American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


The Business and Pleasure of Filmic Lesbians Performing Onstage

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Popular Culture

First Advisor

Cynthia Baron


This dissertation examined five films with queer female characters who perform on stage: When Night is Falling, Better than Chocolate, Tipping the Velvet, Slaves to the Underground, and Prey for Rock and Roll. These films were divided into "glossy" and "gritty" categories. "Glossy" films, like When Night is Falling, Better than Chocolate, and Tipping the Velvet, follow formats similar to Classical Hollywood Cinema—they include beautiful lighting, falling in love, and happy endings. In contrast, the "gritty" films, like Slaves to the Underground and Prey for Rock and Roll, more closely follow formats found in New Queer Cinema—the lighting is harsh, conflicts are not smoothly resolved, and the endings are not necessarily happy. The objective of this project was to speculate on the extent of performativity in queer identity. Jill Dolan's theory of the utopian performative provided a framework to talk about how cultural productions can function as venues for change. Richard Dyer's work on queer film provided a lens through which the form and content of the case study films were scrutinized. Judith Halberstam's theory of queer time and space and Terry Goldie's comparison between queerness and national identity provided a way to talk about how queer-themed cultural productions are unique and vital to many queers' sense of identity. The five case study films were thoroughly analyzed through these and other theories of cinema, performance, and sexuality. In addition to this textual analysis, a survey was administered through several queer- and lesbian-themed websites and magazines, asking women to answer questions about their experiences with these films. The survey yielded seventy-four responses over four months. They revealed that queer women recognize the ways in which they perform queerness in everyday life, and they recognize the same signifiers in others. The surveys also suggested that queer women enjoy "glossy" films more than "gritty" films. I conclude that for some queer women, everyday life is still full of discrimination, and "glossy" films, with their escapist pleasures, may offer a more satisfying experience than the realism of the "gritty" films that resemble New Queer Cinema.