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Tara Barabazon and Vanessa Evangelista

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Volume 1, May 1996

Something Queer is Going on Here: A Binary Outlaw's Tour Through Orlando

She exposed the limits of masculinity by transcending femininity and appropriating masculinity. She was always a woman and she was always more than a man. 1

Tilda Swinton's Orlando transformed the feminine body into an experimental zone. Her body, as a spatially and temporally mobile laboratory, tested and exhausted the limits of masculinity. Yet the 'she' to whom Campbell referred was not Swinton's Orlando, but that other binary outlaw, Margaret Thatcher. The (ex)Prime Minister's hyperfemininity, that 'took out' masculinity on the journey through to a gendered identity, made her far more than 'the best man for the job'. Thatcher, like Orlando, was always a woman, but slotted many masculinities into her textual, feminine frame. The link between theory, politics and identity will remain tenuous and strained, as masculine subjectivity requires women's otherness to confirm difference and superiority. No single, red wedge can cut through the complex relationship between economics and culture, base and superstructure. By following Tilda Swinton's lavender lady tour through Orlando, a mauve wedge can be configured. This splice offers a queer revenge to those who screw down the political possibilities of sexual challenges to the hegemonically straight order.

Orlando was directed by Sally Potter and took seven years to finance.2 It represents an enormous accomplishment for a British Film Industry that rewards the easy nationalism of cultural projects such as Chariots of Fire, few New Jerusalems are offered by Sally Potter. The filmic text is far more complex and, ultimately, more rewarding than 'green and pleasant land' Britishness.

The body is a socio-cultural product with its own language and grammar. Film is the medium that offers the greatest potential to play on the covering that constitutes the body. Spatio-temporal frameworks fix historically specific notions of the subject that result in the infinite pliability of the body being granted visual completeness. Film, however, disrupts this wholeness. The filmic body is a site of potentiality. If the body is distanced from its psychoanalytically-inspired libidinal trace, then it may be examined as a text, a system of signs that can be read, interpreted and analysed. The body becomes used, inscribed and controlled by power structures that shadow and compress its capacities. To read Tilda Swinton's cinematic presence as masculine or feminine does not involve understanding biology or gender, but the process of textual reading.

Self referentiality, parody and excess are bequeathed to a queer sensibility from the camp historical landscape. These gestures are easily solicited as passing political statements. Take a cruise through the Orlando filmic text - we will be your guides. Every eyebrow, costume and shrubbery is a textual vessel yearning for signifying embellishment. Stay with us, this will be fun.

When Swinton looks at the audience through the cinematic lens, she is not, intrinsically, 'letting us know' anything. She is granting the viewer insight into the wonderland of postmodern irony. The direct gaze engorges the textual possibilities of the filmic frame. Similarly, Swinton's gaze continually translates ahistorical truths into historically specific situations. Looking back at the camera acknowledges the presence of an audience and the ludicrousness of the film/viewer divide. Orlando's response to his ex-fiancee's realisation of "the treachery of men" is to look to the camera, pause and state that "it would never have worked". This comment does not assume that the film's audience are 'feminists'. That label, particularly when referring to the mobile and shifting cinematic viewer, is completely meaningless. Orlando is not translating a gendered experience, but a time specific one. In grasping an identity beyond gender, s/he transgresses the categories of women and men, and exceeds the limitations of feminism and art criticism. Her glance is not a serious affirmation that "we feminists" are all in the know. On the contrary, when Swinton looks at us, her frequent audience recognition is delivered with the oft-repeated statement, "How strange". Strange readings invite queerying rather than feminist affirmation. The polymorphic layering of Swinton's performance delays and disturbs the stationary identity of feminists. When Swinton looks back at her audience, she not only undoes the discursive apparatus of 'the female gaze' within film theory but prepares the textual surface for strange readings.

