The word “lesbian” itself is never uttered in the film at all, but nearly every other term that suggests deviant female sexuality is employed to describe Barbara. She is called a witch; she is called a vampire. Even worse, she is called a spinster and a virgin – something that is simply pathetic for a woman at her advanced age. In Notes on a Scandal, all of the stereotypical qualities of the psychotic lesbian stalker are laid upon the character of Barbara Covett.
The character of Sheba does not fare much better. She is married to a much older man and has a sexual affair with a teenage student. She is practically the main character in a morality play that warns women to make an appropriate match with a man, or else risk becoming a dried-up old spinster with lesbian stalker tendencies.
But the vast majority of critics who have reviewed Notes on a Scandal – which has been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards – lavish praise on the film, completely ignoring the thick thread of sexism and homophobia that binds this thriller together.
Dave Edelstein of New York magazine writes tolerantly, “Anyone who has ever felt possessive about a friend will recognize him- or herself in Barbara Covett's covetousness.” Newsweek says that Barbara is “a deliciously nasty piece of work.” And Time praises Notes on a Scandal as “the perfect antidote to all those warm, forgiving schoolboy dramas we've endured through the years.”
Though several critics acknowledge that Barbara is “a scheming lesbian” (Time) and that the film pulls out “the obsessive lesbian-stalker angle” (Variety), only Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter is clued in to the sexism in the script: “in tone and theme, the film has all the hallmarks of playwright-screenwriter Marber's stark, uncompromising misanthropy, if not misogyny,” he writes.
And perhaps it is not surprising that so far the only review to point out the film's problematic portrait of a lesbian is The Advocate, which notes somewhat mildly, “the role does not in any way fit the notion of a politically correct gay character.”
Political correctness, it is true, is not a hallmark of Notes on a Scandal. But can the skill of Dench and Blanchett – who do deliver excellent performances – excuse the problematic story itself? Is there room for a film in which a stereotypical, psychotic lesbian exists and, in fact, is rendered larger-than-life in all her wicked, shocking glory?
For me, there was nothing “delicious” about Notes on a Scandal. After leaving the screening, I felt distinctly disturbed – and not in a good way. Perhaps I lack a sense of humor. Or perhaps I simply haven't seen enough of this year's earnest, Oscar-chasing films to be able to praise Notes on a Scandal as “a satisfyingly nasty awards-season tonic” (Variety).
Notes on a Scandal was extremely disheartening. One year after Brokeback Mountain brought a gay love story to mainstream audiences, featuring mainstream actors and a mainstream director, where is the lesbian equivalent? We get Notes on a Scandal, starring the Oscar-winning Judi Dench and the Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett. You couldn't ask for a more stellar cast. But the story itself seems to claw its way up from the dusty 1950s and '60s, when films like The Children's Hour underscored the perversity of lesbianism.
When I left the screening room after watching Notes on a Scandal, I thought to myself: I would never, ever, recommend this movie to anyone who has even the slightest difficulty with accepting lesbianism. The problem is this: Notes on a Scandal is very well made. It has the ring of truth that only A-list actors can bring to an art film. It is, in fact, so convincingly professional that most critics can easily overlook the stereotypes embedded in the film, blinded by the glamour of Dench and Blanchett's skillful acting.
But Dench and Blanchett do not excuse the film. Notes on a Scandal is one of the most sexist and homophobic films I have ever seen.