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Locating the Lesbian Spectator in Arzner’s The Wild Party

One of my major interests in studying film has been locating the lesbian or lesbianism(s) in film. I have previously gravitated toward trying to locate the lesbian(ism) in the translation process of films adapted from novels which contain lesbian characters or allude to lesbianism in someway. In writing my MA thesis, “From Haunting the Code to Queer Ambiguity: Historical Shifts in Adapting Lesbian Narratives from Paper to Film,” I discovered that the invisibility of lesbian characters depends not on textual images but rather on the reading strategies of spectators themselves. Thus began an avid interest in understanding the impact and importance of spectatorship theories. Most of the theorists I examined focused on the ways in which queer spectators use their marginalized identity positions to see things as visible and foreground what other non-marginalized, uninitiated and un-invested spectators cannot or will not see. By utilizing extra-filmic materials and reading against the grain, perverse spectators[1] read as visible representations of queerness or lesbianism that other spectators only perceive as invisible. Judith Mayne, was one theorist whose work, Cinema and Spectatorship, provided a useful entry into the concept of queer spectatorship. Mayne emphasizes the need for textual analysis of individual films while simultaneously recognizing the myriad identities that individual spectators can belong to and how this impacts “the hypothetical quality of any spectator imagined by film theory” (8). Of most interest to me is Mayne’s concept of “critical audiences.” One major example of this is gay and lesbian audiences who hold what Mayne terms as a “critical” position; because of their capacity to be both inside and outside dominant ideology, they are inside and outside representations of dominant ideology (ie, they are both represented and not represented by its cultural productions). In my recent work on Dorothy Arzner’s The Wild Party, produced by Paramount-Famous Players- Lasky in 1929, Judith Mayne proved useful for me once again, this time through her definitive book Directed By Dorothy Arzner. In this film a young collegiate flapper, Stella Ames, has a bunch of wild nights with her gang of friends from the dorm and ultimately falls in love with her Anthropology professor (Fredrick March). Clara Bow plays Stella Ames as vibrant and wild but also decisively loyal to her group of friends, particularly to her friend Helen (Shirley O’Hara), who is the most studious of the dorm mates and also one not quite a part of the gang. Helen only ever engages with the group at Stella’s insistence. Most of the time she is depicted as slightly apart from the others, either studying or watching their antics with reserved amusement. In an early scene Helen and Stella have a conversation in the dorm. This scene takes place just after Stella is berated and embarrassed by Gil, her professor, in front of the whole Anthropology class, for plagiarizing her paper. Stella is very upset and is in the process of packing her suitcase to leave when Helen walks in and consoles her. A telling series of looks follows in the scene, beginning with Helen looking at Stella and then transferring to Stella looking at Helen. Helen is surprised that Stella wants to leave college given the fact that she is in love with Gil. Stella is surprised that Helen is so invested in her relationship with Gil and realizes that it is partly because Helen is so innocent and inexperienced with men. Stella takes it upon herself to educate Helen about men so as to prevent her from getting hurt by them later. To accomplish this education, Stella insists that Helen accompany her and the gang to a party at a nearby men’s college. At this party Stella acts as Helen’s protector and when she is accosted by a drunken obnoxious man Stella twice intervenes: first by finding a more appropriate man to talk to Helen, and, when the obnoxious drunk continues to be a problem, stepping in to save Helen by giving the drunk the “dizzy” treatment. Feigning interest in him Stella gets his attention and pulls him to the dance floor, only to proceed in spinning him around violently and passing him off to her gang of girls who all take a turn spinning him until they manage to spin him right out the door. Mayne explains, “One of the important features of Arzner’s career is the way lesbianism affects her films in diffuse ways. There are no lesbian plots, no lesbian characters in her films; but there is constant and deliberate attention to how women dress and act and perform, as much for each other as for the male figures in their lives” (63). In The Wild Party for instance, Stella’s tie outfit functions as a heterosexual subversion in her scene with Helen, since she is in a way “playing” the male role of Helen’s protector; but at the same time it is Stella who ends up sitting on Helen’s lap at the end of this scene and therefore performing yet another twist to the masculine/feminine idea.   The film inserts traces of lesbianism through scenes like the intimate one in the dorm which involve ambiguous looks and embraces between the two female characters, and through Stella’s repeated protection and intervention on behalf of Helen and her interactions with men. Even though both women end up with men by the end of the film these scenes sufficiently disrupt this heterosexual conclusion. In fact the final scene of the party sequence involves Stella searching for Helen at four am and finding her out on the beach alone with a man. Stella is surprised and close-ups of Clara Bow’s face register shock and dismay. This can be interpreted as her dismay that Helen has been taken advantage of or it can be read as Stella’s jealousy at Helen’s choice of that man over Stella herself. Indeed, the dialogue in the scene is equally ambiguous. Stella confronts the man and he protests saying he really loves Helen, to which Stella replies, “You see, I love Helen too” – It is perfectly acceptable to argue that most heterosexual audiences would