Swinton's eyes are important orbs for a female spectator. They form a conduit for women attempting to trial a new way of seeing, beyond the fixity of psychoanalytic binary oppositions. Her presence as an escort for female eyes through the activity of looking provides mediation between voyeuristic and scopophilic viewing possibilities. Swinton's guide through British history confirms the politics of the glance, proving that women do look back at men. By continually problematising the configuration of the gaze, the framework for domination and subordination can be renegotiated. The power to view is diffused, thereby naturalising the rights of women to look, probe and penetrate. Direct address is, as Sally Potter revealed, "an instrument of subversion."3 By affirming "same person, just a different sex", Swinton degenitalises sexuality, airbrushing away the timeless claims for intrinsic femininity or masculinity. Gender degen(d)erates into a masquerade, a performance. It is neither real, nor important.

Potter's film allows the reader/viewer to 'see' Orlando for the first time and exposes the radical multivalency of the viewing subject; we are not always seeing the same picture. Transferring Woolf's literary imagination to a literal screen imago, Orlando becomes an open visual text, offering diversive patterns of signification. Making itself available to a sober/straight reading of the pre-Orlando seriousness of Woolf's work, Potter's text can function as a film evaluating feminism, female subjectivity, the condition of women, of propertied classes, of privileged English society, class poverty, and the melancholic consciousness.

The methodology of feminism is useful for approaching the text of Orlando as it assists in a concentration on the factors that formulate women's oppression. If feminism becomes a basic paradigm for Orlando, then what will be its limitations for conceiving of a radically other kind of subjectivity that embraces ambivalence and polymorphy, as well as the less pronounced possibilities of a degendered desexualised set of textual performances? In Orlando, as both written and visual text, the main character is a man first and then, becomes a woman. Potter follows Woolf in casting Orlando as a man during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and a woman for the final 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In becoming woman, Orlando is dispossessed of property and privilege, suggesting a disempowering teleology of gender.

Woolf's Orlando ended in 1928 with the heroine bearing a son. The filmic text concludes in the late 20th century, altering the gender of Orlando's child. Potter's decision to give Orlando a daughter is an important departure from the original novel. "It's the way Woolf would have liked to see it", says Potter, "I think she betrayed her better instincts by giving Orlando a son."4 Within discursive apertures of critical theory, becoming woman destabilises the logocentric parameters of gender and sexuality. Its metaphoric potency however, is unmatched by literal reality. Woolf's decision to have Orlando bear a son is a sad indictment of the condition of women in the early 20th century. Furthermore, the concept of "woman" was, for Woolf; problematic. As she remarked in A Room of One's Own: "Women; but are you not sick to death of the word? I can assure you that I am."5 Orlando's daughter, therefore, is Potter's potent image of hope for women.

When sexualised theories have attempted to distinguish a veritable gender of the postmodern, 'woman' or the 'feminine' are frequently invoked. As Elizabeth Grosz notes:

woman comes to be a metaphoric textual infrastructure that displaces, defers and delays the various logocentric commitments to an entity, substance or identity.6

That Potter chooses the condition of becoming female to pervade the final three hundred years of Orlando's adventure through time, and Tilda Swinton to perform Orlando, suggests that 'woman' comes to best (em)body the composition of an ungendered ahistorical subject within postmodern texts. This film is a queer trace of the post-modern body. If postmodernism is 'about' anything, then, it involves a mocking of the clear boundaries of modernism, celebrating the collapse of hierarchies, distinctions and realities. In the postmodern carnival, sexuality becomes a sign play. By representing the unrepresentable, Orlando transforms gender into a performative spectacle. The voiceover from the first scene of the film stated that, on surveying the young Lord Orlando, "there can be no doubt about his sex." But, doubt is present: the viewer is pervasively conscious that the male Orlando is played by Tilda Swinton. This contradiction of verbal and visual signifiers also trespasses gender boundaries. In this exhibition of ironic cross dressing, a multiplicity of straightforwardly queer readings emerge at the level of narrative. To trace such receptive potential is complex: theoretical bulimia, which involves the absorption of a theory and the regurgitating of a paradigm, will not service. Film viewers remain nomadic subjects - reading queer, reading straight - so that discursive positions are flexible rather than rigidly clasped.

