Anything and Everything / Feminist Criticism

Riding in Cars with ‘Carol’

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Todd Haynes’s postmodern take on 1950s melodrama is crystallized in his film Carol, with its nod to Douglas Sirk’s production style, as well as the narrative focus on the relationship dynamics of queer characters.

Carol tells the story of a romance between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). The women cross paths in a department store at a time in their lives when both their heterosexual relationships are at a point of instability; Carol is going through a divorce, and Therese is unsure of her commitment to her boyfriend. They quickly become friends and then lovers, a relationship that is complicated by the social strictures of the 1950s middle-class lifestyle. The film maintains elements of classic 1950s melodramas, but Haynes queers the generic conventions, particularly with respect to the symbolic function of cars, allowing Carol to be included in the queer melodramatic canon.

Carol and Therese develop their relationship in spaces outside of the family home and instead find respite in cars. By appropriating the traditionally masculine symbol of a car as their queer safe space, Carol and Therese’s relationship evades and toys with the dominant patriarchal gaze. The car in Carol functions as a physical safe space in which the women are able to foster a queer relationship, outside of the social institutions that govern their behavior. Working within the boundaries of a 1950s melodrama, Carol communicates the creation of a positive queer relationship between the protagonists, despite the historical social taboos in place. Todd Haynes has co-opted the traditionally masculine symbol of a car, and made a space and time that foster the cultivation of a positive homosexual relationship.

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Of common concern within queer and feminist film theory is the ever-present objectifying male gaze. Made famous by Laura Mulvey, the concept of visually objectifying the cinematic has found its way from the realm of scholarship to pop culture. Judith Halberstam expands Mulvey’s thesis to encompass queer characters by observing that their presence in a narrative “[functions] only to confirm the rightness of heterosexual object choice” due to their sexuality being bound up with questionable moral character and reinforcing the heteropatriarchy. Audiences tend to want to be comfortable, and achieve it through the “othering” of non-normative bodies/sexualities via visual objectification. Carol and Therese can subvert the dominant gazes of the on screen and spectating heterosexual male by escaping society into the car, and later by being obscured by the car’s structure.

In film, cars traditionally function as vehicles for heterosexual encounters and are bound up in their owner’s identity. The woman visually associated with the automobile is categorized according to her performance as an erotic object for the heterosexual male gaze. The most common of these is the woman as potential penetrated object, interacting with the car in a sexual manner, as in the case of Mikaela from Transformers, or the girls in the car wash scene in Bring it On. The other major role features the woman as a proxy man, wherein the car becomes her active, penetrative device, such as the case of the hypersexual and aggressive Marylee in Written on the Wind. Marylee’s ostentatious personality is reflected in her bright red convertible that she uses to literally pick up potential romantic partners. Automobiles act as a metaphoric phallus, an object connoting with penetration and patriarchal sexual dominance, erasing the passivity associated with feminine performance. In Carol, cars play an intrinsic role in Carol and Therese’s romantic relationship, but with nuances that succeed in conveying a queer narrative above all.

Carol’s car is both sleek and functional, a 1949 Packard Super Deluxe 8, alluding to her comfortable financial status, as well as her role as a mother. However, the car remains uneroticized throughout the film; it functions solely as a location that facilitates queer relationships. When Carol first picks up Therese, it is as though they’re headed on their first date. Richard Semco seems more like a protective father than boyfriend, asking if Carol will “get her back safe and sound.” He sends off Therese with a familial “I love you,” to which she reluctantly responds with a simple “bye” from behind the closed window of Carol’s Packard. The disconnect between the established sexual dynamics introduces the audience to the complicated consequences of realizing Carol and Therese’s queer identities within society.

Carol’s romantic interest in Therese is first broached while Abby is driving Carol back to her house. Abby’s car is made an acceptable environment for the discussion due to Abby’s implied (and later confirmed) homosexuality. Although Carol brushes off the inquiry, the frankness with which Abby was able to introduce the topic serves to establish the vehicle in transit as one that fosters queer relationships.

