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Blue Is the Warmest Color: A Piece of Life or Heteronormative Appropriation of Lesbianism?

by Linda Christina Riedmann (2nd Year BA Film Studies, KCL iFemSoc International Officer)

Plot: The film tells the coming-of-age story of Adèle from the time she realizes that her sexual desires differ from most of her friends in high school, through her encounter with blue-haired Emma and their subsequent passionate relationship, to their breakup years later when Adèle has become a teacher and Emma a successful artist.

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In the spirit of LGBT History Month, I have finally put into words the thoughts I have had ever since I saw Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013). When it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, I was very excited about its explicit on-screen gay representation and couldn’t wait to see it. Soon, however, controversy started to appear such as that the director was male and both actresses were straight, claims of degradation and inaccuracy, interviews in which the actresses accused the director of abusive treatment during production and that it catered to male desire. Most of these controversies eventually aimed to determine whether the actual images of Adèle and Emma’s relationship and environment are positive or negative representations. However, as Benshoff and Griffin write,

“One will see that judging textual images as merely ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ vastly oversimplifies the many complex ways that cultural texts can be and are understood in relation to the ‘real world’.”[1]

Such simplification is detrimental especially when applied to a text that represents an already marginalized social group struggling with discrimination and stereotyping. As I am very passionate about the film, I thus argue that Blue Is the Warmest Color is a progressive, true-to-life lesbian representation through acknowledging the reality of what being a lesbian in the 21st century might mean and addressing the pleasures as well as the adjacent internal and external struggles with heterosexist Western dominant ideology. Any text is polysemic due to the multiplicity of meanings created when the ideological values encoded in the text at the level of production intersect with those of an active and ethnographically diverse audience at the level of reception. Before asserting my thesis that the film’s representation is neither positive nor negative but authentic, I thus want to emphasize that my reading is only one among many and that some might find it easier and others harder to identify with it according to their individual experiences.

Stereotype: A Stowaway 

The criticism against the film mentioned above (largely regarding the production context) is certainly valid and I want to expand on it a bit further with some textual arguments. Jay Clarkson writes:

“At the heart of the politics of gay representation are two intersecting considerations: the meanings and functions of visibility, and the role of gender performance in our understanding of sexuality.”[2]

While the aspect of visibility in Blue with its largely proactive attitude mainly works in favor of the gay community, an argument could be made against the film for maintaining a gender bias. Adèle expresses traditional femininity in cooking and doing the household while Emma is the free spirit with a huge social network of which Adèle becomes part instead of maintaining her own friendships after high school. During a party, Adèle sacrifices personal enjoyment for her responsibility of serving the guests with food she prepared. Adèle further holds a job as a teacher, a profession stereotypically considered feminine, while Emma is on the verge of a great career as an artist and of fulfilling herself independently. What emerges is that Adèle is the wife and Emma the husband, a fact only enforced by their physical appearance: Adèle has long brown hair and over time becomes more and more feminized by wearing skirts and jewelry while Emma is introduced with untidy blue hair that transforms to short and blonde, matching her rather masculine clothing. The most poignant expression of their gendered relationship is their fight scene, in which Emma becomes verbally abusive of Adèle before expelling her from the flat. Adèle pleads for forgiveness in tears, laying bare her emotional dependency on Emma. This heteronormative appropriation of a gay relationship could be seen as an example of what Benshoff and Griffin call incorporation,

“the stripping of an ideology or cultural artifact’s more ‘dangerous’ or critical meanings so that the watered-down artifact can be sold to mainstream culture.”[3]

The film carries another instance of stereotyping in its confinement of the gay community to the art world and its separatist view of it in relation to the rest of society. The only times an out-and-proud gay community is actually shown is in gay or lesbian bars and in Emma’s group of friends who are exclusively artists, writers, and other creative minds. Even Emma’s family that is excepting of their daughter’s sexual orientation is presented as very artistically minded and liberal as a consequence thereof. In Adèle’s high school, the school where she teaches and her more conservative family – notably all highly ideologically charged spaces – homosexuality finds no recognition or means of expression.

