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Why There Are So Many Lesbian Period Pieces

Lesbian period pieces seem to be everywhere these days. Since the release of 2015’s beloved Carol, there have been at least 15 other lesbian period films and several television shows; including The Handmaiden (2016), Colette (2018), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), and Summerland (2020). Many of these films are appealing to viewers because they’re shot with an arthouse aesthetic, and offer a sense of empowerment to queer audiences who are not often represented on-screen. Yet Lesbian period pieces frequently cast straight, white actresses and often end tragically to fit the formulaic queer film narrative. Here’s our take on exactly why there are so many lesbian period pieces, and why it’s important not to get too stuck on any formula.

TRANSCRIPT

Lesbian period pieces seem to be everywhere these days, as SNL recently parodied. Since the release of 2015’s beloved Carol, there have been at least 15 other lesbian period films and several television shows (which is a lot when you consider there still aren’t very many LGBTQIA+ stories made overall). So why do so many films about lesbians follow a very specific formula? Many of these films connect with viewers because they’re beautifully filmed with a sophisticated arthouse aesthetic, and they offer a sense of empowerment to queer audiences who have rarely been able to see themselves represented in history. At the same time, this trend also boils down to the impulse to copy films that have found an audience and are considered marketable. Lesbian period pieces almost always star white, straight actresses who have a strong mainstream fanbase, and often end tragically, playing into rigid audience expectations about queer films.

Here’s our take on exactly why there are so many lesbian period pieces, and why it’s important not to get too stuck on any formula.

The Aesthetic

One of the most distinctive qualities of a lesbian period piece is the aesthetic. They tend to have many of the formal hallmarks of arthouse cinema: long takes and carefully framed static shots with slow-paced editing, muted color palettes, dim lighting, and limited dialogue. They are undoubtedly beautiful films to look at, and that makes them popular among cinephiles, film festivals, and high-brow audiences. Thus there’s an incentive to continue crafting lesbian period pieces that fit this proven mold, as they win accolades and can be marketable to a specific audience that can yield profits on a modest budget.

Kate Winslet: “So much is said about what they feel for one another in those tiny glances, and in those very small touches.” - Attitude Magazine (Youtube 2021)

Aside from their arresting cinematography, though, these period pieces’ aesthetics can tend to uphold certain more pernicious aspects of the entertainment industry’s status quo, through their focus on white, thin, feminine, cis-women. The industry assumption that a white lesbian period piece is more marketable can mean that non-white lesbian films aren’t given the budgets and support they need to reach audiences.

Along with the overwhelming whiteness of most lesbian period pieces, they also spotlight a constrained, somewhat homogenous version of femininity. There may be something aesthetically pleasing about seeing two women quietly falling in love while dressed in several layers of restrictive clothing. But a love story between two feminine women doesn’t truly disrupt the rigid standards of gender expression in the same way that depictions of more masculine-coded women can. Sure, these films take place in an era where gendered divisions were (supposedly) even stricter than they are now, but throughout history, queer women have still presented at varying levels of masculine and feminine. Using this delicate type of femininity as our only form of lesbian representation upholds an unrealistic standard of what an “acceptable” queer woman “should” look like. (Notable exceptions to this rule include films like Colette and Elisa Y Marcela that depict how gender non-conforming people may have expressed themselves in the past.)

Colette: “I never felt like I belonged, and then one day I tried on my brother’s school uniform, and that was it. I knew I was home for the first time.” - Colette

The insistence on upholding thin, white femininity also leads to the casting of well-known straight actresses in lesbian roles. And though this may help the marketability of the film, many queer people feel that straight actors do not capture the authenticity of their experiences. This is true for LGBTQIA+ films across genres; most recently, James Corden received backlash for his performance as a gay man in The Prom, which Erik Anderson of Awards Watch called, “gross, offensive, the worst gayface in a long time.” Some also fear that the casting of straight and cis actors in these roles leads to audience members subconsciously perceiving queerness as a temporary costume, because they know that once the cameras turn off these actresses are straight cis-women.

A triumph of the lesbian period piece aesthetic is that it typically aims to avoid and challenge the male gaze. It’s certainly a draw of the genre for female audiences to see themselves represented on screen without being portrayed as sexual objects for a man, as is the overwhelming norm in mainstream media. A lesbian film that explicitly contests the legacy of the male gaze, is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which focuses on the female transformation from object to subject. However, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire was written and directed by a woman (Céline Sciamma), many lesbian films are still directed by men, a notorious example being Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. Jul Maroh, the author of the original graphic novel, has described the movie’s graphic sex scenes as “a brutal and surgical display… of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn and made me feel very ill at ease… among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.”

A more subtle problem with the accepted formula of the lesbian period piece is that it might allow straight audiences to believe that queer hardship is largely in the past. The fact that some of the most obvious systemic and social obstacles presented in the movie have been overcome may inadvertently let audiences minimize the challenges that queer people still face today.

