Essays and Screening Room

Scissoring, Othering, and ‘The Handmaiden’

By posted at 6:00 am on November 7, 2016 19

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When it came out in 2005 — midway through my senior year of high school — Brokeback Mountain rocked American culture. For all its critical acclaim and star-studded cast, the media seemed to fixate on the most titillating feature of the “gay cowboy movie:” two men falling in love and having sex. From news coverage to late-night talk shows to viral videos, you couldn’t escape the sophomoric parodies any more than you could the predictable conservative outrage

covercovercoverA decade later, Carol drummed up a respectable amount of excitement of its own. Fans of lesbian pulp fiction were thrilled to see the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt bucking the long history of unhappy endings in stories about lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The fanfare, however, was mostly just that; what little controversy, or heterosexual hilarity, it generated was buried under its accolades and award nominations.

The advancement of American LGBT rights in the decade between these movies is certainly one explanation for the differences in their reception (though I can think of plenty more). Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition. For depicting two working-class men falling in love against the backdrop of rural America, Brokeback Mountain was considered truly transgressive. Ten years later, Carol was merely a long-awaited boon for lesbian cinema.

covercovercoverRegardless, even in 2016, a mainstream movie about gay people isn’t exactly standard, and I was looking forward to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lesbian-revenge fantasy par excellence. A fan of Park since my sister turned me on to the Vengeance Trilogy as a teenager, my lofty expectations for his newest erotic thriller, inspired by Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith, were tempered by my own reservations as a queer movie-goer in the midst of an upswing in mainstream stories about queer people. As movies like The Danish Girl have demonstrated, it’s become popular to render female LGBT experiences — particularly those of trans women — for trendy but toothless Oscar bait. Any follower of Park, however, knows that progressive brownie points are not among his priorities (if you’re thinking about the sexually predatory female prisoner in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, you’ll know what I mean). In his hands, I wondered, would Fingersmith be worthwhile, or would the story just get bogged down in all that male gaze? For that matter, as a white American with a limited knowledge of Korean cinema and culture, would I even be able to tell the difference? As opening weekend approached, I vacillated between high hopes and dismal apprehension.

Naturally, Park delivered with predictable complexity: The Handmaiden managed to meet all of my expectations, both optimistic and otherwise. Intricate and visually stunning, with an airtight cast of expert actors who brought love, lust, and heartache to life with consummate skill and pitch-black humor, it was everything I could have hoped for from Park as a director and writer. Recalling the erotic texts hoarded by the villainous Kouzouki — a Sade-ean nobleman obsessed with Japanese culture, and our protagonists’ greatest enemy — The Handmaiden plays out as a reverse palimpsest. When laid across the first act, the second reveals and then resolves, in the same graceful motion, the story’s dark subtext; is that a heart beating beneath the tatami of subterfuge, or is something far more sinister trapped down there?

Everything in this movie about lesbians was perfect, with the exception of the lesbian sex itself. As the mysterious noblewoman Hideko and her would-be con-artist ladies maid Sookee (played by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, respectively) came together for the first time, my girlfriend and I began to squirm in our seats, and not in a sexy way. The camera bouncing frenetically over their bodies, their first tentative kisses swiftly transform into hysterical scissoring, culminating in an impressive display of immediate sexual mastery, the likes of which are tough to swallow, even when taken into account alongside the film’s other larger-than-life elements. Park’s work in the bizarre has long bordered on the magical, but within this revenge fantasy (in which the second word carries as much weight as the first), it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain genre of “lesbian” porn made for straight men — defined by foreplay-less arousal that somehow morphs into screaming orgasms over the course of a few seconds — and even harder not to snicker at such transparent tourism. In The Handmaiden’s final scene, we watch Hideko and Sookee, again unaided by foreplay, or even a little lube, rapturously inserting fist-sized ben wa balls into themselves before beginning to scissor yet again, the chimes inside them sounding like some victorious invocation of #LoveWinning.

