The Erasure and Hypersexualization of Lesbian Cinema
Have you ever walked out of the movie theater and thought to yourself, “Gee, I sure wish there were some more heterosexuals in that flick”? I’m guessing no, but if you HAVE, please slide into my DMs and tell me what movies you have been going to because they sound like they’d peak my interest.
The truth is, even in a promising time in which we see progress towards inclusive representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in media, there are still gaping holes. These past few years have birthed a number of stunning films revolving around queer characters, but it is easy to see a running trend.
The 2016s Moonlight film told a story of a black gay man growing up in the slums of Miami, and made history as the first movie led by an LGBTQIA+ character to win an academy award for Best Picture. Then, in 2017 we saw the release of Call Me By Your Name, a tragic tale of doomed romance between a 17-year-old boy and his father’s much older male assistant in the 1980s in Italy. In 2018, we, at last, welcomed into our depraved universe of happy-go-lucky teen romcoms a story, not about a boy and a girl falling in love, but a boy and a boy doing the exact same thing. Who would have thought gay kids existed in the halls of any high school as nothing more than fun props to shove into lockers, or effeminate sidekicks ready to offer the perfect one-liner at any (short, brief, two seconds of screen time) moment! Thankfully, we now have Love, Simon to set the record straight, or gay. I don’t know, I’m going to move on now.
Has anyone noticed the trend here?
While these movies can all check the G off in LGBTQIA+, the other letters are nowhere to be seen. Where are our lesbian protagonists, bisexual protagonists, transgender protagonists, queer protagonists, intersex protagonists, and dare I say it, asexual protagonists?
Every year, GLAAD releases a Studio Responsibility Index, which breaks down the stats behind queer representation in movies released by the seven highest-grossing film studios. The report includes only LGBTQ characters and does not take into account Intersex or asexual representation. This is presumably because there have never been appearances by intersex or asexual characters in the big-budget films covered in the report.
Out of 109 films released in 2017, 14 included LGBTQ characters, which amounts to 12.8%. Of this 12.8%, 64% of queer characters were gay men, 36% were lesbians, 14% were bisexuals and zero transgender characters. Unsurprisingly, the disparity between the sexes of LGBTQ characters was extreme with 71% being men and 29% being women.
There is no simple answer as to why 71% of LGBTQ characters in these movies were men, and only 29% were women (that is if we aren’t counting “we live in a society rooted in misogyny” as a simple answer, which we aren’t. This is mainly because it would make this article really boring and basically over. Over before even talking about the lesbians, and that’d be counterproductive!)
However, to get to the answer, I say we explore what we do know about the representation of queer female characters in film, which is that you can almost always (keyword: almost) break these characters down into three categories: complete erasure, queerbaiting, and over-sexualization.
The first one is easy to explain… Characters that have been adapted into movies as heterosexual, despite the fact that they are explicitly not heterosexual in whatever form they were initially incepted. This is most prominently a phenomenon with superhero movies, which have the opportunity to bring some of the world’s most badass queer characters to life in the most significant way possible—as these films are often the highest grossing films—but consistently fail to do so. Characters that fall into this category include Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn, who has a romantic relationship with Poison Ivy in the comics, but is not even hinted at being Bisexual in the movie; Thor: Ragnarok’s Valkyrie, who has one scene alluding to her identity, but it was cut despite actress Tessa Thompson’s offscreen confirmation of her Bisexuality; and most disappointingly DC’s bondage loving, whip-wielding sweetheart, Wonder Woman, who has more allusions to her Bisexuality in the comics than I can count on both my hands, but zero in the movies.
Possibly even more frustrating than complete erasure is queerbaiting. At least when writers completely eliminate a character’s queerness, we LGBTQIA+ folks have no expectations! queerbaiting, on the other hand, creates false hope among the LGBTQIA+ community that one or more characters may be Queer, only to never actually confirm it. This is done to draw in an LGBTQIA+ audience without ostracizing what many refer to as a heterosexual audience but is actually a homophobic audience. If you are deterred from seeing a movie because there are LGBTQIA+ characters in it, you’re homophobic end of story, and when filmmakers queer bait, they are sending the message that their homophobic audience is more critical than their queer audience. A prominent example of queerbaiting is the relationship between Pitch Perfect‘s Becca and Chloe, which pokes fun at them being attracted to each other for laughs without ever consummating it. Ultimately, this is more harmful to the representation of queer women in film than beneficial.
Finally, the most offensive of all is the hypersexualization of queer women. This one often stumps people. How did we go from complete erasure to hypersexualization? Aren’t those the opposite? They are more similar than you think in that they both exist to devalue the worth of queer women and to satisfy the male gaze.
Take for example 2013s highly acclaimed Blue Is The Warmest Color. This movie is worthy of the praise it earned for the beautiful performances by Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, but is also worthy of significant criticism for the 10-minute long sex scene that male director Abdellatif Kechiche orchestrated. The explicit scene was clearly designed from a male perspective and understanding of (or lack thereof) lesbian sex. It was denounced publicly by both actresses for making them feel extremely uncomfortable. Using lesbian bodies to please heterosexual male viewers is completely invalidating. Instead of representing queer women, movies that oversexualize Lesbian or Bisexual women are taking advantage of the fetishizing of lesbians to service a heterosexual audience.
So, I think we have our answer.
How can we have a blockbuster movie with queer women at the forefront if they are either being erased, coyly referenced mainly for humor, or oversexualized to the point of pornography?
Something needs to change, and most obviously the writers and filmmakers, but also the audience needs to as well.
There is a thin line between queerbaiting and what is called queer coding, but queer coding is an entirely valid way of slowly changing the media’s representation of LGBTQIA+ people.
An excellent example of queer coding is the recent box office hit Oceans 8, which I left fully convinced that Cate Blanchett’s Lou and Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean were a hot item. The two frequently referred to each other as “partner” (which I am well aware is a common label for a crime duo, but was used in (what felt like) painfully vague ways in the context of this movie), spoon-fed each other food on one occasion, and had an adorable banter over a potential proposal, but there was a lack of a diamond (haha, get it? It’s because they were about to steal diamonds?) Most importantly, let us not ignore how in every single scene Lou is dressed like she just got done filming a cameo on The L Word—there were four ties guys, FOUR.
However, when I animatedly discussed all of this with my family over dinner the next day, I was met with laughter over my “misunderstanding” of the use of the word “partner,” and an insistence I was “reading too much into it.”
People are too skeptical. Heteronormativity is, well, too normative. No one wants to call a character queer unless they’ve got it tattooed on their forehead. (Personally, I think wearing four different ties, three different suits, and two different vests all in the span of one movie can be counted as an honorary tattoo, but hey what do I know?) The fact that people in the LGBTQIA+ community spend entire conversations trying to convince people that movie characters are Gay is really upsetting, and ultimately interferes with the baby steps some filmmakers are trying to make.
I encourage everyone to fight this skepticism and be open-minded about the possibility that movie characters could be queer even if it isn’t directly stated in the script. Imagine the vibrant world of diversity this could create! Imagine all the different ways a character’s sexual identity could be expressed!
If we as viewers play our part, then hopefully the writers and the studios will follow suit, and one day we will live in a world where we won’t be forced to accept multiple ties as sufficient indication of lesbianism.