Artwork by Juliette Faraone
What was the first movie you ever saw to feature a lesbian character? I’m not sure what mine was—I know as a kid I shipped Miss Honey and Matilda, but I’m not convinced that qualifies. Lesbian movies are hard to come by, and realistic portrayals of lesbians in cinema are even more of a rarity.
Recent television has gotten some elements right. Lesbian characters written by real, live lesbians are showing up more and more frequently, with Orange is the New Black breaking new ground with its portrayal of lesbianism both within and outside the prison system. The Fosters is another contemporary television show featuring lesbian characters—this time as two moms raising a family together. Orphan Black features a couple of lesbian characters and Pretty Little Liars has several as well. Before these shows, The L Word was responsible for bringing lesbian culture to the forefront, though any butch visibility remained in the background. Prior to The L Word, the only television lesbians who spring to mind are Carol and Susan from Friends—not the best example.
Though it’s been around longer than television, film continues to struggle with this issue. Donna Deitch’s 1985 Desert Hearts was the first lesbian movie to feature a happy ending, but this is still fairly uncommon. As mainstream pornography’s influence grew, Hollywood and the film industry at large tended to hypersexualize lesbians, to kill them off, or to undermine our identities by having the characters pair or sleep with men in the end. All of these tropes negatively contribute toward lesbian stereotypes in their own way, and this issue is in no way new to lesbians.
First, let’s get things straight (so to speak): women who sleep (note the present tense of the word) with both men and women are not lesbians. I understand there exist lesbians who in the past slept with men or who struggled with their sexualities before coming out, and these occurrences don’t act to negate or invalidate their present identities. Aurora Guerrero’s 2012 film Mosquita y Mari presented this point without exploiting the characters, so we know it’s possible.
It’s pretty simple, actually–a lesbian seeks relationships (romantic, sexual, what have you) with other women, because a lesbian feels attraction for other women. Bisexual women can and should be free to define themselves in whatever way they see fit, but the definition of lesbian has remained pretty fixed throughout history, and I see no reason to change it now. When people talk of sexuality being fluid, they fail to understand the reasons many women have for being lesbians—whether these reasons are perceived as inborn or chosen. These are all issues worth discussing, and should be approached with an open and eager mind. Though bisexual representation is important, it will not be the subject of this list—the directors of so many of the films I’ll be focusing on did not necessarily seek to portray bisexual women in their works but rather lesbians who choose to be with men (itself a contradiction). In these directors’ minds, lesbians are accessible to men because they don’t really see sexuality as fluid but rather see female sexuality as a boundary to be tested.
Though not all of the women in the films I’ll feature were written as lesbians, when viewing these from a lesbian lens we see how same-sex attraction is used, among other things, as a tool for male seduction. This is another trope which carries over into real life.
Hypersexualization of lesbians presents lesbianism as a ploy for male attention and invalidates the legitimacy of our female intimacy and sexuality. Though not without its own problems, Bound was one film that took this stereotype and turned it on its head—the relationship between the two leads is never once trivialized.
Like so many concerns within the film industry, the ones I’ll be addressing in this series might not be as frustrating if lesbians had examples to balance them out. But how many movies are there about seemingly straight women finding in the end they weren’t straight after all? I’m gonna say three, and that’s me being generous—I can really only think of one. Admittedly, I haven’t seen every single film featuring a lesbian character, but patterns become pretty clear after the first few.
At this point, I’m just beyond bored of the narrative offering we’ve been given. There seems to be little progress being made in mainstream cinema, and when movies like Carol do come out, they’re given a limited release. I’m writing from Indiana, y’all. The last lesbian movie with a wide release was probably The Kids Are All Right, and you better believe I’m addressing that one as we go along. There have, thank goodness, been several films which stand out as being exceptions, while others fit pretty clearly into categories which perpetuate lesbian stereotypes both in film and in life. In this series, I’ll be offering a short description of some of these movies, and will further assign each a rating for general artistry (whatever that means) as well as a rating for lesbian watchability. Not all of these movies are “lesbian movies”, per se, but they all exist outside of the sphere of heterosexuality.
This list is sure to frustrate some bisexual women, and definitely, there’s something to be explored with that topic as well. Bisexual concerns are valid. I get it—me saying these movies are lesbian movies eats away at bisexual representation, and that sucks. What also sucks is having maybe a handful of movies with actual lesbians on the screen. It’s lose-lose, essentially. The solution, as always, is more representation. In the meantime, I’m going to write with lesbians in mind (hey y’all).
Keep an eye out for more Lesbian Tropes and Where to Find Them, featured monthly at ScreenQueens and in the upcoming print publication CNCPT/LSBN.
by Juliette Faraone
Juliette Faraone is 25 and feels it. She hails from Indiana and her habits include petting cats, reading books, and annoying her girlfriend with movie trivia. When she finally gets around to grad school, she plans to pursue a degree in gender studies and comparative literature. Her favorite films include Alien, Set It Off, and Meet Me in St. Louis. She rants about feminism at juliettefaraone.com