At Long Last, Onscreen Portrayals of Lesbian Relationships Are Getting Complex

Social Studies

The shift comes after decades of stories that minimized romantic love between women as fruitless, or as some kind of phase.

Credit…Courtesy of Naima Green

In most parts of the world, to be gay or transgender is to at some point realize that you’ve been taught, to varying degrees, to deny who you are and to feel shame about your desire to love and be loved — to be entitled to a full life. This is true, as well, of queer lives onscreen, where, until very recently, most narratives centered around death, whether it was the trans person too tragic to continue living — either as a result of murder (“Boys Don’t Cry,” 1999) or suicide, a trope that has existed since “Glen or Glenda” (1953), one of the earliest films to highlight transgender issues — or gay men felled by their own murderous impulses (“Cruising,” 1980) and, later on, complications from AIDS, representations of which have regularly treated the disease as a form of punishment.

Then there were lesbian characters. They, too, were subjected to countless onscreen deaths, from Tara on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in 2002 to Poussey on “Orange Is the New Black” in 2016, but queer women have also been disappeared in a different way: For nearly a century, affection between two women has often been depicted as unrequited, predatory, transient or otherwise unserious. Just think of the menacing, lonely Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940), a famously queer-coded character; or, on a lighter note, Roseanne Barr and Mariel Hemingway on the former’s sitcom in 1994, or Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu on “Ally McBeal” five years later. All these stories seemed to argue that the ultimate tragedy of lesbianism was that it was a choice, and that smart women, wanting marriage and children, chose otherwise. Such “lesbian kiss episodes,” as they’re derided today, were usually (and unsurprisingly) dreamed up by straight male Hollywood showrunners as a kind of titillation, according to Sarah Kate Ellis, 50, the chief executive officer of GLAAD, who says, “Lesbian storytelling has historically been told through the eyes of men and their experience of that, of their own desire.”

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Credit…© 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy of Everett Collection

Now, some two decades later, lesbian portrayals onscreen are finally starting to become deeper, more varied and more inclusive, moving beyond the aspirational (mostly rich, mostly white) women who dominated programs like Showtime’s “The L Word,” which debuted in 2004, or Todd Haynes’s 2015 film, “Carol,” based on “The Price of Salt,” Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel of mannered glances, and starring Cate Blanchett as a housewife who must choose between her female love and her daughter.

In the past two years, there have been “The Wilds” (2020), Sarah Streicher’s Amazon Prime video series about a group of teenage girls that doesn’t overly conflate coming out with conflict, as well as indie films like Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” (2020), wherein love stories orbit around mutual desire rather than shared sexual frustration. In late 2019, when Showtime rebooted “The L Word,” the show was celebrated by fans for its more diverse cast — and more authentic writing, which didn’t shy away from the realities of menstruation, cunnilingus or seething jealousy. Gone was the tragic lesbian, forced to choose between love and a full life; instead, we got unpredictable, messy, complicated lesbian lives. “The ultimate privilege is being able to do anything we want,” says its 36-year-old showrunner, Marja-Lewis Ryan. “We’re getting closer to being able to have characters who are deeply [flawed] and not have them represent all of us.”

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Credit…© Netflix/courtesy of Everett Collection

And what is the point of queer representation if not that? Not just that there’s less death and despair, or that there are happier endings, but that the misery and pathos of life is rendered with more complexity, because everyday life is sometimes miserable, too. “It’s so important to us to have characters [being] weird and crazy,” says the queer writer, producer and actor Lena Waithe, 37, when discussing the BBC thriller “Killing Eve,” soon to air its fourth season, which has thus far subverted the “will they, won’t they” clichés of the past — and, too, the murderous impulses — by layering each episode with chaotic, bizarre sexual tension.

Waithe accomplished something similarly complex when, earlier this year, she co-wrote and starred in Season 3 of Netflix’s “Master of None,” a five-episode arc that centered on two women who are selfish, who step out on each other, who watch their dreams crumble but still manage to move forward. After their marriage eventually fractures, they bend, break and then start to heal themselves, offering a radical depiction of queerness that both references decades of downtrodden lesbian narratives and yet somehow still feels hopeful. Making the piece was, as Waithe says, a matter of “life and death,” as much for herself as for the other L.G.B.T.Q. creators it might someday inspire. “We spend our lives trying to fit into a world we don’t want to fit in,” she adds. “We don’t need to.”

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