The Lesbian Gaze of “Carol”

Todd Haynes’ film Carol—like the novel The Price of Salt on which it is based—examines the blossoming love between (you guessed it) Carol, a high society, impeccably dressed married mother, and Therese, a younger woman working at Frankenberg’s department store over the Christmas season. Carol, played exquisitely by Cate Blanchett, is navigating the end of a tumultuous marriage in an era where divorce was still taboo. She is far more world-weary than Therese, played with wide-eyed bashfulness by Rooney Mara.

While Haynes’ adaptation stays fairly faithful to Patricia Highsmith’s original tale, the film offers a hyperfocus on visuals to convey longing and alienation, stripping away much of the original dialogue from the novel. This choice results in an exchange where Carol and Therese gaze at one another—and we gaze at them—far more than we listen to or hear them. Whether Haynes intended to use silence symbolically remains unclear; the use of furtive glances, reflections, mirrors and windows is far more prominent. It’s a choice which evokes a lesbian gaze of sorts, allowing us to “see” lesbian desire.

The movie opens in the toy section where Therese works, plying dolls. Production designer Judy Becker notes that this setting, in which Carol and Therese first lock eyes, was key in terms of conveying the loneliness, the mutual “melancholy feeling . . . that reflects what’s going on in both the character’s lives.”

Perhaps more subtle and poignant, however, is how this “gaze” will continue to refract and evolve, toggling between desire, captivity, and queer politics. In this early scene, when Carol is looking for a doll for her daughter Rindy, she and Therese stare across the room at one another, amid the anxious scramble of shoppers in the background. The look they share is electric—seemingly stopping time in the otherwise frenetic scene of hustle, bustle, and glinting ribbons. Such gazes will dominate the film, but, instead of the camera acting as a predatory hunter of the objectified female—as is so often the case—the camera in Caroltakes on a decidedly female gaze. While the emphasis is on Carol and Therese looking at one another with palpable longing, it also surfaces questions as to what it means to look and be looked at as a female while trying to perform femininity in a way that does not put one’s job—or life—in danger.

Carol emphasizes the tangled and shifting nature of love via a focus not only on the web-like threads that bind people to one another, but also via its emphasis on mirrors, windows, and reflections. Carol and Therese look hungrily at one another throughout the movie—especially when hotel rooms allow them the coveted privacy that stores, restaurants, and car windows do not. It is, then, apt that the film changes Therese’s career of choice into photographer (in the book, she aspired to be a theatre set designer). In her photos, she captures Carol’s surface beauty and effervescence, her joie de vivre, but her photos reveal hidden depths—the pain and longing Carol’s striking red lips and luxurious fur coat attempt to hide. Therese’s photographs, along with the film’s focus on reflections and gazes, heartbreakingly capture stringent 1950s norms, refracting them so that they amplify the strictures of our own 21st century moment.

Both women are trapped, albeit in different ways: Carol by societal expectations of heteromonogamy, Therese by lack of funds and opportunity. Both of them ultimately realize that the normal way of life—engagement, marriage, children—make life lose its “salt” when what one desires is to choose options drastically opposed to those on offer for women in 1950s America. Though the book more thoroughly captures their desire to chose each other despite high stakes—both societal and personal—the film makes it clear that their attraction to one another emboldens them to buck the system.

As Jake Coyle notes in his San Diego Union-Tribune piece, Carol and Therese “must cloak their surging affection for one another in subtle, hidden gestures, keeping their love unseen to a conservative, male-dominated world.” For much of their time together, the two women must hide what their initial gaze reveals, that they are magnetically drawn to one another in a way that the society of the time deems not only unnatural, but criminal.

When Carol tells Therese “shopping makes me nervous,” Therese suggests Carol consider a train instead of a doll—a hint the movie will take the characters on a journey which, like the circuitous route of toy trains, will return them to their starting point—back to the city where Carol’s husband Harge does not want to let her go, where Therese must struggle to forge a career in a man’s world.

