Dr. Cathy Hannabach
May 1, 2013
Queer Asylum in Unveiling and Seeking Asylum
Although they present themselves as progressive and altruistic societies, the films Unveiling (2005) and Seeking Asylum (2013) portray the harsh realities faced by those seeking queer asylum in Western countries. The stories of these queer men and women reveal that despite leaving behind homes where they were severely persecuted, Germany and Great Britain are far from being the utopic havens they imagined. Through their sexual expression, Fariba, Bisi, Skye, and Uche challenge Western perceptions of sexuality; they are often faced with deportation when they fail to conform to monolithic lesbian and gay “ideals”. When Fariba fails to tell an immigration agent why she fled from Iran, she addresses the different conceptualizations that exist in the West between the personal and the political, “I didn’t flee the country for political reasons… The real reason is that I was with a woman” (Maccarone, Unveiled). It seems difficult for Western audiences to understand why it is that Fariba lied yet as Gaytri Devi explains, Farida did not see herself the way the immigration agent saw her; “Is gender a process of consolidation or is it a process of divestment and dissolution- or is it something else that may defy identity?” (Ginsberg and Mensch 176). Through the actions of Farida, Maccarone forces audiences to question the Western-centric biases regarding sexuality and its expressions. In Seeking Asylum, the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and migration are explored through the experiences of queer Africans seeking asylum in London. Both of these films criticize a system that is supposed to provide aid but instead further victimizes and disenfranchises those that are already vulnerable.
In both films, individuals are continuously asked to provide “proof” of their sexuality and persecution as a condition to attain safety. Yet as Rachel Lewis explains, presentations of what it means to be lesbian, and for that fact queer, does not apply from border to border, “Because race, religion, nationality, and political opinion are understood to be characteristics so fundamental to one’s identity that they cannot be changed, in order for homosexuality to be recognized within international refugee law as ‘membership of a particular social group,’ gays and lesbians must similarly express their sexuality in language connoting immutability” (Lewis 429). Especially for lesbians requesting asylum, providing evidence of abuse, which may often be psychological and done by a non-state actor, proves to be extremely difficult. As Fariba later explains to Ann, she did not have the proof of her attraction towards women and the abuse she had experienced. The narratives of queer individuals thus must convey an essentialism of their sexual orientation that emphasizes this aspect of their identity above all else. For Fariba, her well-being and safety in Iran had depended upon quieting this aspect of her identity yet she was expected to reveal this about herself instantly upon entering Frankfurt. In Seeking Asylum, Uche Nnabuife, a Nigerian man that immigrated to London illegally after being brutally beaten because of his sexuality, is having difficulty proving to the British government his gay identity, “So I don’t know if they want to see me sleep with a man naked or if they want a picture of that. They should just tell me but I have tried all my best” (Seeking Asylum). Uche’s experience as well as Fariba’s emphasize that for the West, there is a preferred and acceptable expression of sexuality; those that do not conform to such confines are further marginalized. Because of such delimiting portrayals of sexuality and identity, Martin Manalansan refutes the Eurocentric presentation of the home states of those seeking queer asylum as being the only, or primary sights of repression, “Manalansan thus challenges the dominant, ethnocentric model that views queer migration as a movement from ‘repression’ to ‘liberation’, instead highlighting the fact that migrants experience ‘restructured’ inequalities and opportunities through migration” (Luibheid 170). Neither Germany nor Great Britain reflect the liberal values that they are meant to uphold; instead, the detention center in which Fariba and many seeking asylum find themselves is a physical manifestation of the new set of repressions that exist in the receiving state. Each of the individuals that are portrayed in Unveiled and Seeking Asylum attempt to leave behind brutality and repression yet upon arrivals to a new state, they discover a new set of parameters that attempt to contain the queer experience.
