Join us this LGBT+ history month exploring the film industry’s obsession with depicting lesbians as relics of the past

A year ago SNL (Saturday Night Live) put out, in my opinion, one of their funniest sketches to date. Lesbian Period Drama, starring Carey Mulligan and resident lesbian comedian Kate McKinnon, takes the form of a spoof trailer of the 2021 hit, Ammonite, a longing lesbian feature set in 19th century England, exploring the life of fossil picker Mary Anning. The trailer claims to be brought to audiences by the creators of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and The Favourite and pokes fun at the signature tropes synonymous with this oeuvre of film; longing stares, infrequent dialogue, sad flirting, drawing scenes and, often, straight actors.

But behind the ridiculousness of the skit, there are some hard truths and important questions about lesbian onscreen representation that this sketch cleverly exposes.

Do not mistake my concerns here, I am a huge fan of the lesbian period drama in all its glory. I watched The Favourite four times in the cinema and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire might be one of my top films of all time, with its heart-wrenching depiction of sapphic desire. Especially with this LGBT+ History Month’s theme celebrating our community’s contribution to film from #BehindTheLens, it is vital to be clear that these pieces of work often provide meaningful and subversive representations of lesbian histories. Indeed considering the long-running history of lesbian invisibility in collective consciousness, these films are a precious antidote.

However, it is the general lack of onscreen, lesbian-centred content outside of this genre, which is where I find the issue lies. As critic Jill Gutowitz puts it: “Does every lesbian movie have to be two severely depressed women wearing bonnets and glancing at each other in British accents?”

This lack leads one to the worrying conclusion that the film and TV industry is only comfortable telling stories about lesbians that positions them as relics of the past. It’s as if the industry fears the very real fact that the lesbian community is alive and well in 2023, full of diverse dykes with joyful and complicated lives.

Speaking of joy, this is a key issue of the restriction of onscreen lesbian representation to period dramas. Part and parcel of everyday life for the historical lesbian is pain and struggle, and this is unsurprising given most period dramas are set in the 18th and 19th century. Yet it begins to become the only understanding of lesbian relationships that our community is offered on the big screen: filled with painful unrequited love and sordid secrecy.

Queer theorist Sara Ahmed has explored how in the 1950s queer fiction or film couldn’t be published unless it featured an unhappy ending, there was otherwise the fear that these works may risk promoting homosexuality as “good” or “desirable.”

It seems that the film and TV industry may have failed to move on from the backward politics of the mid-twentieth century and have comfortably settled into the unhappy ending. But our community deserves more. More joy, more variety and more features actually set in the 21st century. I’m not calling for the lesbian period drama to be cancelled, long may they continue! But I am calling for more diverse representation, much much more.

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Tags: lesbian period drama

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