I can’t believe Notes on a Scandal is up for four Academy Awards. Can I just say that I totally hated it?
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Barbara (Judi Dench) is a bitter, frumpy woman obsessed with lovely young Sheba (Cate Blanchett). When Barbara finds out that Sheba is having sex with a teenage boy, she offers herself up as a confidante in hopes of getting closer to Sheba. But her manipulation escalates into blackmail, as Barbara becomes desperate to have Sheba as her “friend.”
The film is full of misogyny. Of course Barbara, an older single woman, is pathetic and lonely and overly attached to her cat. Sheba is the airhead blonde who starts having sex with a 15-year-old apparently just because she is weak and passive.
I knew the film had been called homophobic for its portrayal of Barbara, but she didn’t even seem like a lesbian to me. She comments on Sheba’s beauty in her diary, but never mentions wanting to have sex with her. In one scene she strokes Sheba’s arms until Sheba makes her stop, but Barbara seems more desperate for physical contact than anything else. She’s lonely and controlling and obsessed. But a lesbian?
Then I read reviews of the film by dykes who referred to Barbara as a “bulldagger,” “butch” and “manly.” To me, Barbara just looked like a conservative older woman-she’s not young and blonde, but she doesn’t come across as “masculine” in her plain skirts and sweaters. At one point she dresses up for a visit to Sheba by getting her hair and makeup done and getting a new skirt. How could she be butch?
A discussion over tea with historian Becki Ross gave me some insight and made me hate the film even more.
Ross pointed out that Notes on a Scandal fits perfectly into the tradition of films like The Children’s Hour (1961) and The Killing of Sister George (1968), tragic films about miserable lesbians. Barbara is the classic desperate lesbian, who preys on straight women to fill an emotional void, her sexual desires hidden even from herself.
Ross also said that Barbara could indeed be seen as butch in a number of ways: that she is attracted to a very feminine woman, that she is the initiator in the relationship, that she is aggressive. And not only straights but queers might read her this way, depending on when they came out and what their own politics are.
There’s no denying that Dench and Blanchett are great actors, who make their shallow roles much more believable than they should be. But it will really suck if this film wins any Oscars. Notes on a Scandal revives the pathetic lesbian stalker genre more than 40 years after it should have died.