12.02.2012

The homosexual in the text: Susannah York as Alice McNaught in "The Killing of Sister George" (1968)



With Robert Aldrich’s lesbian melodrama The Killing of Sister George (1968) we return to the question of representation.  The lesbian characters in the film would seem to fall into neat homophobic types: the possessive, aggressive butch; the chic, cold vampiress; the little-girl femme.  It’s that last character that I want to think about here.  Alice (Susannah York), known as “Childie” to her (female) live-in lover George, is a waiflike would-be poetess prone to wearing nighties and talking to her dolls.  If her given name brings to mind Lewis Carroll—and late in the film, donning a long-haired wig with a headband, she even begins to resemble Alice in Wonderland—her nickname further infantilizes her; George calls her “Childie” not only out of affection, but also to enforce an imbalance of power between them.  They live as a parody of the normative family, as wife and female husband and, at the same time, as incestuous parent and child.  

The notion that the femme lesbian is just a little girl who has yet to grow up is bound to unsettle modern audiences.  But as I mentioned in my introductory post, I want to think about how we such representations might be useful instead of simply repellant.  Judith Halberstam has already made a case for the value of The Killing of Sister George for butch lesbian viewers by reading its evocation of various gay stereotypes as “part of the film’s general preoccupation with roles, performances, and theatricality.”  I would like to take my reading in a slightly different direction by suggesting that the film reveals—whether intentionally or not—the extent to which homosexuality is often constructed as a pathetic re-enactment of parent-child roles, as opposed to the “natural” parenting that is the business of reproductive heterosexuality. 

In this sense, The Killing of Sister George should remind us of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which Maggie’s “failure” to bear a child by Brick becomes the very sign of his queerness; Victim, with its representations of male homosexuality as grounded in pederastic (upper-class) man/(lower-class) boy relationships; and The Children’s Hour, in which we’re led to believe that Audrey Hepburn isn’t really a lesbian because she wants to have children, unlike Shirley MacLaine, who not only doesn’t express any wish to have children but also signifies as a child (and almost ends up being adopted by Hepburn and James Garner).  Children thus act as signifiers for homosexuality, in the sense that to be a homosexual is to be stuck in a state of arrested development, at the same time that they signify the proof of heterosexual intercourse: to have a child is to no longer be a child.  Sister George complicates this when, at the end of the film, George calls “Childie’s” bluff by revealing that as a teenager she gave birth to a child out of wedlock.  This would-be little girl is not a little girl at all—she is a mother.  This neat reversal doesn’t necessarily make Sister George a “progressive” film or one that espouses “positive” representations of lesbianism.  It does something far more interesting: namely, inspire us to see the extent to which, as Lee Edelman and Kathryn Bond Stockton have pointed out, a child often lurks in the background of discourses of homosexuality.

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