There’s a pretty standard set of stereotypes when it comes to lesbian fashion. Plaid, snapbacks, Blundstones, and keys hanging off carabiners all make the cut. But looking at the way Hollywood has gone about depicting sapphic women, you might as well throw petticoats and corsets in there, too.
The film industry has developed a fascination bordering on obsession with moody-yet-sexy lesbian period dramas. On Friday, Ammonite, which features Kate Winslet as a dour paleontologist and Saoirse Ronan as a young woman who woos Winslet out of her hard shell, will become the latest addition to this obsession. It’s set in 1840, because of course it is.
Ammonite follows in the footsteps of 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2018’s The Favourite and Lizzie, and 2015’s Carol as yet another film about ladies who like ladies, but, very specifically, historical ladies who like ladies. And it’s not just the big screen — BBC and HBO have given us Gentleman Jack, Tipping the Velvet, Bessie, Daphne, Fingersmith, and several other sapphic titles in recent years. It’s getting comical at this point.
With few exceptions, these titles have a lot in common — some brooding, some sexual repression mirrored in corseted waists and voluminous skirts, a male suitor of some variety waiting in the wings, and, inevitably, some sort of passionate, desperate sex scene. Cut, wrap, send it to Academy voters.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t enjoy these films. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is very beautiful and sparse and French and everyone has very nice skin. And yes, the ending did destroy me emotionally for 24 solid hours. And yes, even if Ammonite has been called “drab,” I absolutely plan to watch it with bated breath for the promised face-sitting scene.
It’s not that these films are bad. Frankly, in the often disappointing world of sapphic cinema, they’re among the best on offer. But they also happen to be the ones most lauded by straight, white, mainstream audiences and the ones most likely to get big-budget funding, resources, and awards. And that’s not by coincidence. Rather, I suspect it’s by design.
Perhaps the most telling sign that these films are trying to soften their portrayal of lesbianism that no one ever has to say the word “lesbian.” Or even “sapphic.” Nevermind the nuance of a nice “bisexual.” The women desire and pine and exchange longing glances by a windswept beach with moody gray skies, but they don’t speak plainly of what’s going on. This makes sense to some extent, since historically these desires weren’t allowed in public life, leading to a lot of coded behavior and clandestine relationships. These are women overcoming societal expectations to follow their passions — they don’t need labels, right?
It inspires a bit of self-congratulatory mental masturbation that you, the viewer, are not anti-LGBTQ and that society has come so far, and isn’t that wonderful?
But the word “lesbian,” like the identity, is a threat. Lesbianism is a complete departure from the expectation that a woman’s life will revolve around men. That’s the draw of these films, of course, that these women are bucking those expectations, but the follow-through is often missing. Carol is one film that manages to buck those expectations; Cate Blanchett as the titular character plainly speaks of exactly who she is and what she wants and does get the girl in the end. But that’s more the exception, not the norm.
In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the specter of Héloïse’s future husband is always hanging around the edges, contributing to the final tragedy of it all. Because these kinds of queer stories often end in tragedy.
By setting these stories in the past, the storyline is so often about how the conventions of the time don’t make room for queer love. These women don’t get to be out and proud — it’s more a case of secret rendezvous by candlelight and knowing glances and eyes settling on a bosom or two. And don’t you feel so sorry for them? Isn’t it so awful that these women couldn’t follow their desires without scorn? It’s a sort of tragedy porn that lets us feel so gosh darn good about how far we’ve come. Straight audiences can walk out thinking, Those poor lesbians, if only they’d been born in modern times! It inspires a bit of self-congratulatory mental masturbation that you, the viewer, are not anti-LGBTQ and that society has come so far, and isn’t that wonderful? It’s a great way to forget that anti-LGBTQ prejudice, especially wielded against queer women, hasn’t gone anywhere. Yes, we can get married, but there are still Carols in this world, even in the Western world, and still plenty of places where being openly LGBTQ can mean abuse, violence, imprisonment, and death. Patting ourselves on the back for overcoming past oppression is much more palatable than remembering what’s left to be done.
The taboo of queer sex all is also a feature when it comes to the moment when our heroes finally get to take off their many layers of clothing and get intimate. We get a sexy climax after what may have been a good 90 minutes of tension building. As @witchesonfire7 pointed out on Twitter, the novelty of two straight actors (because they are almost always straight) being in a sex scene together, no matter how boring that scene ends up being, is a great way to titillate viewers.
