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Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol

Todd Haynes’s Carol—an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt—was released in the winter of 2015, following the US Supreme Court’s June ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage, and it is worth interrogating the warm reception of this narrative of pre- Gay Liberation illicit love in the immediate aftermath of marriage equality. The novel, which tells the story of a young woman (Therese) and her relationship with an older woman (Carol), is well known among critics and fans for defying the trends of guilt and punishment that mark many gay and lesbian narratives of the same period. Carol chooses a relationship with Therese over custody of her daughter, and the couple are permitted something of a happy ending. While the 2015 film rendition remains faithful to Highsmith’s narrative on this key plot point (neither woman is subjected to the kind of punishment typical of 1950s lesbian pulp fiction), there is nevertheless an element of Carol’s subjection to the law, presented in the film by way of scenes portraying Carol’s custody battle with her husband (Harge) over their daughter, that strays from the novel’s critical posture. Of particular interest here is the way in which the novel figures tension between an individual lesbian identity and the ideals of the heteronormative, legally-recognized family, and how that tension is re-figured in Carol. In the novel, Carol gives voice to an explicit critique of the norms of heterosexuality and normative gender roles. In a letter to Therese, Carol describes how her husband’s lawyers link her moral fitness to be a parent to a willingness to fulfill marital duties to Harge, to submit to his will, and to understand sexual pleasure as linked to reproduction. The Carol of The Price of Salt makes it clear to both Therese and to readers that her own definition of “morality” differs from that of patriarchal society and the law that upholds it: for society, morality simply means submitting to normative heterosexuality and the legal order; for Carol, morality has to do with autonomy, being the author of one’s self outside of that order. In this way, the novel sets up a conflict between individual identity and the legal order that upholds and protects the nuclear family. While in Salt, Carol justifies her illicit lesbianism by claiming duty to herself in the face of social persecution, Carol, by contrast,casts the free expression of lesbian identity as the prerequisite for fulfilling her duty to her daughter and husband. In the film, Carol’s assertion of her identity is quite literally re-written, with the addition of a scene that Carol herself linking morality to self-expression, and explicitly stating that her expression of identity is in the service to her husband and daughter rather than to her own individual needs (about which she purports to “have no clue”).  The ways in which  Salt and Carol differ in their presentation of Carol’s stated beliefs about her own identity and the patriarchal norms upheld by the law provide insights into American cultural understandings of the relationship between law, morality, and queer identity in our biopolitical post-gay marriage moment.

Indeed, Carol represents a window into the implications of US marriage equality rhetoric for queer politics and our contemporary understanding of identity in relation to the law. Specifically, the relationship between identity and the law is a “biopolitical” one. Michel Foucault described “biopolitics” as a set of “regulatory controls” consisting of “the disciplines of the body and the regulation of the population” (History of Sexuality 139). Biopolitics is exercised in practices aimed at recording population trends and manipulating them to better serve the ends of the state. In Carol, we see the operations of biopolitics through the assertion that Carol’s identity be affirmed and recorded by the state in a rhetoric that prefigures (or mimes) that of the marriage equality movement in the US—namely, a rhetoric that justifies same-sex marriage by claiming that the free expression and legal recognition of an individual lesbian or gay identity benefits families and children, which in turn benefits the state. The Price of Salt, written in an era during which open expression of a lesbian or gay identity, let alone state-sanctioned same-sex marriage, was a long way from imaginable, expresses Carol’s hostility toward those forces that constrain her sexuality and seek to put her in submission to the patriarchal order represented by both her husband and the law. To be moral, in Carol’s view, is to operate outside of that order, in accordance to and for the sake of, one’s own sense of self. By contrast, Carol, with its additional dialogue and scenes that have the title character not only spelling out how her individual identity helps further the security of her own state-sanctioned heterosexual nuclear family but also submitting that statement to an official record before a team of lawyers, posits a biopolitical understanding of the law, one in which the law takes on the role of recording and making legible definitions of morality and identity. The different formations of the law/morality/identity triad are brought into focus in Carol through the film’s fluctuation between two sets of generic and stylistic conventions—film noir and melodrama—and the staging of masochistic elements within those conventions. The movement from noir elements to melodrama as the film progresses transforms Carol from noir’s powerful femme fatale to a submissive maternal martyr typical of melodrama. This generic shift facilitates and foregrounds the shift in Carol’s stance: she moves from being critical of the law’s definition of morality and its power to shape her identity to, by the film’s climax, fully submitting to the law, with its definition of morality dependent on fulfilling her maternal duties and identifying primarily with the mother role.

