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The Remarriage Plot

19 October 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
When same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia in December 2017, Lee Wallace had already spent several years working on her new book Reattachment Theory: Queer Cinema of Remarriage, which argues that gay and lesbian lifestyles influenced ideas about marriage long before they had legal equivalency. The only difference, Wallace contends, is that now “all marriage is gay marriage”.

An Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, Wallace also questions some of the orthodoxies associated with queer theory, including the idea that marriage should be rejected as a conservative heterosexual institution. “Marriage is often a contemptible object for queer theory, which hasn’t had much good to say about gay marriage or marriage equality.”

She explained her approach in an interview at the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre in the R.D. Watt Building: “I was trying to think what the rapid global uptake of marriage equality means for queer theory, which has been very attached to the idea of anti-normativity and the kinds of radicalism perceived to follow from that. The domestic certainties associated with marriage were never something queer theory wanted to own.”

New Zealand born and educated, Wallace studied literature before becoming interested in film in the context of sexuality studies. Her first book was about the emergence of homosexuality in Pacific cross-cultural encounters from Cook and Melville to Gauguin and Margaret Mead. Her second book, wittily subtitled The Sexual Life of Apartments, looked at mainstream lesbian cinema after 1968, when Hollywood’s morally restrictive Production Code was abandoned.

In 2011 Wallace moved from Auckland to Sydney with her partner Annamarie Jagose, who is now Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. Together for almost 30 years, they are not legally married. “I wouldn’t get married in a fit,” said Wallace with a smile.

An Australian Research Council Future Fellowship gave her four years to work on a project about gay and lesbian domesticity, which evolved into Reattachment Theory (Duke University Press, May 2020).

“One of the premises of sexuality studies is that homosexuality doesn’t leave much trace in the world, as opposed to the familial cultures associated with heterosexuality that tend to have much more obvious intergenerational legacies. But I am interested in the worlds that gays and lesbians have made and what is left of them; which often involves thinking about material culture and style.”

For a book called Domestic Imaginaries she wrote a chapter about the homes of gay writers Patrick White in Sydney and Frank Sargeson in Auckland, and also turned to domestic melodrama, a genre of films centred on relationships and their internal dilemmas.

“Initially I thought I was writing a book about gay melodrama,” she said, “but it turned out to be a book about remarriage, or the idea that the capacity to reattach might now be central to our thinking about the sustainability of relationships.”

How Hollywood gave couples a second chance

Wallace drew her “preposterous idea” – her words – that all marriage is gay marriage from the work of American philosopher Stanley Cavell. In his 1981 book Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cavell examined popular movies of the 1930s and 1940s that reunite a husband and wife who are on the brink of divorce. They included Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, both starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

“Cavell realised these films were a response to the fact that divorce had now become completely accepted by the American middle class,” Wallace said. “It was the social fact of divorce that forced a rethinking of what marriage was, and those films did that thinking for an entire generation of Americans and anyone else who grew up with Hollywood cinema.

“I realised the same thing is happening now. The advent of gay marriage means that what we think marriage is has fundamentally altered.”

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

In her book, Wallace looked at another set of films that “did the thinking for me”. Those films include Craig’s Wife (1936) directed by Dorothy Arzner; High Art (1998), Laurel Canyon (2002) and The Kids Are All Right (2010) by Lisa Chodolenko; A Single Man (2009) by Tom Ford; and Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015) by Andrew Haigh.

Lesbian director Arzner worked under the Production Code and set her films in “homosocial environments,” such as Hollywood dance studios and sorority houses. Craig’s Wife is about a woman who loves her house more than her husband and has a gay subtext in the film’s set designer, William Haines.

Haines was an actor until his open homosexuality led to his studio contract being terminated. He later became an interior designer famous for working with Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard, who both redecorated each time they divorced a husband.

“I tried to demonstrate that because the commentary on Craig’s Wife is obsessed with the heterosexual story, it cannot see all the other stories that are going on,” Wallace said.

Can couples stick themselves together again?

She refers to Chodolenko’s three films as an “attachment trilogy” because each tells the story of a couple come unstuck. “It turns out that’s the story I’m interested in – when couples come unstuck, can they stick themselves together again?”

Charlotte Rampling gives a cool performance of emotional pain in 45 Years, another story about a heterosexual marriage made by a gay director. Wallace interprets the film as a reversioning of French director Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter, a “remarriage comedy” derived from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

“I call that chapter ‘The Remarriage Crisis’ because the wife is poised in a position where she cannot seem to find it in herself to recommit to her husband. But it’s not a bleak film; Haigh keeps asking you to stay on the side of hopefulness. At the end it is a single shot held on Charlotte Rampling’s face that carries all that sense of possibility and impossibility.”