In Carol’s car, she and Therese can escape the moral confines of the archetypal city together. However, even when they arrive “out west” they find themselves under the watchful gaze of a (presumably straight) male private detective. The women are not safe from outside scrutiny while in stasis; rather they must remain in constant motion in order to develop their relationship.

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As the women make their way out of the city and into the countryside, the picture editor chose to include a series of close ups on various parts of Carol and Therese, creating a sense of intimacy, even though the women never touch. Here, Haynes employs a non-traditional shot/reverse shot sequence. Rather than matching the eye line of the women, they remain partially out of frame, or obstructed by a filter, and the audience is denied visual synchronicity of Carol’s lips with her spoken words. By dismantling the traditional shot structure in this first car scene, it visually distances the viewer from the women’s private moment. Not only are both women distanced from the viewer visually, but also through the sound design. The music accompanying the scene is noticeable louder than the dialogue, contrary to the standard treatment of sonic elements in cinema. This sonic veil provides Carol and Therese with a certain amount of privacy, shielding them from the curious ears of the cinematic spectator. Several times throughout the film the cinematic apparatus creates a private space for Carol and Therese, excluding even the audience, who is placed outside the car, or with an obstructed view of the women.

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In a bonding moment in the car Therese poignantly asks Carol if she “feels safe,” and Carol answers her plainly; “I’m not frightened, Therese.” However, this feeling of security only exists in the car in transit, contrasting the liminal space and temporality with the grounded sense of safety.

Carol shows the consequences of pursuing alternative temporalities. Therese and Carol’s relationship disrupts the “traditional family structure” due to their inability to produce biological offspring. The traditional construction of linear time in cinema (and postwar America) is contingent upon the propagation of humanity through heterosexual sex and the bearing of children. Homosexuality then, threatens the return to the nuclear family through the destruction of heteronormative conceptions of time with respect to reproduction. Even before the women meet, they exist on the boundaries of these temporal constructs; Carol’s marriage and domestic life are fractured, and Therese avoids making decisions regarding a future with her boyfriend. Early in the film, Carol refers to Therese as a girl “flung out of space.” I would argue that the lesbian relationship at the center of the narrative is also flung out of space (and time) by the escape attempt of the women westward, far from the demands of heterosexual conjugal temporality.

Todd Haynes’s recent cycle of adaptations of 1950s melodramatic narratives is bookended by Far from Heaven and Carol. Though the Sirkian influence is prominent in both films, the shift in Haynes’ political agenda is apparent. The former film portrays characters whose personal identities are bound up in reference to their given society, while the latter depicts women who begin the narrative already on the fringes of transgressing societal borders. The ironic stylization of the mise-en-scene in Far from Heaven is toned down in Carol, focusing instead on the elements that facilitate a safe queer space, anchored in the car. The replacement of erotic and romantic feelings from the mise-en-scene back onto the human subjects from which they originate allows the car in Carol to function as a space rather than a symbol. Thus, the “queering” of the cars in Carol can be attributed to the re-centering of meaning onto the queer characters, providing them with a legitimacy and nuance that remains elusive in contemporary cinema.

By Ashleigh Bowers


ashleighAshleigh is a 20-something grandpa from Durham, North Carolina. If you make it past her fortress of books you might find her chatting endlessly (to no one in particular) about the sonic characterisations of women in film. To that end, she is currently pursuing a dual masters in Cinema Studies and Sound Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Centre Stage and Bring it On and consiers director Todd Haynes her queer spiritual soulmate. You can follow her music-making alter-ego Brett.Ashleigh on Soundcloud here, or read her irreverent tweets @13cupsofcoffee. 

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One thought on “Riding in Cars with ‘Carol’

  1. Pingback: MIX: A Roadtrip with Carol | SCREENQUEENS

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