Though impressed by the movie in every other respect, my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater rolling our eyes. What is it with straight people, especially straight men, and scissoring? Among the many sexual acts that queer women perform with each other, this one seems, at least in our experience, to be the one that fascinates them the most. More than strap-ons, fisting, or cunnilingus, it holds a space in the straight imagination that manages not only to reduce us to what’s between our legs, but to even limit the sexual possibilities therein. It was certainly distracting enough to make it difficult for an alternative analysis, one entertaining Hideko and Sookee’s sex as a calculated artistic choice, rather than mere fetishization. Was this highly stylized porniness perhaps in conversation with, or a foil for, The Handmaiden’s themes of Japanese erotica, sexual deceit, or femme resistance to colonialism? Who could know for sure?

It’s a distraction I’ve been mulling over since my very first queer relationship. When I came out, I was living with two straight guys, who were nice enough, for bros. So when one of them began to tease me about scissoring — demonstrating, with the index and middle fingers on both his hands, how two lesbians go about having sex: by repeatedly mashing their crotches together — I took it in stride. He wiggled his substantial eyebrows to show me it was all in good fun, and though I felt uncomfortable, I always laughed it off.

That bro continued to make those jokes until I moved in with said girlfriend a very unadvisedly short time later, and we began seeing far less of each other. By then, my discomfort with his sense of humor had expanded, because as it turned out, my girlfriend and I didn’t actually engage in scissoring (or tribadism, as the act has been known historically). Though curious and confused, our newly queer sex was also exciting and experimental — and yet it never included the very act that the two of us had been reduced to by that man, and many others. I knew it was something that porn actors did, but I also understood that porn didn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.

covercoverAnd that was just the thing: other than porn, there were few cultural resources that I could draw from to learn what this whole queer sex thing was really all about. Desperate for information, I spent my baby dyke years immersed in a variety of queer communities, both online and off. I also assigned myself cultural homework, burning through my college library’s DVD selection of Lesbian/Gay movies. This gave me welcome exposure to indispensible queer cinema like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Happy Together, but I found little enough about the kind of sex that people like me were having.

This isn’t to say that, outside of porn, the practicalities of intercourse are being served up on a platter to young heterosexual people, even these days. But for straight people raised in straight households, almost all examples of intimacy, affection, partnership, romance, and even implicit sexuality are performed by heterosexual adults. In schools lucky enough to have it, sex ed is unrelentingly cisgender and heterosexual — and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond school, the mechanics and textures of acceptable sex that are hinted at, or performed, in the non-XXX discourses that make up our society’s art, religion, and culture, are nearly as straight.

Overcoming the suffocating sense that there is a right way to do sex is daunting for most. For queers, and for queer women and non-male people, it’s especially hard. Whether you’re looking for a model of what to be, or for something less didactic — representation, for example — there still isn’t much out there if you don’t have the benefit of a queer community, or access to queer art, queer literature, and the study and research by and of queer people, all of which is niche by definition. That presence is undeniably spreading in the mainstream, but it’s an uphill battle, and one taking place on a front that was demonstrably fiercer when I was newly queer (which wasn’t all that long ago). Back when the Internet was still relatively new, back before I had discovered the cornucopia of queer experiences to be found in on sites like Tumblr, like many queer people, I had only porn. Some of it was wonderful and eye-opening and educational; a lot of it reinforced oppressive power structures and behavior, which I internalized harmful ways[1]. Either way, it was all I had.

So when, as a baby dyke, my ignorance butted up against the monolithic ignorance of heteronormativity, of the story being told about me and my sexuality through the myths and generalizations and creepy “jokes” of straight people, I was at a loss. Was that bro telling me something true about myself, or something false? Was he seeing me as I was, or was he not seeing me at all? In watching the love story of Hideko and Sookee, by turns tender and tempestuous, unfold over the course of The Handmaiden, I had that same feeling of confusion. Was this attributable to cultural differences, and the whiteness of my own gaze, or even to Art gone over my head? In feeling as if I wasn’t being seen, and therefore taking this story about lesbians all too personally, was I committing an erasure of my own?