Reflecting on Highsmith’s oeuvre, Haynes remarks that, while The Price of Salt is an outlier in that it is a love story rather than a crime story, the element of criminality is nevertheless present, and Haynes’ film noir stylistic choices play up this element. “Crime and the whole sense of this love being an illicit love lurks through the story,” says Haynes (Haynes). “[Highsmith],” he continues, “makes a parallel between what the criminal mind does and what the amorous mind does.” The criminal element of the relationship is brought to the forefront of the narrative, as the bulk of the story takes place while Carol and Therese are on the road being tailed by a private investigator who hopes to catch evidence of their sexual relationship on tape for use in the custody hearing. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Carol as enigmatic, vampish, and coolly seductive (at least when in the presence of Therese), as well as her wardrobe during significant scenes in the film, also add to the criminal overtones by coding Carol as a femme fatale (see Figure 1). The noir elements of staging, the title character’s dress and attitude, and the narrative movement of the protagonists’ relationship lend to the film what Gaylyn Studlar, who uses Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s work to reconsider desire and identification in film narrative, defines as a “masochistic aesthetic” (267). “Rooted in the fear of being abandoned by the mother, masochism,” says Studlar, “obsessively recreates the movement between concealment and revelation, disappearance and appearance, seduction and rejection” (229-30). Carol’s narrative movement through the majority of the film is underwritten by the iconography of noir and the structural elements of Masoch, positioning her, in keeping with the character as portrayed in The Price of Salt, as a powerful and potentially threatening force outside the law, critical of the law as an institution and the logic by which it operates. However, the film strays from these conventions—and, in turn, changes the political stakes and ramifications of Carol’s words and actions—in certain key moments that invoke a different form of masochism.

Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol, James Brunton
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: In Therese’s eyes, Carol as femme fatale. 

Carol’s use of masochism wavers between two types: on the one hand, film noir and the classical masochistic aesthetic of Masoch noted above, and, on the other hand, the masochism proper to the 1940s pre-war women’s melodrama.1 The first form of masochism, which more fully permeates the film, is the masochistic fantasy that opposes institutions. As Deleuze explains in his analysis of Masoch’s writings, “The sadist is in need of institutions, the masochist of contractual relations,” and, as we shall see, the masochistic aesthetic of the film tints the constrained relationship between Carol and Therese, which is itself something of a self-contained contractual relationship at odds with the institutional power—the law that supports marriage and heterosexuality with proscribed sex roles—that threatens to tear the couple apart (Deleuze 20). The film’s use of iconography reminiscent of noir movies, which, as Erika Doss notes, “typically… portray a hatred of institutions,” serves to further underscore its subtle questioning of legal and economic institutions (27).The second form of masochism—the melodramatic form—emerges only in a handful of scenes that, importantly, were not present in Highsmith’s novel. In these scenes, Carol attempts to fulfill the role of the self-punishing maternal martyr in order to gain sympathy from and be embraced by the very institutions of patriarchal heterosexuality that threaten her in the first place. These competing fantasies reflect a tension in US queer politics post-gay marriage, and the way in which these fantasies are generated, organized, and hierarchized in the film has much to tell us about how fantasies of sexual and political liberation are shaped by the contemporary framework of biopolitics.

Competing Masochistic Fantasies

Laplanche and Pontalis describe “the primary function of phantasy” as “the mise-en-scène of desire—a mise-en-scène in which what is prohibited (l’interdit) is always present in the actual formation of the wish” (318). In many ways, Carol is a film about prohibition—specifically the relationship between prohibition and desire. The most obvious prohibition is the one against Carol and Therese’s desire for one another, which, if broken, can serve as grounds for taking Carol’s daughter from her. The mise-en-scène is constructed in a way that matches this sense of social constraints via shots that frame the two protagonists, when they are apart from each other, in the dark, rain-streaked windows of cars (see Figures 2 and 3). It as though, as cinematographer Lachman says, even when the characters are“inside the car, … the force is outside them” (Lachman).Blanchett reiterates this relationship between shot construction and the social backdrop, remarking that in many of the scenes “you have a peopled landscape, but it’s reflected by all the iconography of the ‘50s. It’s almost like a pale, ghostly shadow to what’s going on in the rich interior life of the characters. They actually often recede within the reflection of the society in which they’re inhabiting.” (Blanchett). The sense of constraint is intensified by close-up shots in which Carol and Therese speak on the phone to one another in hushed tones and use vague language to communicate their need to learn more about one another and spend more time together. In another scene, Therese’s friend Phil jokingly references the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), foreshadowing the private investigator who will follow Therese and Carol and place recording devices in their hotel rooms.2 Their budding romance takes place within this atmosphere of distrust and fear of legal institutions and the individuals who represent them—in this case, Harge and anyone else who might catch on to their secret. These scenes in which Carol and Therese are apart from one another highlight the social and legal prohibitions against their lesbian relationship, and the heavy reliance in these scenes on dark, moody lighting typical of noir sets emphasizes the tone of secrecy and criminality. The criminal element of the protagonists’ desires is heightened by such scenes in which the prohibition raises the stakes (and the appeal) of desire.

Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol, James Brunton
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Claustrophobic framing mirrors the pressure of social constraints (Therese with partygoers, instead of with Carol).
Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol, James Brunton
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Claustrophobic framing mirrors the pressure of social constraints (Carol watches Therese from inside a taxicab).

