Lesbians in the cinema: mad, bad and dangerous to know?

On December 14, 1922, at a quiet Bloomsbury dinner, Virginia Woolf met a young woman who must have seemed every bit as extraordinary as herself. A poet, novelist and polyamorous adventurer, Vita Sackville-West possessed all the self-confidence that Woolf lacked, and gleefully defied convention at every opportunity.

Though their physical affair was brief, their friendship was lifelong, and Woolf’s love for Vita would inspire her most imaginative work, the historical faux-biography Orlando.

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Their fruitful relationship is the subject of a new film, Vita & Victoria, which stars Gemma Arterton as Sackville-West, and a brilliant Elizabeth Debicki as the troubled novelist. Ten or 15 years ago, a mainstream film that dealt frankly with lesbian themes would have raised an eyebrow, but these days the subject pops up so often it’s positively in vogue.

In the past year or so alone, we’ve had Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams finding forbidden love in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in Disobedience, Keira Knightley throwing herself into a gay relationship in the period biopic Colette, and Olivia Colman’s capricious Queen Anne oscillating between – and sleeping with – both her female advisors in The Favourite.

On television, Suranne Jones has been striding around the Yorkshire Dales in Gentleman Jack, a colourful account of the life of the gay 19th-century industrialist Anne Lister. In Killing Eve, hit woman Villanelle seems very smitten with MI5 officer Eve, and tells her “I masturbate about you a lot”.

The interesting thing about this rush of stories about gay women is that none of them are being depicted in stereotypical ways. Why? Because women, and gay women, are now increasingly involved in the writing, production and direction of movies and TV shows.

Traditionally, when lesbians were depicted at all, it was negatively: they were either victims or monsters, destined to be consumed by their fatal ‘flaw’. In the groundbreaking 1931 German film Girls in Uniform, a troubled young girl called Manuela is sent to an all-girls boarding school and develops a crush on a young female teacher. Their bond is tender, but ends disastrously when their secret is discovered, and Manuela tries to throw herself off the roof.

Similar themes were explored in The Children’s Hour, a 1961 William Wyler film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as childhood friends who open a girls’ private school together. Scandal erupts when a devious student accuses the pair of being lovers, and though the rumour is denied, one of them ends up hanging herself.

Being a lesbian was clearly a high-risk occupation in the movies, and things did not improve through the swinging sixties. The Killing of Sister George starred the great Beryl Reid as a positively monstrous lesbian soap-opera actress who reacts furiously to the threat of being axed, and ends up wandering the abandoned television set making mooing noises.

When gay themes in cinema became more commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s, female narratives, as ever, were pushed aside in favour of men. While gay men fought bravely against disease and prejudice in films like Philadelphia and My Beautiful Laundrette, cinema lesbians tended to be either crooks (as in the Wachowskis’ Bound) or killers (Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures).

A more imaginative and realistic insight was provided by The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye’s ragged but very funny film about a young black lesbian who’s trying to make a documentary about an obscure 1930s actress who played stereotypical ‘mammies’.

Dunye made the film for $300,000 in 1996, and faced plenty of resistance: things have gotten a lot easier in recent times, as realistically portrayed lesbian characters have migrated to the mainstream.

In The Kids are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko placed a gay middle-aged couple at the centre of an otherwise quite conventional coming-of-age comedy. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) live in a rambling period Los Angeles home with the two teenage children, each of them conceived through anonymous sperm donation. The kids are now curious about their father’s identity, and trouble ensues when he turns out to be an earnest restaurant owner who wants to be involved in their lives.

Some LGBT critics were not happy about the fact that The Kids are Ali Right depicted a gay woman enjoying heterosexual intercourse, but this seemed a little Maoist to me, unlike the film, which celebrated the nuances and complications of actual human beings.

Controversy also dogged Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning drama about a bookish 15-year-old schoolgirl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who begins an intense relationship with a free-spirited older artist (Léa Seydoux).

Following the film’s success at Cannes, the two actresses went public to complain about the very unpleasant conditions in which the film’s 10-minute sex scene had been shot. Nevertheless, Kechiche’s film was extraordinarily powerful, and succeeded in portraying a lesbian love affair as, well, a love affair.

As did Carol, Todd Haynes’ sumptuous, intelligent 2015 film starring Rooney Mara as Therese, who’s working in a 1950s Manhattan department store when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an impossibly glamorous married woman with a grand manner, and sad eyes. A thoroughly grown-up film, Carol avoided all the usual stereotypical nonsense about supposed lesbian personality types to present the characters as ordinary women, ordinary people.

There is nothing ordinary about Queen Anne and her entourage in Yorgos Lanthimos’ bawdy restoration comedy The Favourite. Interestingly, Anne’s preference for women is not made an issue of here, it’s just love and sex, indulged in for various reasons by the three wily and very funny women concerned.

In The Favourite, lesbianism wasn’t the subject, it was a footnote. How times have changed.

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