2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
The last decade of the 20th century was a remarkable time for queer films. While some major Hollywood hits like Philadelphia and The Birdcage told stories centered around gay characters, the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s ushered in a wave of independent gay filmmakers telling stories that spoke to their own experiences. Some of these works were experimental — and often confrontational — such as Gregg Araki’s The Living End, a road movie about two HIV-positive gay men on the run after killing a cop. Others, like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, saw widespread acclaim, allowing authentic queer cinema to take purchase with a mainstream audience.
But despite these strides forward in queer representation, certain questions still remained. Namely: “What if a guy fell in love with a lesbian and she was actually totally into it?” That was the big quandary in 1997, when filmmaker Kevin Smith wrote and directed Chasing Amy, a boy-meets-dyke romantic comedy-drama starring a goateed Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams.
In the film, Affleck plays Holden McNeil, a comic book artist writing and drawing a series called Bluntman and Chronic. He meets fellow comic creator Alyssa Jones (Adams) at a comic convention. Holden, who considers himself a bit of a lothario, becomes discouraged upon realizing he has no chance with his nerdy dream girl, but he soon gets over it and the two become inseparable friends. That is, until Holden confesses he’s fallen in love with her. Soon, they’re embroiled in a screaming fight over Holden blindsiding her, which quickly leads to them consummating their now romantic relationship.
Until this point, Smith’s only directorial efforts had been Clerks and Mallrats, both raunchy buddy comedies about slacker dudes noted for their overtly crass and snarky sense of humor. As such, Chasing Amy was a big evolution for Smith, who handled its drama in a way that still feels realistic and true to its characters. Having said that, its premise still feels like a juvenile straight-male fantasy, and the content of its drama reveals startlingly prudish sensibilities. The movie’s major conflict comes from Holden’s realization that he’s not the first man Alyssa has ever been with, and looking back on it several decades later, it feels like a tremendously retrograde issue, even for its time.
There’s something pretty offensive to Chasing Amy’s vision of a man getting a lesbian to reconsider her sexuality, though, and it’s made all the more implausible when you consider the man in question. Affleck’s Holden is not charmless, but he’s also a dude with a weird goatee who feels somewhat entitled to women and holds chauvinistic views on sex — at one point, he claims that sex can’t be had without a man’s dick being involved. This all begs the question of why on earth any lesbian would reconfigured her entire identity for him of all people. If she was interested in men, why not go for less of a knucklehead?
Interestingly enough, Smith borrowed its core conceit from an actual queer film: 1994’s Go Fish. Directed by Rose Troche and written by Guinevere Turner (who’d become close friends with Smith after their debut films premiered at Sundance), the film documents the lives of a small community of lesbians. Most notably it features a scene in which the character Daria imagines how her lesbian friends would react if she were to sleep with a man, shunning her and condemning her as if in a tribunal. But while that scene attempted to get to the root of biphobia within lesbian spaces, a parallel scene in Chasing Amy is pretty much the only look into Alyssa’s life outside of Holden, and it’s brushed off completely after it happens. Even in the instance of Holden’s confession of love, his feelings are prioritized over her clear discomfort.
Just as the premise is a straight-dude fantasy, the drama is a straight dude’s idea of a problem. And though Adams gives the film’s strongest and most redeeming performance, Holden is strictly our perspective character. Smith has often called Chasing Amy his most personal film, with Holden being clearly modeled after the director down to his trademark beard, and his most popular characters being two adventurous drug dealers (in-universe, Holden pays Jay and Silent Bob likeness royalties, as he bases his comic book characters off of them). Smith has even said he made the film as a sort of apology to Adams, as the two had previously dated, and he felt similarly small when he realized his partner was more experienced than him.
It’s always admirable when a director puts so much of themselves into their work, but at the end of the day, Chasing Amy amounts to a story about how a guy feels upset by a woman’s sexual history. And really, he could have just left us lesbians out of it.