The Rise Of Lesbian Period Dramas (And The Shrinking Space For Other Queer Stories)
Two women stand side by side on the shores of a rocky beach. One steals furtive glances at the other to study the contours of her face as waves crash before them. The yearning is palpable. Two women sit a little further apart on a heavily pebbled beach after a day spent scouring for ammonite fossils. One briefly gazes at the other, intrigued.
These two nearly identical scenes appear in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Francis Lee’s Ammonite, released a year apart. The similarities between their protagonists (white), backdrops (beaches), and plots (the precarity of lesbian love) are striking. That’s not surprising, however, since they are additions to a genre marked by homogeneity. This genre, if it may be called that, is the lesbian period piece. It’s a space that has been getting quite crowded over the past few years. First, gaining visibility with Carol and Bessie in 2015, and The Handmaiden in 2016, and then taking off further in 2018 with the biopics Colette, The Favourite, and Lizzie. This was followed by Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Tell It to the Bees, Vita and Virginia, Wild Nights with Emily, Netflix’s Elisa & Marcela, and the HBO/BBC One series Gentleman Jack in 2019. In 2020, there was Summerland and Ammonite. And just last month, we saw the release of Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come. Most of these films have been well-received by audiences and many are also critically acclaimed, suggesting that filmmakers, audiences, and critics alike have discovered an enduring fascination for lesbian period dramas, and the genre may be here to stay.
The appeal of these dramas lies no doubt in the contemporary desire to see queer stories reflected on screen following decades of censorship and erasure. “The tragedy of lesbian life is not the tragedy of lesbian representation,” Céline Sciamma told Vox in an interview, but “that we get erased from history.” These films, often based on true stories, reflect that reality and attempt to correct it. Wild Nights for Emily, for instance, takes its cue from academics who suggest that in the original copies of Emily Dickinson’s poems dedicated to “Sam”, the word “Sue” had been scrubbed out and overwritten. The film’s final scene shows Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), the mistress of Dickinson’s brother and the woman responsible for bringing out her poems posthumously, literally erasing the name “Sue” wherever it appeared in her poems. Last year’s Ammonite plays on the very real dilemma that much of lesbian and queer history may be unknowable because the archives are incomplete. The film (re)imagines a queer relationship between the paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and socialite Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) even though it’s unclear if such a relationship existed. It is the missing archives that sapphic period dramas seek to fill in and restore. In their nuanced — for the most part — storytelling these films also reverse the crazy lesbian, flaming gay, deceitful trans, and queer psychopath stereotypes that passed for queer inclusion in cinema for a long time.
The trouble is that in undoing one form of exclusion—the absence of queer stories, and particularly queer women, from the white, cis-heterosexual world of period dramas—the genre may have ended up perpetuating its own.
To start with, the overwhelming aesthetic of these films leans heavily on the idyllic: verdant countrysides and beaches, manor houses and quaint cottages serve as the backdrops for finespun romances between beautiful and outwardly feminine women in dainty gowns and tight corsets. Historically, this pastoral backdrop could only be occupied by certain women and so it is no surprise that our protagonists are painters and poets, royalty and socialites, who are also overwhelmingly white. With the exception of Bessie and The Handmaiden, the dozen odd films and one limited series that have made their way into this genre in the past few years tell the stories of cisgender, white, mostly wealthy women who love other cisgender, white, and mostly wealthy women.
Sure, there have been attempts to mix it up with working-class or immigrant women or women of color protagonists, but anyone trying to get a sense of queer history from these films would be forgiven for thinking that lesbian desire was the exclusive forte of white, wealthy, feminine women as recently as the 1960s and that queer women of color are the exception. This limited account of queer history remains oblivious to the spectacularly subversive lives and loves of African-American queer figures like Gladys Bentley, Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, Audre Lorde, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name only a few. When their stories do make it into pop culture narratives, like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), they are inevitably low-budget indie movies or documentaries seen through the lens of race and gender, rather than accounts of queer love. Meanwhile, the lesbian period drama, masquerading as universal and inclusive, remains the playground solely of delicate white women.
It would be one thing if this was a question of representation alone, but these omissions often carry subliminal signals about acceptable and unacceptable queerness. Any intimacy between two conventionally feminine actresses (who may be straight in real life) is far less threatening to the heteronormative status quo than if at least one of the women were masculine-coded. In any case, the corsets and layers of restrictive clothing of many of these period dramas results in queer sex portrayals reduced to modest fumblings between the sheets. This sanitized sexual intimacy may be an improvement over the appalling six-minute sex scene in Blue Is the Warmest Color, but it is also aimed at making queer sex palatable and available to the mainstream male, cis-heterosexual (perhaps even homophobic) gaze. In a curious choice, sex between the protagonists of The World to Come, Abigail (Katherine Waterson) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), is absent throughout the movie, but a montage of intimate scenes appear in the penultimate moments as one of them lies dead.
