narratively, visually it associates her with an individualism that remains fundamentally at odds with a marriage plot. 


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