Like all rhetoric, the concept of “visibility” tends to flatten the real issues affecting those living on the margins. The public debate surrounding the civil rights of trans people and the assimilation of national LGBT organizations (which despite their growing power seem loath to serve the interests of anyone other than white and cis gays) are just two of the many issues that counteract the often overwhelming mandate to be seen. In the 21st century, “We’re here, we’re queer!” feels less like a rallying cry, and more like an exhausting redundancy.

This isn’t to say that visibility, a humanization of us in the general culture, hasn’t benefitted certain queers (in many ways, myself among them). But for others, that being seen is not always a blessing, especially when it doesn’t come with other tangible benefits. When I think of the maelstrom of anger targeting trans teens who just want to use the bathroom, or of Chelsea Manning’s nightmarish struggle for humane treatment, let alone gender-affirming medical care, I’m reminded of Michel Foucault: “Visibility is a trap;” at the very least, it’s a mixed bag. Still, ask me to choose between a man threatening to rape the gay out of me and an immature college boy who can’t imagine how queer women might fuck without a dude present, and without hesitation, I’ll take the latter.

As I gradually came into my own as a queer person, absorbing the shibboleths and inside jokes of the various communities available to me, I noticed that for many queer women, scissoring was rarely a neutral issue. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a queer woman exclaim that female frottage is a myth, a fantasy catering to men, and one that betrays straight people’s limited understanding of what sex between two queer people is, or could be: If “normal” heterosexual intercourse means connecting “corresponding” genitalia between a cis man and a cis woman, surely homosexual intercourse between (implicitly cis) women is an attempt to approximate that. Needless to say, scissoring in practice is actually a lot more complex than the crotch-mashing in my bro friend’s “joke,” or even as it’s depicted in The Handmaiden. Having done it myself, I should know.

It’s probably unwise to rely on art for information, let alone representation. It’s probably equally unwise for those who haven’t yet seen this movie to trust my interpretation rather than see it for themselves. My personal distaste for their lovemaking doesn’t outweigh the gravity of Hideko and Sookee’s wrenching toward self-actualization, as Jia Tolentino describes it in her excellent review of the film, but neither, I think, does it negate the movie’s tribadism problem.

Park is known for his earth-shattering plot twists, and The Handmaiden has several. But its greatest maneuver is that it manages to completely to skirt and subvert cliché, and yet simultaneously fall into its trap completely. It turns out that othering, as a machine that makes myths of other people, is also a double-edged sword, an implement far more treacherous than a pair of scissors.

 

 

[1] Although I’d like to be clear that neither his harm nor this reinforcement is limited to pornography as an industry, not by any stretch of the imagination.





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19 Responses to “Scissoring, Othering, and ‘The Handmaiden’”

  1. Jarrell
    at 10:05 am on November 7, 2016

    I always lose interest whenever a writer starts referring to other human beings– be they straight,gay,white, black,male, female, etc– as “them.” You know, “those” people. It reduces other human beings to the status of cardboard cutouts.

  2. Wjat
    at 2:39 pm on November 7, 2016

    The logic in this piece escapes not just me, but logic itself.

    I’m sorry – I even tried re-reading this piece, looking for just… anything. But what is this. How many interviews have you done about how common “scissoring” is? Is this just a rant from your own experience and some friends? Why is that a yardstick? Is it really true that no lesbians do it? Plenty of girls have humped pillows to orgasm so it’d be pretty surprising if no one uses friction to achieve orgasm. Are you a statistician with meta-data from Pornhub? Or are you the latest manifestation of the pseudo-intellectual dead-end of identity politics and its allowable narcissism and tribalism?

