How Lesbian and Bi Women’s Mental Health is Depicted in Movies

Most of us have an intuitive sense of what being gay or bisexual 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 lesbian subtext in film is easy to do once you learn, since gay 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.

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Most of us have heard that homosexuality was written out of the DSM in 1973. However, the pervasive attitude of homosexuality 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 go as far as what already exists. Luckily, LGBT 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)

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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 un-wellness.

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.

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