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Reviewed by:
  • Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema, and: Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television since World War II
  • Robyn A. Epstein (bio) and Mel Michelle Lewis (bio)
Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema by Robert J. Corber. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 240 pp., $66.00 hardcover, $24.00 paper.
Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television since World War II by Yvonne Tasker. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 328 pp., $70.00 hardcover, $25.00 paper.

Robert Corber’s Cold War Femme: Lesbianism, National Identity, and Hollywood Cinema and Yvonne Tasker’s Soldiers’ Stories: Military Women in Cinema and Television since World War II consider the cinematic characters of the femme lesbian and the military woman, respectively, both of whom are contradictory and influential representations of women. These interdisciplinary studies scrutinize how onscreen portrayals of women’s gender and sexuality model dynamic historical, social, and cultural norms. The gender expression of the cold war femme is seemingly incongruous with lesbian sexual identity, thus creating an always-already taboo subject through which to render the value of normativity, the dangers of female desire, and the penalties of nonconformity. Similarly, the military woman’s subjectivity is contentious, pivoting between romanticized feminine altruism and tropes of masculine heroism; she is at once glamorous and mannish, angelic and disruptive, inaccessible and sexy. Her power evokes anxiety and challenges normative constructions of femininity.

Corber’s Cold War Femme observes and analyzes the role of a purposeful femme lesbian subjectivity in the Hollywood-imagined world of women’s homosocial relationships during the period of the cold war (1940s to mid-’60s). In addition to illuminating this subjectivity, Corber brands a genealogy of the sociocultural invention and positioning of femme lesbians in cold war cinema. Through a reading of McCarthy-era anti-communist discourse and the crafted threat of homosexuals as hidden, seditious Americans, Corber establishes that fictitious femme lesbians displaced fictitious butch lesbians as the greater social threat to the U.S. nation-state. Hollywood reproduced and cultivated this gender category, steering it into acutely provocative characters. With primarily heterosexual aesthetic presentations and attractions to feminine women, these cold war and Hollywood-created femme lesbians roused alarm and curiosity as they challenged normative sexual-identity arrangements. The cold war femme demonstrated a “lack of congruity between gender identity, sexual practice, and object choice” (30). Corber asserts that directors and screenwriters summoned the cold war femme by depicting women’s sexual desire and social autonomy as mysterious and menacing, while carefully avoiding violating the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) by excluding any explicit indication of lesbianism. His strongest examples include films like All About Eve (1950) and The Children’s [End Page 136] Hour (1961), in which the stories are shown to swivel and are directed through female relationships that are latently yet more reasonably interpreted as lesbian.

Revealing these partially hidden scripts, Cold War Femme contributes to feminist and queer film theory, as well as to cold war cinema studies; Corber explains that even while the subjectivity of the cold war femme is created to underscore the communist threat to “American” capitalist, heterosexual, and patriarchal culture, the cross-film identity creates a successful archetypical legacy of this kind of femme. Still, the sophistication of Corber’s lens is somewhat undermined by the surprising absence of raced and classed analyses. The nationalism driving the production of cold war–era ideology was highly informed by racial and socioeconomic politics, which are ignored in the text; whiteness has been central to the construction of the “real American,” especially during the time of the cold war femme’s cinematic run. This omission confuses the historicity of the subject of the text, although the contribution to theorizing the cold war femme is still of important value. The book is divided into two parts: “Part I: Screening the Femme,” which attends directly to an explicit cold war femme construction; and “Part II: Female Stardom,” which contends with messy gender-crossings between actresses’ personas and their characters in film. In both sections, Corber presents interesting close readings of films, through which the reader is able to watch the interplay...


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pp. 136-142
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