Historical Lesbian Cinema: Why don’t we get to see lesbians in the present day?
Why does it seem like, in terms of recent releases, there are more historical lesbian movies than ones set in the present day?
Sure, there are lesbian side characters in Deadpool 2 and Booksmart, but movies with lesbian protagonists set in this century are oddly hard to find. The fixation on lesbians in the past may have to do with people’s fascination with the secrecy and forbidden love surrounding relationships between women in the past. Because LGBTQ+ audiences are hungry for representation, they will watch and advocate for these films to be made. The problem is the lack of lesbian films, especially those readily available in theaters, with lesbian protagonists set in the present day.
Vita & Virginia (2018)
Chanya Button directed Vita & Virginia, a film about Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) whose romantic relationship was documented in over five hundred letters and inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando. The film is based on a play by Eileen Atkins, who co-wrote the script with Button. Though historically accurate, Vita & Virginia leaves something to be desired. The characters and sets are adorned with bohemian fabrics to match the lifestyle of unconventional marriages and lesbian and gay relationships. The film, set in London in the 1920s, begins when Vita meets Virginia and culminates with the publication of Orlando, encompassing their entire relationship. Using words directly from Woolf and Sackville-West’s letters, the dialogue alternates between direct quotes and inserted words. This, along with a lack of chemistry between Arterton and Debicki, creates a contrast that creates a feeling of disconnection. Off-screen, the disconnect continues. The titular characters, director, and writer are all women but none have called the film “lesbian” or talked about their own sexuality, which appears to be heterosexual for all of them. It’s not required that they disclose their personal lives, but it’s often empowering for viewers to know films were made by people who are part of the community they’re representing onscreen. By not calling the film “lesbian” or using other umbrella terms like “gay” or “queer,” the creators are playing into heteronormativity and possibly preventing LGBTQ+ audiences from seeing the film.
Wild Nights with Emily (2018)
Unlike Vita & Virginia, Madeleine Olnek, writer and director of Wild Nights With Emily, is a lesbian herself. She completed extensive research on Emily Dickensen funded by the Harvard University Press and the Guggenheim Foundation. In her research, Olnek found that Dickensen, often called a “spinster” and described as “miserable,” was actually a funny woman with meaningful relationships with family members and Susan Gilbert, a childhood friend who married Dickenson’s sister. Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Zeigler), as recorded in letters, had a romantic relationship. Dickenson was very likely a lesbian, though, she herself would not use such a modern term living in the 1850s. Olnek shares Dickenson’s life in a way seldom seen, including the joys of her love of Susan, witty sense of humor, and her relationship with her own poetry. The film shows bits of Emily and Susan’s relationship in their teenage years then follows their love through the last few years of Emily’s life. Olnek decided to shoot the film very much like the Comedy Central show Drunk History, mixing classic film technique with direct-to-camera monologues and hand-held sequences used for comedic effect. Wild Nights with Emily sheds light on the often-hidden humor and love in the life of poet Emily Dickenson. It’s evident that the film was created by a lesbian because the camera does not objectify Emily or Susan. Instead, both are respected as full people and their passions, faults, and struggles are just as important as their romantic lives.
Tell it to the Bees (2018)
Tell it to the Bees follows the forbidden love of Dr. Jean Markam (Anna Paquin) and Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger), the mother of one of her patients who works as a beekeeper. The two live in a small town in rural Scotland in the 1950s that uproars when they learn that the two are seeing each other. The film is bleak in tone and focuses more on the town’s reaction than the feelings of its protagonists. In the end, Jean and Lydia do not get a happy ending. The film is based on a historical fiction novel by Fiona Shaw, who has written about her issues with the film adaptation directed by Annabel Jankel and written by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth. Shaw notes that the ending of the film was changed to benefit a heterosexual audience. Instead of growing old together like in the book, Jean and Lydia are separated after Lydia moves away with her husband. This change, though likely a possibility, piles on top of all the consequences the couple has already faced including attempted rape, eviction, and social ostracism. It makes the film border on trauma porn, making the film increasingly difficult to watch as it goes on. The film version of Tell it to the Bees brings up the question of who the film is for when it is painful to watch for the people it aims to represent. The heavy focus on pain and suffering rather than the lesbian characters themselves appears to be playing to a heterosexual audience who will watch the film knowing nearly nothing about the characters as whole people.
The Favourite (2018)
The Favourite is an epic historical drama with humor, a tumultuous love triangle, and female characters with amazing depth. The screenplay was originally written by Deborah Davis, but she had trouble getting the film made due to its lesbian content and lack of significant male characters. It wasn’t until well-known director Yorgos Lanthimos became attached to the project that it was made. Tony McNamara came on as a co-writer and the film finally made it to the screen, after an incubation period of nearly ten years, with the first draft of the script written by Davis in 1998. The Favourite tells the fictionalized story of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) who, while dealing with depression and gout, finds herself in a politically-charged love triangle with Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone). Abigail, Sarah’s cousin, arrives unexpectedly and takes a job as a servant. Through the course of the film, Abigail moves up the ranks while getting increasingly closer to Queen Anne. The relationships between Sarah and Anne, Abigail and Anne, and Abigail and Sarah are the sole focus of the film. The male characters populating the castle and parliament are merely pawns in Anne and Sarah’s game as Sarah advises Anne’s political decisions. Though strikingly funny, The Favourite shows Anne’s struggles plainly and does not censor them or minimize them. Anne faces depression after losing many children before, during, or shortly after birth. She has rabbits to commemorate them, which play a large part in the film. Anne also deals with bouts of gout, eventually necessitating the use of a wheelchair. It’s unusual to see a woman with disabilities as the main character, let alone one who is also a lesbian in a position of power. Still, though, the heterosexual gaze seeps in a bit through the fixation on Anne’s lack of reproductivity.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Though the story is very different, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, like The Favourite, takes a scant interest in male characters. The film, set in the late 18th century, follows the fictional story of a painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject Héloise (Adèle Haenel), who does not know Marianne was hired to paint a portrait of her. Writer and director Céline Sciamma based the film on the surge of French female painters in the 1700s. Though this particular story is fictional, it could have happened due to portraiture being one of the few careers available to women at the time. Sciamma and Haenel are both lesbians, so the film is created by and starring lesbians. The passion and care in the film is palpable. The beautiful film is a romantic masterpiece that shows films made specifically by and for lesbians capture something markedly different and authentic about lesbian love when compared to films that aren’t made by lesbians.
There is importance in seeing lesbian films set in the present-day and the future so queer women can see themselves on-screen. All these films about historical women act on a great sentiment: to honour underappreciated women, especially highlighting the stories of lesbian and bisexual women that have not been told previously. Yet, there is something to be said about the lack of love stories between women set in the now.
Focusing solely on lesbian stories of the past prevents more diverse stories from being shown on-screen — lesbian and bisexual women of today are not all white and cisgender like the women in these historical lesbian dramas. Restricting films about lesbians to those of the past has shown to center cisgender white women who were relatively well off in their time. Allowing present-day lesbians, or even those in more recent history around the times of the AIDS crisis, to be shown on-screen would broaden the scope of the type of lesbians shown on film. Representation carries more weight when all can see themselves on screen — BIPOC, non-binary, transgender, poor, and disabled lesbians alike.