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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

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

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