Tharunka Chat – UNSW interviews Guin Turner
‘Chatting with Guinevere Turner’ from the Queer Edition section of college paper Tharunka in May 2001. Interview by Vicci Ho. Thanks to Andi for sending this to us all the way from Sydney Oz.
I remember watching Buffy at the beginning of the year, and got the shock of my life when Willow suddenly exclaimed, “Hello, gay now!” I was almost certain at the time that I dreamt it. A week later, when Willow declared, “We’re gay/lesbian type lovers”, I giggled for hours, just like a child would when suddenly given hundreds of toys. After a year of developing their relationship, the writers finally worked up the guts, abandoned the euphemisms and called it as it is known in the 21st century. Yes, girls and boys, there are two adorable dykes on one of the most critically acclaimed dramas on television!!!
A decade into the “New Queer Cinema” movement, positive and complex queer characters are slowly popping up in the mainstream media. More and more queer films are shown beyond the gay and lesbian film festival circuit. Hollywood films are less afraid to show queers as charming best friends. Willow and Tara marked the first long term lesbian relationship on network television. In the case of changing attitude towards lesbian representation in the mainstream media in the 90’s, it began when a black and white experimental lesbian film became a surprise indie hit in 1994: Go Fish.
Go Fish depicts the lives of five lesbian friends living in Chicago in the early 90´s. The film does not try to be a definitive voice for lesbian community. Rather, it is a snapshot of a lesbian community, at a particular space and time. This snapshot changed lesbian films forever, because it is the first time that anyone bothered to tell a realistic tale of a bunch of dykes actually having a great time. The film helped launched other lesbian films and characters into the mainstream, and altered the lesbian cultural landscape: one article argued that without the success of Go Fish we probably would never have Ellen coming out.
For the filmmakers of Go Fish, Rose Troche (co-writer, director) and Guinevere Turner (co-writer and plays the role of Max), this success story is possibly beyond any story they can imagine, and more dramatic than anything they went through while making the film. Troche went on to direct Bedrooms and Hallways, and Turner quickly established herself in Hollywood as a writer and actress. She appeared in supporting roles in numerous indie films, such as The Watermelon Woman, Kiss Me Guido, Latin Boys Go To Hell, Chasing Amy and Dogma; and starred in Preaching To The Perverted, where she plays a dominatrix. Last year she co-wrote the screenplay of American Psycho and appeared in the film as Elizabeth, one of Bateman´s victims.
So everything seems to be going well for lesbians in the mainstream media, right? Sure, Ellen came out on primetime, but her show is off the air. Sure, Willow declared she’s gay, but why did it take a year for her just ‘say it’ when Buffy and Riley have an episode dedicated to them literally fucking almost to the point of death? Sure, we have Queer As Folk, but in the UK one, the dykes on the show have less screen time than Stewart’s naked ass. Sure, queer films are exploding out of the closet, but how many of those are lesbian films? Are dykes really becoming more visible in the media?
I was fortunate enough to discuss this with Guinevere Turner herself. I contacted Guin, who currently lives in Los Angeles, and we chatted about lesbian representation in the media, the problems and pressures of being a lesbian in Hollywood, her current projects, her future plans, and …Buffy!
Tharunka: What was the inspiration behind the making of Go Fish?
Guinevere Turner: I guess because Rose and I, we were girlfriends at the time, we just started talking about what kind of representations of lesbians are out there at the time. Mind you, this was 1991 when we started talking about it, and we looked at movies like Desert Hearts, the movies that were out there at the time, and they were really…. we felt, not representing us, particularly not…a community, which was very much our lives. You know, all of our friends are lesbians, our whole life was about activism, dyke drama, and… whatever, and also, where the issues of coming out weren’t part of the story. It was more about just what goes on in the scene, kind of young and scrappy way that we were, as oppose to the Claire of the Moon aesthetic.
T: Do you think there has been an increase of lesbian representation since Go Fish?
GT: I think…yes, certainly, at least for a bit there, with The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love, and All Over Me, and um…gosh I just realize the other day, but on the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, do you have it there?
T: Oh great! I was planning on bringing up Buffy, but yeah, we get it.