probably read this as a scene of female friendship and solidarity and not as an admission of lesbian love, but I would argue that homosexual audiences could as easily appropriate this scene as one that reflected homosexuality. Mayne explains that “[W]hat is unique in Arzner’s work is the extent to which desire, while apparently heterosexual in terms of women desiring men (and vice versa), is structured by female/ female relationships” (112). However Mayne notes also that, “there are distinct encounters between women that suggest the possibilities of other kinds of desire” (112). She explains that these heterosexual “romances are complicated by the various female mediators who exist” in films such as The Wild Party. She explains, “The boundaries between desired object and mediator shift, and often far more screen attention is paid to the female/ female interactions than is necessary to the plot” (113). Helen in The Wild Party could be seen as such a mediator, as could Stella–they both mediate for each other. Mayne notes that this potential subversion “offers other possibilities of screen pleasure” (113). While I read this as Mayne hinting at the role of the audience in viewing and interpreting such potential ambiguities, especially marginalized audience members such as lesbians, I think this is a key instance of Mayne not being explicit enough—what does she mean by “screen pleasure”? Indeed, at this point Mayne doesn’t at all mention ideas of alternative reading practices such as either reading against the “hetero” grain or reading for the censored subtext. I wish she were more specific about the role of spectatorship and especially of lesbian spectatorship in this analysis. Though Mayne does mention that Arzner made significant changes in adapting the source novel for The Wild Party which represented the female homosocial environment as a hotbed of potential perversion rather than a strengthening and enriching one, she does not go far enough in exploring how spectatorship interprets this coded visibility. Mayne, in her analysis of the shifting dynamic between Stella and Helen as it evolves through the film, refuses to acknowledge her participation in what Alexander Doty defines as “heterocentrist assumption.[2] Mayne privileged the heterosexual by choosing to omit an analysis of how Stella should have been spooning with Helen in the opening scene when Stella tells the story of how she accidentally met Gil. If Mayne had included an analysis of that scene she may have been forced to acknowledge its lesbian undertones. Another crucial omission is the second and later scene in the dorm between Stella and Helen in which Helen is shown to be unusually interested in following Stella’s relationship with Gil. This is the scene that immediately precedes the dance party scene in which Stella chooses George for Helen so that Helen can get the requisite experience with a “nice” guy so that she won’t get hurt later because of her innocence about the ways of men. I therefore see two areas for expansion available to Mayne in respect to her analysis of lesbian visibility The Wild Party. First, I believe that she could have more directly examined the role of marginalized spectators in reading lesbianism in certain ambiguous representations. Second, by omitting a close analysis of the scene between Stella and Helen which occurs just before the “wild party” scene Mayne misses out on an opportunity to focus on what I consider to be the most significant interaction between the two women and also the one that most definitively evokes the unstated lesbian potential in the film. In her conclusion to Directed By Dorothy Arzner, Mayne briefly mentions the role of spectatorship but as if only to acknowledge her awareness that it is something she has not really examined in this work. She says, “the image of the butch exists at a curious juncture between visibility and invisibility. For always implicit when visibility is raised as a question is another question – visible to whom? Just as the closet represents a complex point of negotiation for the appropriation of Arzner, so the question of spectatorship – of how images are consumed, read, and interpreted – has been crucial in the process of lesbian detection” (179). Mayne confusingly explains, “While I am convinced that Arzner’s films are of enormous interest in terms of their ‘lesbian subtexts,’ I cannot define lesbian spectatorship purely in terms of her films”(181). To be fair, it could be that finding a lesbian presence in the film itself is not actually Mayne’s project in her monograph on Arzner – it might be more my project. I do however, find it odd that Mayne doesn’t address the aspect of lesbian spectatorship, much in Directed By Dorothy Arzner, given the fact that her previous book, Cinema and Spectatorship was entirely concerned with the question of spectatorship, as I mentioned above. Equally odd, I think, is the fact that Cinema and Spectatorship does not mention Dorothy Arzner or any of Arzner’s films at all. Perhaps Mayne was tired of focusing on spectatorship by the time she wrote Directed By Dorothy Arzner? Or perhaps she was more interested in Arzner as the prime example of a female (and lesbian) auteur – an idea she examines in her previous book, The Woman At The Keyhole – rather than in how spectators read lesbianism into Arzner’s films. Though Mayne willingly addresses the contemporary (1930s and 40s) filmgoer’s reception of the (lesbian) images of Arzner as a director, images freely disseminated via fan magazines, yet in none of her three books which prominently feature the work of Dorothy Arzner does she mention anything about the potential for reading lesbianism into Arzner’s films themselves.


  1. Janet Staiger, Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception (2000, NYU Press.) []
  2. Heterocentricism, a term first explored in Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, published in 1993 (A year before Mayne’s Arzner monograph.) The term is explicitly defined and examined in Doty’s subsequent work, Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Cannon, (2000, Routledge). []