Before their return, their trip takes them West, to towns with fitting names like Defiance, and they fall into the lure of the open road and, eventually, into one another’s open arms. Unlike inThelma and Louise, the road trip is not related to sexual assault, but to the more subtle “crime” of same-sex love which, as Frank Royce puts it, turns Carol and Therese “into unlikely outlaws” who “must act in code, much of it wordless, as they traipse across a barren swath of the Midwest.” The road trip includes guns, being tracked by males—both their respective male partners, Harge and Richard—as well as the detective Harge hires to obtain evidence that will give him the upper hand in custody proceedings with Rindy.

Although the book more thoroughly captures what non-heterosexual lovers are up against in the heteronormative society of 1950s New York, the film adaptation accurately portrays the “salt” of Patricia Highsmith’s novel; the message that marriage is not for everyone, nor is heterosexuality. In the book, Carol shares with Therese that she got married “because it was the thing to do when you were about 20, among the people I knew” and later laments the inability to see her friends due to her divorce as, “everything’s supposed to be done in pairs.”

Therese, in contrast, is more naïve and optimistic—even asking Richard, her fiancé, “Did you ever hear of it? . . . two people who fall in love suddenly with each other, out of the blue. Say two men or two girls?” and then remarking, “I suppose it could happen, though, to almost anyone, couldn’t it?” Richard will later call Therese’s love for Carol a “silly crush,” comparing it to “living on lotus blossoms or some sickening candy instead of the bread and meat of life.” Insisting she is in a kind of obsessive daze, he tells her Carol is “committing a crime” against her, that she is acting like a frenzied child. Richard’s reactions are key in revealing the wider societal view of same-sex love that permeated mid-century America; it was not only a delusional love, chock full of childish notions, but it was a crime, and a dangerous one. Richard’s character fares far better in the film than the book, rendered a scorned lover as opposed to a homophobic bully.

On the other hand, Carol’s husband Harge, (Kyle Chandler), plays a much larger role in the film than the book, surfacing in various scenes—some violent, some tender—to make it clear he is not going to let Carol go easily. In the novel, we only hear of Harge through Carol, who defines his resistance to divorce as a power struggle. “It’s not love,” she says, “It’s a compulsion . . . he wants to control me. Noting, “he picked me out like a rug for his living room,” Carol clearly recognizes that to him the marriage is about appearances, explaining that “I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really.” Perhaps Haynes chose to make Harge a more complex character in order to convey the consequences of Carol’s choice—in the book, the two women take to the road and exist in a more isolated bubble.

Richard, on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling Therese and instead frames her love for Carol as an “unhealthy” and trivial dalliance; be believes time will prove him right and she’ll inevitably come rushing back into his arms.

Neither of the males are presented as proper villains, however, but as partners who begrudgingly hold onto the women they supposedly love, incredulous as to how they’ve escaped their orbit of domestic—if suffocating—normalcy.

Danny, who is a physicist in the novel (and a newspaper photographer in the movie) is the most sympathetic male character. In the film, he tells Therese matter-of-factly, “you either are attracted to one another or you’re not . . . it’s like physics.” Here, he adopts the “love is love” stance that went societally viral in the past few years.

Haynes chooses to depict Therese as a virgin in the film, which vastly intensifies Therese’s heady whisper to Carol, “take me to bed,” as the viewer knows this is the first time she will be penetrated or enjoy the sharing of her body with another. In contrast, the book details Therese’s dislike of sex with Richard, as when she muses to Carol, “Don’t you think it’s more pleasant than sleeping with men?”

Carol does not agree however, answering, “Not necessarily. That depends.” In the novel, Therese briefly considers Danny as a possible lover, and also another woman—an actress, Genevieve Cranell. Highsmith describes her feelings as “a tangle where a dozen threads crossed and knotted.” Here, the novel displays a queer politics, one that is in many ways more queer than Haynes’ film.

Highsmith’s depiction of sex also has queer undertones, with Carol explaining “whom you sleep with depends so much on habit.” Highsmith uncouples love and sex, having Carol say “I think sex flows more sluggishly in all of us than we care to believe” and describing it as more about trying to find, “A friend, a companion, or maybe just a sharer.” Telling Therese “people often try to find through sex, things that are much easier to find in other ways,” Carol knows that love is far more difficult and fleeting than sex, even encouraging Therese to “try some others.”

