What about the lesbians? A Herstory of hidden sexy creatures in mainstream cinema
by Sara Marrone
It's 1930. Marlene Dietrich is Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in Morocco, a seductive cabaret singer who loves dressing like a man in her shows. The film became iconic due to a scene in which, at the end of her song, Amy (Dietrich) kisses a woman from the audience. On the movie poster was written: “Marlene Dietrich, the woman that all women want to see.” In 1933, MGM produces Queen Christina, set in the XVII century. The movie tells the story of Queen Christina of Sweden, a woman with a strong masculine identity, interpreted by Greta Garbo. Here again, we see Christina kissing a woman, a duchess (the same story is depicted in a 2017 New Zealand movie, The Girl King). In films produced in the same period, we find different scenes, more than we would expect nowadays, of free kisses between women (Lady of the Night, 1925; The Broadway Melody, 1929; The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931; Sylvia Scarlett, 1935).
Hollywood in those years was no stranger to lesbian relationships among the women who worked there (Dietrich and Garbo had several lesbian romances, and they had a relationship themselves) and many gay and lesbians hid behind heterosexual weddings, the so-called “lavender marriages.” However, Hollywood was forced not to show itself too licentious, at least officially; indeed in 1929, the Hays code was approved, created to “govern the making of motion pictures.” It was necessary to discourage the imitation of certain behaviours, to support the sanctity of marriage and the family. Many lesbian actresses, directors and screenwriters gathered together in discreet "sewing circles." In the 50's these circles were forced to hide even more, due to the witch hunt promoted by Senator McCarthy, in the context of an international homosexual conspiracy. In such a restrictive environment, many women withdrew from the scenes.
This was a first wound, a first break to a sexual freedom without guilt that was manifesting itself naturally, represented, in the case of the lesbian world, by strong and fascinating women.
We, lesbians, are the product of a clandestine culture that has always existed throughout history. Today lesbian culture is still partially clandestine, partially open, in any case marginal and unknown, the poet and radical lesbian Monique Wittig once said. Male gays suffered and suffer a lot of serious discrimination, as we do. But male gays experienced a revolution in the evolution of their visibility inside the mainstream and pop culture, in a manner we lesbians have yet to experience. We still have to manage with stereotypes, especially due to mainstream pornography, besides the fact that we have historically had to struggle hard for being females in the first place, and then for being lesbians in a predominantly hetero-patriarchal society.
(Real) lesbians are nearly invisible in mainstream cinematic history, and when they reach some visibility, they share some recurring features. Almost every time they are evil, mad, negative-example characters (Rebecca, 1940; Vampyros lesbos, 1971; Mulholland Drive, 2001; Monster, 2003), who get involved in dangerous and forbidden lesbian relationships (Bound, 1996; Heavenly Creatures, 1994; Loving Annabelle, 2006; Disobedience, 2018); who “steal” a man's girlfriend (Elena Undone, 2010; Below Her Mouth, 2016; Gypsy, 2017), or cheat on each other with another man (The Kids Are All Right, 2010, Blue is the Warmest Colour, 2013). Most of the time they have to fight with one or more heterosexual male characters (Disobedience, 2018; Lizzie, 2018, The Handmaiden, 2016); or re-discover themselves in their sexuality later in life, when they are already wives to a man and have children (Tru Love, 2013; Carol, 2015). In most of the cases above, they just came across a bizarre, “occasional” short (sexual) relationship with another woman with whom they are accidentally experimenting (Gia, 1998; Black Swan, 2010; Jennifer's Body, 2009; A Room in Rome, 2010), and sometimes just to sexually arouse men (Wild Things, 1998; American Pie 2, 2001; Gigli, 2003).
In 2018, lesbian romance and lesbian characters managed to be granted a little more space in American cinema. It has been the year of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, winner of the Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival, starring a stunning Chloë Grace Moretz. This has also been the year of the thriller Lizzie, with Kristen Stewart in her first explicitly queer role, and Disobedience, with Rachels McAdams and Weisz. What these movies have in common is the feeling of a guilty desire, the lesbians’ struggle with their own “sin” of being attracted to women and not to men, the internal affliction and trauma for being involved in a forbidden romance, as they have to fight with rigid Catholic rules and family resistance. The background of each story is awful, ominous, painful. Sex is frustrating and doesn't have much space in the plot.
