There’s always a man in the middle
If she isn’t a stalker or a serial killer, then Hollywood’s idea of a lesbian is little more than a man’s kinky thrill, writes Anna Carey
HOLLYWOOD has a bit of a problem with lesbians. It has no problem with straight women kissing each other on screen, of course. That’s fine. That, in fact, is a selling point – the film Chloe, in which Amanda Seyfried plays a prostitute who becomes involved with Julianne Moore, is currently being marketed as an erotic thriller. But when it comes to proper stories with wellrounded female characters who happen to be gay or bisexual, things get a little more tricky.
First of all, lesbian and bisexual women rarely make it into mainstream films. And when they do, Hollywood has traditionally treated them in two ways. They’re either predatory, creepy psychos or their sexuality is treated as a sort of saucy game. And they’re never allowed to live happily ever after.
This was apparent even in one of the first big films with a lesbian theme. In William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961), Shirley Maclaine and Audrey Hepburn play teachers who are falsely accused of having an affair by a spiteful pupil. But Maclaine is secretly in love with Hepburn (who’s straight) and ends up hanging herself.
Most early depictions of lesbians tend to fall into the predatory and unattractive category – think Beryl Reid as the grotesque actress in The Killing of Sister George (1968). Unfortunately the stereotype of the predatory homosexual hasn’t died out – think of Judi Dench’s Oscar-nominated turn in 2008’s Notes on a Scandal as a teacher who is obsessed with her younger female colleague.
As attitudes to on-screen sex changed, lesbian and, especially, bisexual characters became increasingly eroticised. Being attracted to other women is still often treated as a sort of sexual kink as opposed to an inherent part of a woman’s life. In many movies, including A Walk in the Clouds, Chloe and the dreadful Basic Instinct, lesbian sex is transgressive or a sign of a woman’s sexual wildness. It’s usually clearly aimed at a straight male viewer.
Speaking of which, there’s Chasing Amy, which implied that if a straight man fancies a lesbian enough, she will eventually fancy him back. And then there’s Kissing Jessica Stein, in which a relationship with another woman is shown as being more about rejecting men than actually fancying ladies.
Hollywood films aren’t exactly full of great gay male characters, but, comparatively, there have been many more movies with leading gay male roles. Many of these characters are problematic – from Philadelphia to A Single Man, being a gay man is often equated with tragedy. But at least these characters have some nobility. Compare them to the one Oscar-winning lesbian role – Charlize Theron’s turn as a grotesque serial killer in Monster. There are few heroic lesbians in mainstream movies.
There are, of course, exceptions. Desert Hearts (1985) was one of the first mainstream films to feature not just a lesbian romance but one that ends on a positive note. More recently, in Precious, the eponymous heroine is helped by her teacher Ms Rain, who happens to be gay. Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s sad, funny and ultimately uplifting film Show Me Love (1998) is the story of two teenage girls, one of whom won’t admit that she has crush on the other. Although “Swedish teenage lesbians” might suggest a very different film, these girls feel like real people, and their relationship isn’t portrayed in an eroticised way.
Of course, sexualised depictions of lesbian