"Becoming woman" is a discursive frame in the written and visual text of Orlando. This tempts one to find parallels with the metaphoric trope of 'becoming woman' in the philosophies of Derrida and Deleuze. Derrida's 'woman' is a motif for the resistance and excess of meaning in the text. His desire for a mobility and "multiplicity of sexually marked voices"7 is well served by the metonymic and metaphoric potentialities of 'Woman'. Deleuze and Guattari also access this signifying vessel in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus.8 In their formulation, "sexuality is the production of a thousand sexes ... [and] proceeds by way of the becoming-woman of the man".9 The theoretical privileges of 'becoming woman' are not equivalent to the 'real' conditions and consequences of 'becoming woman' in Orlando. 10

Orlando's England is not only a geographic space, but an ideological configuration that situates subjects. The politics of signification results in a fictional imagining of 'a nation' that also genders and (de)sexualises its social subjects. 'The people' are repositioned so that sexual, ethnic and social identities are regulated. In the final segment of Orlando, Swinton scoops her daughter from the ground and walks towards the dispossessed castle that has lost its history and been repossessed as heritage. Similarly embodying her physical dimensions and silhouette, Swinton's figure and persona are vaguely redolent of the androgynous contemporary Princess of Wales arriving also at age thirty with renounced royal prestige.11 Both female figures are overdetermined signifiers in the construction of social meanings within contemporary English society.

A ‘private life’ in the postmodern age is configured through discourses of intimacy. With gender understood to be a social construct, the politics of its determination becomes pivotal to understanding the dominant ideology of normality during different conjunctures. In classifying particular values as universal or natural, intimacy transforms into activities enacted in the public domain. Intimacy is a mode of (re)production that operates through a politics of exclusion. Potter's caricature of human emotions, using written text to prefigure experience and events in the film, stages scenes of LOVE or SEX with mock-heroic effect. Employing this technique of filmic self-consciousness works to transform both history and phenomenology into instances of superficial textualisation. Swinton, in an interview, calls Orlando an "emotional journey",12 but her interpretation of inferiority in the film seems to be radically contradicted by the film's visual apparatus which conveys a textured exteriority and surface, rather than inferiority and depth.

The Perth 'art cinema', Lumiere, announced in a press release that "Orlando's gender journey becomes an inner question of identity and self-knowledge that eventually leads her to a much greater prize".13 The territory in which to situate Orlando is a queer space that is not enclosed in semiotic closets. Tilda Swinton is a teflon woman, performing the self to a level of excess and then switching genders. To grasp the irony of such statements as "the treachery of women" and "they are not like us fellows", requires the young Orlando to have his symbolic phallus lopped off. Only then may s/he experience the extent of feminine treachery and live through difference. Like Tiresias, Orlando only gains knowledge and understanding of social subjectivity by living through both sides of gendered 'reality'. Irony remains the film's multi-targeted detonator, adding an elusive sexual intoxicant, that "something queer".

Something queer is going on here: Tilda Swinton is not engaged in some metaphoric gender displacement. She is not the only binary outlaw. The early scenes of Orlando where Quentin Crisp is the ageing queen Elizabeth I, tests the insolubility of masculine and feminine categories. Jimmy Sommerville's soft, seductive and high-pitched voice wafts into the night air, premiering Elizabeth's entry into the film. The first gendered si(gh)te of the Queen is of her large hands, with ill-kept nails, being washed in rose water. Contradictions abound-between the delicate petalled water and the roughened hands, and the silky gowns and hessian-like skin the fabric covers. These potentially erotic but ultimately sexless textual clashes serve to highlight the ambivalent and tenuous discursive field on which gendered identity is realised. Orlando, gazing at the camera, refers to the Queen as a "very interesting person", not a good woman or an effective monarch. In returning to the person, the interplay between Swinton and Crisp remains normal, although both are in drag. The double cross-dressing results in an intriguing queering of femininity. If the ideology that determines the nature of women is reducible to that which is openly visible, then the surfaces of the body determine the form of social relationships. Although Crisp's penis is not seen on screen, neither is Tilda Swinton's 'lack' highlighted during the early segments of the film. To work from the premise that sex is natural and genitally-predetermined, while gender is socially acquired, is to normalise the ideological premise that a penis or vagina has intrinsic meaning. In everyday life, genitals are not seen. Gender predictions on the basis of appearance are transformed into sexual confirmations.

