“It’s like a Super Bowl for lesbians!” shouted Marie Fiorino into the phone at Henrietta Hudson, the West Village lesbian bar she manages. “People are into this thing like crazy.”
She was referring to the Ellen DeGeneres-produced HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2 . Among lesbians in New York, no television event of this magnitude had happened since Ms. DeGeneres leapt out of the closet on her sitcom, Ellen , way back in the gay broadcasting stone age of 1997. Sure, that was nice, but this was better. This was a veritable lesbian flesh fest, coupling a butched-out Chloë Sevigny and Dawson’s Creek ingenue Michelle Williams, not to mention Ms. DeGeneres and Sharon Stone.
Ms. Fiorino, 50, watched the MA-rated TV movie with seven lesbians in her Staten Island home. There were also gatherings in Manhattan. Brooke Webster, a robust blond 29-year-old who owns Meow Mix, a lesbian bar on Houston Street, said she was invited to three or four If These Walls Could Talk 2 parties. Puffing on a thin Cohiba cigar as she leaned against the Meow Mix bar, she theorized that the mass groupings were motivated more by economic than social factors.
“Not that many lesbians actually have HBO,” she said. “We’re all so poor.”
From behind the bar, a pixieish bartender named Nina piped up that it could have been distributed like a title fight in a sports bar. “Lesbianism’s a sport–like boxing,” she said.
In the weeks before the broadcast, HBO also placed softly lit advertisements (slogan: “Women. Love. Women.”) in gay publications like The Advocate and Web sites like Gay.com. The cable network placed commercial showing Michelle Williams and Chloë Sevigny kissing on shows appealing mainly to women, like Oprah and daytime soaps. But If These Walls Could Talk 2 was also advertised between quarters of New York Knicks games and during the TV version of The Howard Stern Show , the better to target a certain kind of lesbian lover: the straight male kind.
“We’re a network of 25 million subscribers. Our goal is to attract the broadest audience,” said Eric Kessler, HBO’s executive vice president of marketing. “Obviously, there will be a male audience who will come out for this, and, you know, with Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone, some men would find it, ah–” He didn’t quite finish the sentence.
Were lesbians upset that HBO seemed to be catering to straight males’ fetishizing their expressions of love?
“I think it would be hard to do any lesbian thing that wouldn’t get the ‘Let’s watch two girls doing it’ audience,” said Sarah Pettit, a senior editor at Newsweek and the cofounder of Out magazine. “I’m sure that HBO isn’t so uncynical that they didn’t think of that secondhand viewership of guys who want to see Sharon Stone and Ellen make out. But my sense is that, ultimately, that’s not going to be your core audience.”
Neither was Ms. Fiorino of Henrietta Hudson upset by the woody factor. “An intelligent woman realizes that it’s the law of nature. A man is just going to do that,” she said. “Some of the real dykes might be offended and say, ‘Look at him, he’s going to jerk off to it.’ But it’s the psyche of the male.”
Ms. Fiorino said she thought that the ones really getting off on If These Walls Could Talk 2 were the canasta club ladies sitting in the darkness of their living rooms, having their own Anne Heche-ian revelations.
“Housewives are noticing lesbianism,” Ms. Fiorino said, speaking with the authority of a woman whose last two lovers were formerly straight. “It’s something they always wanted to do. You’re married 10, 15 years. You have children. Your relationship is boring. I’m friends with a lot of straight women in Staten Island. Those housewives, oh, you can just tell! They just flock to the gay women.”
At Meow Mix, at 1 A.M., just hours after the 9 P.M. broadcast of the HBO movie, The Observer sat down to screen a videotaped copy of If These Walls Could Talk 2 on the bar television with an assorted bunch of stragglers. There was Ms. Webster, the bar’s owner, and her girlfriend of five months, Rachael, a pretty, 23-year-old, pug-nosed actress who recently graduated from Sarah Lawrence College (and preferred that her last name not be used). Rachael wore sunglasses on her head and black boots that came up to her knees.
Behind the bar was Barb, a tattooed bartender. And over there was Nancy, a compact bouncer who wore a skullcap.
Two middle-aged women named Mary Ellen and Gloria, who said that they had just gotten off their jobs working the late shift “for the city,” were also there, watching.
At the very beginning of the somber first segment, set in the lesbian stone age of 1961, a man stumbled drunkenly into the bar. Every neck craned to get a look at him, and then over to gauge Ms. Webster’s reaction to the tumult. Slowly, she got up from her bar stool. “I’d be happy to give you your money back if you want to go somewhere else,” she said. He knocked over a chair and left.