When Carol and Therese appear in scenes alone together, the stylistic conventions of noir are replaced by an equally powerful set of conventions—those of Deleuzean masochism—that help define the character of their relationship and the power dynamic that exists between them. Take for example a scene from early on in Carol and Therese’s road trip, when Carol, who had planned on purchasing two separate rooms, agrees to share the Presidential Suite (because “the rate’s attractive,” as Therese quips) at the McKinley motel in Canton, Ohio. The camera pans the room while the couple’s song (Billie Holiday’s “Easy Livin’,” which Therese had played on the piano during their second meeting and has given to Carol as a Christmas present) plays on the record player. The song stops and we hear Carol’s voice—“Again.”—and Therese lifts the arm of the record player to start the song over. Repetition and suspense—two of the hallmarks of masochism, as Deleuze has it (34). Carol reclines against an ornate couch. Over the back of one of the room’s stately chairs is draped Carol’s fur coat. Beneath the chair are her fur-lined boots lying as though kicked off carelessly at the end of a long day. On the side table by the chair is a small eagle statuette (it is the Presidential Suite, after all), and on the coffee table in front of her are an array of red lipsticks, a makeup brush, a cigarette lighter, a mirror, a glass of whiskey (see Figure 4).  Carol, in this scene and others, assumes a position of studied, self-aware nonchalance. Like the punishing women in Masoch’s novels, she is statuesque, frozen “in postures that identify her with a statue, a painting or a photograph”—as much a part of the mise-en-scène as the phallic fetishistic lipstick tubes (Deleuze 33).  Like Masoch’s Venus, who “must hide herself in a vast fur lest she catch cold,” Carol is often draped in her fur coat to stave off the December cold of her surroundings or, as here, lounging with her fur nearby (53).

Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol, James Brunton
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Carol as Masoch’s Venus.

Many reviewers remarked (negatively) on the film’s “coldness,” noting that Haynes’ color palette (it is set in winter in New York and the Midwest, after all) drained the story of warmth and sexuality or, in one case, “that there is very little chemistry between the actresses” (Rainer).3 Reviewers are not wrong that it is indeed a “cold” film on many levels; what’s missing from this analysis, however, is that such coldness is precisely where the film’s sexuality lies: it is the coldness of masochism. For all its chilliness and reserve, this is a film that makes sex central, albeit in a subtly suggestive way. Carol is sex from the moment she appears on screen. Her furs, her bright red nail polish, her heels, her gloves, her comportment—Carol is the fetish object par excellence. Many critics have missed precisely this point: that every interaction between Carol and Therese, every moment in which our gaze aligns with Therese’s and holds Carol in view, is shot through with sexual desire. (Indeed, the film’s few moments of comedy even depend on the fact that others, namely straight men, are oblivious to that desire.)

As Deleuze notes, “The trinity of the masochistic dream is summed up in the words: cold – maternal – severe, icy – sentimental – cruel” (51). This chain of signifiers could not better describe the mise-en-scène and iconography of Carol (as Haynes, a student of semiotics, would no doubt realize).Carol is crafted for our visual pleasure in ways that are quite overtly linked to masochistic iconography and, as we are aligned with Therese’s gaze, Carol is the spectator’s fantasy as much as she is Therese’s. (Indeed, it is worth noting that the novel was born of Highsmith’s own fantasy after a brief encounter with a beautiful woman at the department store where she, like Therese, worked.) The film isn’t simply about prohibition as such, but the operation of fantasy and the production and use of pleasures and desires within the mise-en-scène of prohibition (both material and fantasied). As Judith Butler reminds us in her reading of Foucault, when the prohibitive “disciplinary apparatus is itself eroticized,” prohibition is productive of erotic subject positions—“a subject is formed through the prohibition of sexuality” (101, 103). Within the masochistic contract that Therese and Carol produce, both women come to prioritize one another over other attachments, both personal and economic, and to build subject positions vis-à-vis one another with little regard for other more legitimate forms of subjectivity—at least up to a certain point. In this context of prohibition, Carol charts the hierarchy of pleasures and desires, and what this hierarchization means for particular bodies in particular places. If 1950s America is a safe space for white middle-class lesbians (nobody can “read” what they are doing), it is also a dangerous place when it can be read and is read for specific uses, as when Harge’s private investigator records Carol and Therese’s activities for use in a court of law. That the novel and the film justify the hierarchization of pleasures and the need for legibility in matters of sexuality in slightly different ways indicates a certain willful blindness to the centrality of sex and desire in contemporary LGBTQ rights discourse. The film, in its use of the masochistic aesthetic and the masochism more typical of melodrama, offers two competing readings of the significance of sex.

While sex is central to the film, one of the primary narrative tensions is the tragic separation of Carol from her daughter, Rindy. Carol is caught in a typical melodramatic Sirkian “impossible situation” of loving her daughter, loving Therese, and being unable to possess both (Sirk qtd. in Goldberg 23). But while the novel offers this narrative as a tragic backdrop that tinges the romantic scenes with both sadness and sexualized criminality, the film chooses to bring this background to the foreground in scenes of Carol’s interactions with the lawyers handling the custody battle (scenes that, in Highsmith’s novel, are only suggested or related in retrospect by Carol). In the first of these scenes, Carol is summoned to her lawyer Fred Haymes’ office where he tells her that Harge is threatening her with a “morality clause,” and insinuates that Harge is threatening to present her past sexual relationship with her friend Abby as evidence of her unsuitability for contact with Rindy. This is one of the few moments in the film when Carol is anything but dominant (the other is when she leaves her first meeting with Therese for an awkward party with Harge). In the office, she is pure outrage. When Fred warns her that “forcing contact [with Rindy] before the hearing” would “invite further scrutiny concerning your conduct,” Carol shouts at him, “My conduct! Jesus Christ, I’m her mother for God’s sake!” Her defiant tone and demeanor changes to defeat, however, as she leaves the office and enters the street, visibly shaken and not holding herself with her usual straight posture and commanding presence. Carol emerges from the office a red melancholic figure who stands out sharply against a sea of gray suits and drab building fronts (see Figure 5). This somewhat “exaggerated rise-and-fall pattern” of emotions here, as well as the “sublimation of dramatic conflict into décor, color, gesture, and composition of frame” align the scene with 1940s and 1950s melodrama (Elsaesser 443). It is also at this point that the musical score returns, literally marking a transition to melodrama with the infusion of melos (music) to the dramatic narrative. The before-and-after contrast is stark, especially given her attire in this scene: a bright red coat, dark red suit, black sunglasses, bright red lipstick, heels, and a red hat. Outwardly, at least, Carol has up to now embodied some of the traits of the femme fatale. Something of her previous demeanor returns, however, when her gaze lights upon a store window display of cameras, which catches her eye, presumably, because she has recently learned of Therese’s talent for photography. She regards the display, takes a drag from her cigarette, and it is clear she has made a decision: this is the moment when she gets the notion to, as she puts it, “get away for a while”—which really amounts to going on the run with her young lover, a pistol in her suitcase.

