The text and slides here are taken from a recent talk I gave at PGS Pride. Following some positive feedback, and requests for my filmography to be shared, I felt the blog was the obvious place to reach a wider audience.
The history of lesbian cinema is tied up with three separate elements:
· Changing social attitudes to homosexuality;
· The role and status of women in society, and;
· The history of cinema itself.
Although this talk will provide a brief introduction to the genre, it does not pretend to be in any way comprehensive or exhaustive. My aim is to give an overview of some of the most common themes present within lesbian cinema, with specific exemplification linked to each. The focus is on cinema, so I have avoided any depictions on television. My research is sourced from personal interest and viewing, the film studies component of my degree, and the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet.
In the early days of cinema, films were short and silent. Cinema became popular due to its novelty as a medium. Lesbianism tended to be considered too scandalous for mainstream audiences, and the earliest depictions were in pornographic films, or gentle Sapphic erotica at fairground peepshows. A good example of the latter can be found next door in Portsmouth Museum, in a turn-of-last-century peepshow dance of Venus and Aphrodite.
Role reversal played a big part in the early depictions of LGBT characters on screen, always presented as a figure of comedy with no overt mention of sexuality, for example the stock gay male character of the sissy.
The Weimar Republic of 1919-1933 Germany displayed notoriously liberal attitudes to LGBT culture, so it is perhaps no surprise that one of the first ever positive lesbian portrayals on film came from there. 1931's Mädchen in Uniform focused on a lesbian relationship between a school teacher and boarding school pupil. Although the film achieved cult status and inspired a number of other lesbian films (suppressed and banned under Nazi Germany), it was largely eclipsed by the runaway success of 1930's Der Blau Engel. Another film about a naughty teacher, it follows a schoolmaster who meets a tragic end as a result of his obsession with cabaret act Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role.
Bisexual Dietrich moved from Germany to Hollywood later that year, and her first U.S. film was 1930's Morocco. This pre-Code film is significant for being the first mainstream Hollywood depiction of a lesbian kiss, in a scene where a dragged-up Dietrich, as part of a cabaret performance, kisses a female audience member, as this clip from The Celluloid Closet discusses.
Following the Great Depression, films attempted to become more and more shocking in order to draw audiences in during tough economic times. In response to the perceived corruptive influence of cinema, this led to the development of the Motion Picture Production Code, colloquially referred to as the Hays Code. Named after Will Hays, the Code was influenced by public outcry and conservative pressures, particularly from the Catholic Church, and heavily censored American films that did not meet its strict standard of wholesome moral decency, especially relating to violence, horror, and sex. Homosexuality, of course, was not tolerated, and the legacy it had on lesbianism in film lasted far beyond its legal timespan.
The main impact of the Hays Code was that, in order to be screened, any sort of homosexual relationship had to be inferred from an overtly heterosexual plot line. Homosexuality could in no way be directly depicted. As a result, a number of films have been subject to lesbian interpretations. Filmmakers deliberately sought to circumvent the Code with storylines that worked on a number of levels with an audience, utilising subtle devices that would only be apparent to an LGBT audience. For example, a slap under Hays Code cinema was often filmmaker code for a passionate kiss. A scene in Calamity Jane (1953) illustrates one such interpretation.
The film itself has been subject to a lesbian interpretation of the relationship between Calamity Jane and Katie Brown. Of course, it’s not for me to infer, but suffice to say there is a scene where the two women move in together, sing a song called "A Woman's Touch", and set about debutching Calam, followed by the famous "Secret Love" torch song. A popular gay anthem, it has long been adopted by those espousing "the love that dare not speak its name".
The theme of plot interpretation of mainstream films continues well beyond the end of the Hays Code in 1968, for example the 1991 film Thelma and Louise, with its emphasis on female friendship above all, even to the death.
Lesbianism also becomes intrinsically linked with morality. Characters perceived to be lesbians must get their comeuppance, such as in The Children's Hour (1961). This film adaptation made lesser reference to lesbianism than its stage predecessor, but follows two school teachers who are subject to a lie by an embittered pupil. Whilst realising there may be some truth behind the lie, the film ends in suicide. We saw Abby Moss and Kat Sillett in a recent school assembly performing this pivotal scene.
A further aspect of this "morality narrative" is the depiction of lesbians as monsters and seductresses, for example in low budget West-German Spanish cult flick Vampryos Lesbos (1971), and in the rather more mainstream The Hunger (1983), a British lesbian vampire erotic horror film starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie.
A final strand to the "morality narrative" theme is that of "girls gone bad". This particularly refers to "women in prison films" aka the dykesploitation sub-genre. An example of this is the wonderful Scrubbers, a British film from 1983, depicting life in a female Borstal. Despite some glaring historical and judicial inaccuracies, the film is hugely watchable and entertaining, with a lesbian plotline and a relatively unknown cast who went on to be some of the biggest names in British film and television. Later films that link with this genre include the Wachowski’s (of The Matrix fame- born brothers, they have both since transitioned to live as women) Bound (1996), a film following a gangster's moll and a female ex-con.
As society began to shift towards LGBT acceptance, there was a rise in depictions of lesbianism in film. Whilst Hollywood was quicker to acknowledge male homosexuality (Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising, Philadelphia etc), prominent lesbian plot lines were somewhat slower to find audiences.
Lesbianism in cinema underwent something of a golden age in the 90s-early 00s, in a number of sassy, smart indie flicks establishing queer identity as something edgy and alternative, for example in 1999's delightfully meta- exploration of gay camp therapy But I'm a Cheerleader. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Natasha Lyonne, of Orange is the New Black fame, appearing here as Megan, a cheerleader who is persuaded into gay conversion therapy. Despite her insistence that she has never had any homosexual inclinations, Megan realises that she is a lesbian as a result of the camp's heterosexual reorientation program.
Whilst lesbianism has become more and more accepted amongst recent cinema audiences, owing to films such as Mullholland Drive (2001) and The Kids Are Alright (2010), one film is worth mention above others- 2015's Carol, a major blockbuster, set in 1950s’ America, with a primarily lesbian plot. The film is seminal for its appeal to mainstream audiences, its compassionate treatment of a taboo relationship, and its beautiful cinematography, shot on Kodak Super 16mm film. The film is based on Patricia Highsmith's wonderful 1952 novel The Price of Salt, in itself ground-breaking for being the first fictional depiction of a lesbian happy ending, albeit a slightly ambiguous one. The film is a truly "full circle" work, thematically, sexually, and aesthetically.
In order to conclude, I would like to leave you with a medley from the Celluloid Closet documentary, depicting the clandestine "Secret Love" relationships of queer cinema.