Looking Back At The Sexual Politics Of “Chasing Amy” 20 Years Later

In 1997, Kevin Smith’s romantic comedy about a guy who falls in love with a lesbian quickly became a cult favorite — but it also pissed off a bunch of queer people. Smith talks about the film’s origins, how he dealt with the backlash, and what he thinks of Chasing Amy's legacy.

Two decades after its initial release, some parts of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy hold up quite well — particularly every time Ben Affleck’s character, Holden, gets told to fuck off.

During a pivotal scene, Holden and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) are sitting in Holden’s car, pulled over on the side of the road during a rainstorm. Both comic book writers, they originally met at a comic con and quickly became close friends. One night, while Holden is driving Alyssa back to her place in New York, Holden suddenly snaps; he’s decided friendship is just not enough for him, and tells Alyssa that he’s in love with her.

“I know that you think of me as just a friend, and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you would ever consider, but I had to say it,” he says. “I can’t take this anymore.”

Holden assumes that Alyssa can simply choose to strike up a relationship with him. But here’s the problem: Alyssa’s a lesbian. Her lesbianism, by this point in the film, has been extremely well-established — to everyone, it seems, except Holden.

After Holden wraps up his long, rambling speech, during which he tells Alyssa he’d rather trash their friendship than forgo the chance, however slight, of getting in her pants, Alyssa bails on him and attempts to hitchhike home. Holden runs after her, pleading — isn’t she at least going to give him a response?

“Here’s my comment,” says Alyssa. ‘Fuck you.’”

Holden suggests that all she might need is a period of adjustment. “There’s no period of adjustment, Holden,” Alyssa screams, shoving him in the chest. “I am fucking gay! That’s who I am! And you assume that I can just turn all that around because you’ve got a fucking crush?” She tells him to go home, and he returns broodingly to his car without her. But a few moments later, Alyssa runs back into Holden’s arms, all of her objections conveniently whisked away as they start making out in the rain.

The third film in Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse series, Chasing Amy was a commercial as well as a critical success: Grossing over $12 million on a $250,000 budget, it garnered mostly positive reviews and won two Independent Spirit Awards. A sometimes charming, sometimes infuriating rom-com dressed up as a raunchy buddy comedy, Chasing Amy pushed the boundaries of sexual mores, pitted the casual (and sometimes not-so-casual) misogyny of comic book culture against budding male vulnerability, and tackled the complications of love and friendship in ways that deeply connected with a generation of almost-adults in the ’90s who were just figuring out how to grow up.

"When you look at it now — to borrow a term from the present — it was very woke for 1997."

For the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that the film “redefines the boy-meets-girl formula for a culture where anything goes” and that Smith’s “knowing humor and unruffled style” makes for “a good antidote to gender chaos.” When Chasing Amy entered wide release, 20 years ago today, both lesbian and mainstream culture were wracked with battles over identity politics and political correctness — battles which, in 2017, are now raging afresh. Questions about how to define different queer identities, the possibilities and limits of sexual fluidity, and what mysterious chemistry drives attraction are as much a part of the contemporary queer conversation as they were in the mid-’90s. Chasing Amy was, in many ways, ahead of its time.

“The weird thing about it is, you know, when you look at it now — to borrow a term from the present — it was very woke for 1997,” Kevin Smith told me during a recent phone interview. “I’ve heard from people, like, ‘Hey, it holds up!’ And some people are like, ‘Eh, it holds up, but some of it is kind of dated.’”

At the time of its release, and in the years since, a number of queer critics and academics have criticized the film for attempting to school its audience of primarily straight nerd-bros in Lesbianism 101 (how sex between women works; virginity as a social construct) only to end up punishing its lesbian character for her sloppy sexual history. It’s much less a lesbian film than it is a clueless bro’s coming-of-age story that just happens to have a lesbian character — and she exists, for the most part, in the service of the straight dude, kickstarting his evolution without getting much in return. Ultimately, the film assumes that a lesbian can go straight, even if just for a little while, as soon as the right guy comes along.

Twenty years after its release, Chasing Amy is “certainly not an important film for the gay community,” Smith told me, reflecting on its legacy. “It’s an important film for me." Smith has said over the years that Chasing Amy was inspired by his producing partner's crush on lesbian filmmaker Guinevere Turner, his brother being gay, and his relationship with the film’s star — various personal experiences thrown into a fictional blender. “It depicted dudes who were maybe on the verge of waking up, so to speak. But no, I think Chasing Amy is important only to me, at the end of the day.”

