Why Sarah Paulson is one of the most important actresses of our time

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Sarah Paulson is in the news this week for a candid New York Times interview regarding her work on American Crime Story and her relationship with Holland Taylor. While she has been on the queer pop culture radar for some time, her importance as a queer figure often gets overlooked.

Sarah Paulson Appears On IMDb Asks Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for IMDB

Here, then, are six particular reasons why Sarah Paulson is important for queer audiences:

She played gay before she was out (and before many of us were). I first noticed Sarah in my very early teens. At that time, The Other Sister (1999) was my mother’s favorite movie, and she watched it fairly regularly. Sarah had a smaller role in the film, but it was her role that stood out most to me. She was feminine, elegant, and—wait, what? A lesbian? I don’t think I’d ever seen a depiction of a lesbian that wasn’t an angry and ogrish right-wing stereotype until then. I wasn’t yet aware of my sexuality, but I fixated on this character and this actress every time my mom watched the movie. I studied her face, her movements, the way she spoke, all of it to try to understand how a woman so decidedly unlike the image I’d grown up with could be gay.

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A minor subplot in the film sees Sarah’s character, Heather, challenging her mother (Diane Keaton) to accept her relationship with another woman. In a conversation that is still relevant now, almost 20 years later, Heather tells her mother that donating to gay charities and paying lip service to gay causes means nothing if she won’t show that same support in her own home. The fact that Sarah took on this role in the late ’90s during what former New York Times columnist Frank Rich called a “homophobia epidemic”—imbues her performance as an out lesbian in an otherwise straight rom-com with an unexpected gravity.

She portrayed one of the most interesting and important lesbian roles on TV. Sarah’s role in American Horror Story: Asylum sheds light on a terrible part of queer women’s history. I watch a lot of horror, some of it extreme. After years of studying the genre for my doctorate, I’ve developed a very strong stomach for it. But the aversion therapy scene in Asylum made me feel physically ill. The scene references the real-life practice of committing queer women (and men) to mental institutions, where they could be subjected to painful procedures in the guise of therapy or, at times, even lobotomized. Knowing that the actress portraying the victim of this practice was queer made the scene even more powerful. This was part of her history, too. Had she been born a generation earlier, that scene could have easily been her real life experience.

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Some fans were unhappy with Lana’s turnabout at the end of the series. I thought, however, that it made this leading queer character three-dimensional. Lana wasn’t a flat, perfect lesbian icon who only suffered and could do no wrong. She was human, flawed. This, too, I feel was strengthened by having an actual queer actress in the role. Without having to be concerned with getting queerness “right,” she could put her talent to use in giving fans a truly dynamic lesbian character.

In the same vein…

She’s a great actress. You know those artists and performers you support because of who they are, what they stand for or something cool they did, but you don’t think they’re actually good at their craft? I have plenty of those (not naming names, that would be mean). Sarah is not one of them. As a character actress, she may not get all the lead roles, but she does get the interesting ones. She’s played a ready-for-primetime-TV psychic, a cutthroat reporter, an underachieving witch, warring conjoined twins, and a heroin-addicted ghost all on the same show. She has played Cate Blanchett’s ex in Carol (2015) and an assistant who mentally shouts “vagina” at Mel Gibson way back in What Women Want (2000). She brings the same game to portraying real-life figures, recently including Nicole Wallace (advisor to John McCain and Sarah Palin) in Game Change (2012), a disturbing turn at the racist and misogynist Mary Epps in 12 Years a Slave (2013), and O.J. Simpson trial prosecutor Marcia Clark in American Crime Story this year. She’s the chameleon queer audiences need to see.

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She loves the older ladies. Sarah has previously dated film and theater star Cherry Jones, 18 years her senior. In recent months, however, her romance with actress Holland Taylor has generated media buzz for an even greater age difference—32 years(!). Her public relationships with older women remind us that the LGBT world is not just for the young.

The dominant (positive) image of queer women is almost always youthful. Not only does this overlook the existence of queer women born before Generations X and Y, it accidentally implies that older queer women are not worthy of romantic interest. Whether or not Sarah actually has a thing for older women, her very visible relationships with women several years her senior remind us that we queer folk make up many generations. Older queer women are just as loving and worthy of being loved as younger ones. By openly recognizing this, Sarah helps destigmatize romance and sex past a certain age.

5th Annual Critics' Choice Television Awards - Backstage And Audience

She doesn’t do labels. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Paulson said she avoids sexual categories and implied a fluid, bisexual-leaning orientation (this is not a new implication for her). Previously, she has told Dallas Voice that she “refuse[s] to give any kind of label just to satisfy what people need.”

Labels serve an important purpose for many people (I prefer to have one, myself), but the queer community is moving beyond rigid categories of sexual orientation. We can no longer only acknowledge “gay” or “straight,” and even the term “bisexual” has connotations that are not embraced by many. By openly talking about her relationships with women without giving the press the sound byte they want, Sarah rejects categories and confounds mainstream audiences who can’t imagine sexualities that do not fit into neat little boxes.

22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - ArrivalsPhoto by Steve Granitz/WireImage

She is basically the reincarnation of the queer Old Hollywood femme. Okay, this one I can’t really prove, but this picture Holland Taylor tweeted confirms it for me. That is sheer Golden Age glam mixed with queer awesomeness.

Sarah Paulson is a force to be reckoned with off the screen as well as on it. She may not conform to popular labels of sexual identity or have more Oscar nominations than Leo, but her importance as an out celebrity cannot and should not be ignored.

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