    This essay is literally complaining: why don’t those people in the movie have sex like me? Well, maybe you suck at sex. Maybe it’s a movie. Welcome to every sex scene ever filmed in any movie. Your roommate makes a non-judgemental comment about types of lesbian sex and you’re writing an essay about it years later? Living with you must have been like walking on eggshells.

  3. Heather Curran
    at 8:39 pm on November 7, 2016

    Um, TMI? I thought this was a literary web site, but I hope you feel better that you got that your opinion about that most divisive of topics “scissoring” off your chest. Eeesh.

  4. I.
    at 11:21 pm on November 7, 2016

    Damn, what a disappointing comments section. This isn’t a book-length treatise on representations of queer sex in media; it’s one person investigating her experience with a depiction of sex she finds pervasive that’s short of reflecting the experience that she has had and that people she knows have had. As someone with fairly little knowledge of queer sex beyond what I get in the representations the writer talks about, I found the piece thought-provoking. And maybe the connection to literature’s a little more distant than normal, ‘The Handmaiden’ being an adaptation of a novel. But just because the topic doesn’t seem to be a divisive one doesn’t make it unworthy of discussion.

  5. I.
    at 11:27 pm on November 7, 2016

    Welp, this will probably open me up to judgment from some corner, but in my last comment I meant to say: it’s one person investigating their experience with a depiction of sex they find pervasive that’s short of reflecting the experience they have had and that people they know have had.

  6. J R
    at 3:19 am on November 8, 2016

    Ah yes, who knew true literary and cinematic art was hooked to statistics and prudery?
    But anyways, about the article, I think it’s odd how certain segments of the straight population pick up these random generalizations about what we experience. As a gay man, there’s this notion in mass culture that how I must have sex is almost always anal–especially the lowbrow kind of comedies that yank in loads of money via brand deals and heavy advertisements. It’s not worth much, my own experience, but it is interesting to see the comparisons.
    Aside from that, the movie sounds interesting, like a cheesier “Duke of Burgundy,” maybe.

  7. Derk Bramer
    at 12:13 pm on November 8, 2016

    To be honest, I thought at first that someone had adapted The Handmaiden’s Tale to film (heheh), but I’ll definitely have to check this movie out!

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been wondering for a while whether or not visibility is necessarily positive, so to hear that this film was perfect in just about every way but the actual lesbian sex is a rather interesting observation. Definitely got me thinking.

    So yeah, great read! Also getting a kick out of some of these ridiculous commenters, like Reverse Racism Is Real Jarrell, and Sexual Harassment Is Funny Wjat. And a special shoutout to Heather “Gays Are Icky” Curran. >;^P

  8. Wjat
    at 12:58 pm on November 8, 2016

    “Reverse Racism Is Real Jarrell, and Sexual Harassment Is Funny Wjat”

    lol Derk – why address a series of clear arguments when you can just dismiss people? I’d typecast you but I’ll leave the generalizations and exaggerations to you, seems like you’re really good at it!

  9. Derk Bramer
    at 2:53 pm on November 8, 2016

    “Plenty of girls have humped pillows to orgasm so it’d be pretty surprising if no one uses friction to achieve orgasm. Are you a statistician with meta-data from Pornhub?”

    This is an actual quote from you. You wrote that. Feel free to take a moment to reread the rest of your post, from calling unwanted/unwarranted sexual gestures “a non-judgemental comment about types of lesbian sex” to the revelation that “maybe you suck at sex.” If you honestly believe that inane drivel to be “a series of clear arguments” worth addressing then have fun voting for Trump today.

    Sorry this article challenges your lesbian fantasies about dry-humping pillows and scissoring sans foreplay or lube. I’m also sorry for giving more attention to an internet troll like you. I do hope that convincing yourself you won an Internet Argument makes you feel better. Good job, champ.