Rachael laid her head on Ms. Webster’s shoulder. She wept when Vanessa Redgrave’s character was disinherited and humiliated by her deceased lover’s family.
In the next segment, “1972,” all the braless college lesbians sing “Joy to the World” in unison. The women at the bar groaned at the retro-cheese. But when the butched-out, motorcycle-riding character played by Ms. Sevigny planted her first wet kiss on Ms. Williams’ lips, they snickered and whooped, and Barb leaped up to rewind the scene.
Then came a scene in which Michelle Williams rebuffs Chloë Sevigny to appease her friends who don’t like butches. The crowd groaned sympathetically. “Oh, the butch girl always gets assed-out!” said Rachael, who was perhaps the only femme in the bunch.
Nancy the bouncer crept up behind Rachael’s bar stool and swatted the back of her head. “How would you know?” she said. Everybody howled.
Then came the big topless grindfest between the pair. If this movie was indeed the Lesbian Super Bowl, the scene in question represented a 50-yard touchdown bomb. “Welp, we’re going to be packed this weekend!” Barb said as Chloë Sevigny sucked Michelle Williams’ nipples.
During the final segment, “2000,” the crowd watched agog as Sharon Stone and Ms. DeGeneres rolled around in their big bed, which Ms. Webster theorized had been purchased at “Dykia.”
Olivia turned to her friend Mary Ellen. “Ellen must have been very happy,” she said.
“Yeah,” chortled Mary Ellen, eyes unmoved from the screen. “With Sharon Stone, she doesn’t even care that her show got canceled.”
The Indian Accent Thing
“Thank you, what a relief!” someone said with a heavy Indian accent as I was exiting the men’s room at Lucy’s bar on Avenue A.
It was after midnight and I’d just heard a very drunk white guy at the pool table yell to his very drunk white pal, “My nigga!” after a successful shot. A black guy was watching the game and I saw him flinch a little.
So I figured that Indian accent I’d heard was just another dope doing that Indian accent routine that’s been socially acceptable ever since Apu became a regular on The Simpsons .
I’ve tried getting a laugh with that accent a few times and I usually laugh when someone does it well, but I don’t feel good afterward.
Anyway, exiting the bathroom, I looked up and the guy with the Indian accent … was an Indian. Even so, his “What a relief!” sounded exaggerated. Was he an Indian imitating an American imitating an Indian? No, he said, not at all.
His name was Vikas Mehta. He was 27 years old, from Bombay. So how did he feel about Americans imitating Indian accents?
“I feel it this way,” Mr. Mehta said. “We are more British. We have a more pure version of English than Americans.”
How did he feel about, say, the character Apu on The Simpsons ?
“Well, that’s part of life. If someone comes to India, we imitate them. When we come here, people imitate us. It’s natural. We do the same thing!”
Mr. Mehta was wearing a tan jacket over a madras shirt and khakis. He works as a diamond merchant on West 47th Street and lives with his wife and son in New Jersey. Was he proud to be an Indian?
“To be honest, I feel proud being a Hindu,” he said. “We believe in the policy of Gandhi. That’s what makes us proud.”
“First of all, India has one of the highest population in the world, ha-ha! I don’t blame Indians–they have no other source of entertainment except sex. No TV, no nothing. Sex is the thing. Each one has three, four, seven kids.… We Indians are more dedicated to our wife. We believe in only one marriage, not four marriages, three marriages, divorce and this and that.”
He likes it here, though.
“Everyone looks at you with the same eye, that’s what is great about America,” he said. “People come up and ask me, ‘Hey, are you Indian?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I am.’ ‘Do you feel proud being Indian?’ I say, ‘Yes, I do.’ They ask me, ‘Why?’ I say, ‘Because I have culture!’ They’re saying, ‘Why are you so dedicated to your wife?’ Like, I was going out, one of the Americans asked me, ‘Would you like to sleep with me?’ Yeah, a girl asked me. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to.’ She said, ‘You are a dickhead.’ I said, ‘O.K., fine, I am a dickhead. I don’t mind.’ She co”What’s important to Americans, culturally?”
“Ego. Egoism is more important. The moment you hurt any American’s ego, you’re gone. They hate you! Am I right or wrong? If I hurt your ego, you would not like me. Whereas in India, it’s different. If I hurt someone’s ego, he’ll try and think about why. We believe in give-and-take in relationships. Americans don’t.”