Watching movies with lesbian storylines, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there is only one way for queer women to have sex. Is scissoring the best the cinema can offer, or can filmmakers cut new and more complex representations of female sexuality?
There was considerable and understandable disappointment, if not quite outrage, when it was announced that The Handmaiden, a film with queer women as protagonists, was to be adapted and directed by a cis, heterosexual man. And not just any cis, heterosexual man but Park Chan-Wook, Korean cinema's master of the extreme violence.
There has been criticism in particular of the inevitable male gaze inherent in a story about queer women, not just any story either but a meta-narrative about representation and breaking out of the male gaze itself. The bulk of this has landed on the sex scenes in The Handmaiden, drawing parallels with the reaction to Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Ketiche, 2013) Critics have argued that sex scenes between women are frequently manufactured for the pleasure of straight men, further denying queer women representation. But with The Handmaiden, this critique seems misplaced, missing the wealth of self-awareness that is to be found in Park's film, whilst also being disconcertingly dismissive of femme representation.
A concise summary can be found in Shannon Keating's Buzzfeed article, "Why Do We Keep Seeing So Much Scissoring in Lesbian Sex Scenes?" Whilst there are valid, saliently made points throughout, her characterisation of The Handmaiden doesn’t quite ring true. Keating concedes that two out of the three sex scenes in The Handmaiden are pretty good and actually move the plot forward. However, she writes that, "[Every] sex scene manages... to reify stale tropes about lesbian fornication – including a silly over emphasis on scissoring — all of which are bothersome distractions from an otherwise spellbinding film... [These] sorts of sex scenes position female bodies as gorgeous objects: metaphorical stand-ins for questions about art, beauty, and the dark side of desire."
I'm not one for getting out my stopwatch in the cinema, but the sex scene she’s talking about isn't that long, so it’s hard to see how it has a 'silly overemphasis' on scissoring. What struck me instead was the knowingness with which it was shot, with an awareness of male-gaze criticism, linked to a wider knowingness of framing and perspectives that threads deftly through the film. Keating frames the symmetry of Hideko and Soon-Hee's bodies during sex scenes as though femme presentation is only pleasurable for the heterosexual male gaze. They are merely "gorgeous objects;” interchangeable. This is a reductive response to the variety of possible queer female expressions, most immediately femme expression.
The scissoring scene cuts between the faces of main characters Soon-Hee and Hideko as they grip their hands together, supporting each other as they grind. Hideko acts the ingenue but is skilled in her sexual acts. Their movement into scissoring actually prompts Soon-hee to comment with wonder that Hideko is a natural, implying that there is an awareness between the characters that this is no ordinary sex act, an acknowledgement by the film that scissoring is something advanced and beyond the everyday. Furthermore, it deliberately references pornography, hinting at Hideko's past, when she was forced to perform erotica to audiences of rich men under the behest of her misogynist, sadist uncle. We expect that they will climax - but the scene ends well before that point.
Keating asks incredulously, Whose sex lives actually looks like that? If you're looking to The Handmaiden for a mirror of real life, you will be sorely disappointed. This is a story about stories, about the tricksy nature of truth, not a demonstration of fact.
When the two women swap clothes and pretend to be each other in another scene, Hideko comments that Soon-Hee could 'pass' as a member of a different class. Presentation is slippery and malleable, and role reversal is a theme that chimes throughout the film. If we are to read their positioning in the male gaze, as Keating does, and assume that the women are somehow interchangeable through their similar looks, we imply a lack of individual self and a sense of worthlessness. It is a bold inference, when it can just as easily be read that Hideko and Soon-Hee are recognising each other as allies and lovers in a primarily visual medium that is telling a story that plays with literal interpretation.
The Handmaiden is by no means the worst offender in manifesting of the male gaze, instead by turns a lush, wry and funny return to form for Park. There is a palpable disappointment in what could have been if it had been in the hands of a lesbian director, however aware and talented the man who happened to have directed it happens to be. Despite this, The Handmaiden remains a prime example of art that recognises the limitations of framing but in doing so, also shows the expanse of interpretation available within the many frames of one film.
Words: Emily Morgan
Translation: Jia Tao
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