This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today.
One of the biggest films to come out of the festival circuit last year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is finally opening in theaters around the United States. Céline Sciamma’s love story is a marvel of a movie: beautifully shot, lyrically written, and emotionally unforgiving. This romance about a lesbian couple told by a lesbian filmmaker is more than just a fabulous film. It exemplifies everything that was barred from lesbians in cinema throughout history. To truly understand the years of codifying and stereotyping that filmmakers like Sciamma have to undo in order to tell lesbian stories, let’s take a step back in time.
As with most minorities in cinema, the full history in the early stages of filmmaking involving lesbians is scarce. This is especially true with any kind of queer cinema because the very survival of it depended on it being hidden within heterosexual films. During the silent era of filmmaking, there was more overt evidence of lesbian relationships because there weren’t strict regulations until the 1930s. Silents like Pandora’s Box and A Florida Enchantment showed clearer images of women together than what would follow in Hollywood. In one scene of the former (see the clip below), Louise Brooks dances with another woman, but after she is taken to talk to a group of people, the woman turns down a man who offers her a dance.
Though this may seem like a very small gesture in representation, an act like this meant a lot in a time when audiences gleaned more from what actors did on screen than what was said in a scene. The main character of Pandora’s Box (played by Brooks) is not necessarily phased by the interaction, but the camera cuts back to the woman on the dancefloor, looking longingly at Brooks. She turns a guy down, a defiant choice not to revert back to the affections of a man.
Moments like this were okay in early Hollywood films because they were never the main focus of the movie but were just tantalizing enough to fit with the risqué spirit of the 1920s. This continued into the early ’30s, which brought us some of the most notable moments of lesbians on screen in early Hollywood, including Marlene Deitrich kissing a woman while singing in a tuxedo in Morocco and Greta Garbo kissing a woman in Queen Christina.
Once the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) took effect in 1934, any clear evidence that female characters were lesbians, especially physical affection, was considered “sexual perversion.” This was one of the cardinal sins of cinema according to the Hays Code. If filmmakers wanted to include lesbian characters in their films, they would need to find a way around censorship.
One practice born out of this limitation is connotative homosexuality, which is when a character is implied to be queer through speech, mannerisms, and style. Certain characteristics that implied a woman could be a lesbian were things that made her more masculine. Perhaps she wore pants or was a controlling authority figure that lacked the motherly softness that heterosexual women possessed on screen. Since these masculine traits slipped by censors but indicated a character’s deviance from heterosexuality to those who could catch on, filmmakers continued to use them and they built a stereotype for the lesbian woman.
These masculine women hardly ever were characters the audience was supposed to love. They were either the butt of a joke (like in the clip below from the prison movie Ladies They Talk About.) An inmate warns Barbara Stanwyck’s character that the masculine and uptight woman in the bathroom “likes to wrestle.” The lesbian in the prison is someone to be avoided and scared of.
The incomparable documentary about LGBTQ cinema The Celluloid Closet discusses how these stereotypes of the butch woman became the villain in Hollywood films censored by the Code. It uses the example of an older vampire seducing an innocent young woman in Dracula’s Daughter, making lesbians out to be predatory women to be feared.
The few instances that lesbians did grace the screen and were a major part of a movie, they had to be punished by the end of the film. In The Children’s Hour, two women who run a boarding school are rumored to be in a romantic relationship with each other. Once one of them admits her actual romantic feelings, she ends up hanging herself at the end of the movie. Hollywood films could not condone homosexuality or it would be in violation of the Code. In order to still use the stories of lesbians without ever respecting them, filmmakers punished them to show the audience that what they do is wrong. These stereotypes were about invoking a certain feeling from the audience about lesbians, either for a laugh or a gasp. They were never about representation.
These exploitative images of lesbians were guided by what was acceptable by the Code, but they are undeniably influenced by the male gaze. The depictions of women who loved other women were almost always made by men. All women’s appearances on screen were dominated by what men found attractive, and that extended to lesbians. The first images of lesbians on screen in Hollywood were so codified and exploited that some of these stereotypes are still evident in movies made today.
The movement that is credited for decoding what lesbians looked like on film was the New Queer Cinema era that began in the mid-1980s. One of the influences on the inception of the New Queer Cinema was the emersion of Queer Theory in academia. Media’s depictions of sexuality and gender were being reexamined in a way that questioned how well they represented people’s lived realities. Within New Queer Cinema, lesbians could be represented on screen without being exploited for the sake of mainstream straight audiences.
Trailblazing films from this movement were Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, and Yvonne Raider’s MURDER and murder. New Queer Cinema thrived thanks to the network of independent filmmakers at festivals around the world. Festivals embraced lesbian stories and lesbian filmmakers, unlike studios and mainstream cinema. Festivals were where filmmakers could interact with foreign cinema that they might not have been introduced to before, which included films that showed lesbians in a different light than Hollywood ever had.
Filmmaking has continued to embrace lesbian stories as it has evolved into 2020, but not without shortcomings. Male directors still have an easier time getting rewarded for telling stories that women, especially lesbian women, should be able to tell themselves. Todd Haynes’ Carol was nominated for several Oscars in 2016. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013. Films directed by women about queer women are so often underappreciated by the powers that be when they most often provide a radical perspective that should be celebrated.
Another issue that continues to arise with lesbian films is the aversion to calling them lesbian films. Movies with lesbian characters are hardly ever discussed in explicit terms. Audiences and even film critics have a difficult time ruling out lesbian characters’ possible attraction to men as well as women, therefore dismissing lesbians’ sexuality in order to fulfill their own fantasies. It’s impossible to evolve the history of lesbian cinema when we are too afraid to label movies with the word.
Knowing the history of lesbians on screen makes Portrait of a Lady on Fire even more marvelous. This love story between two women is void of any negative stereotypes from the beginning of cinema. The characters Heloise and Marianne (Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant) are women who aren’t defined by their feminine or masculine traits or represented by codified ideas of lesbianism. Sciamma, one of few lesbian-identifying women to direct a lesbian film, is unafraid to define it as such when speaking to media, despite their efforts to redefine her own movie for her. Lesbian films of today tell beautiful love stories and when contextualized by film history, they show how far lesbian representation in film has evolved and still has a long way to go.