How Queer Women’s Mental Health is Depicted in Movies

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Most of us have an intuitive sense of what queerness looks like, supplemented by subtext from Hollywood. We’re practiced in reading between the lines to find one another. We can read into the nuance of any fictional relationship between two women to be something else. Looking for queer subtext in film is easy to do once you learn since queer life continues to speak in code. Whether in pulp fiction or from the early days of Hollywood, we have always been embedded in storymaking and fiction. Sightings of lesbians are quickly othered—made to seem frightening or strange—and mental illness has often been a way that this is explained.

Most of us have heard that homosexuality was written out of the DSM in 1973 (though “gender dysphoria” remains, unfortunately). However, the pervasive attitude of queerness as a sickness, a disposition toward melancholy is an attitude that lingers, particularly in fiction.

Like Geena Davis says, “Women have to see it to believe it.” Women are often socialized to seek external validation and source our sense of self. The options for our lives  and imaginations can only as far as what already exists. Luckily, queer women are known for thinking outside the box. In film, which is how so many of us first see ourselves, there are some pretty old tropes that bunch lesbians together with some heavy themes in regard to mental health.

The Predatory Lesbian (cousins of the lesbian villain)notes

As seen in: Notes on a Scandal, The Roommate, CracksMadchen in Uniform, Loving Annabelle

The predatory lesbian is old stuff. In the world of othered characters, sexual aggression is a pretty consistent trope—it’s a strong theme in old Hollywood with characters of color, particularly men. Between women, predatory sexual behavior carries less an implication of physical violence and stronger tone of the behavior being against propriety and reeking of mental unwellness.

The age-inappropriate-relationship is one iteration of the predatory lesbian (Madchen in Uniform, Loving Annabelle) between teachers and students, though these films are quick to posit the student as the initiator.  Without getting into a debate about age-of-consent laws, it’s fair to say that this is a semi-classic trope and a bad idea.

The Pathologized Lesbiancheerleader

As Seen In: But I’m A CheerleaderGirl, InterruptedCarol

(Does Fingersmith count? God, I wish it did.)

This trope speaks directly to the history of pathologization of lesbians. There’s lengthy documentation of the truly horrifying things that happened to some lesbians in the name of health and wellness (and probably the eugenics movement). What we’re talking about here is the forced institutionalization and “treatment” of homosexuality—the granddaddy institutions of the ex-gay camps that are being shut down these days. The film versions of these mostly focus on women being taken away to lie down for an indeterminate amount of time until they can remember themselves as heterosexual. Narratively, this relies on the lesbian in question being removed from society for her own benefit, or to minimize her impact on the vulnerable members of her family. Lesbians are dangerous!

More recent films are either directly set in the 1950s (Carol) or play with a cartoonish ‘50s aesthetic (But I’m A Cheerleader) to cue viewers that the film is in on the joke, that the things at play are a sign of the times, but love will triumph. A lot of the throwback in these more modern films focus on the ‘50s, which was a time rife with repression for all kinds of folks. Historically, this was the time right before the 1960s when many folks who were institutionalized due to purported or actual mental illness were released into the community. Many people were institutionalized for their homosexuality—it’s tough to get numbers on how many of the women institutionalized for this reason, as opposed to an overlap of several reasons that they might be deemed antisocial.

The Suicidal Lesbianlost-and-delirious

As seen in: Lost & Delirious, Love and SuicideThe Children’s Hour 

While there is a history of queer people being incarcerated in institutions, something that can be true is that there is a high prevalence of suicide in queer communities that continues to this day. This is even more true for folks dealing with compounding oppressions. (race, class, etc.) While it remains a sobering reality in our community, its function in film operates differently. On film, suicide is not used as a reflection of the impact of isolation and stigma on the lives of our communities and more often exists as a warning. Venture too far astray, and you could not only lose your home and your family but your life itself.

Unfortunately, these stories are not shaped around the experience of queer women. They document their shame and alienation, but only allow them to be consumed by it.

The Hurtful Bisexualbasic-instinct

As seen in: Mulholland Drive, The Fox, Basic Instinct

Portrayals of bisexuality are regularly fraught with the implications of mental illness, though whether this can just be clumped in with the old hat of “Lesbians marry men or die” in old movies, or whether it is the more modern stuff of “confused and unstable” bisexual folks. Biphobia continues to be a boring hat trick that directors use to imply a character’s overall mental instability.

The Brooding Lesbianhigh-art

As seen in: Show Me LoveHigh ArtGiaBoys on the Side

There is some aspect of the brooding lesbian that is a sustained archetype I’m really fond of. Where else do we find our rumpled poets, irate activists, and ruminating intellectuals?

With all that poetry-writing, navel-gazing, and floppy hair, there’s plenty of opportunities for a good unrequited crush on a brooding lesbian. Here we get into somewhat ambiguous territory—we may simply be working with moody teenagers dabbling in self-harm (Show Me Love)  or we may wander into the more serious territory of a mood disorder that has meandered into self-medication through drugs (Gia, High Art).

The Violent Lesbian600px-SioUZI-2

As seen in: Set It Off, The Killing of Sister George, High Tension

Lesbians in film are often framed as dangerous and “antisocial”—antisocial meaning disruptive rather than introverted—but things get really hopping when lesbians are violent. Sometimes the violence is toward the lesbian’s partner (Sister George) and other times, they’re just pissed off and robbing banks (Set It Off). Butch women are typically maligned as “mannish” and antisocial and the most likely to be seen in film as a threat of violence.

The Invisible Lesbian

As seen in: ?

Let us all have a moment of silence for the invisible lesbian. Either as function of femme invisibility or historical isolation, there are many lesbians that passed us like ships in the night without us knowing, on film and otherwise.

There are so many ways that queer women survive in a world that only sees them as invisible, irrelevant, or dangerous. From a film history in which queer women are sick, confused, and violent, we welcomed bad soundtracks and questionable writing. We continue to innovate and develop incredible new narratives to reflect the possibility and complexity of queer life, and do the cultural work of releasing shame and minimizing alienation by allowing ourselves to be seen.

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