Welcome to Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene, a series by Drew Burnett Gregory and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about queer sex scenes in film. Today Kayla and Drew discuss Carol, Todd Hayne’s film adaptation of the landmark lesbian novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.
Kayla: I find our parallel journeys with Carol to be very interesting!
Drew: Yes! The first time I saw Carol I was closeted. I went in as a Todd Haynes fan — even saw it at Lincoln Center with a Q&A — not as a lesbian. I thought and still think it’s just a remarkable piece of cinema. The cinematography and the score alone are some of the best of the last ten years and maybe ever.
But then when I came out my obsession increased. I wanted a Carol Aird to like my hat and whisk me into a life of lesbianism rather than, ya know, stumbling into it with my pre-transition partner. Once I broke up with that person and actually was dating and trying to date older women my love for the movie increased even more. I felt such an intense identification with Therese and her desire to be seen as older by Carol. But then… I actually did get older. And my romanticizing of the dynamic has lessened. NOT BECAUSE AGE GAPS ARE BAD. The last time I said this about Carol people thought I was upset about the age gap which lmao no. It’s more about their levels of experience. And it’s not that it’s abuse. I just don’t find it admirable or romantic. I think they’re providing very specific things for each other in that moment and that’s great but Carol is right to leave and I agree with everything she says in her letter.
Kayla: I wasn’t closeted when I first saw it, but I was in my first real long-term queer relationship that wasn’t shrouded in secrecy. And it was a much different relationship than the one I’m in now, and I really do think I latched onto or even interpreted aspects of the movie in a much different way than I do now. I also used to read a lot more romance onto the narrative, and now… well, now I read a lot more kink into it. But I also see way more of both character’s flaws now than I did then. I think it’s a film that can be easy to project onto. And some might mistake that for a hollowness, but I think it’s actually the opposite. It’s so rich, so whole. And just a fully queer gaze, aesthetic, and narrative. So I think it makes sense that we’ve read different things into it at different stages of our own queerness.
Drew: Yes!! I’ve loved growing up with it. I also read The Price of Salt somewhere in there. I think around when I was identifying most fiercely with Therese. It would be interesting to go back and reread and see if I’ve also grown up with the book.
Kayla: Yes to everything you’re saying about the age gap. I’m in a 12-year age gap, which I believe is a wider gap than the characters have in the novel but a smaller one than in the movie. Regardless, I obviously take no inherent issue with an age gap. But it was interesting to me to view the movie once I was in an age gap relationship and be able to identify the ways in which Carol and Therese both are aroused by their differences in age but also sometimes fail each other by projecting onto one another. Carol sometimes obscures Therese’s agency because she wants her to be this youthful little thing. And like you said, it’s not abuse. But there’s a level of control to it.
Drew: Famously… conflict is not abuse.
Kayla: I love how often you name drop Conflict Is Not Abuse without having read it lmao
Kayla: CALLED OUT
Drew: I’ll read it !!
Kayla: Speaking of reading, I also read The Price of Salt after seeing the movie for the first time! I love the book so much. I think the men in it are better developed.
Drew: I agree the men in the novel are better developed which is funny because the movie is directed by a man. I sometimes find women artists are MORE generous to male characters!
Kayla: It’s true lol Todd Haynes really does love his women most, and I’m pretty okay with that, but there’s definitely some texture to those male characters missing in the adaptation.
Pivoting a bit, but I think this movie is sometimes regarded as chaste, which I disagree with!
Drew: That’s interesting! Do you think people are specifically referring to the sex scene or the film as a whole?
Kayla: As a whole. But I think there’s a difference between being chaste and having restraint. Carol and Therese do engage in physical touch quite a bit leading up to the sex scene. It’s not all just heavy eye contact. But there’s restraint, there are limits to the ways they can touch, especially publicly. And restraint can be really erotic in and of itself.
Drew: Yes absolutely. I wouldn’t describe the movie as chaste. Even if I don’t necessarily think the sex scene is hot?
I find the whole film to be really moving and emotional. Even in its eroticism. But I do think there’s an eroticism!
Kayla: I think the hottest part of the sex scene is right before they start fucking, when they’re kissing in front of the vanity and Therese abruptly says take me to bed. I feel like it’s simultaneously a bottom’s fantasy and a top’s fantasy, that like urgent desire of hers to be fucked. You can tell Carol loves to hear it.
Drew: Yes! Even the way Carol lets her robe open.
Kayla: There’s a clearly defined dynamic there, and they’re both giving each other exactly what they want.
Drew: They also voice their needs right before. Carol is used to Harge being busy with clients on New Years so she wants someone who SHE has more social power and control over. And Therese is usually lonely in a big crowd so she wants to be the center of someone’s attention.
Kayla: You also have some of the age stuff coming into play… Carol brushing Therese’s hair is quite the image. And then the way she’s very overt in her attraction to Therese’s youth when she first sees her undressed. And I love that Therese wants her to leave the light on.
