Book Smarts

New academic tomes explore diverse film genres

Book Smarts

The Girls in the Back Room: Looking at the Lesbian Bar

by Kelly Hankin

University of Minnesota Press, 248pp., $18.95 (paper)

Far less juicy than its title inevitably suggests, this perspicacious survey of the representations of lesbian bars in film is about one degree removed from its origin as Hankin's dissertation at the University of Rochester. Rigorously academic and broad in its scope, with brief forays into the world of lesbian pulp fiction and the ethnography of gay bars, Girls takes a bifurcated approach to the depictions of lesbian bars. The first half describes representations in "straight" cinema, with a chapter-long (and probably excessive) focus on the first appearance of an authentic lesbian bar in a Hollywood production shot on location -- in Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George (1967). The latter half examines the bar scene in lesbian-produced films. This approach gives Girls a disjointed feel, as if it weren't constructed around a particular thesis. However, the individual chapters are thoroughly researched but not impenetrably pedantic. The first chapter, by far the most engaging, traces the image of the lesbian watering hole from the 1930s to Chasing Amy and the Lifetime Network. Hankin argues convincingly that in mainstream commercial media, the lesbian bar is consistently depicted as accessible by and liberating for heterosexuals, especially women (in feel-good comedies like The First Wives Club and Boys on the Side, as well as television shows like Sex and the City). It's an ambitious argument, credibly exposing the heterosexist perspective of Hollywood, but it is all but set aside for the rest of the book in favor of overly lengthy discussions of more obscure material. The third chapter dwells excessively on "Badass Supermama," a 16-minute video production that marries lesbian-bar footage from the Pam Grier blaxploitation opuses Sheba, Baby, and Foxy Brown with voice-over and effects by filmmaker Etang Inyang, who articulates her desire for Grier and rejects the films' homophobic messages. "Badass Supermama" is intriguing, but Hankin bogs down in an explanation of Laura Mulvey's well-worn remarks about the masculine gaze (with which an academic audience is likely familiar), and her focus simply seems too narrow. Girls is not designed for plain folks searching for deep thoughts on mass culture (or gay culture, for that matter), but for a much smaller audience of tenure-seeking film scholars.

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