Please do not read this post without also reading this post: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reel-therapy/200910/lesbian-.... This is not an attempt to shamelessly promote my other posts but rather to clarify the original intent of this post. Thanks. Enjoy.
Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page, stars of "Whip It," can be seen kissing on the inside of Marie Claire magazine. I mention this only because it is the latest piece of supportive evidence for a hypothesis that I've been building about "Whip It." This film purports to be the story of a small town adolescent who rebels and finds her genuine identity as roller derby star athlete. But I think this film is also a secret communication to closeted lesbians living in hostile places in which the closet is the only safe place to be.
Let's back up before we get into conspiracy theories. "Whip It" is directed by a female (Barrymore), its protagonist is female (Page), and the story is about a girl who becomes a woman in a female dominated world. There isn't a serious male character to be seen. Oddly enough, the film is also about sports and the Deep South. I know what you're thinking. I, as a heterosexual man, am incapable of watching an exclusively female story without conflating its straightforward coming-of-age purpose with some sort of secret, subversive sexual agenda. Why can't I just appreciate this movie as the female version of adolescent identity growth and discovery? Why force meaning in-between the lines and covertly degrade this story as only interesting if satisfying some half-cocked interpretation? Well, my way means the movie is even more important and interesting, so if you're a feminist film critic you can just relax.
I have developed the hypothesis of "Whip It" as lesbian fantasy in disguise, because even if this is not the intention of the filmmaker, it still works on this level, and by functioning on this level it is serving a social purpose above and beyond the gender equality comment that women can make films too.
So, where is lesbian fantasy to be found in this film? Let's back up even further for a minute. What is the primary function that films serve? Escape. Specifically, escape into a desirable fantasy world from an undesirable reality. Let's imagine for a moment that you are a closeted lesbian in a suppressively heterosexual environment like Bovine, Texas. You are not coming out. You would probably rather die then come out. Thus, you are walking around with unmet needs. You have a desire to be truly known, sexually gratified and socially accepted, but society relentlessly disappoints. There is a convincing pile of emerging research that examines the specifics of this kind of misery. It is real. It is profound. If you are a filmmaker then you have the opportunity to, at least temporarily, assuage this kind of misery. But you have to be careful. If you make the story about something that is almost as "bad" as being a lesbian, and you tell a tale of adversity overcome, of strength, growth and freedom then you can indulge this fantasy of lesbian actualization without activating the anxiety of reality, that is, the shame of feeling different and the fear of being different in a prejudice society.
First, there needs to be a concealable stigma, as it is this notion that constitutes the heart of the dilemma of being, in this case, homosexual. Possessing a concealable stigma means that a significant aspect of one's identity can be hidden from the public, and the public has arbitrarily defined this aspect of identity to be poisonous/unequal/unlovable/you get the idea. "Whip It" is about a less intense stigma than being gay; it is about being a female athlete in a sport that is embedded in a punk culture. This is sufficiently unsuitable for a high-society southern lady hoping to appease societal expectations.
Second, there needs to be a wink-and-nod to the lesbian-in-hiding audience that sexuality is the real issue. A couple points here:
A. "Whip It" is about roller blading, which this movie defines as a group of half-drunk women, in tight athletic gear and rollerblades muscling each other for inside positioning, as a few key teammates weave in and out of the pack. Those that have finesse are chased by those that have strength, somewhat akin to the cat and mouse pursuit of a top and bottom sexual power dynamic (there's a reason the standard sexual position is missionary). In short, this game is a metaphor for sex.
B. The protagonist, Bliss (Page), behaves in the way that a lesbian might behave before she knows she's a lesbian. We meet her just as she's playfully dying her hair blue for a beauty pageant. Her inexplicable love for roller derby is incited by the image of three women pushing each other on rollerblades. She dumps her boyfriend with suspicious ease and celerity. She's an adolescent who likes to be different, is experimental and puts a boyfriend second to roller derby. Now, obviously none of these things makes her a suppressed lesbian, but as a lesbian in the audience you might be cued into the possibility of an alternative, unconscious sexual agenda.
C. A character named "Jaba the Slut" is definitely a lesbian. She winks at girls and offers them drinks and come-on lines. This is never made explicit, which signals to the audience that lesbianism is both present and not really present.
A third and final point in this process of mitigating concealable stigma pain is that all the various things that make "coming out" anxiety-provoking must be destroyed. As an audience member you are starting to get anxious as your genuine sexuality schemas are being activated. You are watching this protagonist named Bliss who is sending subtle lesbian signals and you are subconsciously noticing the parallels between Bliss and yourself. How is the anxiety relieved? The normal, heterosexual order is turned on its head: men are metaphorically castrated while, simultaneously, lesbian sexuality is empowered. The heterosexual castration takes place either through humor or implicit feminization of male characters. This slips a little peace of mind into the audience member with anxiety-ridden homosexual desires.
Let's look at the men in this world: there's the passive sports-crazed father, the sexually androgynous boyfriend, the I'm-just-one-of-the-girls coach and the horny roller derby announcer. Although dad flirts with mom he clearly loves sports and beer more than sex. This is made conscious with a scene in which Bliss encounters her father's van in an abandoned, moonlit parking lot. All signs point to raunchy sex until she realizes that he's just watching the Texas Long Horns. The boyfriend may be straight in the same way the Beatles were harmlessly straight, but his long hair, fondness for wrestling and effeminate smile, at the very least, sucks the testosterone out of the room. The coach inexplicable wears tight jean shorts and inexplicably loves roller derby. He writes play books, pushes them in practice and cheerleads them during games. If roller derby is a metaphor for sexual identity then he nurtures and protects this identity in a way that few straight men can. Then there is "Hot Tub" Johnny Rocket, the announcer. He is the epitome of over-sexualized, aggressive machismo. Lesbians fearing rejection hate what he epitomizes, and he is predictably and harshly torn down. He is laughed off when he wants to join the ladies in the hot tub; his appeals to the audience for dates seem unsuccessful, at best. The last name "Rocket" makes it more than obvious that he represents a penis, an impotent one.
And while this is happening, female sexual power takes over. This is most evident in the scene in which Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) wrestles her husband down to the ground from behind before riding him like a bronco. She even motions towards punching him in the balls. This is a rather obvious piece of symbolism about heterosexual power being tamed.
Thus, we have a movie about roller derby but we also have a subtextual discussion about lesbian sexuality in a way that satisfies unmet lesbian needs without explicitly communicating to the public that this is happening. The misery of concealable stigma is addressed, the theme of sexuality is activated and the threat of heterosexual sexuality is diffused.
This fantasy of escape for a lesbian in hiding is perhaps a stretch, but if it is evident to me then it might be evident to the tacitly targeted audience whom would then be offered a certain psychological gift: a brief but strong reduction in general life anxiety and a warm societal message of "you are not alone." Hence, this lesbian fantasy for lesbians may serve a noble and crucial psychological function well beyond most formulaic films. And, oh yeah, it explains why Barrymore and Page are kissing in magazine shoots.