Representing Queer Identity after Same-Sex Marriage: Biopolitical Revisionism in Todd Haynes’ Carol, James Brunton
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The femme fatale turned melancholic.

This movement between the tragic mother of melodrama and the phallic woman of noir is initiated by Carol’s desire for Therese—it is this desire and the promise of pleasure that drive Carol to make decisions that go against the institutions that attempt to constrain her. While to some degree the moments of vulnerability and melodrama add depth to her character, they function more powerfully to position Carol as a “sympathetic” mother whose every move is aimed at protecting her daughter. In Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which I will turn to next, this is simply not the case. Moreover, the melodramatic element in the film works, rather ironically, to subordinate sexual pleasure (and any assertion of identity separate from a state-sanctioned one) to the patriarchal, heterosexual, and reproductive function symbolized by the legal institutions against which Carol is fighting, a fight that Salt makes explicit.

Law as Economics in The Price of Salt

In her criticism of Carol, Naomi Fry notes that, unlike the novel, the film brings Carol’s backstory (her divorce from Harge and his threats to take away their daughter Rindy) into the forefront. This refocusing situates Carol’s story as a political one, “something of a straightforward, impossible- to-disagree-with liberal polemic” (Fry 69). Patricia White remarks, in a similar vein: “As a ‘retro’ construction from the post-feminist, post-gay present, Carol registers the political gains—and losses—that have interceded” (11). What precisely is at stake in this ‘retro’ construction of a “liberal polemic” within the overarching “outlaw fantasy” that the film enacts (White 15)? Answering this question requires a close look at another scene from the film that that is only alluded to in the book, in which Carol and Harge meet with their lawyers to discuss Carol’s fitness for parental visitation rights in light of her sexual activities.

In both the novel and the film, Carol utters two versions of the same phrase in relation to the scene with the lawyers: in Salt, “to live against one’s grain”; in Carol, “living against my own grain.” In the book, she writes this in a letter to Therese:

It was said or at least implied yesterday that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing—that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition” (256).

Carol’s letter posits a definition of morality that turns the law, which threatens to strip Carol of custody rights based on a “morality clause,” back on itself. To play the law’s game, to submit to the law’s prohibition, and to live against one’s grain itself constitutes moral degeneration. Importantly, Carol phrases her definition in the third person—not “my” grain, but “one’s grain—indicating that anyone subject to the constraints and coercions of the law, especially in its contemporary McCarthy era mode of surveillance, could be made morally degenerate. By this definition, the law does not legislate moral degeneration; the law is itself morally suspect.

We are offered another clue as to the importance of this notion of grain as identity from a scene earlier in the novel, in which Therese gets into an argument with her boyfriend and, in anger, throws a wooden Madonna statue to floor, breaking it. This argument culminates in her decision to go away with Carol after she surveys the damage she has done: “Therese looked down at the broken Madonna. The wood was quite beautiful inside. It had cracked cleanly along the grain” (159).This passage introduces the idea of “grain” as a metaphor useful for unpacking what Carol might mean and what is at stake in “living against one’s grain.” The Madonna is an icon, both a holy object and something that can be bought and sold and eventually broken. It is at once a made object—something fashioned by human hands—and an organic, natural object carved from wood, a fact that can only be seen when it is broken. And it is most vulnerable to splitting precisely at its grain. The grain metaphor sets up the notion of identity as a complex interplay between the internal, natural, and/or bodily and the external fashioning of self. One’s identity, indeed one’s life, depends on the harmony between these external and internal qualities. At the same time, the external pressure that goes against the grain of the wood, the grain of the person, can break that person apart at their very core. Madonna, of course, is also a mother, and we might read Therese’s destruction of this figure as the foreshadowing or metaphorical catalyst for Carol’s decision to relinquish her mother role by the end of the book, marking the lesbian relationship as antithetical to the mother-daughter relationship.

Carol tells Therese that she has agreed to the lawyers’ terms—stop seeing Therese and you can have limited visitation rights. She agrees initially, but is cognizant that her choice to obey or disobey is a forced one, and she suggests as much in her careful wording to Therese: “I said I would stop seeing you… I told the lawyers I would stop seeing you… I had to tell them that” (254, 255; emphasis mine). Carol understands something very important about this relationship between the truth of one’s grain and the law: simply, that the law, which is written and enforced by straight men, does not care about “grain” and will not be changed by appeals to sympathy based on identity. “I say I love you always…,” Carol writes. “I would say it in a court if it would mean anything to those people or possibly change things” (254-5). Regardless of her love for Therese, they will not be swayed, for this is not really their interest.

