When I heard that Alison Bechdel had been awarded one of this year’s MacArthur grants, I reflected on some of the films I have reviewed and wondered how many would pass her test for gender bias in film. Recognizing that I unfortunately could think of only very few, this week’s movie recommendation was chosen on the basis of its memorably strong female lead character, in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997).*
The film is set in a slice of New Jersey and New York that is heavily steeped in writer and director Kevin Smith’s familiar territory of comic books, cuss words, weed-induced munchies, and under-sexed pseudo-intelligentsia. Our two protagonists are bosom buddies and room-mates Holden (played by an uncharacteristically fragile Ben Affleck) and Banky (played by an unapologetically childish Jason Lee), who collaborate on the successful comic series Bluntman and Chronic for a living. At a comic convention, Holden meets the coquettish Alyssa (played by Smith’s muse for this autobiography of sorts, Joey Lauren Adams) and soon finds himself intrigued, then enamored, then hopelessly besotted.
The challenge for Holden is twofold: Alyssa is both toweringly more intelligent and self-aware than is he (not difficult, given that he really is something of a dolt), and she is also a lesbian. The ‘forbidden fruit’ angle to the story, however, is given attention in this story line only after Holden has successfully bitten into the apple, so to speak: when Alyssa, too, develops strong feelings for Holden, the story focuses less on her struggle with her sexuality (which, in truth, becomes something of a footnote in the film’s plot) and instead looks to Holden’s insecurities and Alyssa’s process of overcoming the ostracism that accompanies her revealing the relationship to her lesbian social circle. A relationship between the two blossoms, and a strain develops in Holden’s relationship with the intensely jealous Banky.
This is one of the tricky aspects to Chasing Amy. On one hand, Alyssa is more mature and socially competent in herself than is any man in the film, by leaps and bounds. And yet, one still gets the sense that gender bias plays out in the oddest of ways. This is, after all, a film about sexuality as told for straight guys by a straight guy. The lesbians in Smith’s world are represented throughout the film either as nameless props to be seduced and lusted over anonymously in the back of a filthy bar, or as elusive prizes who would happily turn straight if only, to borrow one of Banky’s lines, they discover what it’s like to “have a good dicking.” Even physical intimacy itself is represented in a manner that resembles a pubescent fantasy: Smith has no problem showing on screen the passionate embrace, warm kisses, and raunchy attraction between Holden and Alyssa. But on-screen lesbian sex dare not trespass beyond fatuous and fumbling kisses or mere narrative descriptions of the mechanics of sex, lest the viewer become too uncomfortable. (For the record, Smith’s first film Clerks was released with an NC-17 rating, so it’s hardly the case that he simply had squeamish sensibilities.)
There’s no question that Alyssa is the only character who has her act together enough to know what she wants, and she unquestionably is in the right whenever she and Holden descend into a lovers’ dispute. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that our impression of women in general, and lesbians in particular, can be reduced either to vindictive friend groups protective of ‘losing another companion to the heteros’ (as does the group that turns Alyssa into a pariah), or to be pointed at with puerile fascination (as does the childish Banky).
Smith’s overly simplistic representation of lesbianism notwithstanding, Chasing Amy is a highly complimentary representation of how a main character like Alyssa with identity issues can be a complex, impressive, and inspirational figure worth watching. Even though Holden and Banky come off as being ultimately unsympathetic characters, the comic conceit of the film relies on more than ‘one smart woman and a bunch of dumb guys.’ For example, the on-screen cameo that Smith brings as Silent Bob, the inspiration for Holden and Banky’s comic, reveals not only the origin of the title to the film but also that Holden’s challenge is to overcome his own vanity and trust in the love he’s found.
* Testament to the validity of Bechdel’s hypothesis about gender bias in film, Chasing Amy only barely passes. Trivia points to whomsoever can name, in the comments section below, other good films that pass the test. The requirements: name a film with at least two named women characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.