5. Shug Avery and Celie Harris — The Color Purple (1985)
Even though they are set at odds from their first introduction ("You
sure is ugly"), Celie Harris (Whoopi Goldberg, who is poor and abused
and forced into a marriage with a man who beats and rapes her, and Shug
Avery (Margaret Avery), a singer for whom Celie’s husband carries a
torch, form an unlikely friendship and fall into an even more unlikely
affair in The Color Purple. Through Shug, Celie finds strength and her own worth.
Though I, like many, would have liked to see the book more
thoroughly translated to the screen, Celie’s genuine and beautiful
smile after she shares her first kiss with Shug is an iconic moment in
lesbian film. The two part ways before the end of the movie: Shug
marries, and Celie is reunited with her sister and children, but their
brief romance remains one of the most positive lesbian portrayals to
Celie: Don’t nobody love me.
Shug: I love you.
Celie: You think I’s ugly.
Shug: No I don’t.
Celie: You ugly…you sure is ugly….you still ugly.
Shug: [laughs] Amen. Oh, Ms. Celie, that was just the salt in sugar, me being jealous of you and Albert. I think you’re beautiful.
4. Maud Lilly— Fingersmith (2005)
Fingersmith tells the story of two young women Sue Trinder (Sally
Hawkins), a street trained and orphaned pickpocket, and Maud Lilly
(Elaine Cassidy), a lady in society, out to con one another. One is out
for money, the other for freedom. Abused by the man she believes to be
her uncle, Maud thinks her only way out is through marriage. She
hatches a plan with the nefarious Mr. Rivers, but then falls in love
with Sue, their intended victim.
With enough twists and turns to have you sitting on rewind, it’s
hard to keep track of who we’re supposed to root for (or which woman is
revealing what about her sexuality). In the end though, Sue and Maud
get their happily ever after.
Maud: You did it before…we weren’t dreaming, were we?
Sue: That was just to start you off, Miss—
Maud: Were we?
3. Barbara — Notes on a Scandal (2006)
The most offensive lesbian reveal in recent years comes from a film that never even uses the word "lesbian." In Notes on a Scandal
Barbara Covett’s (Judi Dench) reveal comes in exposition from her
co-workers who ask after Barbara’s former "companion," Jennifer.
If, in Notes on a Scandal, you’re hoping for a late-bloomer
story about an older woman who finds love with a vivacious, young
teacher, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
After the pseudo-reveal, Barbara discovers that Sheba (Cate
Blanchett) is having an affair with a male student. The closeted nature
of Barbara’s life has left such an emotional void that she begins a
perverse and almost psychotic relationship with Sheba — if you can
consider full-on blackmail to be a relationship.
The problem with Notes on a Scandal is that it doesn’t reveal
a lesbian character who happens to be beyond redemption; it reveals a
woman who is a manipulative monster because she is a lesbian —
or at least, that’s the impression unsophisticated viewers will take
away from it. It’s more likely due to the fact that her lesbian
sexuality has been so repressed, but that’s not a nuance audiences are
likely to discern.
It’s the kind of mainstream movie reveal that ensures that the queer closet remains a very real place.