  10. Wjat
    at 3:03 pm on November 8, 2016

    @Derk -> as your new comment is just generalizations (mixed with a healthy dose of creepy hatred), my comment above already addresses it perfectly already.

  11. Heather Curran
    at 5:42 pm on November 8, 2016

    Derek far from thinking gays are icky, I think an article about sex is icky on a lit website. Many members of my family are gay and I have a transgender nephew. You, derek, however, you are definitely icky. Further, watching lesbian porn with old boyfriends, was a definite turn on especially “scissoring”. Ugh it is icky that i have to prove myself to people like you. Its a crap article for a lit website just the same.

  12. Heather Curran
    at 5:43 pm on November 8, 2016

    Further, I won’t be reading anymore comments so say what you will, I am outta here.

  13. Danny
    at 11:54 pm on November 8, 2016

    I might be misremembering the film, but doesn’t the scissoring only happen in the final scene? I don’t recall it happening in the heroines’ first sexual encounter.

    This is not to discount the points you make in your article. However, if scissoring is somehow seen as the “ultimate” or most “complex” of female-female coupling, it makes sense that it happens in the climax of the picture, even if it is not the most everyday sexual act.

  14. Moe Murph
    at 12:16 pm on November 11, 2016

    “Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition.”

    God. I know this is a “downer” comment, but I finally returned to The Millions after two days of “Trump” shock, and reading this essay has reinforced for me that there are two worlds. The world before November 8th and the world after. Every assumption of “inching” towards any further progress must now reassessed in light of the coming storm.

    I have found the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and the plays (and Resistance fighting) of Beckett comforting, but just can’t focus on old concerns at the moment. One thing I am doing at my Twitter feed ( @mamurphymaureen ) is provide some tips on how to think for yourself and how to approach “doublespeak” and “post factual politics” mumbo jumbo. I’ve also tried to sniff out Russian Trump Tweeters and dissect their tactics for people in a darkly entertaining (but educational way). They are now popping up on social media and attacking protestors.

    Finally, I intend to dissect every Trump tweet to see if I can figure out if it is him or someone else writing it.

    I am mostly at the moment motivated to read history and documents (the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, the political writing of Lincoln) rather than fiction. I also recommend to EVERYONE the California Legislators’ letter with their position on Trump in relation to their state.

    I am sure I will be back, but right now, there may be other things that have to take precedence. Good luck to all, in particular, the most vulnerable among us.

    Moe Murph

  15. steven augustine
    at 5:39 pm on November 11, 2016

    @Moe

    Hillary Clinton is on record admitting that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS”… while Clinton was helping to provide these same governments with “billions in weapons, arms, aircraft, and other support”… and here’s the stinger: “Qatar has given between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation and Saudi Arabia has donated upwards of $25 million dollars to the Foundation”. So, the same governments funding ISIS fund The Clinton Foundation, while Clinton indirectly provides ISIS with those “billions in weapons, arms, aircraft, and other support”… and you’re worried about (idiotic) Trump and Russia?

    I keep noticing this phenom: the most passionately pro-Clinton people seem to know almost nothing about her/them. What’s going on here?

    The Russians didn’t cause those Clinton-email links, but even if they had: so what? What counts is not who leaked the damning material, but whether the damning material is true. Even HRC doesn’t deny the emails are hers… her tactic was merely to claim the leaks were a Russian conspiracy. Is this not rather telling?

    What would you have done if you’d learned that the same people funding ISIS were also funding the Trump campaign? Would have been huge news, wouldn’t it?

    Well…? I mean, FACTS just seem so worthless these days.

    Oh, and, uh: re the article: what is “scissoring”…? (JK. But as a straight male I have to say it doesn’t interest me as much as the article indicates it should)

  16. Moe Murph
    at 8:24 pm on November 11, 2016

    @stevenaugustine

    Steve, I don’t know what country you are from, but I am focusing not on your long debate about HRC but about what I know about the Republican agenda, which, as a identified straight white male might not be of such import to you.

