“I imagine you left Hollywood at thirty-six
Because you had enough money to live as a lesbian
And didn’t have to buy into heterosexuality
– Cheryl Clarke
In the first half of this two-part article about queer representation in media, we will discuss Queen Christina, a film about one of our favourite historical figures that is historic in its right. With this article, just as our last, this is not a review of the quality of the film, just the study of its contents and historical and social significance.
Queen Christina was released in 1933, during a time called pre-code. To explain the significance of that, we must first explain what the Hays Code is. The Hays Code was a set of guidelines written for Hollywood by a group of religious leaders, most notably William Hays, that dictated what could and could not be shown on screen. It was put into place just after the invention of “talkies,” and banned numerous “immoral acts” from being shown on film. Among those “immoral acts” was any reference to or implication of homosexuality.
To say Queen Christina is pre-code, however, does not mean that the film was released before the code, but that the film was released before the code was enforced by people other than Hollywood executives. Queen Christina was filmed and released in a relatively open time when films were slightly more risque and allowed to be more progressive. However, the code still existed, so Hollywood executives tried to get most films to follow the guidelines, and most films did. This one did not.
Queen Christina starred Greta Garbo, who many of us know as a bisexual Swedish actress who was quite sought after during that time. Because of her popularity, she was given a significant amount of creative control over the films she starred in, and that is evident in this project.
The film was developed by Garbo in partnership with Salka Viertel, who was rumored to be in a relationship with Garbo. Most people involved with the film, in fact, were friends or former lovers of Garbo’s, as she had enough control to keep the people she enjoyed working and being with. She even influenced the casting of her ex-fiance as the romantic interest for the film.
Despite all the control she had over the production, there was a set of rules she was meant to follow: the Hays Code. Specifically, she was not meant to reference or imply anything about Christina’s possibly homosexuality. Upon watching the film, though, it’s clear she ignored those instructions as thoroughly as she could.
In the film, we are introduced to our title character, King Christina, referred to by this title as opposed to the “Queen” the movie advertised. From here on out, the lines of gender only blur further. When we first see Christina as an adult, in fact, it is set up that we only see her from behind, in clothing that was traditionally worn by men at the time. It is only revealed this is, in fact, Christina, and not just a hunter passing through, when she later sits down with her advisors. It can be said this allowance of cross-dressing in the film was in the name of historical accuracy, and that could be the case, as King Christina was known for dressing in breeches and other clothing traditionally worn by men in Sweden at the time. But as the film continues, it is not just the clothing that plays with gender roles.
At one point, when arguing with an adviser about marriage, King Christina says:
“Chancellor: But your Majesty, you cannot die an old maid.
Christina: I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!”
Later in the film, too, we see King Christina perceived as a man time and time again, and she never corrects anyone who does so. In one particularly memorable moment, she helps a group push their carriage out of a snow drift, and the lord tells one of his men to “give the boy a dollar.” When Christina gets this dollar, she smiles, looking at her face on the coin. She lets this “misunderstanding” continue as long as she can until she is forced to take off her clothes while sharing a room with her romantic interest.
Romantic interests in this film are also not quite what one would expect when watching a film made in this period, given the rules films were supposed to follow. King Christina has three romantic partners throughout this film: two male, and one female.
While this film plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, they thought it necessary to include Ebba, King Christina’s female lover, in a passing part, even though she does not play an important role in the plot. While she has two other male partners, who have far more obvious roles in her life, this relationship is the one we will dissect.
As we previously mentioned, this film was not strict on historical accuracy (adding a heterosexual love interest who never existed in real life). So, they did not include Ebba in the film for reasons of historical accuracy. Rather, when we first see Ebba, we see a kiss between her and Christina. It’s not on the cheek, as she does on screen with one of her male lovers, but on the mouth. While many of their interactions are interactions friends could theoretically have, many dance on the edge of romance.
At one point, Ebba is, in fact, talking to a man she is in a relationship with, and she is discussing with him why she can’t tell Christina about him. Not because of their plans to marry (which is an institution Christina ardently opposes), but because of the existence of a romantic relationship at all, citing that Christina is domineering. King Christina overhears this conversation and is deeply offended, running off to hunt instead of taking a weekend trip with Ebba as she originally planned. She only forgives this offense when she finds another romantic relationship, suggesting that she has replaced Ebba, so there is no need for her to be angry anymore. This is where we see queer codes coming in.
When one watches a film, one looks for someone to relate to in it, for queer and non-queer watchers alike. But for queer audiences, they have been historically forced to look deeper to find anything that represents them in mainstream films, so queer people have become adept at reading subtext.
Another thing we must point out is that when artists work, it is impossible to remove their identity completely from the art. Artists leave parts of themselves in their work, and that is often what makes their work great. So when queer artists work on a project, purposefully or not, they often reflect parts of their own identity on it.
So when these two realities interlock, a dialogue is formed, a conversation that can only be heard by those in the queer community, a connection that is made between artist and audience. With small clues and hints, snips of dialogue, and symbolism. In other words: a queer code.
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