GT: I’ve only seen it a couple of times recently because my sister really likes it, but I had no idea there was this cute little lesbian couple on the show! And what I have seen of them, I just can’t believe it’s on primetime television! (Okay, this is discussion on Episodes 19 and 20, so if you dont want to be spoiled on where Willow/Tara relationship and the story is heading, skip ahead now.) The one I saw they were…(Tara’s) like “Willow, are you gonna be back with boys” and (Willow’s) like “I can’t help it if you’re the only woman I’ve ever been in love with.” And “So you think I’m gonna split back to boys-ville?” I don’t know if you’re as current as last week, but now Tara’s retarded cause they stuck fingers in her brain and she’s messing everything up, which is kind of a bummer. (laughs)
T: I don’t understand why they don’t just kill Dawn! Just kill her and everything will be fine!
GT: I know! Just give her away! Everyone’s dying! I just keep thinking if I was you (sarcastic important tone) ‘Little Miss Key’ I’ll just say, “All right you guys!” They just said last week if they used the Key then all the demon dimensions will open, so that’s…kinda bad. (laughs)
(Buffy spoilers over… you can tune back in now)
T: okay, back to the interview…how do you feel about the current trend in the mainstream media, I think especially on television, where they use lesbian sexuality, like two girls kissing, to boost the raitings for the week?
GT: Where do they show a kiss?
T: On shows like Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, Grosse Pointe, Friends..etc.
GT: Right. Aside from the two episodes of Buffy that I watched, and The X Files and the Simpsons, I don’t watch any television, so I always miss out on this drama. But I saw Ally McBeal once, and I just cannot identify in any way, shape or form, with Ally McBeal character. She’s just such a sad and pathetic depiction of a woman. But I think its a time honored tradition, the lesbian titillation, to jumpstart…just to get everyone’s attention, and it gets absolutely nowhere and it has nothing to do with lesbians.
T: Does it piss you off in some way?
GT: Well it wouldn’t piss me off as it probably would have 10 years ago, but I just find it gross, I find it predictable. I just find it sort of…just LAME, you know what I mean? (laughs) it’s like… “oh, not again!” And I wonder…do heterosexual women see that? I would imagine it would do nothing for them, and those are people who are watching shows like Ally McBeal. Who knows? Maybe they’re all gay men going (high pitched tone) “ooh…go girls!” (laughs)
T: Do you think that censorship also limits realistic representations of lesbians? I know that the censorship boards are usually a lot more snesitive to sexuality than violence.
GT: I’ve been thinking lately that…cause I think “God, haven’t we gotten to a point yet where we can have a super lesbian kiss on TV that’s in the context of relationship, or two people getting together and not just some stupid subplot or dream sequence or whatever?” I feel like we have come so far, gay and lesbian representation seems to be really…you know, we have Will and Grace and blah blah blah, but then I think, I forget that the two places I have spent the most time in, New York and Los Angeles, are urban environments. I am not exposed to any fanatic Christians, I’m not exposed to what maybe most of this country is about, which is really traditional values and a lot of homophobia, and it’s about money for those TV shows and stations. They can’t take the risk that these people are gonna say “I’m not watching CBS anymore” or advertisers pulling out. It’s about nobody wanting to take the risk. I forget until I go on a road trip with someone who’s not white, and like all of a sudden it’s like “oh my god, everyone’s noticing that this person isn’t white!” It’s gonna be really interesting to see what having a new conservative Republican government is gonna do to gay activism. In a way, sometimes it opens everyone’s eyes, and it’s like “okay, we gotta do something, it’s not all better yet!”
T: You did say that you were involved in gay activism, are you still involved with groups like ACT-UP?
GT: No, not really. I mean, my activism is my stupid life! (laughs) You know what I mean? Of course I’m always out, I’m always talking about being gay, I’m always moderating panels in gay festivals and being in gay movies. That’s my activism now. Now that I have a different platform from which to speak, you know? And I think that anyone who´s gay and has opportunity to…just move things forward is a kind of activism.
T: There are very few out lesbians in Hollywood as far as I can tell. Do you find that you have a huge responsibility on your shoulders to do things for the community? Does that also limit on what you can do? Like if you play a straight role would lesbians go “you´re betraying our cause!” or something like that?
