‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ Plays with Sexual Labels

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Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Filmmakers Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen seem to read one another’s minds–so much so that you might mistake them for the couple they portray in their breakout film, “Kissing Jessica Stein.” But they’ve got news for you: Landing a great woman friend is sometimes pretty similar to finding Mr.–or Ms.–Right.

And that’s where the confusion faced by the neurotic copy editor Jessica (Westfeldt) and hipster art gallery director Helen (Juergensen) comes in. In the romantic comedy tuned into the ambiguities of what Juergensen terms the “post-post-post sexual revolution–wherever we are in the number of posts there,” the two find themselves an unlikely couple after Helen, bored with her rotating lineup of men and egged on by a gay couple, places a personals ad in the “Women Seeking Women” section of a New York newspaper. Jessica, confused and desperate following a string of bad dates with Mr. Wrongs, answers on a whim. Angst and hilarity ensue as the two twenty-somethings try to figure out what the relationship says about who they are.

“I think there’s a kind of ‘What if?’ that straight women do with their girlfriends, because women tend to have very incredible relationships with their women friends,” says Juergensen, who shares her character’s cool disposition. “You connect, you speak the same language, you notice when you get a haircut. All this kind of glorious connection–“

“–And caretaking and nurturing and loving, and speaking the same language,” Westfeldt chimes in, leaning forward in earnestness.

“And some of that caretaking or noticing kind of aspect can have kind of a flirtatious . . . kind of a, ‘Oh my God, sweetie, those pants look so good on you!'” Juergensen says. “So I think most women–and I know we both have done in our minds: ‘What if my best friend . . . If it was sexual she’d be the best boyfriend I ever had!'”

Film Coincides with Rosie O’Donnell’s Coming Out

That the film has earned gushing reviews at around the same time that television talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell revealed her homosexuality to little uproar reflects a societal shift in perception of sexual identity and an acknowledgement of the complications being able to explore brings. As gays and lesbians become more visible and accepted, Americans are increasingly viewing sexual orientation along a continuum, rather than in strict categories, says Martha Kempner, associate director of information at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Before now, “We’d say you’re straight or gay or maybe bisexual. People don’t have to be one or the other,” Kempner says. “There’s a lot of elements to sexual orientation and identity including who you actually have sexual activity with, who you fantasize about, who you are friends with, who you choose to be in romantic, loving relationship with. It’s not always black and white.”

It’s that willingness to get messy that distinguishes the film, which opened successfully nationwide last month, from other portrayals of lesbian relationships on programs such as “Friends” and “Sex and the City,” which have shown two women kissing but offered little more than superficial nods to what a woman who is genuinely questioning her sexual identity goes through.

Lesbians Can Accessorize, Too

Jessica seems surprised that she and Helen can be “girly girls;” they discuss which three lipsticks make the perfect blend and argue over who should pay the cab fare. Later, Jessica picks up a pile of “how-to” pamphlets that include explanations of sex toys for lesbians. “I’m pleased to learn that lesbians accessorize,” she says.

Then, confronted by the taboos she’s breaking, Jessica freaks out.

“It’s all wrong. It’s all wrong. This is not me. It’s not me,” Jessica wails to an incredulous–but intrigued–friend. “I’m a Jew from Scarsdale . . . She’s a girl; she has thin arms.”

While the film has received warm praise by most gay and lesbian film critics, some found it disappointing, arguing that it doesn’t take enough risks. An article in the gay magazine The Advocate, noting the lack of a neat Hollywood ending, said the film “could be construed as every lesbian’s worst nightmare.”

That concern reflects a legitimate hunger by gays and lesbians for more happy portrayals of themselves in film, Juergensen concedes, but real life is more complicated and rife with ambiguities.

“On the extreme right and the extreme left there seems to be kind of a ‘gay means this and straight means this,'” Juergensen says. “There’s less of an acceptance of fluidity certainly and even just exploring. It might be that the questioning aspect of that community is the ‘new gay,’ if you will–the new oppressed sub-segment.”

Some of the criticism may also stem from resentment that only when two straight women wrote a lesbian-themed romantic comedy did such a film garner big-studio distribution.

Journalists don’t say to actors, “You haven’t seen a UFO, but you chose to make ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'” Westfeldt says. “We feel like we told a story and we can identify with it and it’s a human story and our sexuality shouldn’t really matter, shouldn’t be part of the equation.”

But, she says, “We haven’t gotten to the place where two gay women write their story and get it told. Maybe that should be the next movie–and I hope it will be.”

Jordan Lite is the assistant managing editor of Women’s Enews.

For more information:

Kissing Jessica Stein, official Web site:
http://216.133.243.67/

The Advocate
“How the other half laughs”:
http://www.advocate.com/html/stories/859/859_jessicastein.asp


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