I love a good lesbian film. The only thing I enjoy more is a good lesbian book. And when the two go together, a book adapted for screen, I’m about as pleased as Therese Belivet when Carol finally makes a move on her. So you can imagine my delight when I found that Tell it to the Bees being made into a movie. Not just any old movie, but one that was filmed in my native Scotland. After making this discovery, I marched straight down to my local library and ordered a copy of the book. (I’m a firm believer in reading before viewing, as God intended.)
Tell it to the Bees is a beautiful book, and I’m sure – given that Holliday Granger and Anna Paquin star – it will make a beautiful film. But it left me with a question: Why is it that tragic lesbian stories are still considered the most marketable ones?
It was tempting to think Todd Haynes’ Carol might prove a turning point. As the winter nights draw in, I’m ready to curl up with a blanket and do my best impersonation of the heart eyes emoji as Cate Blanchett sweeps across the screen, immaculately turned out in ‘50s fashion. But sadly, Carol doesn’t have many companions. There’s still not a lot of mainstream films or TV shows where the lesbians have a happy ending. In fact, as a number of critics have pointed out, lesbian characters are very likely to meet an unfortunate end. It sometimes feels like tragic lesbian stories are the only stories that get told – at least with the mainstream media, and the money behind it.
While separations and losses are both a natural part of life, they play a disproportionate role in the relatively few appearances lesbians make in film and television. We joke about the patterns of death and misfortune visited upon fictional lesbians, because we’ve got to keep our spirits up somehow. We protest it by documenting all the fictional lesbians killed and challenging the writers behind these stories. But still, the tragic lesbian stories keep on coming. Barb from Stranger Things, anyone? Poussey Washington? How about Commander Lexa? I could go on.
The Bury Your Gays trope is notorious. Positive developments relating to a character’s sexuality have historically been followed hot on the heels by death. But now I think there’s a more insidious trend at work. Perhaps it’s a kind of backlash to recent positive developments in society, like same-sex marriages being legally recognized. Female characters are subject to some kind of narrative punishment for having a relationship with another female character. Not necessarily death, though it could well be.
Despite being dubbed Twenty Gay-Teen, this year has brought more than its fair share of tragic lesbian stories. Among them is the film adaptation of Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman is best known for The Power, a bold work of science fiction in which women overturn patriarchy and remake it in their own image – utopian or dystopian, depending on your perspective. Surprisingly, given its name, Disobedience is much more conventional in scope. Ronit, the Rabbi’s daughter, is reunited with her ex-girlfriend Esti after returning to London to grieve for her father. Esti is now married to the new Rabbi. The two women begin a passionate love affair. But they don’t stay together.
Although she publicly comes out as a lesbian, Esti gets pregnant and remains with her husband in order to raise their child. She is effectively forced back into the heterosexual fold, her love affair with Ronit disintegrating to nothing. More depressing than the deaths of characters who were proudly lesbian are the lives of characters who are conscious of their sexuality yet, for whatever reason, cannot explore its full potential. These are, I believe, the most tragic lesbian stories.
It’s easy to say that tragic lesbian stories are just that: stories. But stories inform the way we understand ourselves, the world around us, and how we move through the world. Stories have the power to give hope, or take it away. And endless tragic lesbian stories send a clear message to viewers: you cannot have this life and be happy.
Overall, I’m delighted that films like Disobedience and Tell it to the Bees are being made. And that many people inside and out of the LGBT community will see them. This kind of lesbian representation is still too rare to be taken for granted. In a way, it’s grim that lesbian films are still out of the ordinary, their very existence something to be celebrated. But the making of those films marks progress. And we’ll know a better future has arrived when we can take not just lesbian stories, but happy lesbian stories, for granted.