Drew: The lights line is great. Especially because we often think of someone inexperienced as wanting the lights off out of shame or bashfulness. It shows a lot about Therese’s character even if she’s a sad little bottom in her dynamic with Carol lol
Kayla: Yes lol! She lacks confidence in certain parts of her life, but she really comes alive during this sex scene in a way I find surprising but also believable. She finally knows what she wants, at least in this moment.
Drew: I feel like the camera really stays with her too. This feels like her sex scene more than Carol’s. Which makes sense since this is presumably Therese’s first time and Carol is her whole world. Whereas Carol’s daughter is her whole world and Therese is just a temporary fill-in.
That’s mean. It’s not that harsh. But it’s also not not that.
Kayla: Yeah, it’s not not that! That’s something I also grew in my understanding of… my understanding of what it really means for Carol to be a mother.
She’s taking huge risks to be with Therese, but there are also limits to the ways she’s able to take those risks. And she’s always going to chose her daughter first, something Therese seems to struggle to understand. And that goes back to this idea of projection and also needing to understand an age gap isn’t just about numbers. Carol has a whole different life than Therese does.
It’s hard not to see the mirroring of Carol brushing her daughter’s hair earlier in the film and then her brushing Therese’s hair in the lead up to this scene.
Drew: Right it’s all there. haha
I like this scene in contrast with our first entry in this series where we discussed Disobedience. Because that scene is very hot to me and has substance but I still love the Carol sex scene even if I’ve never been turned on by it per se.
It shows the value of sex scenes. Sure being hot is enough value in itself IMO. But it can also communicate so much about character and just be beautiful art! God the score!!!!!
Kayla: The score is so good and is perhaps why I DO think it’s hot. It’s interesting, because neither Blanchett nor Mara do it for me really. But there’s something aesthetic about the scene that does turn me on, and I think details like the score are part of it. And the dialogue! It’s rare to have good, realistic, and weird (in a good way) dialogue in a sex scene, but this one does in my opinion.
Drew: Yeah that’s a good point. I love all the dialogue in the scene. It’s awkward but not in a way that reduces the eroticism.
Kayla: Yes! And it’s not outright dirty talk but there’s still a sense of them wanting to devour each other and stay in this moment. Again, the request to leave the lights on. I love it.
There’s also a lot of hair lol. Extremely femme for femme vibes.
Drew: So much hair! Relatable content.
I like how the scene doesn’t just fade to black but sort of fades into a pattern. The whole thing has this aura of emotionally important, drunk sex of youth. It’s like a memory of a sex scene. Which I think sex often can feel like when it’s not with someone you’ve been with before/will be with a lot in the future. Grasping onto it is like grasping onto a dream.
Kayla: That fade is something I hadn’t thought of too much until I was rewatching the scene for this conversation, and it really stood out to me. Because it again tied into my idea of this being a rich queer tapestry of a movie that’s easy to project onto. We’re not even quite sure what part of the body we’re looking at by the end of that pan into fade.
Drew: I think Carol has kind of become… dare I say… underrated because of how memed it’s been? Maybe underrated is the wrong word but I think it gets dismissed as a certain kind of stodgy lesbian movie when its craft is insanely good and there’s so much going on in terms of character nuance. ALSO you’re right! It is kinkier than people give it credit!
Kayla: I agree! I think it’s a super well crafted film, and I think the sex scene in particular is well crafted, too. And in general the film is surprisingly kinky and weird when you really pay attention to its details and, most importantly to me, not at all catering to a straight spectator. I know it’s directed by a man, but he’s gay obviously, and I think we’re both well on record about Todd Haynes’ deftness for writing queer women and just queerness in general. I think it’s such a strong adaptation of a brilliant novel.
The memes make me laugh, but they have also sort of flattened the film, which I suppose is exactly how memes are supposed to function.
I don’t think period pieces are for everyone, but I do really enjoy how this film makes use of its specific setting.
Drew: The Carol memes on this very website is what made me a fan of Autostraddle so no complaints. But also… I do think it’s time for a reassessment of the film from queer people to be like okay this is just a really good FILM.
Kayla: And a really nuanced portrayal of queerness at two very different stages of life — young adulthood and middle age. You don’t often get both of those things in one queer movie.
Drew: Yes! It’s a very good age gap movie! Even if it’s not the ideal age gap relationship. lol
I do love how comfortable Therese looks the morning after the sex scene. She’s so cozy.
No idea what’s about to happen. Just planning her little life with Carol in that young head of hers.
Kayla: Sooo cozy, still living in the soft snow globe of that sex scene.
Drew: This is such a random reference very specific to my youth but I feel like Therese would like the Bright Eyes song “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)”:
Left by the lamp, right next to the bed, on a cartoon cat pad you scratched with a pen, “Everything is as it’s always been. This never happened.
Don’t take it so bad it’s nothing you did. It’s just once something dies you can’t make it live. You are a beautiful boy.
You’re a sweet little kid but I am a woman.” So I laid back down and wrapped myself up in the sheet.
And I must have looked like a ghost because something frightened me and since then I’ve been so good at vanishing.
This is literally Carol.
Kayla: Wow that is so spot on.
Drew: Everything goes wrong SO QUICKLY after the Carol sex scene !
Carol is now streaming on Netflix. The sex scene begins around 1:14:26.