Rather, their interest is in maintaining their own positions in the patriarchal heteronormative order. The lawyers “spoke like the judges of doomsday—reminding me of my duties, my position, and my future. (What future have they fixed up for me?)” Carol writes, indicating that what’s at stake in her agreeing to stop seeing Therese is, for them, a heterosexual future wherein she will continue to fulfill her duties, to keep herself in her place, just as they might wish to maintain their own positions in the heterosexual division of labor and of power (254). Furthermore, as Carol explains, their laws are based on a problematic linkage between sexual desire and reproduction—a linkage that discounts the notion of “pleasure” and that, therefore, can deny the legitimacy of her relationship with Therese and her desire for women more generally. “I wonder,” Carol writes to Therese, “do these men grade their pleasure in terms of whether their actions produce a child or not, and do they consider them more pleasant if they do. It is a question of pleasure after all…” (256).

Therese interprets all this to mean that Carol “had chosen her child” over Therese, but when the two finally meet again, this has not happened (255). Carol reveals that since the letter, there have been more meetings, further demands, and that ultimately, she “refused to live by a list of silly promises they’d made up like a list of misdemeanors” (277). “Carol,” the novel tells us, “had not betrayed her. Carol loved her more than she loved her child. That was part of the reason why she had not promised. She was gambling now as she had gambled on getting everything from the detective that day on the road, and she lost then, too.” (279). Carol calls Harge’s bluff about taking away Rindy, she gambles, she plays with the law, just as a criminal might. She does not take the moral high ground, but gambles on getting, and finally does get, what she wants (Therese) even though she loses Rindy—it is an economic exchange.

In the end, she is a moderately successful criminal. Carol understands, and finally makes Therese understand as well, that the law works by the cold logic of economics. Carol plays the law’s game until it no longer benefits her, until the promises she makes become too costly. Carol exits the game on her own terms, accepting what the law is rather than appealing to the law to bend in favor of a new moral code. Finally, Carol makes the painful choice to go off the grid, giving up her motherly and wifely duties for the pleasure of an uncertain future with Therese outside the legally sanctioned heteronormative order.

Carol: from Outlaw to In-Law

In the film, a version of Carol’s remarks told retrospectively in a private letter to her lover morph into a visible, present-tense scene, part of a dramatic speech levied at Carol’s husband, in which she declares that Harge should have custody of Rindy:

There was a time… I would have locked myself away—done most anything… just to keep Rindy with me. But… what use am I to her… to us… living against… my own grain? Rindy deserves—joy. How do I give her that not knowing what it means… myself.

This is the second scene involving lawyers that is invented for the film and that signifies a shift in Carol’s cold and powerful attitude. That the film stages the “outlaw fantasy” (to use Patricia White’s term again) in this new way prompts the question of what kinds of meanings we are to attach to the concept of the outlaw in this new melodramatic context. By interrupting the lawyers’ discussion and laying out her own plan for the custody arrangement (Harge gets custody while she gets regular visits), Carol assumes the mantle of the liberal, agential subject. She asserts her agency and declares herself—before the law—as subject only to the higher law of her “grain,” which she, in turn, must follow because of duty to her daughter. In an ironic reversal of the old “think of the children” argument, Carol claims that exposing Rindy to her supposed moral/sexual perversion is not the danger we should think of; rather, depriving Rindy of a happy, fulfilled (even if part-time) mother, is itself damaging. Furthermore, it would be equally damaging to her ex-husband (as the “us” she refers to is herself and Harge). Carol represents adherence to the moral high ground, subjecting herself to two rules of her own design that take higher priority than the written law: 1) to be true to herself and, relatedly, 2) to do right by her daughter and ex-husband. Carol submits to the law but on her own (constrained) terms—in spirit, autonomous, but in fact aligned with the law—and, in this way, can be viewed by post-gay marriage US audiences as a particular kind of outlaw: a criminal only in name, a tragic heroine, a victim of her time.

The outlaw of The Price of Salt does not labor under this delusion that behaving as an agent, or orienting the discussion around morality, or even flattering the lawyers with appeals to the heteronormative ideals of duty to child and husband, will affect the outcome of the hearing—not in 1952. In fact, the outcome for Carol is the same in both novel and film. The only difference is the context of enunciation: one in which Carol calls the law out for what it is and one in which Carol tries to insert herself as a moral actor within the law. In the former representation, she is truly operating outside of the law and outside of a certain kind of moral duty, and perhaps, is less legible, less easy to sympathize with.

The matter of sympathy around this issue of abandoning the daughter was a contentious issue even for contemporary audiences of the film adaptation. Carol’s screenwriter Phyllis Nagy makes this point about the response of potential directors to her script:

“A lot of the changes that were asked for had to do with calibrations of sympathy or lack thereof,” Nagy recalls. ‘Carol’s got to be more sympathetic,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, what does that mean? Tell me.’ People [referring to male directors] wanted the men to have scenes where they get to cry. More material for the men, less material for the women.” (Written By 36)

But while Nagy is obviously critical of this desire to make Carol “sympathetic,” and moreover skeptical about what would be required of Carol to make her a sympathetic character to men, the script ultimately delivers on this sympathy. Referring specifically to the lawyer’s office scene, Nagy says: “Grown men, all the grips and camera guys, they were crying. And I thought—it was the first time I thought—Ooh, we have something here, we do, we do” (Written By 37). So, while the screenplay denies us the diegetic male tears, the male audience (and presumably the female audience as well) is nevertheless granted their tears—importantly, via a scene that, in the novel, is not shown directly, but is recounted by Carol in her own words, without mediation from the narrator. In the film, however, Carol’s private, controlled words to her lover have now been put on display, denuded, so to speak, for the gratification of male spectators.

