Friday, 5 March 2010

Imitation of Life

I've just finished watching Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner. The first film the erstwhile Sweater Girl made after the death of abusive boyfriend Joe Stampanato (stabbed to death by Turner's daughter in self-defence during a family argument) is touchingly domestic in many ways. Turner stars as Lora, a young actress widowed with a daughter, Susie, who takes on Annie Johnston as a maid after the two meet on a beach. Annie, similarly widowed with one daughter, Sarah Jane, whose skin colour is coincidentally much lighter than her mother's. As Susie and Sarah Jane grow up together in the same household, their paths painfully diverge. Susie's mother, achieving greater stardom in every way, gives her daughter everything that money can buy - except her time. Annie gives Sarah Jane the love and time that Susie never gets - but can't give her the lifestyle of a rich girl. The tormented Sarah Jane becomes obsessed with passing as a white girl, an ambition which takes a shocking nosedive when her boyfriend Frankie finds out that she has black blood and assaults her horrifyingly in the street. But even this doesn't stop Sarah Jane running away from home, rejecting her mother and her mother's moral standards to earn her living as a dancer in seedy New York clubs, fighting her background every inch of the way. As the years pass, Annie becomes ill and eventually dies, leaving the newly regretful Sarah Jane to break down publicly over her coffin, acknowledging her mother in public as she never did in life.
Imitation of Life is not perfect. It's a film with its own share of problems - it's got Troy Donahue in it for a start. But it resonates, even today, in more than one way. Sarah Jane's desperate attempts to escape the inescapable, to deny her own heritage, echoes too painfully the experiences of many gay and bi people who find it easier to pass for straight in a heteronormative world. It's easy to understand why a bright young girl, given the option, might try to escape into a life that offers her more than the chance to be someone's maid. Why stay in the cage if the door might be open?
The trouble is that Sarah Jane suffers for her decision to turn her back on what she is. Going under assumed names, moving from job to job to stop her indefatigably disapproving mother tracking her down, and eventually suffering her public breakdown, echoes the decision of so many people who in pursuing a life in keeping with their sexual orientation, end up lying to or evading the family who love them.
I was one of those people, once. After years of struggling with my bisexuality, I came out to myself and my friends at 23. I told myself I didn't need to tell my family, that it was none of their business, any more than any other part of my sex life was their business. There was no need for them to know. It was my business. No one else's.
Four years down the line, I was out at work, to my friends, to my boyfriend, but my family still had no idea. And I was getting involved with LGBT events, drinking in gay pubs, going to Pride. I told my family all this, hoping they might spot the thread. But they didn't. And the more I moved on the scene, the more I started to see the inequalities, hear the biphobia still so casually bandied about, and I didn't want to be part of it any more. My silence had stopped looking like the sensible choice for an adult woman to keep her sex life to herself. It had started to look like plain, crappy cowardice. Like not having the guts to tell the people who loved me most who I actually was. And how could I help to change anything if I stayed silent? How could I tell people it was OK to stand up to the world and be who you are, if I still wore a different face to my family?
I did tell them in the end. And it's been OK. But that's why Imitation of Life is so hard to watch. Because, in this world, there are still hideous inequalities even now. Sarah Jane wouldn't have to be a maid any more, but spare a thought for the people who mask themselves every day behind the resolute "normality" of everyday existence, fearing their family, unlike Annie, might reject them if only they knew the truth. Pray the world changes, and fast.

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