This past Monday, September 12th, marked the seven year anniversary of the day that I publicly came out as transgender. The date being so close to 9/11 is merely a coincidence, but it does mean that every year while people are thinking about how the world changed, I’m usually in a bit of deeply self-centered reflection on how I changed my own world, and the nature of being out, both as a transgender person and as a lesbian.
This year those thoughts really came into focus around the Todd Haynes film Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel The Price of Salt. Towards the end of last year, I’d begun a desire to consume more queer media, especially things written about and for queer women. I’d begun reading The Price of Salt on the recommendation of a friend, without knowing that it was the source material for Carol. About halfway through reading it, I discovered the film’s nature and decided to go see it.
The thing is, as much as I liked the book, I found it very frustrating at times and it took me until seeing the movie to understand why. I had tried to express it to my friend, comedian and writer Guy Branum sort of my “gay dad,” who I talk to for worldly advice when it comes to all things queer. My issue with the book was that the protagonist, Therese (played by Rooney Mara in the film) was extremely hard for me to relate to. A young woman living in the big city, falling in love with another woman for the first time. It was a portrait of what my life could have been, I thought. Guy was able to nip that sinking feeling in the bud though. “Most of us didn’t have that.” And he’s right, very few people of my generation were able to have that. When I was home visiting Ohio earlier this month, I thought about my high school years, and how I have connected with so many folks who have come out as LGBT since then, but none of us knew about each other at the time. One of them is even a woman I dated in our twenties, but that’s a digression I don’t have the space for right now. The point is, only one boy that I knew of was openly gay in high school in our suburban Ohio town in the late ’90s.
Carol isn’t the late ’90s. It’s the ’50s. We didn’t start talking about people being gay in my town until Ellen Degeneres came out. Ellen wasn’t even born until 1958. Therese isn’t a young cool urban lesbian, she’s the same isolated lonely queer suburban girl that I was, because in that era, even New York might as well have been the edge of a sprawl in Ohio. The brick-throwers of Stonewall were still babies themselves, if they’d even been born yet at all. It was a point when Highsmith had to publish the novel under a pseudonym, lest it harm her career as successful suspense writer whose works were adapted by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. The version of the book I read even included a post-script about the subculture of mid-century lesbian pulp-novels, beacons of connection in a storm of social indifference.
When I finally saw the movie, it was clear to me that my issue with the book was not with Therese but with Carol. Because the book is written so tightly from the perspective of Therese, about an infatuation that was almost autobiographical to Highsmith, Carol looms large on the page, an almost mythical figure of a crush, elusive, with walls that may never be scaled. This may have changed for me if I had read further into the novel before seeing the movie, but the movie solved the issue for me entirely.
Seeing the movie, I realized that the character in this story that I relate to is not Therese, but Carol. In Haynes’ quiet, cold narrative, we can see the attraction Therese has for the older woman from outside of her, and we’re able to also see Carol as the human being that she is from the beginning. In the hands of Cate Blanchett, she’s not this larger than life lesbian temptress. We can see Carol immediately for who she really is, a middle aged housewife who has only recently discovered that she’s gay through a brief affair with her best friend Abby (played by site crush Sarah Paulson), and for whom Therese is also the first woman she’s truly fallen in love with. She’s the woman who has lived a carefully constructed lie for so long that she’s built a life around it and now must wrestle with the consequences of the truth upon that life.
This all happens in the novel too, but it happens off the page, it’s things that Therese learns about, it’s what she is told about Carol, and thus what we are told through her. Carol is Therese’s Manic Pixie Dream Divorcee. The novel is about Therese’s journey to discovering that she’s a lesbian, but the movie is about their separate journeys towards finding each other, and of finding themselves in a world where there is no map.
Riley Silverman would totally have stuck with Sarah Paulson.