At one point during our conversation, Smith got audibly choked up, remembering the moment when Miramax said it was going to buy the film. “It changed everything.”

But Chasing Amy was more than a turning point for Smith’s career — it coincided with a major shift in popular lesbian culture. Just weeks after its release in 1997, the now-famous “Puppy Episode” of Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom Ellen saw her character come out of the closet, inspiring immediate backlash and kicking off DeGeneres’s legacy as one of the world’s most well-known lesbians. DeGeneres and others have since helped to normalize a certain brand of modest, white, domesticated homosexuality, while everything from fan-favorite queer web series like Little Horribles to critically acclaimed romantic dramas like Todd Haynes’ Carol have introduced modern audiences to dozens of different lesbian characters (some of whom even manage not to get killed off in the end).

And yet the full breadth of lesbianism isn’t that much less of a cultural mystery — nor is it much less derided and disbelieved — than it was in 1997, when Kevin Smith’s cult classic awkwardly attempted to depict a subculture that few people outside of it care to understand.

After Smith finished his first draft of the Chasing Amy script, he showed it to Guinevere Turner, the screenwriter and actor behind Go Fish: a mega-low budget indie about a group of lesbian friends directed and co-written by Rose Troche, which remains a pivotal work in lesbian cinema. Turner and Smith met at Sundance in 1994, the year both Go Fish and Smith’s first View Askewniverse film, Clerks, were screening there.

“She was the person I’d show pages to, because I was shooting in the fuckin’ dark,” Smith told me. “I didn’t know anything about being a lesbian, the sexual practices of a lesbian. And mind you, this is pre-internet — so I didn’t even have, like, fuckin’ rudimentary porn to look at and shit like that, to be like, ‘Oh, that’s what they do.’"

But before Turner saw the script, Smith says, she partially inspired it. At Sundance, Smith and his producing partner Scott Mosier spent a lot of time hanging out with Turner and Troche.

“As far as we knew, they were the first lesbians we’d ever met in our lives,” said Smith.

After the festival ended, Mosier kept in touch with Turner — and, according to Smith, developed a bit of a crush. “I’d say to Scott, ‘You’re falling in love with this girl,’” Smith remembers. Both Smith and Mosier relayed this piece of Chasing Amy’s origin story in an episode of their SModcast show in 2009, “Glazing Amy.” During the episode, which doubled as a new commentary track for Chasing Amy 12 years after its release, Smith jokes about Mosier attempting to convince Turner to date him despite her lesbianism: “I’ve got an asshole, it’s kind of like a pussy!”

At the time, Smith told Mosier to convert his heartache into content and make a movie about a guy who falls in love with a lesbian. But Mosier didn’t think there was enough there, so Smith decided to take on the storyline himself, even though he “didn’t really know that much about gay culture, and specifically lesbian culture,” he says in “Glazing Amy.”

Over the phone, Turner told me that after Chasing Amy was released, rumors were swirling that her role in inspiring the script went way further than an unrequited crush: “‘You had sex with Scott Mosier!’ ‘You had sex with Kevin Smith!’” she remembers. “Noooooo on both counts.”

“Lesbians are gonna haaaate this movie. This is a woman who’s been a lesbian her whole life, and stops being a lesbian to be with a man. They’re going to crucify it."

Turner remembers that Smith asked her to read his first draft “with lesbian eyeballs.” She said she pointed out a part in the script where Smith “had a thing about tongue fucking. And I was like, ‘You have a tongue, you know what a vagina is like. You can’t fuck someone with a tongue. Lesbians aren’t given extra inches on their tongues.’” But other than that, Turner says she wasn’t involved, besides finding Smith the setting for a lesbian bar scene (in which she has a cameo): the since-closed Meow Mix in downtown Manhattan, which was owned by one of her best friends at the time.

“I thought it was funny, outside of the lesbian content,” Turner said. “I loved the friendship between two guys.” She noted the undercurrent of “weird homo stuff” charging Holden’s relationship with his repressed, bigoted, and seemingly closeted best friend, Jason Lee’s Banky. “That kind of bromance hadn’t really been invented yet.”

But Turner also warned him: “Lesbians are gonna haaaate this movie. This is a woman who’s been a lesbian her whole life, and stops being a lesbian to be with a man,” she said. “They’re going to crucify it.” And there were plenty who did.

After the film was released, however, Turner says the reception wasn’t as cutthroat as she’d expected. “I was so wrong! A lot of lesbians I know really loved the movie. I remember being embarrassed, like I didn’t know my own community.” Queer women, of course, are not a monolith, just like any other group; there’s no grand gay consensus on Chasing Amy — or any other film, for that matter.

