Lusting for Lesbians

by eileen tse

 A review of Circumstance and thoughts on Asian/APA lesbians in film

Directed by Iranian-American Maryam Keshavarz, Circumstance is a 2011 film that focuses on Shireen and Atafeh, two best friends in high school living, loving and partying it up in the Iranian metropolis of Tehran. The selling point of the film is their intimate friendship, which blossoms into a sapphic affair.

The film captures the vibrancy and spirit of contemporary Tehran well. The conservative Islamic state is obviously against all the rebellious things kids do these days, but these repressive social institutions are handled with care, making the film solid sociopolitical commentary without being too heavy-handed. The chemistry between Atafeh and Shireen, played by Iranian-American newcomers Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy respectively, is electric due to their expressive looks and sensual physicality. Boosheri and Kazemy are raw, authentic, and versatile; and not to mention, these ladies are stunners.

Yet, while Atafeh and Shireen’s relationship is intense and their lesbian romance is definitely the film’s centerfold, it’s treated rather tangentially in light of how Mehran, Atafeh’s rehabilitated junkie brother (played by Rezo Sixo Safai), imposes his newfound fundamentalist values on his otherwise intellectually liberal family with disquieting gravitas.

For the sake of not spoiling the film, I’m just going to say the plot development left much to be desired. Perhaps, viewers are supposed to feel a little wanting because almost every character in Circumstance feels they are missing out on something due to the rigid rules of their society.

Regardless of artistic intentions though, the portrayal of Atafeh and Shireen’s relationship felt a little problematic. While it is apparent from the beginning that Shireen loves Atafeh, Atafeh seems as if she is just fulfilling her duties as Shireen’s emotional pillar. It is clear that Atafeh deeply cares for Shireen, but it doesn’t feel like love even when they are making it. Atafeh, as the more open and adventurous one, just seems to be enthralled by an illicit tryst, in addition to her attachment to Shireen.

This type of representation makes lesbianism more of a fetish, a ‘I kissed a girl and I like it’ experience rather than a real, emotional connection,” said Justine Tisado, an unaffiliated straight ally.

It also doesn’t help that Shireen fantasizes about them as sexualized creatures, looking like something out of a porno with high production values, rather than just being sexual women. Shireen’s escapist fantasy includes them being objectified as sexual objects of desire, which undermines the fact that their relationship should be liberating and empowering. I’m no prude, but if you’re going to show me tit and ass, even balls for that matter, in a film that is not a porno or a raunchy teen comedy, the scene should give me some sort of narrative insight, rather than just exist for pure titillation.

This is the underlying problem of lesbianism depicted in media, especially those of Asian descent.

I think that women of color have historically been racialized and gendered in very specific ways—often as aggressive, hypersexual, devoid of sexuality. So, it would be of no surprise that these elements are rearticulated within lesbian media,” said Kimberly Chen, current chair for the Queer & Asian Conference who identifies as a queer API.

It’s not difficult to google “Asian lesbians in film” and get porn results on the first page. Lesbianism in film and media often serves as erotic novelty and taboo, and Asian lesbianism appears to be a bonafide fetish. APA women are seen in an orientalist lens, appealingly foreign. There’s just not enough APA women in the media spotlight to dispel the myth of Asian women as hypersexual beings; they’re just people grappling to find their own subjectivity amidst cultural expectations like everyone else.

It’s difficult enough to spot APAs in mainstream media, so spotting APA queers is a precarious mission.

Of course, if you really go looking, you’ll find a few gems that explore lesbianism in an Asian/APA context well. And I mean consciously look for them because your chances of randomly stumbling upon quality depictions of queers in film and television are very slim, unless you mooch on the Netflix account of a best friend who happens to be a queer cinephile.

The most popular film about APA lesbians is probably 2004’s Saving Face, which focuses on a Chinese-American surgeon navigating between her love for her dancer girlfriend and her bond with her single mom.

I definitely really enjoy Saving Faceon a personal level,” said Chen, “because of the humor it takes on the subject and illustrates well the sort of landscape that not-exactly-out queer API women often face.”

You don’t have to be queer or East Asian to appreciate this film because its romantic comedy plot structure is still pretty conventional despite its “special topic,” much like how you don’t have to be queer or Persian to appreciate the almost art house complexity of Circumstance.

Yet, how many people have seen these films? I say Saving Face is quite popular and Circumstance is broadening their distribution (oh wow, almost 30 theaters in the USA), but it ain’t The Notebook or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Homosexuality is generally niche subject matter found primarily in independent film territory. Very few people have the opportunity to see these films because they’re often not widely distributed. It’s hard to sell films with queer protagonists when studios don’t like to stray too far from the lowest common denominator and think that the heteronormative public won’t go see them.

It’s important that we continue to push Asians and APA lesbians to the forefront because their stories may never be told otherwise…Asian and APA queers have a huge uphill battle,” said Tisado.

So, despite some reservations, I still highly recommend Circumstance. It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking film about youth culture in contemporary Iran and the circumstances of women in love, either with each other or with the future possibilities of a liberated identity.