Last month, following the release of the trailer for the Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan film Ammonite, a popular topic of discussion on lesbian Twitter was reignited. The general question asked by lesbian and queer Twitter users was this – why is every lesbian movie a period piece? While this question is, of course, a hyperbole – every lesbian movie is not literally a period piece – this topic is something pop-culture savvy sapphics have been mulling over for some time now. Naturally, many of the jokes and memes that cropped up following the release of the trailer were truly hilarious and a welcome distraction from the horror of the daily news cycle, but this underlying question remains unanswered.
To give you an example of just how popular this so-called genre has become – particularly within the mainstream film industry – here is a list of some lesbian period pieces that have come out in the last five years: Carol (2015), The Girl King (2015), The Handmaiden (2016), Colette (2018), The Favourite (2018), Lizzie (2018), Tell It to the Bees (2018), Vita & Virginia (2018), Elisa y Marcela (2019), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), and Summerland (2020). This is not to mention the classics of the genre, such as Desert Hearts (1985), Aimée & Jaguar (1999), and the BBC miniseries Fingersmith (2005). So why are there so many lesbian period pieces, especially considering the fairly limited number of lesbian films in existence overall? And why has the mainstream film industry in particular become so interested in these stories? As someone who considers themselves a scholar of lesbian films and especially lesbian period pieces, I feel my time has come to answer this eternal question.
There are several potential reasons why these films keep getting produced, many of which are likely related to how marketable these films are assumed to be in comparison to other queer stories. (It is important to note that many of the films that commonly come up in conversation around this topic are ostensibly mainstream films marketed to mainstream audiences, which is why marketing conventions are important to consider). There are often a number of visual and narrative elements that tie all of these films together. Firstly, lesbian period pieces almost always depict outwardly feminine women. There is a particular controlled, constrained version of femininity that is portrayed in these films, which take place in an era where gendered divisions were (supposedly) even more strict than they are today. The reliance on this formula is perhaps also a matter of aesthetics, as there is undoubtedly something very pleasing about seeing two women, dressed in petticoats, fall in love and fumble to touch one another through their many layers of clothing. But seeing two femininely-coded women fall in love and become intimate with one another is also not as disruptive to the status quo in the same way that masculine-coded women doing the same might be. This is not to say that feminine lesbians are insufficiently queer, but rather that feminine queer women have become the norm when it comes to lesbian and queer representation, oftentimes at the expense of masculine or non-feminine women.
There are some significant subversions of this formula, of course, such as Elisa y Marcela, in which one of the women passes as a man to get by, or Collette, in which Keira Knightly’s significant other is a very dapper gender non-conforming and/or trans person. (I would also include Gentleman Jack here, which though it is a BBC limited series rather than a film, is a stunning portrayal of a self-assured butch lesbian in the 1800s). But while these exceptions are a welcome upending of the norm, there is still a clear preference for femininity in the genre that likely has added to its overall popularity and marketability.
Apart from their depiction of highly stylized femininity, the other most prevalent quality of lesbian period pieces is their reliance on tragedy. There is an almost pre-ordained association with tragedy in these films, as the audience walks into the theatre knowing that these women will likely not end up together. Indeed, among many people, both queer and straight, there is often still an unconscious association between queerness and tragedy, and these period pieces allow this association to play out without much criticism. Because it is automatically assumed that the past was always more homophobic and sexist than the present, tragedy often feels like both the natural and the accurate ending to these films. Once again, there are exceptions to this rule, such as Jessica Swale’s recent film Summerland, which was joyfully received by many sapphic viewers, or even Carol, which despite it’s somewhat muted ending, was actually the first lesbian novel of the period to have anything close to a happy ending. Because of these assumptions, any type of happy ending, even a sappy and otherwise formulaic one, feels like a subversion of the genre.
All of this ties into my theory that the popularity of lesbian period pieces in large part is due to their aesthetic qualities. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if lesbian representation in film is in fact primarily an aesthetic exercise, rather than one driven by narrative or politics. It is much easier to focus on the beautiful image two women create than it is the larger, messier implications of their lives. Again, this may partially explain this focus on tragedy in period pieces – the aesthetic of women crying in large dresses is no doubt considered a beautiful image. Expectations are an important part of any filmmaking process, and there is particular comfort that audiences get from knowing what to expect from these films – it will be beautiful, women will cry in dramatic outfits, someone will have their heart broken – and having those expectations be met time and time again.
This focus on beauty and aesthetics is perhaps connected to the fact that lesbian or queer films are primarily associated with the genre of the art film rather than more mainstream genres like romantic comedy or action. (Again, there are exceptions to this, such as Imagine Me and You (2005), or Atomic Blonde (2017). Please don’t yell at me, I have seen every lesbian film). This art film style is now more frequently utilized in mainstream or semi-mainstream lesbian films with larger budgets than small indie pictures. Unfortunately, while vintage white lesbian films have in some circles become accepted for their aesthetic qualities, actual indie lesbians films (including those made by women of color) remain difficult to access. That these films are artfully made or concerned with aesthetics is not in and of itself an issue, but it does mean that lesbianism on film is more likely to be considered a daring artistic experiment rather than a valuable and relevant topic to be explored in any genre. Queer women are doubtless astoundingly beautiful, but where, in the end, does beauty get us?