In “Glazing Amy,” Smith pointed out the various scenes that had some angry lesbian viewers “up my ass about this movie.” Still, he adds during the commentary track, “I’m kinda proud of myself … I got pretty close. It still looks like obviously someone who’s not a lesbian made this movie, but … My argument would be like, ‘Hey, I’m as gay as you! I’m as gay as you for women. I love pussy too.’”

When I asked whether Smith still feels like he identifies with lesbians — it’s been eight years since he and Mosier recorded "Glazing Amy" — Smith paused to think. “Do I identify with the lesbian community still? Absolutely. I doubt that many of them identify with me.”

“I’ve never really identified with, like, dudes,” he adds. “I don’t know how else to put it. I’ve always been more comfortable around women. And not like they get me better — not at all. I’m a pretty effeminate dude, to be honest with you, and I have been most of my life. I think that comes from being raised primarily by my mom ... And I like to think that I’m kind of enlightened.”

“Do I identify with the lesbian community still? Absolutely. I doubt that many of them identify with me.”

At the time he made Chasing Amy, “a lot of dudes were very much like, ‘Ew, gay dudes!’ — shit like that — and I had the benefit of being brighter than that,” he said. Smith says that in addition to basing the script on Mosier’s unrequited crush, he made Chasing Amy for his older brother, who is gay and whom he considers a personal hero. Smith “hated thinking about my poor brother” going to see movies that didn’t speak to his personal experience, so now, in his films, “I’m always gonna whip a little gay content in there for my brother.” He mentioned the homoerotica that runs through his other films, like Clerks, which is about “dudes who love each other and just don’t fuck. It’s almost gay cinema, as far as I’m concerned.”

Of gay people, he said, “I’ll always feel a kindred spirit of sorts. I guess being an outsider has something to do with it too. I’ve never really been part of the mainstream, and neither has the gay community. But, you know, I’d be embarrassing myself and everybody I know if I was sitting here being like, ‘Oh yeah, I can identify with the lesbian experience.’ I mean, I more identify with being a lady than being a lesbian. But I do like ladies, and ladies who like ladies are lesbians, so I guess you can find logic there.”

Even though Smith’s brother inspired him to take on a gay storyline, and Scott Mosier’s crush on Guinevere Turner formed Chasing Amy’s general premise, Smith says most of the film was based on Smith’s relationship with Joey Lauren Adams. He and Adams, who stars as Alyssa, were dating at the time they were making the film. As a bearded, New Jersey–dwelling hockey and comic book fan, Holden’s an easy stand-in for Kevin Smith himself. “Watching this film, the viewer can find me in every nook and cranny,” Smith wrote for a post on the Criterion Collection’s website in 2000. “The character of Holden is the closest to me I’ve ever written (casting Ben was aesthetically wishful thinking perhaps).”

Ben, as in Affleck, plays a character who is what plenty of sexually frustrated, geeky teen boys dream of growing up to be: a modestly successful comic book writer who lives and works with his best friend from high school. (His ability to convince a lesbian to sleep with him is just icing on the fantastical cake.)

Though Adams isn’t gay, Smith told me that he spent their relationship grappling with Adams’ past. Compared to him, Adams "had lived a very big life” and “had lots of experience.”

“And that sounds weird — I don’t want to say lots of experience like, ‘Oh my god, she slept with a bunch of people,’” he clarified. “She was fuckin’ worldly. I’m not just talking about sex, I’m talking about — she lived in Bali. The weirdest, most important thing that ever happened to me was Clerks, and it was over. This was a person who had actually lived a fuckin’ life. So she was intimidating, to say the least.”

He decided to make a movie about their relationship, but didn’t want the plot to be “a fat kid dating an actress.” He combined Mosier’s story of unrequited love with his own, and Chasing Amy was born.

“The script is really one big apology to Joey Adams, because I was such a jealous prick,” Smith said. “Making Chasing Amy ... saved me from being that guy for the rest of my life.”

Although Smith wrote the script mostly based on his own experiences, Chasing Amy does raise some interesting questions about gay politics — even if those questions felt a little fresher 20 years ago than they do now.

During one scene set in a record store, Holden is stressing out about his second major blowout fight with Alyssa, after he discovers that he wasn’t the first man she’d ever slept with. Being told over and over and over again that he had no chance with his lesbian friend wasn’t enough to deter him from aggressively pursuing her — but after finally getting the girl, learning that she once had a threesome with some guys in high school has him running for the hills.

