Carol: A Revolution for Women in Cinema?

Ellen Banks asks whether Carol symbolises a revolutionary moment in Hollywood.

Todd Haynes’ adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt is undoubtedly an exquisite, mesmerising film. Carol traces the turbulent, intense love affair between two women in 1950s New York. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a middle class housewife in the midst of a messy divorce, and Therese (Rooney Mara) is a young, somewhat naïve shop assistant. As the film beautifully tracks their relationship, Carol’s husband threatens her with a lawsuit granting him sole custody of their daughter because of her sexuality.

Significantly, the unconventionality of the novel forced Highsmith to publish under a pseudonym; not only did it explore the relationship between two women, but it also alluded to a relatively happy, albeit ambiguous, ending – a rarity in gay fiction of the time.

What makes this film revolutionary today, is not only that it depicts a lesbian relationship, but that it has two female leads. The astonishing fact that Carol has taken 15 years to gain its place on the screen highlights the real issues at stake here. Its screenwriter Phyllis Nagy suggested in an interview with The Guardian that for this, ‘is not so much it being gay women; it’s about it being women.’ As so many female roles in Hollywood chart the drama primarily around women’s relationships with men, a film not needing to fulfil this criteria seemed an unprofitable task to undertake.

However, whilst at first perceiving films like Carol as charged with a particularly feminist agenda, the film’s producer Elizabeth Karlsen reflects that this is not an ‘issue movie.’ Yet this only highlights the paradoxical revolutionary nature of Carol. That it should be perceived primarily as a love story is making a political statement in itself: that films with female or homosexual leads should and need to be the norm.

Until these types of films aren’t seen as revolutionary, but mainstream, can progress for women in film really be recognised?

Arguably not. Women in film and television have found that out of the 700 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2014, only 30.2% of speaking characters were female, with only 11% of these films having a gender balanced cast. This gender imbalance also extends to production; of the top 100 films of 2014 only 1.9% of directors and 11.2% of writers were female. Similarly, an absence of representation of LGBT characters is striking. Of the top 100 films of 2014, only 14 had LGB characters, with less than one third of these female.

A growing public awareness around these inequalities is evident; a popular topic surrounding Carol’s release has been the issue of pay inequality, with Blanchett and Mara both expressing their frustration over the issue. Their grievances join a chorus of actresses who have recently begun to call for change. Jennifer Lawrence’s open letter in Lenny last month suggested that women often neglect to voice their opinions on salary out of fear of being labelled a ‘bitch’ or ‘spoilt.’ Her argument is refreshingly summed up when she writes that she is ‘over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable.’

Similarly, Rooney Mara has said that, ‘To me, the thing that’s more unfair than the pay is the terminology that’s used to describe actresses who have a point of view, and want to have a voice in their life and their career.’ Some may contest what these actresses are complaining about; obviously earning millions is not enough for them. But when the total salary of the 10 highest paid actresses in 2015 is but half that of the total salary of the 10 highest earning actors, then no, it is not enough.

Although Carol does certainly reflect a step in the right direction, as its director Todd Haynes has suggested, the film industry so often lapses back into a state of ‘amnesia’ when it comes to women in film; any progress that is made is sensationalised, only to become seemingly forgotten within the vast swathe of films centred on white, heterosexual men. The fact Carol has been portrayed in the media as a breakthrough for women in film, precisely because its two leading characters are female and homosexual, surely highlights the prevalence of this fact. How then, can progress be achieved? With women representing half of box office ticket sales, the power lies with us. To rid ourselves of the myth that male-led films make more money and are only what people want to see, we must encourage popular engagement with female led, directed and scripted films. Only when what makes Carol revolutionary becomes the norm, can we perceive any confirmation of progress for women in Hollywood.

Illustration by Miriam Cocker

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