The plot structure of almost all of these movies try to include lesbian characters in a triangle: 1 woman – 1 woman – 1 man. The conflict is generated and resolved around a third person who's a man. The obstacle to happiness, the reason for treason or, in other cases, the protected and safe refuge is the male figure and male sex.
Blue is the Warmest Color has been extremely important in giving visibility to lesbian passions, thoughts, dramas, fights. It became iconic. It's disturbing to an audience who wasn't used to watching lesbian sex in cinema screens. But, once again, the two actresses are not lesbians, and they're directed by a hetero man. A realistic reference on how lesbians actually have sex is visibly missing: the insisting ass slapping, Adele touching her own breast, and, in general, a cold and harsh display of the act, are acts more similar to traditional lesbo porn standards. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible position with their hands, and/or to show them a porn of so-called “lesbians”: this is what Julie Maroh, the author of the comic from which the movie was adapted, declared after watching the movie. Real lesbian sex is mostly about internal and profound pleasure, and intensity doesn't necessarily mean pain, aggressiveness or physical jerks, but, more than any other thing, passion.
Another famous movie, winner of 4 Oscars and 3 BAFTA awards (and of Berlinale's Teddy Award), is 2010's The Kids Are All Right. The absolute merit of this production, starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, is to have brought to European, North and South American cinemas the reality of a stable, mature lesbian couple who raised a family with a daughter and a son, stimulating thinking about artificial insemination for gay couples. But, here again, the crisis between the two moms is ignited and worsened by Jules (Moore) having sex with their sperm donor. In this case, the only sexual intercourses explicitly shown involve Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and his friend-with-benefits and then with Jules. On the contrary, sex between Jules and Nic is not represented and is essentially non-existent. The message we are unfortunately left with is that Jules finally breaks free, enjoying “real,” “complete” sex with the biological father of her children, she can only release her stress by having sex with a dick-provided person, instead of that boring and non-satisfactory sex with another woman.
Other successful lesbian movies present older women contending dramatically with the truth of their sexuality. The most famous recent example is Carol, with the beautiful Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. What's missing here is a convincing depiction of lovemaking. When movies don't want to present a voyeuristic image of lesbian sex, sex is badly depicted or just unrealistically represented. When movies feature young girls loving each other, they very often feed the perception that women express their sexuality together only in the context of a critical phase, or to satisfy a curiosity. In Princess Cyd (2017) the attraction between Cyd and Malic is tender and delicate, but it's only a transitional experience. The sex they have together is just the basis of a very intimate friendship. In other cases, movies depict the legitimate fear and disorientation of feeling different from other girls at the beginning, but it's not then offset by the relieving and positive image of having found their own truth.
All the examples mentioned so far make important contributions to the visibility of lesbianism, although most suffer defects of misrepresentation. The richness of women's real relations in mainstream cinema is, in one way or another, always compromised.
However, I’m not trying to say that all the lesbian cinema produced until now has been completely ineffective. For example, the true story counted in Freeheld (2015, available on Netflix), with the wonderful Ellen Page and Julienne Moore, has been crucial for being a relevant starting point for reflection on the terrible issue of lesbian civil couples' legalization.
No positive contribution can be attributed to mainstream movies like Gigli or Wild Things, which produce the only effect of causing a loss of credibility to the reality of the lesbian community. They tease the annoying patriarchal imagery of lesbians as passive objects of male fantasies. Above all, they strengthen the conviction that women can define themselves only in opposition to a heterosexual man. The final confirmation (or denial) of our identity depends on the male character. In these films, a woman needs a man to totally satisfy her desires, to live a fulfilled life, to build a concrete long-term loving relationship. The economic pressures of marketing and film production guarantee that, in a still tendentially homophobic society, any authentic positive image of lesbian romantic love will remain too great a risk to find a direct expression on the screen. Films don't show lesbians working together because that provides no voyeuristic interest for the male viewer.
Lesbian directors are potentially the best spokespersons of the lesbian world and network. From the years of Dietrich and Garbo until today, actresses and directors have had to hide their identity in order to preserve their careers. Almost all the films mentioned were produced by independent production companies and directed by men. Independent lesbian filmmakers have problems that all independents have (money, equipment and distribution), that all women have (technical deprivation, access, accountability to the demands of a political movement), that all lesbians have (risk of censorship, discrimination, forced compliance with the heteronormative gaze). An oppressed group, once able to make films, will be the only one able to create positive images of itself.