Moreover, the words are recontextualized to make Carol sympathetic on the grounds of her “use” value as a mother. And specifically, like the Madonna, she is a mother who suffers before our very eyes. Even though Carol asserts “I’m not a martyr,” we can’t help but see her suffering sympathetically, as an act of martyrdom—an act which, as in the first scene of Carol’s meeting with a lawyer, momentarily dethrones her from her cold, femme fatale status, endowing the scene with the masochism of melodrama instead of the masochism of noir. Indeed, as if to make the transition more visible, Carol is shorn of her signature fur in this scene, and instead sports a soft textured cream-colored coat reminiscent of wool—she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Carol is at pains here to make her sexuality subordinate to her identity as a mother, since, by her logic, the expression of identity is crucial to her functioning as a good mother (and a good ex-wife). By giving up the cold sexuality that her fur signifies for the soft warmth of wool, Carol herself is softened and made maternal. Moreover, and in keeping with melodramatic mode, Carol’s act of autonomy—setting the rules herself—amounts to an “impotent gesture” that, rather than liberate the protagonist from her social constraints (as in the western or adventure picture), works “pathetically at variance with the real objectives [she] wants to achieve” (Elsaesser 448). For in the end, Harge gets Rindy, and he does so at Carol’s own urging. As Elsaesser explains of the internal world of melodrama, “The characters are, so to speak, each other’s sole referent; there is no world outside to be acted on, no reality that could be defined or assumed unambiguously” (448). This moment is ironic, given Abby’s assertion to Harge earlier in the film that “You’ve spent ten years making damned sure her only point of reference is you…” In the custody hearing scene, Harge, and the social forces he represents, remain a point of reference.

Law, Identity, and Morality in a Biopolitical Rights Framework: Reading Carol through Obergefell

The scene in which Carol and Harge meet with their lawyers is important for understanding how Carol positions herself as an autonomous subject within the framework of biopolitics—she envisions herself as subject to her own law, as the word autonomy has it. And yet, within this framework, autonomy is figured as something that must be granted by the law; indeed, the Obergefell decision justifies the right to same-sex marriage as a matter of protecting “individual autonomy” (12). Carol’s interjection into the male lawyers’ discussion about her future underscores her desire to see the law—the official record—bend to her version of truth, wherein the law as written contains, however paradoxically, self-rule:

CAROL: “I won’t deny the truth of what’s contained in those tapes.”
FRED [to stenographer]: “This is off the record, honey.”
CAROL: “Might as well be on the record.”

In this scene, Carol makes a recorded declaration of her truth, her grain. In this biopolitical legal framework fantasied in the film, one’s true identity must be (and in this case, wants to be) recorded by and recognized by the law (much like our marriages now are recorded and recognized). In Salt, Carol also records this idea of her identity, of course, but in a personal record—a letter—instead. Further, in the film, she submits to law in a double sense: one, obeying the law by telling the truth and validating the law’s claim to morality, and two, submitting her story to the official legal record. This difference is indicative of more than the infusion of a “liberal” agenda. It suggests that the liberal biopolitical framework rests on a specific understanding of the interdependency among identity, morality, and law, where the law is tasked with containing identity and morality, and, moreover, recording them for biopower—literally putting both of these concepts into the law. Indeed, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s first sentence in the majority decision for Obergefell affirms the centrality of the expression of “identity” to “liberty” under American law, stating: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity” (1-2). “The petitioners in these cases,” the decision continues, “seek to find that liberty by marrying someone of the same sex and having their marriages deemed lawful on the same terms and conditions as marriages between persons of the opposite sex” (2). Defining and expressing one’s identity—one’s grain, as Carol would have it—is taken here as the ability to marry, specifically; that is, identity is expressed not through the exercise (free or not) of desire, pleasure, or love, but through marriage that is recorded and recognized before the law. 

The custody meeting scene stages a reimagining of queer status before the law—as if the law cared for us and would bend toward morality precisely through this movement from “outlaw” to “in-law,” (to use the terminology of O’Driscoll’s 1996 “Outlaw Readings: Beyond Queer Theory” (36). In fact, as Foucault, in his theorization of biopolitics argued4, and as contemporary legal theorists including Sonu S. Bedi, Richard Epstein, and Richard Posner also hold, the law more often works according to practical “economic principles” (Bedi 9).Such principles are clearly at work in the Obergefell decision. The ruling does not represent a simple shift in attitudes toward sexuality and corresponding reevaluation of how justice is defined with respect to sexuality as such, but rather reflects the overlapping interests between a certain faction of the LGBT movement and those of the State. As legal scholar Neo Khuu explains “Obergefell is a culmination of the interest convergence between the sexual majority and minorities, and … Obergefell affirms the supremacy of marriage as the only site of kinship formation at the expense of other kinship alternative” (189). The language of the Obergefell decision justifies same-sex marriage on four key premises: protecting the right to “individual autonomy,” (12) protecting the right to “intimate association,” (13) “safeguard[ing] children and families,” (14) and maintaining “social order” (16). Premises one and two define the law’s interest in personal identity, while premises three and four relate privileged kinship associations and childrearing to the overall project of the State. All four of these premises conceive of the law as a container of sorts for the interrelated concepts of morality and identity in a way that, as I have shown above, is mirrored in the second lawyers’ office scene in Carol. Moreover, the language of Obergefell is overt in relating issues of the truth of identity and truth as a moral issue to the more practical issue of State interest and security that has up to this point been defined only with respect to heterosexual unions.