The conventional and almost chaste femininity of these films also fit squarely with notions of binary gender and strict definitions of womanhood. There are of course exceptions. Gentleman Jack, based on the life of landowner, entrepreneur, and diarist Anne Lister (Susanne Jones), is a joyful portrayal of a self-assured genderqueer/butch lesbian in 18th century Britain; Colette’s (Keira Knightly) significant other in the eponymous biopic is a gender-bending and/or trans person; and the sexual rivalry in The Favourite is anything but sanitized. In one scene, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) gloats to her jealous lover Sarah Churchill (Rachael Weisz) about her new love interest (Emma Stone), “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.” But these are outliers rather than the norm. Any departure from feminine-coded behaviors is also immediately met with correction or censure. Gender-bending in Elisa & Marcela, for instance, exists alongside the film’s careful emphasis on its protagonists’ innocent, girlish femininity. Queen Anne’s exaggerated bodily repulsiveness may blur the boundaries of conventional femininity but the film also shows her “anxious desire to be seen as regal and beautiful,” a desire that is then “treated as a joke.”
A fragile femininity also works to arouse the viewer’s empathy and accentuate the tragic and melancholic air that pervades these films. While not exactly a reenactment of the “bury your gays” trope of the ’90s—think Philadelphia, Summer of Sam, and Happy Together—queer sexuality in lesbian period pieces is almost always viewed through the lens of tragedy. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is forced to choose between motherhood and her lesbian identity; Tell it to the Bees reverses the book’s happy ending; in Portrait of a Lady on Fire the looming shadow of patriarchy dooms Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse’s (Adèle Haenel) relationship from the start; and The World to Come ends with one protagonist dead. This is not to say that queer stories should never end in tragedy, but in a world where queer lives so often end in untimely deaths, a happy ending can be a radical act. Jessica Swale’s Summerland, despite other shortcomings,is perhaps the only period drama which gives its interracial lesbian protagonists something resembling a fairy-tale ending.
For the most part, mired in an unmistakable air of tragedy, these films create a false distinction between past intolerances and discrimination in the present. Audiences may empathize or unambiguously root for their lesbian protagonists but are unlikely to connect past patterns of queer erasure with misogynistic queerphobia in contemporary times. With the frame of reference embedded in a specific moment in history, the sexism, misogyny, and homophobia experienced by the protagonists is safely condemned as relics of a distant oppressive past while the present emerges as a bastion of queer freedoms. This is most evident in Elisa & Marcela which recounts the story of Spain’s first known same-sex marriage in 1901. Elisa adopts a male identity to be able to marry Marcela, but the couple is forced to abandon their infant daughter and flee the country after Elisa’s identity is discovered. As the final credits roll, we are told that Spain legalized same-sex marriage in 2005 and then shown images of happily married women in the country, playing into the misleading idea that queer struggles end with marriage rights. Ironically, the film released in 2019, the same year Spain’s far-right Vox party doubled down on its attacks on LGBT rights.
The popularity of the genre may lie precisely in this dissociation from contemporary realities. It is easy to get on board with the idea of sexual and romantic intimacy between two conventionally feminine white women as long as these transgressions are firmly ensconced in the past. It is equally a relief to not have to confront contemporary queerphobia or see it as an extension of the prejudices documented in lesbian period dramas. Stripped of its contemporary political implications, queerness in period dramas becomes palatable for mainstream (read white, cis-heterosexual) audiences. To an extent, this dissociation is understandable, but recounting stories of the past also offers the space to reimagine them. Ammonite’s (re)imagination of Mary Anning’s supposed queerness is a case in point even if the film repeats the genre’s other stereotypes. Shondaland’s Bridgerton attempted a similar retelling though with less desirable consequences.
What is easier to correct is the genre’s many exclusions. The disregard for queer women of color, queer stories that don’t fit the idyllic aesthetic, queer expressions that have nothing to do with delicate white femininity make these films safe for studios to invest in and mainstream audiences to engage with. What is safe for some, however, is a letdown for a vast majority of queer audiences who do not see themselves reflected in existing representations.
The value of queer cinema does not lie only in reflecting the intersectional identities of queer communities, but a diversity of representations can only bring richness to the genre and save it from its own parochialism. There is queer life beyond the beaches and the countryside, and queer figures beyond the delicate white femininity that the genre has chosen to define itself by. Demanding those stories is not a call for fewer white lesbian period dramas but rather a call to simultaneously tell other queer stories: those in bustling cities, in working-class communities, and about Black and brown people. These other queer stories are essential if the period drama is to be really queered. Unearthing them may also allow the genre to finally give the “fruitless longing by the beach” scenarios a rest in favor of protagonists who leave us defiant and joyful in each others’ arms.
Sohel Sarkar is a freelance journalist and editor who writes about gender and sexuality, gender and technology, and popular culture. Her work has appeared in Bitch Media, Color Bloq, Himal Southasian, and others.