I had never seen two women participate in a straight relationship before I saw Below Her Mouth.
Directed by April Mullen, the film has been a hot topic on the queer film circuit due to its all female crew and notably, ahem, involved sex scenes; it has also been criticized for its flat characters and recycled storylines. Since the film currently has a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, I am satisfied that we are expecting more from our lesbian media than what Below Her Mouth has to offer.
Still, it’s worth going over one of the finer points of this film’s failure to portray woman-loving-women in a nuanced way, as the rigid gender roles inhabited by romantic leads “Dallas” (Erika Linder) and “Jasmine” (Natalie Krill) offer a great teachable moment on a major issue with straight people writing non-straight people: the tendency by writers and directors to project cis-het gender roles and romantic narratives onto people who are not cis-het. If you read the title of this article, you can probably guess what I’m going to call this dynamic: it is The Heterosexual Gaze.
Any woman who has ever dated another woman has probably had to endure friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers asking them which woman is the “man” and which is the “woman.” (Does that make the woman who is “the woman” twice a woman, or maybe a woman squared?) Dallas and Jasmine will never have this problem, because no one could hang around these two for more than five minutes without knowing which one of them is which. Let’s meet the happy couple:
We have Dallas, a brooding philanderer who works construction and wears men’s underwear. Dallas was called a tomboy as a child, and went against her parents’ wishes to start a roofing business—it’s at a construction site for her company where she meets Jasmine, who lives nearby. When Dallas first sees Jasmine, her coworkers begin to catcall her, and Dallas joins in. What a meet-cute, right?!?!
The fact that Dallas is a woman doesn’t change the fact that she’s a womanizer and a misogynist. The conversations we overhear Dallas have with a lesbian friend in a bar about hitting on women reveals that she looks at the women she dates with barely veiled contempt; despite this, her skill at picking up women would make Chuck Bass jealous (is that too old of a reference?). It must be one hell of a balancing act in Dallas’s head to be talking about how to manipulate women, to a woman. What separates the women Dallas dates from the women she does locker-room talk with? The former wear heels and skimpy, sexy clothes, and the latter wear leather jackets and boots.
Opposite this charming character is Jasmine, the svelte editor of a fashion magazine, who thinks she’s straight. Jasmine wears expensive, curve-enhancing clothes, and plays it sweet and coy where Dallas is cocky and byronic. Since Dallas is more the main character of Below Her Mouth, we know a lot more about her than about Jasmine, and it’s not an accident that the masculine lesbian gets more character development than the feminine one.
Did I mention Dallas goes to strip clubs, and Jasmine makes Dallas coffee the morning after their first sexual encounter? This film is NOT SUBTLE.
Another thing this film is not, is chaste! There’s so! much! sex! And I’m about to analyze it and critique it! Look out for a couple NSFW paragraphs, reader who has clicked on an article about a lesbian sex movie but doesn’t want to read about sex.
Ready for the sex? Okay.
The sensual (read: sexy) scenes in Below Her Mouth are filmed literally the exact same way a director would film a straight sex scene. We always see Dallas on top of Jasmine, whether that’s vertically on top in bed or by pressing her up against a wall. Vertical, horizontal, or whatever orientation the encounter is taking, the bottom line is that Dallas is the one doing things to Jasmine, and Jasmine is the one having things done to her. The two make frequent use of a strap-on, but Dallas is the only one to use it! It’s not subtle!
Jasmine is only on top in one of the encounters we see, and the blocking is the same as when a straight girl is in “cowgirl” position—she mainly moans and responds to Dallas’s thrusting from the bottom, instead of Dallas’s more aggressive topping. In all their scenes, Jasmine does breathy, high-pitched moans, while Dallas’s noises are closer to grunts. Jasmine actually has a scene where she masturbates using the running water in her bathtub—if you watch it, you will see that she is actually taking a submissive role here as well, grinding against the water as if it’s a vibrator, Dallas’s strap-on, or what-have-you.
Re: plot elements, the romance that develops between Dallas and Jasmine over the course of Below Her Mouth is about as canned as any straight movie. The emotional beats of the story follow the common straight narrative of a bad boy being tamed by a good girl, with all the yucky sexual mores that implies. At the beginning, Dallas abandons her girlfriend, who's too attached/ easy to please. Dallas doesn’t feel like she’ll ever find a girl she wants to “play house” with: “I’ve got no stamina for emotional intimacy,” she says. However, she finds a girl who has discovered the magic of playing hard to get: “I know how to keep them interested,” says Jasmine when they first meet. Jasmine also coyly says “I’m curious,” which just god help me.
Turns out, bad boys like Dallas can settle down if they meet, as Dallas calls Jasmine, “the right girl.” “The right girl” means one who has only kissed another girl once, when she was thirteen, and has seemingly never had an orgasm before. The way Dallas initiates/ converts Jasmine into lesbianism supports the narrative of rapacious gays preying on straights, and the semi-rapey way Dallas pursues Jasmine before finally “getting the girl” upholds rape culture. Their characterization is also founded on the idea that masculine coded people are sexually aggressive/ promiscuous and emotionally detached, while feminine coded people are submissive and don't sleep around. Wow, what a progressive, groundbreaking LGBT movie!!!!
Finally, a note on the physical appearances of the actors: during casting, Ms. Mullen and company probably would have seen a lot of different people read for these roles. The two actors they went with, as well as their costuming and makeup later in the process, should be considered very intentional, even and especially the little details. So: there’s Dallas, a waifishly thin woman with very little cleavage and a sharp-cheekboned, androgynous face. She favors flannel, men’s jeans and underwear, and leather. In the film she wears her hair in a short, masculine cut, and when she puts it up in a bun, the way she does it makes it a man bun somehow. I can’t fully explain this.
Meanwhile, Jasmine has curves that are played up by her silky bathrobes and cocktail dresses. Jasmine also has long hair, and wears makeup while Dallas wears none. On their first date, Dallas wears a tux, while Jasmine wears a very short dress, six inch heels, and heavy lipstick. If you aren’t getting my point here, consider this: the roles could have been reversed. What if the makeup-wearer chased the one without? The same lines and the same scenes, but with Dallas in heels and a short skirt while she reaches inside Jasmine’s suit pants? You may be thinking that wouldn't work as well. By the logic of heterosexual gender politics, you would be right.
Just look at the poster (right)--if you didn't know Dallas was a woman, you might not even be able to tell! Jasmine has her lips all pouted out like a Kardashian, while Dallas's jacket hides her breasts enough that they are not effectively visible.
Want to keep reading about Below Her Mouth and why this is important? Continue on to Part 2 of this screed here.
© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (5/14/17) FF2 Media
Photo credit: Serendipity Point Films.