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Liminal Spaces, Lesbian Desire and Veering off Course in Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015)

Chapter in book
Authors Anna Backman Rogers
Published in Film and domestic space
ISBN 978-1474428934
Publisher Edinburgh University Press
Place of publication Edinburgh
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Cultural Sciences
Language en
Keywords Haynes Carol, lesbian desire, film, domestic space, queer
Subject categories Arts, Philosophy, Ethics and Religion


Set in the 1950s and based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (which was originally written in 1952 under a pseudonym because of its subject matter), Todd Haynes’s Carol relates the story of an illicit love affair between two women socially divided by age and class. Upon its release, critics noted the film’s tasteful and chaste treatment of its literary source material; indeed, Haynes’s implicit and subtle delineation of the central love story serves to ground the film in political and historical authenticity (namely, as the film makes clear, such a relationship is considered impossible, unthinkable and a moral abomination that must be impeded by law). However, this essay contends that this sublimation of lesbian desire is figured in the film not only as a trope of authenticity, but more profoundly as an affective and emotional history that plays out in liminal spaces between the social and domestic stratifications determined by patriarchal law. The radical nature of lesbian desire is adumbrated as a force that cannot exist or thrive within, and thus refuses, the hierarchical spaces of power structures (the patriarchal family home, the public space, the place of work) that are associated with masculinity in the film; yet the betwixt and between nature of this love works fundamentally to decentre and trouble these spaces of power. In essence, I will argue that Carol traces a phenomenology of lesbianism through affective orientation towards objects and spaces that render lesbian desire as a powerful, disruptive and liminal – rather than utopian – force that refuses forms of regulation and conventional domesticity.

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