Professor’s lecture questions portrayal of lesbians in cinema

Cat Zakrzewski

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At an event Thursday called “Sex at the Movies,” Prof. Nick Davis explored how Hollywood resists direct portrayals of lesbian relationships, particularly in the 2010 film “Black Swan,” the box office and critical success directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Northwestern University’s Undergraduate Gender Studies Advisory Committee organized the event, held at Annie May Swift Hall.

“We wanted to choose a movie that had been a broad cultural frenzy,” said Cat Hammond, a Communication senior who helped plan the event.

About 40 people from the NU community, Evanston and Chicago attended.

Davis emphasized the industry’s history of portraying lesbian relationships in figurative and indirect ways, citing many movies with parallels to “Black Swan” throughout the 20th century.

In “Black Swan,” Davis said, the audience constantly questions if what they are watching on the screen is reality or just inside the mind of the protagonist Nina, played by Natalie Portman, as she struggles to achieve perfection as a ballerina. In fact, it is not even clear if the co-star of the film, Lily, portrayed by Mila Kunis, even exists, Davis said.

“It’s kind of a disappointing lesbian drama, or even a disappointing erotic drama, when you can’t even be sure if one of the characters exists or whether she’s had any of the experiences that we have seen,” Davis said.

One of the surreal moments of the film, Davis said, is its sex scene between Portman and Kunis. The film implies that the scene occurs entirely in the character’s mind, and when Portman’s character later addresses her fantasy, Kunis’ character simply responds, “Was I good?”

Elizabeth Foster, who coordinates special events at McCormick, decided to attend the event after reading Davis’ blog.

“I think the whole idea behind what we will accept as a lesbian film stood out to me,” said Foster.

Although Davis said he originally wouldn’t have chosen “Black Swan” for a talk about sex himself, he likes to see how “ardent” his students are about the film and often sees it come up in his classes.

“One thing you can get away with by deciding to make a movie that hints at or conjures a kind of crypto-lesbian relationship in Hollywood is that you’re allowed to get speaking parts for two women, which is actually incredibly hard to do,” Davis said.