The main reason why lesbian relationships are still considered inconceivable by the majority is because it's (apparently) not that clear yet how lesbians satisfy each other sexually, without a little help from a man. There's still a big black hole of knowledge about female sexuality. It's hard to get out of PornHub's perspective of sex as penetration. One question that has been asked to me in the most disparate contexts and at different points around the world is: “how can you lesbians have sex?!”, which means “how could you have sex without a cock?!”. Sex and sexuality are anything but accessory. A healthy and real depiction of sex in cinema is essential. Films are required to reclaim the present, to offer self-definitions, and create alternative visions. Almost no movie so far has been able to represent lesbian sex for what it really is.
Below Her Mouth, directed by a woman, April Mullen, could be an exception. The sex is exciting, real, and the drama does not lie in Jasmine's discovery of being attracted to Dallas, but in having to leave behind a relationship that seemed the right one for another totally unexpected. The South Korean The Handmaiden is curiously very intense and realistic for being directed and produced by a man, Park Chan-wook. The intriguing, unpredictable plot surprises us exactly because, at the moment when it's convincing us that the antagonist strong man will win, in reality, the clever plan of the two girl protagonists prevails, in a very exciting way. The value of The Handmaiden, also known as Ah-ga-ssi, lies in its having something that mainstream cinema does not take the risk of showing: two young, brave women who study and implement a plan together, that will be successful, so that they can love each other. And most importantly for the focus of our analysis, the sex between the girls is not cold, it's not trivially pornographic, it doesn't need a dildo, there's not the binary combination male/female, active/passive: they discover each other's body driven by an almost childlike, authentic sexual curiosity. My intent, as you figured out, is not to analyze the strictly cinematographic quality of the films mentioned, but to dig them into the messages they convey. It should however be added that this film is an absolute jewel of quality queer cinema.
Moving away from the focus on sex, I would recommend a couple of movies that seem to promise to fill the gap of lesbian invisibility: My Days of Mercy, directed by Tali Shalom Ezer and presented at the 2017's Toronto International Film Festival (but never distributed), with the adorable, proudly lesbian Ellen Page. It has drama, but it does not lie in the sexual choice of the female protagonists who fall in love. The other one is Mamma+Mamma, by the Italian director Karole Di Tommaso, which tells the real path lived by the director and her wife to have a child with assisted fertilization. It will be out in Italian theatres on February 14th.
Given the absence of any real lesbian "image" on the screen, the lesbian audience over the years has had to identify with portrayals of strong woman characters, adventurous male characters, or occasional women's friendships. Cinema has always had the power to influence people at a very large scale. It's the most accessible and effective way to tell stories that, if well distributed, can reach the entire world. Let's use it to talk about lesbian life, because it really exists and, in its peculiarities, it is not that far from the "norm." We are not traumatized creatures, with our own typical psychic problems, who love each other, crying in the darkness. We're not witches who hide while being tortured by the guilt and anguish of not being “normal.” Yes, it's (sadly) true: we have to resist every day, by having to explain and justify our choice, to a system that still believes we don't exist.
We need movies that narrate the feeling of “coming out,” with which young girls can identify. We need movies to represent the normality of lesbian life, with its dramas, friendships, jealousy, seductions. What does it mean when two women decide to build stability together? How strong are two women who love each other? We need a sincere representation of sex, and of the first approaches to sex to help many homosexual women to identify and reassure themselves, and feel less alone, to find inspiration and landmarks; to give a clue to all those men who think it’s legitimately okay to ask to an unknown couple of lesbians if he can “enjoy” them, to all those parents worried about the “choice” of their lesbian daughters. So, to contribute to make this world a better place for everyone.
"I remember a scene…This from a film I want to see. It is a film made by a woman about two women who live together. This is a scene from their daily lives. It is a film about the small daily transformations which women experience, allow, tend to, and which have been invisible in this male culture. In this film, two women touch. In all ways possible they show knowledge of what they have lived through and what they will yet do, and one sees in their movements how they have survived. I am certain that one day this film will exist." - Susan Griffin
-Sara Marrone, 2019
Thanks to the amazing Gohar Rahimi, for the precious help in reviewing this article.
SARA MARRONE is a hybrid actress, performer, author, freelance theatre and cinema critic. She believes in the power of arts to communicate change and to empower people everyday. Since 2017, Sara is the art director of the multidisciplinary artistic platform PLEASUREisPOWER, boosting the talk about pleasure, desire, sexual identity, and gender. She also co-starred in the post-porn short movie "Un'ultima volta (The End)", directed by her girlfriend, Charlie Benedetti, and produced by Erika Lust.