While they’re shopping for records, Holden’s friend Hooper (Dwight Ewell), a gay black comic who feigns butchness in public appearances to sell his work, warns Holden not to fall for the new trend of “lesbian chic.”

“It’s oh-so-acceptable to be a gay girl nowadays,” Hooper sighs. “People think it’s cute. Got this fool picture of lipstick lesbians in their heads, like they all resemble Alyssa, while most of ’em look more like you. Gay or straight, ugly’s still ugly. And most of those boys are scary ... Screw that all-for-one shit, all right? I gotta deal with being in the minority of the minority, and nobody’s supporting my ass.”

It’s a provocative exploration of queer infighting — as pervasive 20 years ago as it is today. Hooper assumes that feminine lesbians have it so easy because they’re now desired by mainstream (male) culture; he doesn’t consider that femme queer women sit at the intersection of sexism and homophobia. Butch dykes, meanwhile, are “ugly,” so apparently unworthy of concern. Hooper’s point about the struggles of being a minority within a minority is a powerful one, but it doesn’t acknowledge that queer women of color — who are triply marginalized — exist at all.

The other major scene that explores an aspect of queer culture involves a conversation Alyssa has with her lesbian friends soon after her rain makeout with Holden, when they’re all hanging out in a New York apartment. After some goading, Alyssa tells them she’s fallen in love, before admitting that her new partner is a man. The women are deeply disappointed. “Another one bites the dust,” one friend says, draining her wine.

The scene recalls a similar one in Go Fish, involving a group of lesbians ganging up on a woman who slept with a man and debating whether she still has the right to call herself a lesbian. “We got so much pushback for Go Fish for that scene — not when it came out, but when we were shooting it,” Turner remembers.

"It’s not rocket science. But apparently it was to him — no offense, Kevin.”

Some lesbians have certainly undergone identity crises and even suffered friend group fallouts for starting to date men, while some bisexual women have felt ostracized from lesbian spaces for the exact same reason. But even though Alyssa’s storyline is perfectly believable — some self-identified lesbians have slept with men, and some have gotten unwarranted shit for it — it depicts a very limited slice of queer experience, and casts all lesbians as sour and one-dimensional man-haters. While Go Fish dedicates one scene to exploring what happens to lesbians and their communities when men get involved, that issue is Chasing Amy’s entire premise.

In the ’90s, Kevin Smith was well aware that some critics knocked him for depicting lesbians in this limited way. “I think I found [those critiques] valid then, as well. But there’s nothing I could do,” he told me. “It’s not like, Well, the next movie I make about a guy who falls in love with a lesbian will be a lot better! But I understand them, absolutely — and believe me, the ones I didn’t understand Guin explained to me very patiently back in the day.”

“I like that in his memory I’m the Yoda of lesbian culture,” Turner told me, laughing. She doesn’t remember explaining specific critiques to him, “but of course I would have. It’s not rocket science. But apparently it was to him — no offense, Kevin.”

Chasing Amy’s most memorable scene is its climax. Holden decides that the only way to get over his feelings of inadequacy regarding Alyssa’s sexual past is to sit her down with his best friend Banky, who has spent most of Chasing Amy berating Holden for dating a “fucking dyke” who’s just going to leave him. Holden calmly requests that they all have a threesome together.

This is an entirely reasonable request, he figures, because Banky is clearly in love with him (why else has he been so obsessive and homophobic?) and this would be an opportunity for Holden and Alyssa to go somewhere sexually adventurous together, evening the playing field.

“You know I need this,” Holden wheedles. “This should be no big deal for you.” Alyssa, looking stricken, says that time in her life has passed, and she found what she was looking for all along in Holden — something she apparently couldn’t find throughout years and years of loving women.

It’s the kind of request that might warrant a takedown from the most controversial character on The L Word, the Showtime series centered on a group of lesbian friends in West Hollywood. As Jenny Schecter once said, “It's not a fucking woman's job to be consumed and invaded and spat out so that some fucking man can evolve.”

Alyssa offers a takedown of her own. “I love you, I always will. Know that,” she says, standing up to hug him. Then she hits him full across the face. “But I’m not your fucking whore.”

A year later, Alyssa has a new girlfriend, and Holden is pretty much empty-handed. But he does have his new comic, Chasing Amy, based on his relationship with Alyssa, which he shows to her when they run into each other at another comic con in New York. They’ve reached a kind of peace.

