The first woman I slept with told me sex wasn’t enough. “You need to be culturally conversant,” she said. And then she made me watch Go Fish.
The film offered myriad celluloid moments specific to the lesbian experience: nail clipping as foreplay, a group of friends companionably joking about their interlocking sex lives. Just six years after the 1992 release of Basic Instinct, a movie which painted lesbians and bisexuals as sexually perverse killers, Go Fish’s earnest, lesbian-penned storyline, proudly out actors and homespun aesthetic made lesbians feel seen and understood.
Watching, however, I stewed. Clumsy acting, stilted readings, a spotty script. This was my culture? New to lesbianism, I’d had little occasion to ponder the paucity of lesbian representation in mainstream film. I wasn’t moved by the knowledge that the movie’s stars were bona fide lesbians; in fact, the logic vexed me. You don’t search for a doctor accused of murder to play the lead in The Fugitive; you hire an actor, someone paid to pretend to be who he’s not. In the case of Go Fish, who cared who these women fucked in real life?
Over a decade later, I still bristle at the idea that having sex with women should create in me a cultural craving for subpar cinema. Lesbian films simply haven’t grown to feel like mine. Still, I’ve played the diligent student, memorizing my queer cinema history. From Aimee & Jaguar to Zankoku onna joshi, I’ve seen them all. And hey, I’m really glad that Susie Bright made sure the sex scenes in Bound seemed legit. Good for lesbian writer/director Patricia Rozema for fighting the Nc-17 rating originally given to her lesbian romance When Night is Falling. It’s great that Desert Hearts boasts the longest, most stark sex scene between two women. But none of those movies challenge me. None stir my soul.
I don’t hate all lesbian movies, but the few I embrace tend to provoke—at best conversation, at worst an impassioned monologue on the necessity of affirming representation, the dearth of lesbian role models, cinema’s cruel history of villainizing the sexual other, the danger of letting characters created by heterosexual men define a minority group. Fair points considering that of my top three lesbian movies, two are written by straight people. In one, the protagonist winds up with a man. Another depicts a lesbian heroin addict luring the innocent female half of a hetero couple. After the women have sex, the predatory lesbian dies.
Appalling on paper, but here’s what Kissing Jessica Stein, High Art and Chasing Amy all have in common: they deal astutely with identity, offer insight into the human condition, and provoke the viewer to confront her own assumptions. From a political standpoint, perhaps airing our dirty laundry in front of a heterosexual audience serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. Maybe as a group we should stand in solidarity. Don’t let the straights see us snorting heroin or fucking someone else’s girlfriend, or leaving a woman for a man. But the thing is, some self-defined lesbians do sleep with men. Some do drugs and die. Further, maybe nuanced depictions of lesbians as full, flawed members of the human race help more than they hurt.
A few months ago, writer Claire Messud fired back at an interviewer who asked her whether she’d want to form a friendship with the angry, female protagonist of her novel The Woman Upstairs. “For heaven’s sake,” she said, “What kind of question is that? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” She added that “the more accurately one can illuminate a particular human experience, the better the work of art.”
My attitude toward lesbian movies is similar: it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it must feel real. Even with shows like Orange is the New Black offering mainstream portrayals of lesbians, we’re still starved for representation, winter travelers snowed in at O’Hare, forced to buy the 20 dollar ham sandwich and eat it with a smile. But when we flock to a film simply because it’s gay-made or themed, or when we discourage filmmakers from probing the darker aspects of human experience because we’re afraid of negative representation, we’re bolstering mediocrity.
Obviously Basic Instinct’s panty-less icepick killer is less than ideal, but I’m more concerned with the resonance of a character’s cinematic journey than with whether the person awaiting her at its end is a woman or a man.