The queer individuals in Unveiled and Seeking Asylum obviously suffered from abuse and persecution in their country of origin. More surprising however, was the abuse that they sustained in their receiving country. Through Fariba’s experience in Unveiled, Angelina Maccarone juxtaposes the urban furor of Tehran to the vast desolation present in the German countryside. Initially we are convinced that Fariba will find salvation when she leaves Tehran since we perceive her condition as being extremely repressed, “In some sense, it is impossible for us living in the West to conceptualize personal freedom if that freedom does not also include free expressions of the fullest potential of our gender identity, including our sexual orientation” (Ginsberg and Mensch 175). Of course, the situation that Fariba and other lesbian women experience in Tehran is harrowing yet as Eurocentric viewers, the demonization of Iran occurs as a result of what we conceive to be a repressed sexuality. At times it is difficult to distinguish if the life that she leads while working in a sauerkraut factory is preferable to her life in Tehran as a teacher. While the theocratic Iranian government enforces the chador and hijab as a means to censor the female body, Fariba completely loses her identity once she moves to Germany and she becomes an anonymous immigrant. Forced to take up the male identity of Siamak, her identity as an individual is completely erased by the German countryside.
Likewise, Skye recounts her experience as a queer asylum applicant as being extremely traumatic. She was held illegally in a detention center in London for 24 hours without any idea of what could happen to her, “I was taken away in the middle of the night by a police car… In that moment I felt really scare and very uncertain about my tomorrow. I didn’t know whether I would be beat up or whether I would be raped” (Seeking Asylum). The situation that this young woman describes would not be expected to occur in the country that was supposed to be providing her with protection. Very quickly, Skye and the other individuals that were requesting asylum realized that the demonization of their home countries served as a mask for the hardships they would face as queer individuals in their new countries. Portraying themselves as heroes, the current Eurocentric model of queer politics creates a set of “good” and “bad” states; “In another global flow, the corporate media use rights rhetoric to smear countries that are out of our favor: when news media report only certain ‘human rights violations’, they implicitly valorize, as points of comparison, the supposedly humane countries” (Malave and Manalansan 200). Such a universalist approach to the conditions of queer communities outside of the West creates unrealistic and even false dichotomies that at times overlook the homophobia and violence that is perpetrated against queer individuals in the West. In Seeking Asylum, Bisi, one of the first openly gay men in Nigeria, describes the hope that he has for his country and all of Africa to create better conditions for queer communities. While he affirms that he is much safer in the United Kingdom, he also states the less than ideal conditions he faces by being separated from his home country; as a person that has received asylum, it is illegal to return to one’s country of origin. Despite the tremendous love he feels for his country, he must live in exile.
The experiences portrayed in Unveiled and Seeking Asylum attempt to undo the myths of “heroes” versus “bad” countries. Those seeking queer asylum have not only had to endure persecution in their countries of origin but also prejudices from Eurocentric perceptions of what it is the correct way of being a gay or lesbian individual. Essentialism in this situation limited the identity if Fariba, Skye, Bisi, and Uche simply to their sexuality. There is extreme error in applying a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the complexity of individuals’ sexuality, gender, and culture;
“As avant-garde as queer politics in the West imagines itself to be, it must stay anti-universalist. Other queers are not a local deviation of a Queer” (Malave and Manalansan 199). It is when attempting to delimit the expressions of sexuality and queerness that the “savior” that the West sets out to be becomes a persecutor as guilty as those that queer asylum applicants have attempted to leave behind in their home countries.
Devi, Gayatri. “No Happily Ever After: Disembodying Gender, Destabilizing Nation in Angelina Maccarone’s Unveiled.” A Companion to German Cinema. By Terri Ginsberg and Andrea Mensch. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. N. pag. Print.
Lewis, Rachel. “The Cultural Politics of Lesbian Asylum.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 12.3 (2010): 424-33. Print.
Lewis, Rachel. “Towards a Transnational Lesbian Cinema.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 16.3 (2012): 273-90.
Luibheid, E. “QUEER/MIGRATION: An Unruly Body of Scholarship.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 169-90.
Patton, Cindy. “Stealth Bombers of Desire.” Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism. By Arnaldo Cruz and Martin F. Manalansan. New York: New York UP, 2002. N. pag. Print.
