Sarcastic Saturday :: the Carol Paradigm

6 Feb

Many critics, and heterosexual audience members, have had an interesting reaction to Carol. For them, though they can acknowledge it as beautifully shot and made, the love story has failed to connect on an emotional level. They write things like “Carol” is a perfect example of audiovisual beauty with emotional atrophy,” “it fails to stir the heart,” “I was expecting a much more powerful love story.” Meanwhile, queer women (and other people who understand what the film was going for) are hailing this as possibly the greatest lesbian film of all time, due to its quality of filmmaking as well as the chemistry between leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. David Sims wrote a piece entitled “Why Carol is Misunderstood,” which attempts to explain why it has fallen so flat with mainstream audiences. We’d like to expand on those ideas, and incorporate some analysis of fandom and media tropes as well as societal expectations that feed into this.

This, simply put and as per the title, is the Carol Paradigm.

I will bring you back to the greatest thing that B&W invented (which is part of what makes that they ruined it especially horrid) and that is my ever-adored Dany/Doreah scene.  Because when we started thinking about the Carol Paradigm, I kept thinking “love comes in at the eyes, love comes in at the eyes.”  I thought it watching the movie at least twenty times.  And it occurred to me how breathtakingly true it is and how breathtakingly relevant it is to the (queer) female gaze. In the scene, Doreah (Roxanne McKee) is teaching Dany (Emilia Clarke) about the pleasures of the flesh and the heart, and it is neither a coincidence that she says this in regards to Dany’s relationship with… a guy who is not at the beginning good to her and also is not particularly demonstrative nor that she says this with the deep implication of a bond between the two of them as women and also proverbial gal pals.  And it is not a coincidence that it’s Doreah who says this, Doreah who has been trained in the art of “love,” who has endured much but had to find her happiness how and when she can, if she can.

“Love comes in at the eyes,” she tells Dany, meaning that as women perhaps it is expected of them to be able to divine great romantic meaning where there cannot be words.  And in its truest form, this is the Carol Paradigm: an exchange of love shared between women, a secret language of love, that is primarily composed of meaningful glances loaded with intention…

…but that often backfires.  In Dany’s case, she did eventually find love with Drogo (Jason Momoa), but it was hard-earned and the potentially coercive nature of it has been debated here there and everywhere.  Perhaps it could be argued that in the case of Carol the lesbian characters had tried to intuit love from the men in their lives, who presented what looked like love to them, but found it more truly with each other.


And perhaps a great deal of heterosexual relationships, both real and fictional, result from this attempt to intuit love from unsuitable people.  Consider also the fact that, tied to Doreah’s training in a sense, women are conditioned to think this way while men are not, at least to the same degree.  This secret language works from woman to woman because women are trained to think this way, but it’s often just like a language: a woman may try to use it with a man, assuming that they too are a human adept in recognizing facial cues, but it’s no more effective than someone attempting to speak Chinese to someone who only speaks Japanese, assuming that they will understand because kanji are shared between the languages.  At the very least, this seems to be responsible for many of the romanticized heterosexual relationships in popular fiction.


This conditioning also feeds into the ways that many people perceive fictional romantic relationships, whether they are canon or non-canon. Especially in fandom, there is a pervasive tendency to ship pairings that share several common traits: they are non-canon (or the canon shows them to be bad relationships); they are between a male character and a female character who are on opposing sides of the main conflict, nearly always with the male being an antagonist; and they involve either some kind of power differential or the male character being otherwise “stronger than” the female. Examples include Zuko/Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Grant Ward/Skye in Agents of SHIELD, Jessica/Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, and Kylo Ren/Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some of these are more or less inherently horrifying and abusive than others (Zutara, while being impossible to avoid and having some of the most entitled fans I have ever seen in my time in fandom, at least involves characters who do become close friends), but they all contain what could be called “Phantom of the Opera syndrome.” This is the tendency for fandom to be convinced that a tragic male antagonist could be redeemed if only the female protagonist would fix him with her love.

Of course, this doesn’t come out of nowhere – Phantom is possibly the most obvious example of the trope, but it’s an old romantic storyline, where a Bad Boy is changed through the love of a Good Woman. Literally hundreds of stories reinforce this idea, and the girls and women who tend toward being attracted to Bad Boys adopt this fantasy as well. Therefore, many shippers also find this idea romantic and gravitate towards the pairings that reflect that – which is how we get things like Zutara, Skyeward and Reylo. (Obligatory disclaimer that of course not all shippers of these ships do so for these reasons, but it’s a trend for a reason.)

The Carol Paradigm and love coming in at the eyes also manifests in fictional relationships in other ways.  Fandom and canon will bend over backwards to justify a heterosexual relationship that to some people, often women who understand love in the eyes, does not seem viable but neglect a queer relationship between women that is much more subtly loaded with, well, said love, even when the latter is canon.