A concept from critical race theory, interest convergence explains how apparent steps forward for civil rights often “coincide with … white self-interest” (Delgado and Stefanic 18). Similarly, in the case of same-sex marriage, we find that the Obergefell majority decision explicitly reflects the Court’s belief in the value of the institution of marriage as a cornerstone of society and that this belief is a driving force behind the decision to bring same-sex individuals into the fold. In short, the decision in favor of the petitioners in Obergefell demonstrates that there is a convergence of interests between the petitioners and the state, as the expansion of the institution of marriage to more of the citizenry is held to have a beneficial impact on the state’s security. As the decision claims, “… this Court’s cases and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order” (16).In this way, the interest of certain lesbian and gay individuals in gaining access to the heretofore heterosexual institution of marriage here overlaps with the State’s interest in maintaining social order.

The Carol of The Price of Salt understands that the economic function is joined to a patriarchal, heteronormative logic that denies the function of pleasure, which is entirely central to the project of self-fashioning she and Therese have embarked upon. She further understands that the pleasures of sexuality, when wedded to a concept of morality limited to familial duty, state-sanctioned coupling, reproduction, and child care (raising new citizens) has more to do with the dignity of the state than the dignity of the person. That film spectators in 2015 need to bear witness to this particular form of morality (which Carol railed against in 1952) in order to fully sympathize with Carol’s position calls into question our contemporary understanding of the relationship between morality, identity, and the law.

Whose Fantasy?

Throughout the majority of the film, spectators are well situated in the masochistic fantasy as crafted by Therese and affirmed by the camera’s alignment with her point of view, which, in turn, stages Carol as a dangerous, desirable, and powerful object of our contemplation, fascination, and, at times, identification. The moments when the gaze is disembodied and aligns with the camera take us quite out of the established fantasy, and it is significant that these are precisely the scenes that are not present in The Price of Salt and are invented for the sake of the film. When she faces the lawyers, we might expect the voice of Carol from The Price of Salt, the Carol who questions the patriarchal view that sex and pleasure are only justified when they result in a child, who challenges the lawyers’ insinuation that a woman as beautiful as her needn’t choose female sexual partners. Instead, when Therese isn’t there to direct our gaze, Carol is on display for the director, for “the sound guys” (Nagy). Moreover, she’s doing things that, by the rules laid out in the masochistic structure of the fantasy, we wouldn’t expect to see her doing: trying to accomplish something from the law in the very name of the law, upholding the institutions rather than fulfilling part of a personal contract. The Carol of Salt is only ever shown to us through the narration linked to Therese; thus, she has the authority to write her own story (via her letters) and to position herself for Therese, at all times, as critical of the institutions that seek to constrain their lives and nullify their pleasure. In the film, however, Carol’s defiance is overshadowed, almost to the point of erasure, by her vulnerability, her weakness and victimization before the law. Carol’s actions can be read as a metaphor of sorts for queer politics in the US after Obergefell.

The fantasy that is Carol, when un-sutured from Therese’s gaze, gestures toward the future—our present—by linking Carol’s suitability for parenthood to her legal ability to live out an authentic life in which she has autonomy to choose what the Obergefell decision terms “intimate association” (13). In making her melodramatic speech, Carol affirms the fantasy that informs our present reliance on the judicial system to intervene in the law that harms us—namely, the fantasy that such intervention is motivated by what is morally right rather than by what is expedient at a given historical moment. Carolis the righteous, indignant victim stating her case before the law and exposing that law as both morally incorrect and capable of being moved, however minimally, by that recognition.5 In gaining access to the legal, economic, and social institution of marriage, queer individuals are placed quite visibly before the law, subject to its definitions and positive rights that have no doubt made life more livable for many of us, in ways both material and intangible (and one might argue that this is especially true for queer people who are raising or wish to raise children). Yet the character of this visibility should still give us pause for its logic, which assumes, among other things, an ideal set of characteristics its citizens must fulfill to be deemed worthy of protection by the state as well as ideal kinship structures that the state chooses to acknowledge and support. As political scientist Shane Phelan argued in her prescient 2001 Sexual Strangers, the institution of marriage creates and maintains “relations of status” – that is, a hierarchy between married and unmarried individuals reflected in legal rights of married partners to make decisions for one another and for children resulting from their recognized relationship and to share each other’s assets (69). These relations of status do not disappear with the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples. Rather, argues Phelan, same-sex marriage reproduces these relations in a new context, maintaining a hierarchical division, now between married and unmarried gays and lesbians. Furthermore, same-sex marriage fosters kinship formations that center on two (and only two) partners and their children, privileging a definition of “kinship” as a matter of “blood” rather than of  “consent” to care for a freely chosen network of people (Phelan 67).  Indeed, according to this logic, same-sex marriage would do little to change the fundamental structures of society that negatively impact the lives of queer people. Instead, it would strengthen those very structures, creating what Phelan calls “secondary marginalization” of those within the queer community whose chosen family—their kinship networks of care and support—are still not granted legal protections or economic benefits, and those who, whether by chance or by choice, are unmarried (115).