The Tragic Narrative

Lesbian period pieces are most often associated with one type of narrative: tragedy. This is due to the expectations audiences bring to the genre. The audience walks into the theatre knowing that these women will likely not end up together. Because it’s automatically assumed that the past was strikingly more homophobic and sexist than the present, tragedy might feel like both the natural and accurate ending to these films. But the association between onscreen queer romance and unhappiness can be traced back to The Hays Code, which from the 1930s through the 1960s included queerness in its forbidding of quote “sex perversion” and its guidance that any (quote) “sin” shouldn’t be framed with sympathy. And the lose idea that being queer must be answered with some form of misery outlasted strict implementations of the code itself. The Children’s Hour — released in 1961 as the Code’s dominance was reigning — was able to tell a surprisingly empathetic queer story for its time, but this still had to end with a brutal self-inflicted tragedy. Even in very recent TV examples, the “bury your gays” trope has persisted, with writers frequently killing off queer characters to motivate a straight character’s journey.

Pauli: “She’s the only person who ever loved me, you know? I think I’ll die without her.” - Lost and Delirious

In the post-Hays-Code era, depictions of explicitly queer characters’ struggles actually served an important purpose. When the mainstream mindset was still overwhelmingly homophobic, tragic endings harnessed empathy for queer characters and humanized people that were deeply othered. Yet as society continues to progress, many people are looking for depictions of queer joy instead of — or in addition to — queer struggle.

Carol resonates so strongly with viewers in part because it was adapted from a novel often considered to be the first-ever lesbian book with a happy ending. And while the film’s conclusion may not be spelled out, based on the way Carol and Therese smile at each other in the final moments, the viewer is encouraged to believe they get back together.

Even when historic pieces may not always allow for traditional happy endings, films can still resolve on a hopeful note. Portrait of a Lady on Fire recognizes that its two main characters can’t end up together in their society, but concludes with the emotional closure of reinforcing the meaningfulness of their time together. As Marianne watches Heloise become overcome with emotion while hearing the song that Marianne once played for her, this ending suggests that their relationship will forever be so precious to each of them that it’s ultimately worth the heartbreak. The success of these films proves that happy queer endings are not only possible, they are desperately wanted.

History Awakened

Though there are surely more bottom-line economic reasons why lesbian period pieces keep getting made, we also need to look at the positive reasons why audiences are responding to them. Certainly, many fans of these films are lesbian or queer themselves, and it’s easy to see why they’re drawn to these narratives. Queer women are often forgotten and erased by history. The legend goes that Queen Victoria was unable to imagine lesbian sex, though it’s more likely that a desire not to draw attention to it was behind applying Britain’s anti-homosexuality law only to men and simultaneously writing lesbians out of (legal) history.

Anne Lister: “I love, and only love, the fairer sex” - Gentleman Jack, 1x5

Queerness is not a modern creation; it has long existed, in many different forms and contexts. But it may be difficult to find evidence of it in history books. These films or series can expa

our historical imaginations, and today’s most well-received lesbian period pieces are often the ones most boldly reimagining history for themselves. The Favourite takes place during the 17th century, but prioritizes modern storytelling and self-aware humor over surface accuracy. Dickinson is another example that presents the past in a playful, at times fantastical light, and uses contemporary music and dialogue to make the history relatable for today’s viewer.

There is something incredibly affirming about seeing yourself represented in history, particularly when this history has been hidden or ignored for so long. When these films are viewed together as part of a larger canon, they provide a powerful sense of queer longevity, allowing us to feel a sense of community with and connection to the past. A downside of this picture, though, is that this representative history has yet to be extended to queer women of color in a meaningful way. So while we can celebrate the progress being made within the period piece genre, we must also work toward giving more people the opportunity to retell their histories.

Conclusion

The phenomenon of the lesbian period piece tells us a lot about how expectations shape which films get made – many audiences like to know what to expect from a film, and filmmakers count on tried-and-true tropes in order to sell their films. There is a particular comfort that audiences get from knowing what they’ll get from an entry in this particular subgenre – it will be beautiful;

women will cry in dramatic outfits, and someone will have their heart broken. With the film industry in constant fear of losing money, studios aren’t eager to take any risks on producing new stories or styles. Ironically, though, new stories are exactly what fans of this genre (and arguably all genres) want.

With movies like The Favourite and Summerland, or TV shows like Dickinson leading the way, we can imagine a whole new type of lesbian period piece and LGBTQ+ story in general — one that centers joy, playfulness, and limitless creativity. These films can be deeply affirming by proving to queer women of all backgrounds that their stories deserve to be told — and people are listening.

Sources Cited

Clarke, Kinsey. “Lesbian Media is Too White—and I’m Tired of It.” Xtra, 24 Mar. 2020. https://xtramagazine.com/culture/lesbian-tv-film-white-queer-race-168567

Gregory, Drew. “‘Summerland’ Is An Escapist Gay Melodrama And That Might Just Be Enough.” Autostraddle, 6 Aug. 2020. https://www.autostraddle.com/summerland-is-an-escapist-gay-melodrama-and-that-might-just-be-enough/

Kelleher, Patrick. “Representation of White Gay Men is Improving in Big Studio Films – But Other Queer People are Becoming Increasingly Invisible.” Pink News, 17 Jul. 2020. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/07/17/glaad-studio-responsibility-index-film-rocketman-avengers-endgame-frozen-2-lgbt-representation/

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press, 1999: 833-44.

Rich, Adrienne. Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. W.W. Norton & Company. 1994.

Derry, Caroline. “Lesbianism and the Criminal Law of England and Wales.” Open University, 10 Feb. 2021.

https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/law/lesbianism-and-the-criminal-law-england-and-wales