Right now, somebody in the world is listening to ‘Maniac’ by Michael Sembello. The music triggers a memory: knee-high legwarmers, a dark leotard, and close ups of a young woman’s toned body as she dances – like a maniac? – in an abandoned warehouse that she calls home.
It’s me, I’m listening to it. Anyone who has seen the 1983 film Flashdance can’t help but connect the song and scene. I first watched it when I was about twelve years old and going through an 80s dance movie phase (a universal experience for all preteens, I’m sure), and I remember being entirely fixated on this scene. Most people associate Flashdance with lead Alex Owens (played by Jennifer Beals) being showered with water while outstretched on a chair onstage. This is completely understandable and expected, but there’s just something about Beals – and her uncredited dance double, Marine Jahan – jogging on the spot, hands caressing her bare thighs and shaking the sweat from her hair that has always left me breathless.
Since coming out, I’ve jokingly cited Flashdance as the cause of my bisexual awakening. I believe there’s some validity to that claim, and would actually take the point further and argue that Flashdance is an inherently gay film.
Let’s look at the evidence.
In early drafts of the screenplay, Alex’s best friend was a gay man. This is hardly surprising, as Alex herself is clearly bisexual (stay with me on this). Annoyingly, the gay best friend was cut from the final script – on the one hand, this may have avoided some problematic stereotyping, but on the other. it stripped the only queer aspect of an otherwise (indirectly) queer film. Granted, there are some straight men I know who would claim that all dance films are ‘gay’ or, at least, belonging exclusively to the horrid ‘chick flick’ genre and consequently won’t dare watch anything of the sort. What kind of message does that send out, do you think, when even self-respecting heterosexual cis men degrade themselves by watching a movie with Julia Roberts in it?
If this is the case for Flashdance, which I assume it is to an extent, then these straight men are missing out on the surprisingly high levels of eroticism and nudity in this chick flick. Which leads me to my main question: Why is Flashdance so sexy and focused on the naked female body if its core audience is heterosexual women?
An obvious (and boring) answer to this is that the director, Adrian Lyne, is a heterosexual man. This doesn’t completely satisfy my understanding of the film, however. Plenty of 1980s romantic dramas were written and directed by heterosexual men and still don’t feature an excessive focus on the female body. The subject material of Flashdance does require this to an extent – if you’re going to write a film about a young woman who works as a nightclub dancer, then it’s expected. But what intrigues me is that the film is very obviously aimed at a mostly female audience. While Alex and her friends dance and strip in front of a crowd of men at Mawby’s Bar, they are additionally performing to an unseen audience: the female fans of Flashdance. When Alex dances alone in the privacy of her abandoned warehouse (honestly, though, how does she afford to live there? Is it cheaper than a regular apartment? Is this not unusual in 1980s America?), she is performing for both herself and the film’s audience.
I can recognise the issue that this might raise. Given the extreme focus on the female body in a film promoted mostly to a feminine audience, there can be problems concerning the types of bodies that are onscreen. As they are professional dancers, the women’s bodies fall into the idealised category of thin, toned, abled and smooth. I suffered from a lot of negative body image when I was younger, as is the case with many young women, yet Flashdance never contributed to my self-hatred. I didn’t look at Alex’s body and feel upset because mine was not as thin. Instead, I was transfixed by her energy, her passion and the power she seemed to exert as she moved.
On my most recent re-watch of Flashdance, I realised that the romance is the worst part of the movie. Who cares about her older and lowkey creepy boss, what’s-his-name? In my youth I probably thought Nick (Michael Nouri) was sweet, and I wasn’t aware of the eighteen-year gap between the two. (Also, how unprofessional it was of Nick to repeatedly ask his eighteen-year-old employee out for dinner until she’s finally pressured into agreeing?) With the wisdom of age, I now see Nick for who he really is: a boring man who literally told Alex that she’s ‘not grown up enough to smoke’ although has no problem with pursuing her and sleeping with her.
Most scenes that included Nick had been wiped from my memory, so I was surprised that I hadn’t remembered the lobster date scene at all. Although I watched the film again a few days ago, I can’t recall what Alex and Nick talked about (dancing, maybe. Welding? Who knows). What primarily caught my attention was the suit Alex was wearing, as she teased Nick by sensually eating lobster with her hands. The suit confirmed everything I had been speculating: Alex Owens is bisexual.
If you require more evidence, please refer to every other outfit she wears in the film: mostly an army jacket and overalls. There are also various aspects of Alex’s character that can be coded as queer, particularly her main story line and motivation throughout the story arc. She aspires to be accepted into a local ballet school, and early in the film she enters the building to fill in an application form. Waiting in a line of elegant women who ‘look the part’ – we are shown a rundown of their appropriate dance shoes in comparison to Alex’s dirty work boots – Alex yields to self-doubt and literally runs out of the building. This is what some (me) may call: gay panic. Later, she voices her fear; ‘If you’d seen all those dancers, all those people, there’s no way I belong there.’
Ah, that old theme of belonging. It’s made clear that Alex doesn’t ‘belong’ at the dance academy because she is different from the classical dancers that apply. From her appearance to her lack of training, she doesn’t fit. But, if we’re going to read into my queer analysis (which we are), there’s another layer to this scene that has more to do with traditional heterosexual femininity. Alex is positioned as ‘different’ to the women standing beside her, which feeds into her own insecurities and consequently prevents Alex from pursuing her dreams. Throughout Flashdance she is repeatedly encouraged by Hanna, a retired ballerina who is a kind of mentor to Alex (although it’s not explained how they know each other), to apply and audition. Nick additionally supports her, but in the end it takes Alex’s own bravery and self-assurance to finally audition and, ultimately, be accepted into the academy.
The movie is brimming with queer potential, for anyone who is willing to interpret it with a queer lens (and I know that many people actively do this for all aspects of pop culture). Although Flashdance was negatively received by quite a lot of film critics, I feel indebted to this work of art. Jennifer Beals sparked something within me when I first saw this years ago, and it is reignited whenever I hear those opening chords to ‘Maniac’ on the radio.
What a feeling.