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2014)

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2014)

In Reattachment Theory Wallace also discusses the history of the novel and the critical distinction made between English novels that end in betrothal, and French novels that begin with marriage and end in adultery.

Everything goes in cycles, she said, and the rise of feminism in the 1970s produced “problem marriage” films and novels. Wallace points to the American writer John Updike, whose novels often involve second marriages perhaps because he thought along Cavellian lines that “you need two shots at marriage”.

In 2018 Wallace received SSSHARC support for an Ultimate Peer Review and invited Professor Robyn Wiegman of Duke University, a leading figure in feminist and queer theory, to attend as her critical “opponent” in a discussion of her manuscript. This meant delaying the delivery of the finished book to the publisher by almost a year. The delay was worthwhile.

Wiegman wrote a 12-page report that said Wallace’s work had the potential to change the critical field’s relation to marriage but only if she fully owned her argument about queer theory and negativity. “Having Robyn say that gave me the authority and confidence to stick my neck out,” she said.

About 15 colleagues took part in the peer review, which began with Wiegman giving a 40-minute account of what she thought the book did, before others commented. That process, Wallace said, “made the manuscript feel like a book. It’s always good to be a little bit intimidated by somebody, and Robyn’s a wonderful writer and a first-class intellect, so to feel that she was in my corner gave me a lot of confidence. And I ended up with a very firm academic friendship.”

While she was in town, Wiegman also co-taught a SSSHARC masterclass with Wallace and gave a public lecture on the psychopathology of Trump’s America.

Robyn Wiegman at the public lecture on “Outrage: The Psychic Life of Trump’s America” for Sydney Ideas.

Robyn Wiegman at the public lecture on “Outrage: The Psychic Life of Trump’s America” for Sydney Ideas. 

Since finishing Reattachment Theory, Wallace has co-edited with Professor Scott Herring (Indiana) an anthology, Long Term: Essays on Queer Commitment (forthcoming Duke University Press, 2021). This volume includes original essays by other prominent queer theorists, including Amy Villarejo, Professor of Humanities at Cornell University, who came to Sydney as a SSSHARC-funded Gilbert Fellow.

Skin in the game of marriage equality

Wallace reflects that across her career she has changed from being an “isolationist” writer to enjoying collaboration. In her current role as Director of Research Development for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (Humanities), she works with researchers to help them achieve their ambitions. She and Jagose are now collaborating on an ARC-funded Discovery Project on the couple in the era of marriage-equality, which experiments with auto-theoretical writing in “the coupled voice”.

Despite not wanting legal marriage for herself, Wallace recalls feeling “strangely emotional” while watching the results of the 2017 plebiscite on same-sex marriage in a workshop with a group of social scientists who immediately started calculating what the 61.6 per cent yes vote meant for the next federal election.

“That was when I realised I did have skin in the game,” she said. “I was shocked that the numbers were so close and that things that touch my life would be determined on those numbers.”

Thinking about how queer theory did not often engage with numbers, she joined a group planning a project related to the plebiscite. They used a SSSHARC Huddle to conduct a thought experiment: what questions they would ask if they were to conduct a survey around intimate relations.

“We talk about interdisciplinarity all the time, but thinking about quantititive  methods has made me engage with disciplines beyond my own,” Wallace said.

Guided by Associate Professor Julie Mooney-Somers (School of Public Health), who runs an annual survey on lesbian life, the group put together a six-minute survey that went to 1000 people as part of a bigger YouGov e-survey around the last Australian election.

The survey asked respondents how they voted in the plebiscite and why, and how they would vote if it were held tomorrow. People who seemed to have the profile of no voters were less able to remember how they voted than declared yes voters, which suggests confirmation bias or the idea that people like to be on the winning team.

Thinking “like a novelist”, Wallace remains interested in how selective political memory can be. “To begin we had all these flash questions about intimacy and polyamory and all sorts of queer things. But people don’t know themselves and especially they don’t know their sexual selves, which is why I continue to find films a more reliable research device.”  

Professor Robyn Wiegman led an Ultimate Peer Review of Reattachment Theory by Lee Wallace on March 16, 2018 at the Law School, University of Sydney.

Wiegman gave a public lecture on “Outrage: The Psychic Life of Trump’s America” for Sydney Ideas on March 13, 2018. 

A SSSHARC Huddle on Queer Pragmatism went ahead on December 14, 2018 with Wallace and co-investigators Associate Professor Catriona Elder (Sociology), Dr Jessica Kean and Dr Shawna Tang (both Gender and Cultural Studies). Associate Professor Julie Mooney-Somers presented on quantitative methodologies and Professor Amy Villarejo was a respondent.

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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