Hence, in both the book and the film, sex is one thing, love another, and both are depicted as best when not bound by the strictures of hetero-monogamy. In one scene in the book, as Therese and Richard fly a kite, Therese questions, “Was it love or wasn’t it that she felt for Carol?” and thinks about what she has “heard about girls falling in love” and what she knows about “what kind of people they were and what they looked like.” Confirming to herself that “neither she nor Carol looked like that,” she reminds herself that “she was happier than she had ever been before. And why worry about defining everything.” Here, the kite echoes the theme of our connections to other people being like a thread that sometimes extends skyward, and other times becomes knotted and entangled. The scene also emphasizes that sexuality does not have one “look” or form, and that we are too caught up with labels and definitions.

Carol, unlike more simplistic depictions (such as in The Kids Are Alright, where all it takes is a few smoldering looks from Mark Ruffalo to entice Julianne Moore away from her wife), explores a relationship that is forbidden on various levels—Carol is much older than Therese and a mother in the midst of a contentious divorce. Add in class differentials, Therese’s relationship with Richard, and Carol’s litigious husband, and you’ve got a very messy situation, even if the two lovers were not both female. The narrative insists that relationships—and sex—are complicated and painful.

Though Haynes’s adaptation is fairly true to the book, it fails to fully capture Highsmith’s more complex rendering. This is largely due to the changes made to Therese’s and Carol’s characters. The film depicts Carol as less jaded and no-nonsense than she is in the book and renders Therese more timid and naïve. The novel is more forceful in its condemnation of sexual mores, with Carol pointing out to Therese that what they share is “an abomination” according to society and Therese coming to realize the fact, “the whole world was ready to be their enemy.” This leads Therese to see what she and Carol have as “no longer love or anything happy but a monster between them, with each of them caught in a fist.” Though the film omits many of this direct commentary about social norms, it aptly conveys the vice-like grip of heteronormativity, revealing through its sumptuous visuals that emotions can be, as Therese puts it, “revolutionary in themselves.”

Despite these more positive and open depictions of love, the film and novel have a deeply melancholy tone, one that is key to the exploration of the forbidden love between Carol and Therese. Such love was of course far more taboo circa early 50s America, but one of the reasons the film feels so moving is due to the fact such love is still forbidden—“non-normative” love is something akin to a ball of knotted yarn batted around by societal, cat-like claws—toyed with, rolled under a rug, pulled out when convenient, hidden away.

Near the end of the movie, we see Therese traveling toward the hotel where Carol is at a party. Her reflection, seen through a taxi window covered in raindrops, evokes teardrops and sorrow. The final image though, of Carol seeing Therese across the crowded room, takes us back to the moment they first saw one another at the department store. Far from a clichéd or dated love-at-first-sight narrative, Carol is, as Blanchett explains, “so ahead of what we feel is contemporary.”

Indeed, though 2015 has been called a tipping point for LGBTQ rights and awareness, it seems the “L” remains in metaphorical lower case when looking at popular culture. Gay males, especially white ones, are far more prominent in film and television, despite what the success of Orange is the New Black might make it seem. Further, too often lesbian stories lean towards extremes—to the tragic, the comedic, or the hypersexualized—rather than to the realistic portrayal found in Carol. Perhaps this explains why the film took some 20 years to make it into theaters (producer Dorothy Berwin bought the rights in 1996).

As a queer woman myself, I thought the visuals made up for whatcould be criticized as a dearth of dialogue or rapport between Therese and Carol. For me, Haynes successfully achieved a “love at first sight” attraction, which the book also emphasizes; it’s an animal magnetism that Highsmith herself describes in the real-life incident, which inspired the book.

All these observations makes one wonder why films like Carol are still so rare—films that circulate around a lesbian gaze, allowing the audience to see love and desire between women realistically rendered. The film may be somewhat of a disappointment to those who love the novel, as it is more subtle in its depiction, less overt in its criticism, but, for those who understand that being queer and female and in love is “as warrior as one can get” (as described by poet Cherrie Moraga), the film indeed offers a happy ending to close out a year of many LGBTQ wins. I concur with Sasha Stone  that Carol is “one of the most important films of the year.”

Its gaze is one worth returning.

This story first appeared at The Establishment. Read more here:


Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.