The Bitter Sweetness of Carol


My wife asked me, after we saw Carol together, if I would have married a man had I lived in an earlier time. It’s hard to say, really. The choice faced by so many women who lived in Carol Aird and Therese Belivet’s time was often between romance and children, and I didn’t know before I had children how much they would mean to me. How crazy in love with them I am. How I would tear down the heavens and rip a hole in the fabric that separates us from hell, letting lose hordes of demons, if someone tried to take them from me. The shattering choice Carol faces, between living her truth and being a mother to her daughter, makes me ache for the real women who faced such a choice not so very long ago.


Those who have seen the film and aren’t wild about it mainly find fault with its slow pace, its lack of dialogue, and the flavor of chemistry between Carol and Therese. I agree with those who read something vaguely predatory in Carol’s disposition toward Therese, and with those who also see their interactions as reminiscent more of mother/daughter than of lovers (Carol brushing her daughter’s hair, then Carol brushing Therese’s, drew a fairly explicit parallel). What worked for me about their chemistry was precisely these many dimensions of it. It seems to me that may young women learned what it meant to be a lesbian from older, more experienced ones, putting women like Carol in the position of teacher or guide—part predator and part maternal figure. It would be creepy, except that I think it’s exactly what Therese wanted.

The other thing that makes Carol’s behavior toward Therese sweet, even while it’s heartbreaking, is how fractured Carol is as a character. She strives to exude a glamorous confidence, but the cracks in her veneer are glaringly obvious with every gesture, every hesitation, and every break in eye contact. She knows what she wants, but is terrified of what it might cost her, and one misinterpretation of Therese’s signs—one misstep—could destroy the fragile threads holding Carol together. The pressure that comes with her beauty and standing in society (pressure that Therese puts on her as well) seem unbearable to Carol. In this way, Therese actually has the upper hand; she doesn’t wrestle with fear, and her hobbies and interests allow her to develop as an individual.

I can’t fathom the invasion of privacy at the hotel room. The recording equipment, the smugness of the PI. I wanted so badly to sympathize with Harge and the many men he represented (it helps that he was played by Kyle Chandler, because who doesn’t love him after Friday Night Lights?). That scene erased any sympathy I had for him, though. Therese’s boyfriend was much more likeable, immediately recognizing Therese’s “crush” (and I love that he used that word—so perfect) and warning her that she’d get hurt (because we all saw that coming). Mostly, though, I like that the story had such a small supporting cast. It captured for me the way your entire world narrows when you fall for someone and everyone else slips away, blurry on your periphery.

I didn’t expect them to end up together. It doesn’t seem to me that they have a sweeping romance, or that their connection rises to the level of epic love stories like Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. But in a society where lesbians didn’t live openly, they found each other, and that was enough. It might even be enough to heal the hole left in Carol’s life when she, for all practical purposes, loses her daughter. But I don’t see how. Given the choice she faced, there’s no hope for her to ever be whole. So at least she gets the girl.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jove Belle says:

    “tear down the heavens and rip a hole in the fabric that separates us from hell, letting lose hordes of demons”

    So…you’re saying you like your kids? Got it.


  2. blytherippon says:

    Something like that, Jove. 🙂 While we were traveling over the holidays, this 12-year-old United Airlines jerk tried to keep me from my family–they were on the plane and I was at the gate–and it was like this primal urge to get to them. Which is ridiculous, since of course we’d find our way to each other in a matter of minutes. But I was shaking all over.


  3. I read Carol’s “predatory” vibe the same way you did, and I did see her as a model for lesbians of the time who perhaps looked to older women for a way to negotiate their contexts within the cultures in which they operated. And I actually did have some empathy for Harge, especially after Carol did her last stand in the lawyer meetings. His expressions were such a mixture of shame, embarrassment, sympathy, and shock that I think on some level the gravity of what he was doing finally sank in for him. At least, I like to think so. Sure, he totally used white male privilege and it was unconscionable, hiring a PI to record Carol and Therese (which actually begs the question–how did he find them? Credit cards weren’t really in widespread use then), but it wasn’t out of character, I’m guessing, for men and women at the time. Hell, that’s still something used today: hiring PIs and trying to record spouses in the act of adultery or similar. So as horrible as it was to see the lengths he went to, I know people now who have done the same things within their relationships. People do really horrible things to each other during pending break-ups (and after break-ups), so his actions — as abhorrent as they were — held a note of his truth within them, and were also, I thought, a genuine reflection of the culture.

    I see the story of Carol as a glimpse into the historical constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in queer terms, but also in terms of women, period. This is as much a story, I thought, of the control of women’s sexuality in general as it is about the repressive environment it was for homosexuality.

    Class, too, plays an important role here. You actually alluded to it here — Carol is constrained by beauty and the society in which she moves while Therese doesn’t deal as much in fear because she has a lot more independence in her choices and hobbies. How? Well, she isn’t expressly tied to a man, which I think may actually allow her a bit more freedom within the repressive and misogynistic US culture in which both women had to operate. Nor is Therese tied to a well-off family or marriage in which appearances mean so much. Witness Carol’s “appearances” at parties and at dinner with her in-laws, as part of this idea of “keeping up appearances.” That isn’t something Therese deals with so much, given the parameters she’s developed for her own life and livelihood. And in those moments, as you noted, there is a real sense of the fractures within Carol. She’s struggling to maintain these appearances and yet live true to herself — something that no doubt attracted her to Therese, who lives outside the boundaries within which Carol has felt required to live.

    Thanks for this. I found so many layers to this movie. I’m going to ponder them more as I see it again.


    1. blytherippon says:

      Thanks for this, Andi. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I’m particularly appreciative of your comments about control of women’s sexuality, and the relationship this control has to class. And I really go back and forth with respect to Harge. I think a lot of my view of him depends on what custody looks like after that meeting at the end, which we never get to see. Thanks for your comments–I too can’t wait to see the film again, with all these layers in mind.


  4. Mattie says:

    That’s really thniking at a high level


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s