A particularly egregious recent example is with Jurassic World, a flawed movie that I personally enjoyed certain elements of very much. One of the elements I did not enjoy was the romance between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s characters, which took up way too much of the narrative and only makes sense if you go by Hollywood Relationship Logic. We are told they went on one date, and didn’t pursue the relationship further because of a personality conflict. Fine. But then the film proceeds to mistake constant arguing and arrogance for sexual tension (another problem with the way heterosexual romance is portrayed) and about halfway through, they kiss. The film ends with Pratt suggesting, “Maybe we should stick together,” and it’s supposed to be a happy ending because…now they’re together? Too bad they’re almost definitely going to break up in the next five years because they are fundamentally incompatible as people.

Honestly, a lot of the problems I have with the movie would be eliminated if they just left out the romance. Romance is great when it’s well-written, but all too often it’s not and it’s a distraction from the story. (I submit The Avengers and Kingsman: The Secret Service as top-tier action movies that have no romantic subplot besides established relationships.) It’s frustrating, because I can hear the execs saying “There has to be romance! Ladies, they like romance! And people expect if a man and a woman are working together they’ll fall in love!” But people won’t care if a film doesn’t have romance, and a badly-written romance can drag down a perfectly good film. Rachel Dawes from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is one example of this – Batman doesn’t need a romantic subplot, but Nolan put one in there anyway, and I think it makes those movies significantly weaker (to say nothing of the fridging). Franchises also have a bad habit of holding onto previously established relationships in new films, even when showcasing that relationship would make no sense. In Pitch Perfect 2, Jesse (Skylar Astin) appears for about fifteen minutes just to remind the audience that Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) are definitely not going to kiss each other, even though that would make far more sense emotionally. But heterosexuality must be present.

The first Pitch Perfect has a perfectly serviceable heterosexual love story, although some people criticize it because Jesse’s persistence can be offputting and similar to a Nice Guy. But fandom at large is composed of people who see a far more compelling story in Beca and Chloe’s relationship – which is, point for point, also similar to a love story. Chloe takes Beca under her wing, pushes her into the Bellas, roots for her to the point of standing up to her best friend whose every order she used to follow, and generally acts like she wants nothing more than to push Beca up against a wall and make out with her. This behavior continues in the sequel, and is perhaps more exaggerated. And yet…if I were to point this out to people like my mother, they would be confused and maybe horrified at the implication. They can’t see it, because they’re not programmed to the way they’re programmed to see heterosexuality at every turn.

On television, a recent example of the Carol Paradigm comes to mind: Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra. The series began with a standard heterosexual romantic subplot between Korra and a male character, Mako, but when Asami was introduced in episode four, a small group in the fandom jumped on board the good ship Korrasami. People mocked Korrasami shippers as delusional, since, they said, Nickelodeon would never allow a queer relationship in one of their shows. I watched the show in its first season, abandoned it somewhere around season 2, and didn’t expect to ever finish, abandoning my hopes for Korrasami as a pipe dream. Until, that is, the series finale of Korra, in which Korra and Asami walk off into the Spirit World for a vacation, gazing into each others’ eyes, in a scene that the creators insist would have included a kiss, if the network hadn’t vetoed it. Immediately, fandom exploded: celebratory fanart was created, reaction videos were uploaded to the internet (at least half of which involve joyful tears and screaming), and the people who shipped Makorra or other heterosexual pairings were left stunned and upset by the “sudden” turn in the story. Except if you’d been watching carefully, it hadn’t been sudden at all. The development is there; it’s subtle, sure, but there are quiet conversations and compliments, there’s mention of letters written while apart. Korra and Asami don’t have a lot of scenes together, but the ones they do have are full of affection and an underlying tension that leads to the aforementioned walking off into the metaphorical sunset together. Co-creator Bryan Konietzko says it best in this post: “If it seems out of the blue to you, I think a second viewing of the last two seasons would show that perhaps you were looking at it only through a hetero lens.”

All of this comes back to the Paradigm itself.  The notion that what some (mostly other queer women) view as very obvious clues (see also: Margaery giving Sansa the “friendship into love” rose, a lot of incidents of behavior between some combination of Daisy and Jemma and Bobbi, Bennett’s behavior toward Caroline, everything we’re always on about in Sailor Moon, everything we’re always on about ever at all) that suggest or could at least possibly lend themselves to a queer relationship between women is nigh invisible to many people who view, quoting the above, with “a hetero lens.”  That heteronormative thinking requires a relationship to be based in tropes and standardized behavior as well as in the fact that men and women clearly must have the sex but does not account for many of the nuances that queer people, in this case women, are accustomed to noticing and being fluent in.  And, although this is sometimes a good thing for safety reasons, this inability to read queer love in the eyes lady language sometimes even manifests itself in real life.

–your fangirl heroines.



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