The actors on promotional circuits are routinely prodded into fawning over the soft skin or kissing skills of their costars, which are in turn made into breathless headlines. It wouldn’t be so sexy if we were actually comfortable with lesbianism and didn’t see it, still, annoyingly, disappointingly, as more a genre of porn than an actual lived experience. This is plain in other, albeit modern lesbian movies, like the spitting scene in Disobedience or pretty much everything about the six-minute sex scene in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Setting lesbian films in the past also lets filmmakers design their characters to be as appealing as possible to straight audiences. Virtually all the big sapphic titles star thin, white, femme women, with long hair, long skirts, cinched waists, and just the right amount of makeup. Other than Gentleman Jack, you’ll almost never get to see someone masculine-presenting, let alone actually butch-identified. The easy argument is that the temporal setting makes that femme aesthetic necessary — but that isn’t even true. Lesbians have always challenged gender norms and presentations, and the butch–femme dynamic, with everything between and outside the binary, has always existed. It’s just that straight audiences may have a harder time getting on board with a story about women they don’t see as desirable. Or, at least, nonthreatening.
That’s the overall theme that emerges when Hollywood makes a lesbian period drama — nonthreatening. The women are beautiful, there’s a man to fall back on, and it’s a miracle if the couple actually stays together.
“We see once again lesbianism being represented as an intense and passionate phase,” Karen Tongson, a queer academic and critic at the University of Southern California, told me in an interview. She likes to call this genre “borrid” — as in, “boring” meets “torrid.”
“I think there’s a lot of fantasies that get projected onto relationships between women about that indirectness,” she said.“These long-simmering romances that are in many respects about repression and sidelong glances, the indirectness of desire.”
She pointed out that these films have a different meaning for queer audiences. They create history in a time when our stories have been erased and repressed. But it also lacks the messiness of modern queerness.
“It’s not contemporary, or as real and complicated,” she said. “It doesn’t have to grapple with the complications of the present.”
There is some hope, though. Lesbian cinema, whether contemporary or historical, is riddled with tropes, like the very tiresome “bury your gays.” At least that seems to be happening less. But in other ways, things are very much the same, especially the whiteness of it all.
Tongson said this genre “stabilizes the perceived whiteness of same-sex female relationships.”
“It makes me think, as not a white person, as a woman of color, Well, what is my investment in these narratives? Why is it that my desire has been sharpened in a way that reinforces whiteness?”
But like me, Tongson can’t stop watching. “I wouldn’t say it’s a guilty pleasure — it’s a problematic pleasure, but it’s one I would never disavow.”
There are some signs that this obsession with historical lesbians is subsiding — or at least the tendency for these films to be directed by straight men is lessening. Portrait, for whatever flaws I found, was directed by a lesbian and genuinely touched many queer women, based on the gushing over it that finally prodded me into watching. And in addition to being a gorgeous, haunting film, the lack of men (even if we hear about Héloïse’s betrothed a bit) is a refreshing touch. The issue is less the merit of these individual films, but the pattern of which projects attract big budgets and A-list actors, presumably based on what studios think they can sell to big audiences.
This year will also bring the much-anticipated Happiest Season, directed by Clea DuVall (a gay!) and starring Kristen Stewart (also a gay!). It’s a touch irritating that the movie centers around a closeted character coming out (another popular trope), but maybe it’s a sign that we’ll get to tell our own stories, in our own centuries, and that studios will pay to make it happen.
And if you look beyond just what has bud budgets and big names, there’s a delicious world of lesbian cinema awaiting you. Titles like Pariah, The Watermelon Woman, and of course But I’m a Cheerleader are classics. If ever I’m feeling blue, D.E.B.S. or Imagine Me & You can bring me back to life. Indie productions like Almost Adults or Suicide Kale are worth seeking out and show a modern sort of queer life that others fail to capture. And, as Tumblr sapphics know, web series working with next to no budget are a soothing balm to mainstream disappointments. They’re not all perfect, and they’re nowhere near as slick as what gets shown at TIFF or Sundance, but they can and will delight your little queer heart.
Meanwhile, when it comes to mainstream screens, queer women will surely continue flocking to whatever crumbs of representation Hollywood gives us, and we’ll also surely continue to unrelentingly critique each and every one. ●