(Not) queering “white vision” in Far from Heaven and Transamerica
by Rebecca Scherr
Todd Haynes’ 2002 award-winning period piece, Far from Heaven, is set in 1957 United States, an era characterized as repressive and conformist. The film juxtaposes the impossibility of consummating heterosexual, black/white interracial romance to the almost, but not quite, impossible step of taking on a homosexual identity. This double tension is personified in the Whitakers, an affluent white couple living in Hartford, Connecticut. In the narrative, Cathy Whitaker falls for the black gardener Raymond Deagan, who tends the family’s yard, while her husband Frank tries but fails to overcome his desire for men. Each scene that depicts either interracial romance or homosexuality doubles back and comments on the other, although these twin themes rarely occupy the same scene visually. Instead, they are tied through match-dissolves, cross-cuts, and inference.
Midway through the film, for example, the Whitakers host their annual company party, and for this social circle whiteness, wealth, and reproductive heterosexuality are the implicit norms. As spectators, we are already well aware of the Whitakers’ struggles with their taboo desires. When one of the party guests declares, in a conversation centered on the topic of school desegregation, that the violence unleashed in response to integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, could never happen in Hartford, his absurd reasoning is as follows:
“There’re no negroes [here]!”
The irony is that all evening he has been served by a black man. The camera pans to this waiter, who clearly hears this remark yet continues to serve the guests. The camera also briefly pans the Whitakers’ black maid, Sybil, also serving the guests. This is but one example of the way the film codes class in racial terms; black characters serve the whites as housekeepers and gardeners, while the wealthy white people treat this service as their inherent right.
Yet not only are race and class difference marked here; much more subtly, homosexuality is the scene’s hidden subtext. The themes of visibility and invisibility invoked in this moment underscore Frank’s narrative. No one at the party would guess that a gay man, indeed one of their very own, mingles among them. Frank, like the black waiters, is simultaneously present and invisible. Thus in this scene relations between visibility and invisibility, public and private, racial difference and homosexuality are meshed on the level of discourse although not on the level of what is actually shown to the viewer. In other words, the apparent focus on racial difference subtly comments on what is not seen or discussed, namely the topic of homosexuality. In this moment, the discourse of racial difference signals homosexuality.
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