    Did you even read my comment?

  17. toad
    at 11:33 pm on November 11, 2016

    Steve

    It must be nice to have the luxury of distance from the results of this election.
    Unfortunately, for us here in the US, our reality is that a shameless bigot, xenophobe, misogynist, con man, liar, and 100 other things, is now our leader. Some of us have to raise children under this “role model”. Some of us without the fortune of being straight, white, and male have to live in fear of what the next 4 years will look like now that white nationalism has been emboldened.

    Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate. Trump is a terrible human, as evidenced by thousands of FACTS going back decades, and with a GOP that has kowtowed to him from day one and a looming SCOTUS appointment, his power is virtually unchecked.

    Fuck you.

  18. steven augustine
    at 4:13 am on November 12, 2016

    @Moe

    “but about what I know about the Republican agenda, which, as a identified straight white male might not be of such import to you.”

    Um, I’m Black. And Hillary (once a “Goldwater Girl”, always a Goldwater Girl) is demonstrably as racist as Trump (unless the racist passages in the speeches she thought were off the record are elaborate jokes). I’m saying as far as the verifiable record goes, Hillary was more dangerous and corrupt than the vulgarian Trump by any conceivable metric. I merely pointed out that you seem to be concerned by Trump’s apparent supposed connection to Putin; how about HRC’s entanglement with ISIS? Not a problem? I don’t get why.

    Does anyone out there understand why HRC was under investigation for using private email to do “government” business? It was her attempt to hide thousands of pieces of evidence of illegal activity; the Wikileaks dumps exposes some of the illegal activity. Clinton has some serious protection from high places if she isn’t already under indictment.

    Am I pro-Trump? Trump is repulsive to me. As are the cynical, murderous, racist Clintons.

    @Toad

    “It must be nice to have the luxury of distance from the results of this election.”

    Nowhere on this planet is a safe distance from the election: ask the dead children of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Kosovo, et al. I’m just relieved that the neo-McCarthyite Clinton, with her troublingly foolish tendency toward brinksmanship, is no longer in a position to test how macho Putin is. The next “Cuban Missile Crisis” will probably have a different outcome. Putin is no Khrushchev (a Goldfinger double in a panama hat). This generation of politicians seems uniformly to tend toward psychopathy.

    “Trump is a terrible human, as evidenced by thousands of FACTS going back decades….”

    Facts say precisely the same about HRC, friend… and more. Both the Clintons are as corrupt and blood-drenched as any political power-couple in America’s history. It always amazes me that Americans can be so passionately attached to politicians they know nothing about. A few speeches with the word “hope” and “change” in them and you’re convinced, eh? The jaw-dropping ignorance of the electorate is precisely what all these psychopaths (including Trump and Clinton) count on. A non-psychopath like Jill Stein will never have a chance… which is why you deserve the results you got, to be honest. But the world doesn’t.

    I won’t bounce that “fuck you” back at you, Toad, because I like you (as I like all the commenters here at The Millions: people who read good books, often, and express articulate opinions on them). I just want you to shake off the mind-blurring effects of the propaganda; it works exactly the same way that religion does, ignoring facts and circumventing logic and putting a hopeful veneer on a miserable existence. Arguing with Bush/Clinton/Obama/Trump fans is exactly like arguing with Jehovah’s witnesses… but the Witnesses tend to be better dressed.

  19. Moe Murph
    at 4:48 pm on November 16, 2016

    “A non-psychopath like Jill Stein will never have a chance… which is why you deserve the results you got, to be honest. But the world doesn’t.”

    @Toad Well, I guess that establishes where this man stands. I don’t have the patience for this right now. I’m going to go back to trying to make sure Trump hurts the least possible number of people.

    Augustine, don’t bother @ ‘ing me with any more replies. Won’t invest any more energy in reading your comments, that I could expend on something more pressing.

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