Academic journal article Framework

Valentino's Lesbianism: Stardom, Spectatorship, and Sexuality in 1920s Hollywood Cinema

Academic journal article Framework

Valentino's Lesbianism: Stardom, Spectatorship, and Sexuality in 1920s Hollywood Cinema

Article excerpt

The demand for the recognition of queer history as a viable practice is charged with a long history of similar claims for the viability of certain "hard to believe" modes of existence and desire.

-Heather Love, Feeling Backward

At first sight, this essay's title might seem to invoke a fantasy in the sense of a whimsical historical fiction or even an unconscious critical wish-possibilities that haunt much queer history and historiography-since the 1920s matinée idol Rudolph Valentino is most commonly identified not with lesbianism but with a hyperbolical heterosexuality. The most well-known Orientalist romances that book-end his brief but volatile Hollywood career-The Sheik (George Melford, US, 1921) and The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice, US, 1926)-are often considered key film texts that first establish and then systematically sustain the male actor as heterosexual erotic spectacle. This reading of Valentino's stardom is frequently buttressed by evidence of his extraordinary capacity to mobilize an audience seemingly dominated by women, a phenomenon of central interest to feminist film scholars concerned with the historical and gendered dimensions of cinema spectatorship.1 Miriam Hansen summarizes concisely the gendered aspects of Valentino's stardom and spectatorship and its significance in the history of Hollywood cinema: "Never before was the discourse on fan behavior so strongly marked by the terms of sexual difference, and never again was spectatorship so explicitly linked to the discourse on female desire."2 The over-determined quality of those discourses that Hansen draws attention to indicates the extent to which Valentino's disparate star image-both dominant and submissive screen lover, hyper-masculine and androgynous erotic spectacle, alternately sadistic and masochistic romantic lead-disturbed normative, predominantly white, middle-class conceptualizations and ideals of sexual difference and desire. While as a potent fantasy figure Valentino often confounded certain structural differences organizing dominant cross-gendered sexual culture, his heterogeneous image also made other forms of desire and erotic identification visually legible. Kenneth Anger, author of the now classic camp text Hollywood Babylon, was perhaps the first to reclaim Valentino as gay icon.3 Recently, Anger's suggestive, fan-based perspective has been more explicitly historicized by Mark Lynn Anderson, who recuperates for Valentino spectatorship the fairies and queer men of urban same-sex cultures.4 But the multifaceted nature of Valentino's stardom is not just a matter of acknowledging the historical context of his erotic appeal for male audiences and its difference from present cultural architectures of homosexuality. As I argue in this essay, Valentino's stardom also generated a specific queer appeal for his female audiences, one that permitted the recognition not only of desire between women but also of an interest in same-sex eroticism that could be shared by both women and men, manifested as a sexual identity held in common.

One of the more productive interventions in recent film studies scholarship that has enabled thinking about the possibility of such historical spectatorships has been the recourse to fantasy.5 As Patricia White notes in her study Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, fantasy "allows us to detach processes of identification and desire-which are both involved but which are not collapsed-from an assumed correspondence between spectator and like-gendered character, an ideology of sexual difference governed by a heterosexual teleology even more relentless than that of Hollywood."6 By loosening the determinative hold of what have tended to be totalizing and heteronormative accounts of identification, sexual desire, and subject formation, fantasy theory is able to preserve a sense of contingency, variability, and contradiction in the formation of modern sexual subjectivities. …

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