With Doctor Who‘s recent editing-out of Madame Vastra and Jenny’s “oxygen-sharing” for air in Asia, we sigh in collective frustration over having seen this happen so many times before. The continued censoring of queer characters, themes and stories is telling of the society we live in, one where we’d like to think “It Gets Better” is a true statement but still find ourselves made secret and scarce when it comes to visibility in mainstream entertainment and media.
The good news is that we’ve gotten so much better at learning about these instances and being able to call them out, educating ourselves and others as to why we deserve to be seen and heard just as much as our straight counterparts in this big wide world. Art imitates live and vice versa, and if queer women are not a part of the images and ideas we all consume, than how can we expect to be taken seriously as human beings? When we’re invisible, we’re seen as insignificant, a minority that can be cured by the likes of hate crimes and corrective rapes, or snuffed out completely.
Here are some instances in which lesbians have been censored in the past, and how they have affected our visibility today, for better or for worse.
One of the first ever lesbian themed novels to be published, queer author Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 book about “sexual inversion” went to trial not once, but twice. In the UK, it was deemed obscene, despite not having any actual graphic sexual description, but the U.S. Customs Court was unable to keep it from being released after a “careful read” indicated there was not “one word, phrase, sentence or paragraph which could be truthfully pointed out as offensive to modesty.” Because it was so hotly contested in Europe, it was made into a hot item and the book has been in print ever since and translated into 14 other languages.
Ian Fleming‘s 1958 James Bond novel featured a 30-something trapeze artist turned robber named Pussy Galore. An out lesbian with a band of merry women, Pussy said she was gay because she was sexually abused by her uncle at age 12. The 1964 film version cast Honor Blackman in the role, but changed her look (from black haired and pale to a blonde tan beauty) and also made her straight, as she sleeps with Bond in a controversial sex scene that is also criticized as coming off like a rape. In the documentary Bond Girls are Forever, Honor said she tried to play the character more closely to the book.
Out author Fannie Flagg‘s 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe featured a prominent lesbian couple, Idgie and Ruth. Although the word “lesbian” never comes up, it’s quite clear they are in a loving relationship that is accepted by the Alabama town folk that surround them. But when the movie version was released in 1991, the only romance between the characters was found in subtext, or those who were looking for it in the first place.
Bisexual writer Alice Walker‘s 1982 novel The Color Purple was so groundbreaking it won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Shug and Celie’s romantic and sexual relationship are central to the plot, so when Steven Spielberg came in to direct the 1985 adaptation, it was disappointing that he played it down substantially. The director later said, “There were certain things in the [lesbian] relationship between Shug Avery and Celie that were very finely detailed in Alice’s book, that I didn’t feel we could get a [PG-13] rating. And I was shy about it. In that sense, perhaps I was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie, because I did soften those. I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that.” As he should.