I’m well aware, particularly as a historian, of how fortunate I am to be living as a queer woman in this time and place. With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I could openly serve as a gay woman in the military; Lawrence v. Texas assures that I won’t get arrested for having sex; I’m protected from hate crimes under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; and with the Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges this summer, we won the right to get married.
But what I hadn’t thought about until today is that I can also add to that list: my novels can have happy endings.
The genre of the lesbian romance novel is far older than I am, with roots tracing back to Sappho herself. But starting with Tereska Torres’ Women’s Barracks (1950), the publication world witnessed a near flood of lesbian-themed novels. The latter half of the decade and the early 1960s is now considered “the golden age” of lesbian pulp fiction.
In hindsight, the timing is unexpected. Post-World War II America was strife with internal anxieties. America had come out of the second World War as a world power, but new worries plagued the nation: would Rosie the Riveter go back to the kitchen? Would Communist Russia overcome the Democratic West? Would lesbians steal everyone’s girlfriends? Popular fiction about all-female institutions like sororities, prison, and military barracks highlighted the uneasiness about gender roles, but because of the taboo nature of lesbian relationships, the pulps found an eager reading audience. By 1975, Torres’ Barracks had sold 2.5 million copies.
With the exception of a handful of women writers, the majority of the lesbian pulps were written by men, many writing under feminine or gender-neutral pseudonyms to appear more authentic. But a few female authors became celebrities in their own right: Ann Bannon, Artemis Smith, Della Martin, Marijane Meaker, Valerie Taylor, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Paula Christian, just to name a few.
What sets this genre of literature apart from what came before and what came after (besides the outrageous book titles and cover illustrations) is the overwhelming number of unhappy endings. To avoid censorship, publishers made sure that in the final chapters, the lesbian characters must repent, change their ways, or suffer the consequences. These were not romance novels; they were titillating morality tales that labeled queer women as “mannish,” “deviant,” and “perverse.” The pulps were important to queer visibility and community building, but they were also dangerous.
Enter The Price of Salt.
In 1952, Patricia Highsmith, writing under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, penned the novel The Price of Salt. It was her second novel (Strangers on a Train - 1951), but her first dealing with the romantic relationship between two women. Highsmith later recalled that she wrote the story after seeing a beautiful, mysterious woman in a store whom she briefly stalked afterwards.
Not only is Highsmith’s writing and storytelling superb, but the novel has the distinction of being the first commercial pulp to contain a sympathetic portrayal of lesbianism in which the female characters do not go crazy, die in a tragic car accident, or marry a man at the end of the story.
You can imagine, then, my anxiety and excitement when I heard that Highsmith’s novel was being turned into a movie.
We all know what lesbian films are usually like: mom jeans, over-acting, forced dialogue, and inexplicably dated soundtracks. But when I’d heard that Cate Blanchett had been cast as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese, I dared to believe that this might actually be a decent movie. And with each new nugget we’re offered as the film comes closer to its release date, with each new nibble we receive of what the final product will look like, my anxiety slips away and transforms into wide-eyed hope.
The new extended trailer makes me ache with anticipation. This might finally be the lesbian film we deserve.
Is it November yet?