Another expectation producers and audiences may have about period pieces, including lesbian period pieces, is that they will be less explicitly sexual than films that take place in the modern-day. In some instances, this assumption may be true. Think, for example, of the beautifully choreographed but not exceedingly erotic sex scene in Carol, which aligns with the film’s beautifully stylized focus on aesthetic perfection. It is also true that the very fact of these women wearing more restrictive clothing means it is more difficult to quickly reveal one’s skin. Thus, it is perhaps assumed that lesbian period pieces might be a “safer” choice for studios to market to a wider demographic. (And as anyone who has seen a matinee of Carol can tell you, elderly people love period pieces). Nonetheless, there have also been recent films that have subverted this assumption of chasteness, such as the drug-induced armpit sex scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or whatever it was those two women did with that octopus in Elisa Y Marcela. So while this association might be assumed by those outside the filmmaking process, this expectation of sexlessness can also be subverted by filmmakers bold enough to take that risk.
In addition (and related) to the assumption that historical women were beautiful but chaste, it is also easier to conceive of lesbian period pieces as less politically effective than it is their modern-day counterparts. While connections to modern-day issues can undoubtedly still be made – think Portrait of Lady on Fire’s topical commentary on gendered power dynamics – current queer discourses about issues such as coming out or teen bullying are often not explicitly mapped out in these films. One can watch a lesbian period piece and react with sympathy – oh, what sad lives these women led! – without necessarily considering the current conditions or limits of queer existence. This does not mean that political commentary cannot be gleaned from these films, but rather that such commentary can be more easily overlooked than it might be in modern films. Indeed, when taken as descrete pieces of art, these films suggest that lesbian love is a delicate, fleeting matter, rather than a universal truth. However, this perception changes when you consider these films as part of a larger “canon” of lesbian films, which also illustrates the differences between straight and queer viewership. When viewed collectively, these films instead suggest a larger historical lineage of queerness across time.
The last and most consistently relevant criticism of lesbian period pieces is that they are almost always white. (Some notable exceptions I would add here are, again, Summerland, as well as Samin Sharif’s The World Unseen (2007)). This point was brought up once again last week following the premiere of another lesbian period piece called The World To Come. This problem reflects a larger issue among period pieces in general, wherein there is an entirely misguided assumption that people of color did not exist in the Western world any time prior to about 1960. This oversight also reflects a larger issue in sapphic representation overall, as we have seen that supposedly the most marketable type of queer woman is white, cis, and feminine. Thus, the (unfortunately correct) assumption that lesbian period pieces will almost always be white-led – and thus more marketable to the so-called “masses” – is likely one of the reasons these films might get greenlit at a higher rate than other, more diverse queer films. The most pressing problem with the lesbian-period-piece-industrial-complex is undoubtedly its overwhelming whiteness – so-called “historical accuracy” is a poor excuse for a genre’s almost complete sidelining of characters of color. And this exclusion becomes even more glaring when you consider how queer women of color are not represented at much higher rates outside of the period piece genre either.
While focusing on the aforementioned characteristics of these films might seem like a cynical way to boil down lesbian period pieces to their marketable attributes, we do need to remember that the business of filmmaking is in fact primarily motivated by money, despite the artistic aims of the filmmakers themselves. Indeed, as lesbian-centered filmmaking moves more into the mainstream, marketability becomes even more central. Nonetheless, I don’t think the (relative) success of these films and their reasons for being made are entirely because they follow this tried-and-true formula either. There is something incredibly affirming about seeing yourself represented in history, particularly when this history has been hidden or ignored for so long. This feeling must in some part account for the popularity of these films, and at least part of the reason why filmmakers continue to make them. When these films are viewed together as part of a larger canon, they provide a powerful sense of queer longevity, allowing us to imagine a sapphic lineage across time that enlivens our sense of connection to the past. But, if this re-imagining of the past does not include women of color, then such critiques can and should continue. We must, at the very least, broaden the scope of who has access to retelling these histories.
Clearly, there is a particular formula for making lesbian period pieces that has contributed to their popularity. But, as I have mentioned throughout this piece, there are some significant exceptions and subversions to the typical format of these films, and not every lesbian period piece is created equal. Filmmakers, particularly queer women filmmakers, have continued to create art that surprises, disrupts, and delights. Indeed, there are numerous lesbian films that do not have any of the characteristics I have outlined above, but oftentimes these films are difficult for viewers to find. As such, while there are plenty of lesbian films that are not period pieces, it has become more and more common that the ones seen by the most people are. (If you’re looking for something other than a period piece, I recommend Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019), which is currently available on Netflix in the US, or Go Fish (1995), which is streaming on Pluto TV). While I will continue to watch literally every lesbian period piece I can find, regardless of quality, I also wonder what would happen if we expanded the boundaries of what queerness on film can be and who has access to these stories. What, really, does it mean for lesbain films to “go mainstream,” and how can we cultivate and support more diverse queer filmmaking? The world of queer women is undoubtedly more expansive than we have been shown, and the limits of lesbian art have not even begun to be reached.
by Kira Deshler
Kira holds a Masters’s degree in Media Studies from UT Austin where she studied queer female fandom and representation. She loves lesbian cinema, any and all TV shows about crime, and coming of age stories about teenage boys who love music. Every Christmas she watches Carol (2015) and has an emotional breakdown. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd, and can find her thesis site on queer female fandom here.