This summer I had the pleasure of interning at SheWired and bringing you the breaking news about your most beloved women. During that time I took on the task of acquainting myself with the herstory of lesbian cinema. It's actually prety awesome to have a work-related reason for queue-ing up all of the lesbian movies on a Netflix account that I share with my heteronormative siblings. Hey, to be fair, I have recollections of my brother-in-law saying he put some gay movies on the Netflix queue for me—so that’s enough of an invitation, right? I'll bet he didn’t expect to sign into the account every day to see a new naked female couple under the “Recently Watched” box.
Why does it matter that I watch as many lesbian films as I can? For me it’s all about understanding how Hollywood has depicted queer women over the years. Also, I got to grow up with television shows like The L Word being a huge success while I was going through high school to help comfort me about understanding my sexuality. I also get to live in an era when countless actors are coming out the closet. My idea of representation is probably different than those who grew up in times when just the mere hint of two girls being really close friends meant something special to them.
I couldn’t help but wonder how representation has evolved or remained stagnant over the past few decades. I was interested in finding out how we got from the tragicThe Children's Hour to 2013's frank sexual films Blue Is the Warmest Color and Concussion. So how did we get here?
Let’s start with one of the first movies that had any hint of a lesbian plot: The Children’s Hour. Oh dear, this was a heartbreaker. And let me tell you, as a piano teacher I have worked with bratty kids, but that little schoolgirl Mary takes the cake. For me, it was important to see how lesbian rumors damaged the reputation of two successful women. The threat of being outed without your consent are still issues I see around me today. I connected with Ms. Dobie (Shirley Maclaine) for loving a woman that was unavailable to the point that it was unbearable. I also questioned if there was even a bit of mutual feeling for Audrey Hepburn’s character, Ms. Wright. It’s a sad story for lesbians, but it’s significant that it was made.
There are 70’s films that had lesbian elements, such as the German film The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but I’ll be honest—I couldn’t sit through it. There also really isn’t much else out there for the 70’s. What happened? Let me know if you’ve got a suggestion for this era!
And then the 80’s came with Desert Hearts. I was into it from the beginning during the scene where Cay drives recklessly, her brunette hair blowing in the wind, sporting aviator glasses... I definitely enjoyed Cay’s character — her raw personality that didn’t beat around the bush about her sexuality.
There was one line that Cay said that resonated with me: “I don’t act that way to change the world. I act that way so that they world won’t change me.” Mmm, perfect. Another thing that I didn’t expect was to want a happy ending — and get it. Perhaps it is because I’ve been watching a slew of recent movies that didn’t have the ladies end up in a happy place (maybe there’s something to say about that!).
Does Cay’s character does justice for lesbian representation? I think so. Granted, I wouldn’t be alive until five years after the movie’s release and it was my first time watching it almost 30 years later… But I yearned for Cay to work it out with Viv. Maybe it was because I developed a little crush!
I first watched But I’m A Cheerleader when I was in high school. It was pretty much shoved into my lap by my friends as something I needed to watch, along with Gia, Lost and Delirious, and D.E.B.S. And those friends were right. I practically fell in love with Clea DuVall and haven’t recovered since. It was the right type of comedy to help ease my mind about my sexuality at the time.
Sometimes comedy can get away with things because it’s not serious. When it comes to But I’m a Cheerleader, we get satire. And that’s important. We aren’t the butt of the joke because we’re re-envisioning it, and showing people how ridiculous homophobia is. I have a huge “fuck yeah” written all over my heart when it comes to this movie. Fuck yeah.
Honorable mention of 90’s lesbian cinema… goes to Go Fish, a movie that broke ground at the time it came out for depicting a group of lesbians just living their lives. It took some time for me to to get used to the experimental edits, but overall, I thought Guinevere Turner's Max was adorable.
