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Why does Queen Latifah have to be gay? April 2, 2007

Posted by lindamc in Set it off.
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In Set it off, Queen Latifah has a “break out performance” as a extremly masculine, violent, and very much outwardly lesbian “Cleo.” She is the only one of the three who is comfortable with the weapons, the violence, and often resuces the girls either by driving (she almost always drives the car) or by sacrificing herself for Stony and Frankie in the end. Her character is also very focused on two things: money and sex with women (two extremley masculine traits).  Is it true that in order for her to be all of these things (minus the sex with women thing): the violent leader who steps up to protect everyone, she had to be gay, something that automattically points her out as masculine, and therefore marks her as “the man” of the bunch. In few instances do Stony, Frankie, or TT save or provide for the group (minus when TT shoots Luther to save Cleo), thus marking them clearly in feminine roles and Cleo in all masculine ones. Is it necessary for Cleo’s role to be gay? Is this what allows our society to accept women for acting as cleo does: violent, angry, etc? OR, is it possible that being a lesbian is an entirly different area of female power? I will admit that I already watched the next film for class: Bound in which two women beat out a mob of men. They are very sexually intimate with one another, and is hinted at in the film, that sex between two women is better than with men (just by the girls satisfactions, etc). Is this a new stage of female power in which women no longer need men for the most basic of needs: sexual pleasure? With science headed in the direction that it is (invitro fertalization) is it true that women are beginning to also not even men for reproduction? Too bad Freud that your theroy of penis envy doesn’t always pan out, it looks like in these films women who don’t need the penis at all win out. Maybe, there will soon be a theory of male womb envy, in which men desire to be needed at all!
PS. I promise this post isn’t meant to be as bitter as it sounds…I really just got on a role and went with it:)

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1. robynbahr - April 2, 2007

When I watched the film, I had the same feelings as you do. Though I loved Latifah’s performance and felt she stole the movie, I thought it was cliche that OF COURSE the “rough” one had to be a lesbian. When her girlfriend first comes up to her at the car and kisses her, I was quite shocked, much in the same way that I was shocked to realize the protagonist in Billy Elliot was gay as well. Like, it was so obvious that a tough chick and a ballerino would be gay (by society’s assumptions) that I was taken aback when the obvious factor held true. In both cases, I just couldn’t believe the movie makers would make such bold assumptions. I have no problem with gays and lesbians being portrayed in the media, I just though the movie makers would try to be a little less cliche in their presentation.

Saying this, however, I must give the movie makers credit for portraying a gay female character at all, considering that in 1996, such a topic was still very much taboo. Remember the fuss made when Ellen came out in 1997? Or even when Rosie came out in 2002? That was only five years ago and it was made into a pretty big deal!

2. elizabethwilkes - April 3, 2007

I found the scene in which Cleo plays with her money while Ursula dances around on top of Cleo’s new set of wheels to be particularly striking. Haven’t we scenes like this in countless music videos, only with a male in the place of Cleo’s character? I think that this and other in-your-face scenes emphasizing Cleo’s masculinity also emphasize the one-dimensionality of her character. Yes… she’s large and in charge, a boisterous, lesbian force to be reckoned with. But she also has no back story with which the viewer can empathize. Stony gets her romance and her brother’s death, Tisean gets the threat of losing her son, Frankie get the opening scene in which she’s fired from her job because she knows the suspect when her bank is robbed. For Cleo, all we really know is that she’s a lesbian, she a girlfriend, violent tendencies, and is good with cars.

I was surprised by the fact that Cleo’s three friends seemed completely unfazed by her lesbianism, and yet they made no effort to include or even acknowledge her girlfriend, Ursula. I don’t think that Ursula even has a single spoken line in the film. Interestingly, another character who stands in stark contrast to the powerful, fearless, and masculine Cleo, is Tisean. Tisean is the most feminine of the group, and is portrayed as having the least amount of agency of the four. She is the woman who is always wearing dresses, who has a baby, and who is too afraid to complete the first robbery with her friends. The one moment during which she does take action, the moment when she shoots Luther, is a moment of rash, emotional action, not a moment of strength or power.

So essentially, in this film, outright femininity is the antithesis of power and control. Pretty surprising message to find in a movie that was given a 5/5 “girl power” rating (true story!) on epinions.com.


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