To de-genitalise sexual (gender?) politics results in a blurring of the sex/gender distinction. Although the bodily surface may be read as masculine or feminine, the reader, educated in Orlando's filmic world, is continually conscious that all is not how it appears. As Potter affirmed:

the more I went into this area, and tried to write a character who was both male and female, the more ludicrous maleness and femaleness became. 14

The porous surfaces of Swinton's and Crisp's bodies do not sustain simple gendered readings, but transcend the binary nature of masculinity and femininity to access more complex forms of textualisation.

In Orlando, Quentin Crisp and Tilda Swinton project their bodies onto the screen as semiotic texts for interpretation. At eighty three years old, Crisp's body as visual text is a literal (em)bodiment and in(vest)ment of an ageing pre-Stonewall drag queen ethos, whose cultural visibility was substituted for political invisibility. Throughout his cross-dressing decades, especially in the twenties and thirties, Crisp paraded a conspicuous self-stylisation, that was at odds with other emerging homosexual styles. He presented an "outrageously effeminate"15 homosexuality that often suggested "a polarisation about dress and demeanour within the gay male society".16 Quentin Crisp, as public persona, brings this historical trace to Orlando. Who else could play the ageing, decadent 'Queen of England'?

Swinton's body, too, is a frame of excess, a body overburdened with signs. The gaze that grazes the textual surface searches for an answer to Jane Gallop's question, "what is the position of the woman who identifies with men who identify with women?"17 Tilda Swinton is immersed in a flood of binary oppositions: sexual and asexual, straight and gay, surface and depth. She is an integral socio-sexual link in a slippery border dialogue. In reading Tilda as a woman, a text on which ideologies are written, her body becomes a politicised arena of cultural struggle. In reading Tilda as a man, the viewer is continually aware that masculinity is not an end point or self-contained, neutral site. To explore the film's transfiguration scene involves monitoring a strange (queer) alteration in the way viewing subjects see the naked female body of Orlando. The pivotal scene occurs in the middle of the film, splicing Orlando's gender and evoking a sense of identity as alterity. Neither this gender nor that, "Or/l/and/o"18 is a mobile agent of signification for men or/and women across conjunctures, desires, mentalities and classes.

In assuming her second sex, Orlando washes her face, disrobes and declares her female figure in the mirror; "Same person, just a different sex." Orlando presents her body to herself for the first time, but as viewers, both the objectification through voyeuristic acts and the familiarity afforded by a sliding of subjectivities is pushed aside in the surprise of seeing Swinton's body. The literal fashioning of gender in Potter's film is briefly abandoned in this scene. Our spectre is rendered strange in the moment that Swinton turns her body towards the mirror/screen. Traditional cinematic paradigms that hover incessantly around 'the female body' seem momentarily lost in the vision of Potter's framing of the nude Orlando. Indeed, the body becomes not so much female than just a body. Potter's effect is an emptying and cleansing of gender. Splashing her face with water, Orlando removes the debris of her former sex. In the washing away of maleness, woman's body comes clean, a reconfiguring of the historically stained body of woman.

In the era of post-Thatcherite and Reaganite economic rationalism, 'queer' cannot be localised, fixed or measured. Although queerness remains attractive in its ambiguity, not all welcome its discursive resistance to fixed identity. The editors of The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David Halperin, for instance, avoid the term 'queer' for the following reasons:

We have reluctantly chosen not to speak here and in our title of 'queer studies' ... because we wish to acknowledge the force of current usage ... Moreover, the names 'lesbian ' and ''gay' are probably more widely preferred than is the name 'queer'. 19

Their choice is a fortunate one for this article and for any analysis of Orlando. Queerness is still granted unrestricted positionality and playful subjectivity. As the term 'queer' is not yet regarded as possessing political advantage, we grant it a celebratory discursive prestige. Queerness, for now, will do. Perhaps that is the point: queer theory, politics and subjectivity will 'do anything' - including problematise the normality of the straight/gay binary opposition. In approaching Potter's film, queerness becomes the most conducive method for exploring interpretative possibilities.