Seeking Asylum- PBS.org. None On Record, 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
Unveiled. Dir. Angelina Maccarone. Perf. Jasmine Tabatabai. MMM Film Zimmerman &Company, 2005. DVD.
Femme fatales have become a vital part of noir films in the past century. They are one of the most characterized figures in film history. If there is a femme fatale in a film, the role they play is obvious. Noir films appear mysterious and sexual because of the femme fatale’s look and actions. They usually commit or are part of the crime that occurs in the film. The association between female sexuality and criminality in Bound and Psycho make the femme fatales appear dangerous and malevolent to the audience.
The characteristics of femme fatales in classic and neo-noir films are explicit which makes them easily identifiable. Not only do they have similar physical characteristics and appearances, but they also generally have the same intentions. In noir films, femme fatales are usually in relationships with men. In these relationships, they tend to be financially dependent and cannot remove themselves from the relationship unless they commit a crime. The definition of a femme fatale according to Virginia Allen is that she is seen as a “woman who lures men into danger, destruction, and even death by means of her overwhelmingly seductive charms.” (Hales, 227) In both Psycho and Bound, the femme fatales must steal a large amount of money in order to get out of the relationships they have with the men in these films. These relationships do not necessarily have to be romantic relationships. In Psycho, Marion steals $40,000 from her boss after he gives her the money to deposit in his bank account. In order to get away with the crime, she uses her looks and personality with her boss’ client to leave her job early. In Bound, Violet uses her sexual appeal to get rid of any suspicions her boyfriend might have of her stealing the money. Many scenes of the film present Violet, Caesar and piles of money in the same shot. In every scene, Violet’s sexuality is undeniable from the camera focusing on her legs and chest to the way she walks and speaks. Although both Marion and Violet appear beautiful and sexual, they also appear “treacherous, criminally depraved and castrating in their desires.” (Boozer, 21) If the characters in these films do not have all of the typical characteristics of a femme fatale, such as being financially dependent on a man, being overly sexual, seductive and dangerous, she is not considered a femme fatale. “The inflexibility of the category of the femme fatale” makes it difficult for these characters to develop over time. (Grossman, 20) This category also includes their strong ties to criminality in every film.
The femme fatale’s seductiveness makes it easier for her to become a criminal because suspicions about her do not arise. Their partners have trust in them so their intentions are never revealed until the end of the film. The femme fatale is a criminal because she “uses her sexuality to destroy the men around her.” (Hales, 228) Since femme fatales are usually financially dependent, they commit a crime in order to become independent, not only financially but independent from the relationship. In Psycho, Marion was not satisfied with her job but she could not quit because she would not have any financial support. In Bound, Violet and her lover, Corky, decide to steal $2 million because Violet wants to leave her boyfriend who is involved in the mafia. It is clear in the film that she was never with Caesar because she was genuinely interested in him but only because of his money and power. It is revealed that she is actually interested in Corky and in Caesar’s money. Both Marion and Violet have a “longing for financial independence…[which] makes [them] so threatening to traditional phallocentric authority” (Boozer, 21) When they are escaping with the money or attempting to escape, standard noir film techniques are used to imply criminality and danger. While Marion is getting away with the money from her boss, the music that is playing in the background suggests she is ill-intentioned with her actions. Marion is suspicious to many characters in Psycho, such as the police officer who sees her sleeping in her car, the car dealer who is preoccupied with the fact that she wants to trade in her car immediately and Norman who is curious when she does not use her real name to sign into the motel. Although all these characters suspect her, she uses her charm and sexuality to rid them of those suspicions. In Bound, while Violet is stealing the money with Corky, the scenes are darker than usual and there is a hint of mystery. In both scenes, the audience is not sure whether or not they will get away with the money. They tend to bring out the criminality in other characters in the films as well. Corky becomes involved in her crime once Violet seduces her as well. Their actions together cause a lot of violence to occur in Bound. It results in a large number of deaths in the mafia crowd that Caesar was associated with as well as Caesar’s death. Right before Violet kills Caesar, he claims that he know that she will not shoot him. This is an example of how her actions throughout the entire film result in Caesar trusting her and not believing that she would actually murder him. This is proof of how “high femme characters not only carry the mark of sexuality but also stand changed with deceit and potential violence.” (Straayer, 152) All of these characteristics combined make the femme fatale a sexual criminal. Again, their primary intention for committing these crimes is because they want to become independent.
