I know I’m supposed to write about Chasing Amy from the standpoint of media images of lesbians and lesbianism, but this particular film is hard to extend in that way. Writer and director Kevin Smith is hardly part of the mainstream media. He gained notoriety with his first film, Clerks, which was completely independent and was noteworthy in a large part because he bucked mainstream film trends. Smith never shies away from subject matter major studios shun (Chasing Amy is a case in point), uses frank, sometimes offensive dialogue, and refuses to adopt a visual directing style, instead letting the script carry the movie. If we wanted to look at media images of lesbianism, it would be more valuable to seek out a mainstream Hollywood movie.
One of the benefits to looking at this movie, though, is that it’s so much better than your average Hollywood movie and Smith’s outsider status allows him to examine issues everyone else would be afraid of. One great example is near the beginning when Banky starts a fight with a seemingly militant black member of a panel on minority comics. After the panelist shoots Binky screaming “Black rage!” it turns out the whole deal was planned to drum up controversy for his book and that the panelist is flamboyantly gay. This is one of the few times you’ll ever see a gay character satirizing a straight (and racial) stereotype, although movies and TV are rife with straight characters mockingly mimicking gay stereotypes.
The scene in the bar where Holden learns Alyssa is a lesbian is another striking image. After singing a seductive song he thought was aimed at him, she makes out with another woman, with no hedging about it-the camera doesn’t cut away or leave anything to the imagination. This is hardly Hollywood. What’s most interesting, though, is the way in which Holden deals with this. He’s not disgusted but reacts rather like he would had she started making out with a boyfriend. Throughout the rest of the film the other characters react to his dilemma in a similar fashion-fell in love with a lesbian? Poor guy. It’s almost as if he fell in love with a nun or a married woman-there’s no real mention of turning her, or how someday she’ll see the light and go straight, or whatever, except maybe by Banky, who has his own issues to work through. Throughout lesbianism and bisexuality are accepted rather matter-of-factly by almost everyone.
Despite this, Chasing Amy opened to a great deal of criticism from gays and lesbians. The main issue what the fact that Alyssa fell in love with a man at all-the complaint was that by treating lesbians so seriously on the one hand and having one fall in love with a man on the other, they cheapened it and strengthened the old notion of lesbians as just chicks who haven’t met the right guy yet. Personally, I don’t see that at all. I find no indication that Alyssa was just waiting for the right guy to some along and show her the way. Rather, their romance seems an illustration of how love can appear in places never sought and how difficult relationships can be in the supposedly open and honest 90s. The scene where Alyssa tells her friends about Holden is telling. As soon as they find out she’s met a guy, they’re shocked, offended and hurt. They react as if she’s doing this to hurt them, and they skip out on her pretty quickly once they find out she’s not exactly like them. Smith is not attempting to show lesbians the light and lead them to the godly path or anything. He is merely using the oldest theme in the book-two accidental lovers separated by cultural barrier, with guys and lesbians filling in for Capulets and Montegues.
It’s unfortunate that this can’t be extended to a general discussion on media portrayals of lesbians. The fact the Chasing Amy was a small commercial success may be an indication of things changing, but for the most part except for indie film and very rare notable exceptions (Boys Don’t Cry, for example), lesbians are either stereotyped or ignored.