Smith said that after the film was released, viewers would ask if he thought the two ended up together. As “a twentysomething shithead,” he’d tell them: “A dreamer feels they will; a realist knows they won’t.”

"To me, it was about a boy who grows up to become a man but loses everything in the process."

Early on, Alyssa makes clear that she’s “not a man-hater or something like that. It’s just been some time that [she's] been exposed to a man” who didn’t live up to a “stereotype of some sort.” Here, the film kills two birds with one stone: Alyssa is depicted as a desirably cool, reasonable lesbian, not one of those scary, man-hating dykes; meanwhile, Holden exists beyond stereotypes, special enough to temporarily save her from the gay dark side. Their eventual breakup is mostly attributed to differences in experiences and lifestyle — but until the very end, Alyssa still says she loves Holden and “always will.”

“For anyone who watches the movie now and goes, like, 'Ew, these sexual politics are ... not very subtle', you’ve gotta remember: It was made by a 26-year-old, 27-year-old guy, who really didn’t know anything and was learning in that moment,” Smith told me. “As much as it’s a movie that’s closely identified with the gay community, by virtue of the fact that the main character was gay, I really never think about it as such ... To me, it was about a boy who grows up to become a man but loses everything in the process — very bittersweet.”

“I can see why a new generation wouldn’t be crazy about it,” Turner said. “Sex and sexuality is so much more visible. There’s a heck of a lot more out there, certainly more than there was 20 years ago.” Chasing Amy, she said, “isn’t even a lesbian movie, but it has a lesbian in it with a complicated sexuality. That had literally never been done before in any movie anyone had ever seen.”

Twenty years after Chasing Amy’s release, movies about lesbians aren’t quite as rare, but are still few and far between — and like movies about basically everything else, they still tend to be directed by men. The biggest movies involving lesbian characters over the past decade have been rich, beautifully shot dramas by male auteurs, including Todd Haynes’ much-beloved Carol and controversial foreign contenders like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. “Am I personally dying for a big lesbian movie on the level of Carol or Blue Is the Warmest Color?” said Turner, when I asked about the future of lesbian movies. “No. I feel like that model is kind of outdated — we’re better and smarter and more interesting than that.”

From Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998) to Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011) to Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior (2014), queer indie filmmakers have been telling their own stories in gorgeous, funny, and heartbreaking ways for decades now — but as generational ideas about gender and sexuality constantly change, so, too, does the film industry.

“All the women that I know — all the women making lesbian films in the ’90s — we spent the rest of our careers proving we weren’t just lesbian filmmakers,” said Turner. And now, “a new generation is like, ‘What? Indie film? We have the internet, we have web series.’ I think we’re in a bit of a Wild West period here.”

Turner muses that “no one knows what to do post–L Word,” which Turner worked on as a writer and guest actor. “For me personally, making new stuff, I obviously want lesbian representation, but I don’t want to make the next lesbian show.” (If someone gave her millions of dollars to make Lesbian James Bond, however, she definitely wouldn’t say no.)

“To me it has to be something more,” she adds. “To me you can no longer talk about LGBT without really talking about everything happening across generations with identity — that tension and joy and discovery.”

Two decades ago, Chasing Amy won praise and accolades as much as it incited ire and debate. Now some argue the sexual politics have actually aged quite well: Perhaps Chasing Amy was actually about bisexuality all along, and the limits of forcing people into binary boxes of attraction when the queer experience can oftentimes be more fluid, and more complicated, than that. Queer women are still fiercely debating the future of lesbian identity in an age when gender boundaries are crashing around us every day. Looking back, the ’90s-era debates around Chasing Amy seem like small harbingers of the different sorts of queer conversations to come.

In 2017, the future of lesbian films seems just as shaky as the future of lesbian bars. Meow Mix, where Smith shot Chasing Amy’s dancing scene, was one of the most popular lesbian bars in the ’90s, but it shuttered in the mid-2000s like so many others. Turner remembers that a week or so before they shot the scene there, she brought Adams and some of her friends to Meow Mix to check the place out.

“They were having a great time. And my friend was like, ‘What is with the Jersey straight girls?’ I was like, ‘They’re learning!’” Adams and her friends were observing lesbians “in their natural habitat.” It’s a goofy image — but one that, strangely, isn’t that hard to imagine happening now. A lot of people today still have only the vaguest notion about what it’s like to be a lesbian. That’s why Chasing Amy remains so memorable and so polarizing: its attempt to demystify a highly politicized and oft-maligned identity. For better or for worse. ●


Rose Troche is the director of Go Fish. An earlier version of this story misstated the film's director.

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