American entertainment is having a big lesbian moment right now, with several mainstream, sometimes big-budget films and TV series featuring queer female characters -- and sometimes the actresses playing them are queer, too. While some of these new films revisit old themes, they've been updated and modernized for our post-marriage equality world.
During this moment, queer female characters are finally seeing more narratives available to them -- the path of happiness being one. What viewers are learning, besides the fact that we're a pulchritudinous lot, is that each film heroine who emerges as lesbian comes from a creator -- a writer, director, or actor -- crafting their own version of the lesbian narrative.
Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith's classic novel The Price of Salt, opens in theaters November 20, and is sure to win Cate Blanchett, who plays the title role, an Oscar nomination. Carol is sultry and sophisticated with opaque emotions. Into her murky 1950s world lands Rooney Mara as Therese, a wide-eyed shop girl who leaves her boyfriend to go on a romantic road trip with the wealthy older woman. On the road and in their hotel rooms, sapphic sexual awakenings envelop the women, though real life is never far away. Carol is mid-divorce, struggling for custody of her daughter against a man who is nuanced and relatable, but who still uses her queerness against her.
In the history of film, the lack of economic security among lesbians is not just a theme; it's art imitating life. Of this season's lesbian films, most deal with queer women's lack of economic power, including Freeheld (a terminally ill police detective battles to give her partner her pension so she can afford the mortgage after she dies), Grandma (an older lesbian helps her niece fund an abortion), and Addicted to Fresno (a lesbian maid helps her sex-addict sister escape calamity).
The latter dark comedy is by lesbian director Jamie Babbit, whose 1999 comedy But I'm a Cheerleader, about a lesbian teen sent to a reparative therapy camp, launched her career. Addicted to Fresno features Cheerleader star Natasha Lyonne as the lead lesbian character, her former costar Clea DuVall in a bit part, and Judy Greer as the sister. But things have changed for queer filmmakers in the last decade and a half.
"When But I'm a Cheerleader came out, I received an NC-17 rating, and the movie had no nudity and very few swear words," says Babbit, who has directed episodes in dozens of successful TV series, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Girls, Looking, and Gilmore Girls.
But for all the social change of the past decade, the LGBT movement has not put more money in the pockets of lesbians. Babbit, who knowingly pokes fun at the "lesbians are broke" archetype in Addicted to Fresno, says:
"I think when you're a gay person and you see how many lesbians -- and frankly women in general -- are struggling, you know it's something that's very real. And my movies have always been partly geared towards lesbian audiences. Unfortunately they just don't come out to the movies as much as other groups, so I will still make movies for them because I'm one of them and I want to see better lesbian movies, but it is always a challenge in a community that doesn't have a lot of economic power. They have kids and they have responsibilities. They are taking care of their parents."
Natasha Lyonne and Judy Greer in Addicted to Fresno
Perhaps that explains why, though this year marks the 30th anniversary of the seminal lesbian movie Desert Hearts, which is generally considered the first "real" lesbian film for including an out lesbian and the first bona fide lesbian sex scene, is getting little of the fanfare that's accompanied other anniversaries like Brokeback Mountain (10 years ago) and Big Eden (released 15 years ago). Both are praiseworthy films, but I'd love to see lesbian movies get the same respect.
Addicted to Fresno explores the corners of life where hope is in short demand. Anyone who's been trapped in a dead-end town, job, or relationship is likely to understand the feeling, but Addicted is a love-it-or-hate-it film. I enjoyed it. It's mean-spirited and sardonic, but it's clear that it's a lesbian-made film that offers something ineffable that's absent from other films and TV shows about queer women's lives. These new lesbian characters aren't working cooperatively; they're each running their own races. They're wonderful additions to film, though not necessarily sisters in the lesbian film canon.
Paul Weitz's Grandma, with Lily Tomlin as a lesbian poet-academic trying to come up with $600 to help her granddaughter have a safe abortion, is another exception to the genre. It's exhilarating to see an older lesbian feminist on screen in something that's not a documentary or gross caricature.
Lesbian author Sarah Schulman argued on her Facebook page that the idea of Tomlin's emotionally and financially marginalized character "who published books, gave readings, had her work taught in women's studies classes," but can't raise $600 for an abortion is "ridiculous." Schulman explains, "The film cannot imagine community. And this is its sinister failing."
However, I know a published lesbian poet who has taught at colleges, whose work has been reviewed in women's studies classes, and who can't afford to install running water at her house; and a trans man who was once a famous lesbian author with many books and speaking engagements, who recently crowdfunded his dental care because his situation is so dire. I cannot agree with Schulman's financial assessment. This is why Tomlin's character is so necessary, as part of the narrative that explores how lesbian success still goes hand-in-hand with poverty.
But there is a part of Schulman's argument that I agree with and think is universal: what many of these films and TV shows with lesbian characters do miss is any sense of a lesbian (or LGBT) community or culture. Of these new films, only the funny but polarizing Addicted to Fresno shows any lesbian community. The directors of Carol, Freeheld, and Addicted get props for casting real queer actors, which lends legitimacy to each film. But even so, in film and on TV, lesbians generally now exist in a broader community -- their workplace, family, or even the institution that confines them -- rather than the community we think of from traditional lesbian literature: the gaggle of girlfriends, the dykes you meet at the bar, the softball teams, the exes of exes of exes that become our entire social circles.
"We're lesbians, we don't ever get rid of anybody," laughs Babbit, who still works with producer Andrea Sperling, her former wife and co-parent for decades.
Of course, with all that talk of the importance of funding lesbian (and lesbian-made) films, of showing queer female community and culture, it will be hard for me to justify why the "lesbian" film I was most drawn to is The New Girlfriend, which will be debated extensively as to whether it can safely be called a lesbian film or a trans film or neither. In my mind, it's both.
Anais Demoustier and Isild Le Besco in The New Girlfriend
Director Francois Ozon's The New Girlfriend (on DVD and VOD in January) is a suspenseful slow burn with nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Pedro Almodovar. Growing up, Claire loves her best friend Laura, though they never consummate their passion and eventually marry men. After Laura dies, Claire visits her widower, David (Romain Duris), finds him dressed head-to-toe in his dead wife's clothes and doesn't know if he's a "pervert," as she calls him, or just a grieving man trying to assuage a baby who won't stop crying. As the two spend more time together, it's unclear whether David feels they are a (transgender) woman, or if he is dressing as Virginia (a name Claire chooses for David) as a heterosexual cross-dresser who simply feels sexier in women's wear. I read the former, and I found watching the two women incredibly seductive and compelling, enraptured as they fall madly in love with each other for who they really are (Claire a lesbian, Virginia a woman).
In a year when female Emmy nominations set a new record, when we have at least four TV shows with trans people on them (also a record), and when lesbian characters are popping up all over the screen, it's easy to feel excited about entertainment. Surely something new is happening for queer women on TV and at the box office. This is our moment -- yet our issues in many ways remains the same, regardless of how sexy TV actresses make us feel. The big question remains: Is this a fluke or something that will be sustained long after this lesbian moment is over?
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALLis an editor-at-large for The Advocate, editor-in-chief of Plus magazine, and co-author of the memoir Queerly Beloved.