Mädchen in Uniform shows Manuela as a character whose emotions prevent her from functioning properly in society. Though it attributes these emotions to injustices of fate, it still presents the young girl as an overly emotional invert, drastically differing from her more heterosexual female counterparts.
Upon her arrival at the school, she is almost immediately accused of being “already far too sensitive and a bit of a scatterbrain” by her apparently loveless aunt. Her emotion at this point in the film is attributed to the injustices of her mother’s death and her boarding school / prison sentence, both of which are circumstances entirely out of her control. The cruel emotional distance of Manuela’s aunt in this opening scene emphasizes these injustices by implying that, if Manuela’s mother had been alive, she would have been loving and supportive, “a very religious woman” as the princess later describes her (e.g., Maria Von Trapp).
At the school, Manuela continues to suffer. Though she is now an active participant in the unfairness of her life, her naïve innocence keeps her above blame and in the realm of sympathy. One instance of this is her drunken confession of love and its consequences. Waking up in the infirmary, she is harshly reprimanded by the headmistress. After the headmistress’ departure, Manuela is left to ask helpless of the empty room, “What did I do?” Though she drank so much, she seems not to have realized the possible results of her drunkenness, making the reprimand and threat of punishment seem unreasonably cruel and disinterested in explaining the offense.
Manuela’s innocent despair returns in an almost identical way during her final conversation with Fraulein von Bernburg. After Fraulein von Bernburg explains that Manuela’s punishment is “[mild]” and that “mercy has prevailed,” but Manuela won’t be able to see her again, Manuela and the Fraulein have this exchange:
I’m never to see you again? I’ll die!
You must never think things like that. You must be brought to your senses. You must recover, whatever it takes!
Recover? From what?
You’re not allowed to love me… so much.
You must go now
Manuela’s ignorance here about her own “condition” shows that she does not understand her offense, making her again helpless, as in the cases of her mother’s death, her being sent to the boarding school and her drunken confession. This lack of understanding simultaneously demonstrates both the idea that her “sexual inversion” is natural (that is, not self-chosen) and that she is in no way deserving of punishment or even social disdain.
In this sympathetic presentation of a sexual invert, the work finds itself a part of a larger social narrative aiming to humanize homosexuals with psychological case studies (Havelock Ellis is another example, as is Stephen’s angst-ridden mental breakdown at the end of The Well of Loneliness). Furthermore, these examples place the blame for this mental instability at least partly on the intolerance of society.
But there’s danger! Reducing all inverts to these overly emotional creatures (even societally-created ones) dismisses any other chance of identity and conflates homosexuality with mental illness and perpetual psychological suffering. This conflation becomes realized in the early DSMs. Though today, homosexual identity is increasingly accepted, it’s still often characterized by this mental instability. The popular Trevor Project and It Gets Better Campaign both rely on the idea that young homosexuals are less capable of coping with the social pressures of high school than their heterosexual peers. While this may be true and while the campaign against bullying is valuable, supporting the idea of a universal homosexual identity characterized by a certain struggle risks, as in early pro-homosexual arguments, the reduction of a group of people to a certain thing, reducing their access to other identities. Furthermore, while this sympathetic view of homosexuals may have been an important step in making homosexuality socially acceptable, it ought to be at least reevaluated in its modern context with the acknowledgment that it has at least the potential to be reductionist.