GT: It’s interesting, cause I just did a film, which is gonna be at all the gay and lesbian film festivals this summer, and I play a heterosexual woman. It’s called Stray Dogs (which has a website at http://www.straydogs.com/, and in the movie I play a mother of two, and I’m poor and there’s a woman in the film, who’s…it’s the fifties, and she’s my sister-in-law, but…(giggles) she’s actually, in real life a 15-time Arm-Wrestling Champion of the world, so she’s huge, and she’s a great actress. The underlying tone of it is that she’s totally in love with me. And I just use her, and I’m horrible to her, and she gets shot in the end, I mean, it’s really sad! I’m just really curious to see how the lesbian community responds to it. I think it’s a really good film, and I think it’s a great depiction of what it was like to be gay in rural South Carolina in the 50s. The character doesn’t think of herself as gay, she thinks of herself as a devout Christian and that God has a different plan for her than getting married. But that kind of pressure really comes from within the community a lot of times. Like American Psycho as well, people are like “How can you make a film about killing women?” or “What happened to things like Go Fish?” I really feel that sometimes it´s more powerful to show moves in culture , that just because you’re an out lesbian doesn’t mean that you are necessarily always going to be in the ghetto of representing lesbians. That I can go back and forth. Like American Psycho, which I think is a feminist movie, but it’s tricky movie. And then I can go and play someone straight. And I’ll play a lesbian again, I’ll write lesbian stories, I’ll direct lesbian films, I’ll do all of that. But I think the danger is that we all get ghettoized, as filmmakers and actresses.
Rose Troche, who I did Go Fish with, has directed her third film, called the Safety of Objects. It´s a great film, it stars Glenn Close for one, and it has no lesbian or gay content, so we’ll see how…she got really yelled at by lesbians. I saw her cry in front of an audience once in Paris because…she got yelled at by lesbians for Bedroom and Hallways being about guys and whatever.
T: Oh god!
GT: I know! It’s hard! I think the truth is, if you make a few lesbian films a in row as a director, that’s it! That’s all you´re gonna be allowed to make!
T: And as a filmmaker you should do all kinds of stuff. I mean straight people direct gay films and they don’t get crucified for it.
T: What are you working on right now?
GT: At the moment, I’m doing a lot of work with Stray Dogs, going around, sitting in panels, showing the film…and I’m writing a script for the director Neil LaBute. He’s another one that…I’ve had women say to me, “How can you work with that monster!” People interpret his films in a lot of ways, like with In the Company of Men. It’s a hard film to watch, it’s really brutal, but I think the people who come out looking horrible are the men.
T: It’s the same as American Psycho I guess.
GT: Yeah, and it’s a tricky one. When I did American Psycho with Mary (Harron, the director), we were very much on the same page about what we wanted to put in and what it meant. I don’t know Neil that well, I like his work, and I’m writing a script for him, and the protagonist of the script I’m writing is a woman. It’s called The Inquisitor, and it’s based on a novel (by Mary Murrey). It’s about a woman who is accused of sexual harassment after she goes out on a date with someone she works with, a man, and it fucked her brain crazy. She thinks the dog is talking to her, her feminist witch group, and…it’s a horror film, cause she goes really nuts. But there’s some pretty tricky material in it, basically in the book she has an affair with this dog, she has sexual relations in some way with this dog, in the movie it’s not gonna be that explicit, but it´s…fucking controversial! (laughs) But I think it’s a good story, I think it’s a very interesting story about a woman in her 30’s, and she’s depressed, and she’s overweight, and she watches too much television and feels bad about herself. It’s about her…actually, empowering herself by becoming an animal. By the end of it she’s super strong, and she’s fierce, and she takes no shit, she gets fired for mouthing off to her doctor who bitches to her…and she goes totally nuts. I haven’t figured it out how it ends actually, I have to figure it out this weekend. (laughs)
T: Are you still working on Bettie Page or has that wrapped? (The Ballad of Bettie Page is a film based on the life on legendary 50s pin-up girl Bettie Page)
GT: No… God we (Guin and Mary Harron) worked on that forever. We finally finished our script, and it’s gonna be Mary’s next project to direct, and we’re just looking for money right now. It’s definitely gonna happen, we just need to find the right people who’ll let us make it exactly the way we want. (Guin will be in the lead role as Bettie Page)
I think my strategy is going to be to continue to work, and go back and forth; to struggle through; to make those accurate, interesting and complex portraits of lesbians. There’s another thing I am trying to do. This year I’ve met a lot of women who aren’t in film, but have a lot of money and said, “When are you gonna make Go Fish II?”. I have no interest in making Go Fish II, but I actually know so many young women, who have scripts, who want to make movies, so I’m gonna try and do some producing this year. Hook up people with money and lesbian filmmakers with scripts, so I can get some stuff made without having to make them myself (laughs).
Tharunka College Paper – University of New South Wales