The sexuality of femme fatales is purely used for personal gain. They use their appeal to manipulate characters in order to get what they want. Femme fatales show “reluctance to perform her familial/reproductive duties.” (Hales, 107) They do not find it necessary to create a family but rather gain their independence and determine their future after doing so. This can be interpreted in two ways. To feminists and supporters of the femme fatale, it is empowering and gives femme fatales agency. Other audiences perceive her as the complete opposite of the “good” woman who “passively accept[s] impregnation, motherhood, domesticity, [and] the control and domination of her sexuality by men.” (Hales, 227) This characterization of the “good” woman originated from the time period before World War I where women would stay at home and take care of their home and children. Once women realized they could get jobs, there was a shift in the regularity of women staying at home. This is one of the main reasons femme fatales want to liberate themselves from their relationships with men. At the end of Bound, it is clear that Violet is running away with Corky to start a new life but not necessarily a family. Throughout the entire film, they do not talk about long-time commitments. This also leads to the difference between classic noir femme fatales and neo-noir femme fatales. The classic femme fatale’s “lust was overwhelmingly for money rather than sexual pleasure” (Straayer, 152) as opposed to the neo-noir femme fatale who “wants sexual pleasure as well as economic power” (Straayer, 153) Although both Marion and Violet’s sexual identities are explicit in the films, only Violet expresses her desire for sexual pleasure several times. The neo-noir femme fatale is more of a progressive model for the social construction of women. Marion steals the money to run away with her divorced boyfriend whereas Violet steals the money for her own personal reasons and decides to include Corky in the crime.
The femme fatales in noir films are against many of the social constructs of women. To society, they are “viewed as a figure of cultural disaffection and revolt, the disruptive noir temptress can also be seen to look toward the future and more liberated views of women’s self-assertion in marriage and work.” (Boozer, 22) They wear colors that are not typical for women to wear because red and black imply sexuality and darkness. They feel empowered because they are breaking the rules that most women follow. They do not assimilate into marriage and having children. Usually, they tend to have “destabilizing effects on film narratives” because they do not follow the traditional role of a woman. (Boozer, 20) The representation of femme fatales as rule-breakers has changed the social construction of women. The way they are portrayed in these films demonstrate that women have another option than what they are socially constructed to believe they have to do. The “ideological myths about women are as much a part of the real world as any other construct” because it influences the people that watch the films. (Kaplan, 3) This shift in ideologies for women was seen as threatening to everyone who was accustomed to the normative role of women in society. Although they are portrayed as criminals and dangerous characters, in reality they hold a lot of agency.
Julie Grossman (2007): “Film Noir’s “Femme Fatales” Hard-Boiled Women: Moving
Beyond Gender Fantasies”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 24:1, 19-30
Boozer, Jack (2000): “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition”, Journal of Film and Video, University of Illinois Press, 51:3/4, 20-35
Kaplan, Ann (1998): “Women in Film Noir: Introduction to New Edition, London: British Film Institute,” 2nd Edition, 1-14
Hales, Barbara (2007): “Projecting Trauma: The Femme Fatale in Weimar and Hollywood Film Noir”, Women in German Yearbook, University of Nebraska Press, Vol. 23, 224-243
Hales, Barbara (1996): “Woman as Sexual Criminal: Weimar Constructions of the Criminal Femme Fatale”, Women in German Yearbook, University of Nebraska Press, Vol. 12, 101-121
Straayer, Chris (1998): “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Difference.” Women in Film Noir. 2nd ed. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 153-61