Carol’s visibility in the scenes absent from the 1952 novel mirrors the present-day visibility of gay and lesbian subjects before the law. In the eyes of the law, the lesbian or gay subject is the petitioner. In Obergefell, we have petitioners that appear in the majority decision as archetypes of ideal gay and lesbian citizenry: the lesbian couple petitioning for rights to their children, the gay couple seeking state benefits after serving their country in the armed forces, the bereaved man seeking affirmation of his relationship with his partner who has died. The subjects made visible in Obergefell are constructed, like Carol, as sympathetic figures based on their furtherance of the state’s goals (raising children, honoring service to the state). These are subjects in a position of subservience to the state—at once asking for rights the state has denied them and serving the state’s projects, ultimately upholding the legitimacy of the institution founded on their exclusion. This latter point is, of course, a rather cynical and oversimplified analysis, but it is nevertheless useful for understanding what is at stake in Carol’s allegiance to the melodramatic masochistic fantasy. It is important to note what is not made visible in the film: the overt critique, present in the novel, of the heterosexist, patriarchal logic that structures the law and our ability to construct meaningful identities and pursue pleasures over and against the law, even as it begins to reach farther into our daily lives through biopower. Between 1952 and 2015, Carol has lost something of the critical eye and the creative sensibility that go hand in hand with autonomous self-fashioning. What are the ramifications—for queer spectatorship, queer filmmaking, and queer politics—of this shift toward a reliance on the law and its corollary biopolitical functions of recording and manipulating life trajectories on a large scale? Or, to put the question in economic terms, as 1952’s Carol might, what does this reliance get us, and at what cost?


1  Pam Cook finds a similar “split… between melodrama and film noir” in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 Mildred Pierce (a film that Haynes adapted as a mini-series in 2011). However, while Cook finds this split to be gendered (where melodrama aligns with the female voice and noir with the male voice), I find in Carol a more complicated split between the use of sexuality in the two genres—that former suppressing sexuality within a narrative of social constraints and the latter posing female sexuality as a threat. Carol, I propose, deftly and self-consciously uses a fantasy of female noir sexuality to endow its title character with power that is, at times, threatened by the film’s melodramatic moments.

2  This reference to HUAC should also remind us of the rampant fear of homosexuality as a threat to US security in the 1950s. As David K. Johnson writes in his study of the “purge of homosexuals from the State Department” during McCarthyism, “In 1950, many politicians, journalists, and citizens thought that homosexuals posed more of a threat to national security than Communists” (3, 2).

3  See also Ken Hanke’s review, aptly titled “Carol is a gorgeous, well-acted film with a cold, intellectual heart.”

4  Michel Foucault explains in The Birth of Biopolitics that the relationship between the individual and the law only becomes intelligible as “economic behavior” and that power operates on individuals only on this “grid of homo economicus” (252-3).

5  Wendy Brown’s assessment of identity-based rights claims as indicative of an attachment to victimization is especially applicable to this situation. She writes that “a feature of politicized identity’s desire within liberal-bureaucratic regimes, its foreclosure of its own freedom, its impulse to inscribe in the law and in other political registers its historical and present pain rather than conjure an imagined future of power to make itself” (66).

Works Cited

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Becker, Judy. “Carol’s Production Designer Reveals How to Achieve Cate Blanchett Chic.” Interview by Joanna Robinson. Vanity Fair, 27 Nov. 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/photos/2015/11/carol-production-design.

Blanchett, Cate. Image Gallery: Cate Blanchett. Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, Weinstein Company, 2015.

Brown, Wendy. States of Injury. Princeton UP, 1995.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford UP, 1997.

Carlston, Erin G. “Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, The Lesbian Novel That’s Now a Major Motion Picture.” The National Book Review,22 Nov. 2015, https://www.thenationalbookreview.com/features/2015/11/22/dlqvawdg1wjt1ls808mnk9y6e2xu3b.

Carol. Directed by Todd Haynes, performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, The Weinstein Company, 2015. 

Cook, Pam. “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce.Women in Film Noir, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, BFI, 2001, pp. 69-80.

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Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” Film Genre Reader IV, edited by Barry Keith Grant, U of Texas P, 2012. pp. 433-462.

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Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell, Picador, 2008. ---. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley, Vintage Books, 1990.

Fry, Naomi. “Surface Matters.” New Republic, 13 Nov 2015. https://newrepublic.com/article/123221/todd-hayness-carol-mistakes-aesthetics-meaning Goldberg, Jonathan. Melodrama: An Aesthetics of Impossibility. Duke UP, 2016.

Hanke, Ken. “Carol is a gorgeous, well-acted film with a cold, intellectual heart.” Charleston City Paper,6 Jan. 2016. http://m.charlestoncitypaper.com/charleston/carol-is-a-gorgeous-well-acted-film-with-a-cold-intellectual-heart/Content?oid=5669484.

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Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice-over, and the Femme Fatale.” Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1997. pp. 243-259. Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. U of Chicago P, 2004.

Khuu, Neo. “Obergefell v. Hodges: Kinship Formation, Interest Convergence, and the Future of LGBTQ Rights.” UCLA Law Review, vol. 64, no. 184, 2017, pp. 184-229.

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Phelan, Shane. Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship. Temple UP, 2001.

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