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The evil lesbian

The evil lesbian


Judi Dench breathes new life into a stereotype we used to hate.

Christmas present or lump of coal? That's the question many gay filmgoers may be asking themselves after watching Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal. On one hand, we have a big Oscar hopeful from a big studio with a big star (Judi Dench) playing a lesbian, with the film told from her perspective. On the other hand, the role does not in any way fit the notion of a politically correct gay character. Does this represent a new trend in film, in which gay characters are allowed to have flaws and even come off as unsympathetic? Or, at its worst, does it simply perpetuate negative stereotypes?

In Notes, Dench plays Barbara Covett, a career schoolteacher who looks upon her students and colleagues alike with barely disguised antipathy. This is a woman who's long given up on lesson plans and encouraging bromides--that is, until the arrival of the new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a blond beauty who sticks out at the cold, gray institution like a sidewalk flower. Immediately, Barbara finds herself drawn to the young woman and begins to use any trick at her disposal--especially her discovery that Sheba's been carrying on an affair with one of her underage students--to draw the art teacher closer to her.

That Dench's character is a lesbian in the throes of a powerful crush is something that is slowly revealed over the course of the film--and is, indeed, left out of the press materials altogether. Instead, her Barbara Covett is characterized mostly by breathtaking cruelty, vicious voice-over, and a desire so all-consuming that it borders on sociopathic (despite Dench's nuanced rendition). This on-screen presentation of a lesbian protagonist is something of a cultural mixed bag. The question is whether gay audiences will embrace the character's complexity or reject her as nothing more than the resuscitation of a time-honored trope.

"What sounds most provocative about Notes is its fusion of two of the oldest lesbian stereotypes: the predatory lesbian and the repressed schoolteacher," says cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich. "But is this progress? I suspect lesbian audiences will be happy to sign on to the pursuit--under whatever identification it's offered--of Cate Blanchett! But I also suspect that the price of inhabiting the twisted straitjacket that the screenwriter has designed for Judi Dench is going to make even that pursuit a bitter pill to swallow."

The film's distributor is no doubt hoping gays will respond as they did to 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, wherein a gay sociopath was met not with catcalls or boycotts but rather an $81 million domestic gross and a place in many gay men's DVD collections. Even 1992's Basic Instinct, in which Sharon Stone's bisexual killer infuriated many LGBT filmgoers and organizations, relied on that same audience 14 years later to shore up its campy sequel. Notes can claim that same camp allure--between Dench's clumsy come-ons and the thrill of seeing her play so against type, there's a lot to howl at here. And for gay audiences used to the saintly, buttoned-up gay lawyers of Philadelphia and Will & Grace, I suspect Notes on a Scandal will provide a bracing alternative.

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Kyle Buchanan