The Early 2000’s
One night I decided to watch The Hours because I couldn’t sleep, and I was thinking about how my partner loves Meryl Streep. Like adores-and-wants-to-propose-right-now type of love for Meryl Streep. So I thought about how I grew a liking for Virginia Woolf’s stories in my English classes and figured it would be interesting to see what this movie, based on Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, was all about. I loved the parallels between the three time periods—and eventually the twist of exactly how the last time period relates to everything. Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Streep turned in killer performances. I was in bed thinking that this would just be a movie I’d put on to fall asleep to at 1 a.m. but I found myself needing to watch all of it. I even had to pause at certain moments because I needed to shed a few tears and digest everything.
The lesbian themes are subdued but key to the plot. I like that The Hours isn't necessarily considered a "lesbian" movie. It proves that sexuality is complex and so is representation on film. This one also gets a “fuck yeah.”
The comedy I Can’t Think Straight was a revelation of sorts for me because it was one of the first lesbian-themed films I watched that focused on non-white women. With I Can’t Think Straight I related to Leyla and Tala's cultural struggle to be together. I admired Leyla’s ability to come out. And even thought it's painful to watch when Tala does not do the same, I connected with both of their journeys.
Where are we now?
Ove the past few years there are three films that have resonated with me: Pariah, Concussion, and Blue is the Warmest Color.
2011 gave us Pariah. And I loved it because of the lead character Lee. It’s so rare that the lead character is a stud lesbian. She isn’t a femme, and that was huge to me. But what I loved most is that she's also a creative soul -- a writer. I also related to her in personal ways. I know what it feels like to carry an extra set of clothes to change into once I left my family’s house – to dress how I really wanted to dress. This movie wasn’t about love, but instead becoming confident in yourself and finding the courage to live true to one's self.
I loved Concussion’s plot: A lesbian wife seeks more passion and finds it by becoming a call girl for women called “Eleanor." So many lesbian-themed movies are about the initial falling in love with another woman moment, but Concussion is not about falling in love. It's about finding passion again. The film really depicts how lesbian relationships are just as challenging as any other relationship to keep alive. Yes, it’s a bit wild to go from married with kids to becoming a prostitute, but that is what makes the story so fascinating. The loft that the main character Abby (Robin Weigert) "flips" throughout the course of the film, also where she meets clients, is a metaphor for her life. It starts out as empty just like her. Slowly the room comes together, just as Abby becomes re-energized as her alter-ego Eleanor. Abby spends more time in that room as Eleanor than as a wife and mother in her own home. What makes the film infinitely interesting is that it's not about Abby being a lesbian but about her sexual revolution.
When I finally got the guts to just watch Blue is the Warmest Color, I was a bit intimidated by the three-hour running time I was about to subject myself to. Maybe it was because all I’d heard about the film was that it had a bunch of sex with some kind of ass-play. So, I was a bit hesistant.
I had to get use to the super close-up shots of Adele and how messy an eater she was. But then I loved it. I cringed at Emma’s awful faded blue hair. But then I loved it. I got used to the intimacy. I got used to Adele’s face and began to adore the life I could see lived in her expression. Blue is the film that has significantly stuck with me the most. The cinematic choices and the intense, yet heart achingly believable relationship of Adele and Emma left me in a complete standstill. I was mad at Adele. I was mad at Emma. I had no idea what to do after watching that except watch other films in order to forget this one. I connected with both characters, and wanted a satisfying ending—but the ending choked me out. It was a struggle because I tried to keep holding on, but it ended for me as it did for them.
For me, it’s a piece of cinema that is successful because of the emotions I invested in the characters. I believed it, and I fell in a reckless love with them.
Representation-wise? I think there are strides that need to be made. We’ve got two very attractive females that are fairly feminine. Yeah, I know Emma’s the more masculine one, but their looks are very stereotypical. But the actors make so much of their performance it made me forget about those shortcomings.
So, the evolution of lesbian representation has made a bit of progress, right? But there's still so much left for films to take chances on. I want more diverse characters with stories that are beyond falling in love. Or if we're going to have more films about falling in love, then let's play around with different ideas, like two hot butches falling for each other (and if there is a movie like that already, please send it my way). I get it. Films are made with and for money so sometimes you have to follow a certain formula for success. Sigh, I'll wait. If you haven't already watched these films, then I recommend them all for a cozy night in bed with your snack and drink of choice and possibly a box of tissues.