The Individual vs. Society 

Although those arguments speak against a fully positive representation of homosexuality in Blue, they do not diminish the correspondence to the reality of the world we live in. Blue’s strength, in my opinion, lies not in euphemizing the lives of an underrepresented social group, but in offering a representation that speaks to potential real life experiences. Antithetical to other lesbian characters in mainstream media such as the women from The L Word who, as Marnie Pratt notes, are all

“very thin, conventionally attractive, well groomed, heavily made up, and highly fashionable,”[4]

Adèle and Emma are average teenage girls with profoundly human characteristics (i.e. Adèle sleeps with her mouth open, smokes as an expression of anxiety and eats chocolate in despair). Moreover, the film acknowledges people’s differences as based on their way of living, interests, personal values and feelings instead of classifying them according to gender, race, class or sexuality as self-explanatory categories. For example, Adèle’s and Emma’s differing interests and values play as much a role in their break-up as Adèle’s internalized homophobia.

Most importantly, Blue acknowledges the struggles that are attached to being a gay person living in a society dominated by heterosexism. Adèle finds herself as both subject to and product of a heterosexist world. In high school she faces severe discrimination and rejection by her “friends” once they suspect that she is a lesbian, pressuring her into instant denial. Subsequently, Adèle never comes out of the closet and cheats on Emma with a male co-worker. Although she claims that she did it because she was lonely, one might suspect that internally she held resentments against herself based on the notion that homosexuality is unnatural and that she tried to fight those by getting involved with a man. While she remains a straight-acting lesbian for the wider public, only in Emma’s community of gay friends can she be herself. What Adèle expresses is a profound internalized homophobia. The impact of the women’s families is crucial to note here. Emma, who has never experienced prejudice against homosexuality in her family, is able to be very confident with herself while Adèle, whose parents express far more conservative views, struggles internally. This shows how effective the family as an Ideological State Apparatus may be in shaping one’s identity and maintaining society’s dominant ideology. Part of Adèle’s self-hatred might further result from her expressed preference for a traditional model of femininity that potentially includes motherhood and the apparent incompatibility of such a model with her sexual orientation.

Besides remaining grounded in reality, the film does not deny the beautiful side of being gay. It shows the process of realization of one’s same-sex desire and relief upon finding the “missing ingredient”. Before Adèle meets Emma, she takes no pleasure in sexual acts with boys, but with Emma everything seems to fall into place. The emotional intensity and rawness of their much discussed excessive sex scene clearly disavows claims that the film caters to a heterosexual male audience. It puts the women on equal ground, is romantic, erotic and hot, but by absence of music, in my opinion, only truly understandable by someone who can feel its passion without artificial manipulation. Lastly, Blue even offers an alternative to the nuclear family in the form of Lise, who is pregnant and eventually forms a family with Emma.

This is not to say that Blue Is the Warmest Color represents every single lesbian nor that being gay automatically allows one to identify with the representation on screen. Nevertheless, I hope that my arguments show that, despite some instances of stereotyping, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a sympathetic and impressively conscious representation of what the life of a lesbian in the 21st centurymight look like. What remains woeful is that, despite winning a major award, the film’s release was severely limited, which undermines its inherent potential.


[1] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, “Introduction to the Study of Film, Form and Representation,” inAmerica On Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 1st ed. (MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 294.

[2] Jay Clarkson, “The Limitations of the Discourse of Norms: Gay Visibility and Degrees of Transgression,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media, 3rd ed., eds. Gail Dines and J. M. Humez (CA, London: SAGE Publications, 2011), 335.

[3] Benshoff and Griffin, “Film Form,” 14.

[4] Marnie Pratt, “This Is the Way We Live…and Love!,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media, 3rd ed., eds. Gail Dines and J. M. Humez (CA, London: SAGE Publications, 2011), 343.

 

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