Film remains a forum for the establishment of multiple subjectivities. While a particular (classed, gendered, generational) gaze may be 'naturalised' by filmic codes, other glances rupture and negotiate resistive readings. Eminently fashionable, Deleuze and Guattari explored the process of "becoming woman" through the use of their phrase "the universal girl":

The girl is not defined by virginity ... She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs ... girls do not belong to any age group, sex, order, or kingdom, they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes ... The girl is like the block of becoming that remains contemporaneous to each opposable terns, man,, woman, child, adult. It is not the girl who becomes a woman; it is becoming woman that produces the universal girl.20

Orlando remains in a continual state of becoming. This endless tease tempts the viewer with gendered possibilities, but never grants a resolution to the binary tension. Orlando, as a textual sponge in a flood of signs, is only allocated meaning when its audience enters the textual frame. That is why films such as Orlando are special texts that are ultimately beyond review. They are extraordinarily contextual. Like the most effective, evocative popular culture, Orlando has no memory and sucks at the marrow of its historically specific reading location. The self referential quality that is shared between writers and readers involves a melding of styles, languages and tone. At the very least, this film relaxes the straight face of criticism that has "enshrined Virginia as its saint"21 Potter can be read as having respectfully and finally closed the door on the Woolfian 'tradition' . Potter is capable of pleasing most audiences with this film, materialising Woolf's androgynous dreaming as well as laying her to a discursive rest. In taking a queer (de)tour through the comic configuration of a transgendered, transhistorical time traveller, Orlando offers a fantasy of a mixed (up) being, a very serious joke. Orlando, by rejecting totalising grand narratives and objectivity, works into the crevices of gendered bodies, inflecting readings and dismissing the pretensions of universalism. Orlando offers options and different ways/positions/conditions of knowing. As all enlightenments become partial, ways of knowing intersect with ways of being.


1. B.Campbell, "A class of her own," Marxism Today (January 1991), 23.

2. The film was produced by Potter's own company, Adventure Pictures.

3. Sally Potter cited in W. Donohue, "Immortal Longing," Sight and Sound, Vol. 3 (March 1993), 12.

4. Potter, quoted in an interview with T. Gaudoin, "Is Androgyny the New Sexual Ideal?," Harper's Bazaar (June 1993), 117.

5. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (London: Granada, 1985), p.105.

6. Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, (1990), p.35.

7. Jacques Derrida, "Choreographies," Diacritics, Summer, (1982), 76, for an elaboration of his theoretical paradigm; for 'Woman' see Spurs: Nietzsche's Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1981), and The Ear of the Other: Otobiography. Transference trans. (New York: Schocken Books, 1985). Although as early as 1975 in Glas Derrida confers the metaphor with significance, but this text is difficult to read and unavailable in English.

8. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus trans. R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. Lane (London: Athlone Press, 1984) and Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Athlone Press, 1988).

9. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 278.

10. See Rosi Braidotti's, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.l40.

11. The reference to the Princess of Wales is not incidental. Camille Paglia has canonised the Princess within a number of traditions, one of them being the eternal androgyne.

12. Tilda Swinton, quoted in C. Baum's interview with Vogue, Vol.36/ 12 (December 1992), 196.

13. Lumiere Cinemas Weekly Screening Schedule, 7- 13 (January 1994).

14. Donohue, p.10.

15. Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant (New York: New American Library, 1983), p.43. C.f. M. Garber, Vested Interests Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), p.138.

16. Garber, p 138.

17. Jane Gallop, Thinking Through the Body (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p.100.

18. F. Defromont, Virginia Woolf Vers la maison de lumiere (Paris: editions des femmes, 1985), p.209. c.f E. Meese, Feminist Studies, Vol.18/1 (Spring 1992), 112.

19. H. Abelove, M. Barale, D. Halperin, eds, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993), p.xvii.

20. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p.277.

21. S. E. Knopp, "If I saw you would you kiss me," in Sexual Sameness ed. J. Bristow (New York: Routledge, 1992).

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