The Arts world is one filled with self-expression and introspection, whether from artist or from audience member. Naturally, this translates into many different ways of approaching the queer experience. For Pride Month, Daily Arts wanted to cover this self-search and love through our favorite forms of art, with this experience revealing more to the reader and writer about how many ways there are to celebrate queerness.
I love period pieces, but my best friend hates them. It’s a matter of preference, and it usually isn’t a real issue for our friendship (aside from the time when she slandered Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” months before it even came out), but it’s one of the few things we tend to strongly disagree about. Whenever there’s anything new on my radar — some stoic, quiet film probably starring Keira Knightley or Lily James or Anya Taylor-Joy and set no later than the 1950s — I’ll send Shelly the trailer and a long list of reasons why I’m excited about it. She’ll reply mildly, excited for me if nothing else, and then we’ll move on and she won’t hear about it again until I’ve seen the movie months later.
The last time this happened, the movie in question was Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” a speculative romance between the real-life geologists Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, “Mare of Easttown”) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”), set in a rocky coastal town in the south of England in the mid-19th century. On paper, “Ammonite” has, quite literally, everything I like in a movie: a good director whose work I’m familiar with, historical context, Saoirse Ronan, queer female characters and, most importantly, Saoirse Ronan playing a queer female character. I followed the film’s production almost from the very start, from the press release announcing the casting to early promotional stills. When I sent Shelly the trailer, she replied with a good-natured, if unenthused “good for you,” and then sent me a meme she found on Twitter: a Venn diagram made up of two completely separate circles, one with the word “lesbians” and the other with the words “movies with electricity.”
The hallmarks of a lesbian period piece — defined by movies like “Ammonite,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Carol” — are easy to identify. Even “Saturday Night Live” recently took a crack at them, with a sketch appropriately titled “Lesbian Period Drama” which most directly parodies “Ammonite” but also serves as a caricature of the subgenre as a whole. It identifies the films’ tendency to be minimal in their settings and dialogue and their affection for long, lingering shots on what the skit calls “the world’s saddest flirting,” which usually entails charged stares and hands grazing. It recognizes that the genre is defined by austerity. Believable love and passion can exist within these movies (even if it tends to come after an excruciatingly slow burn), but there is always a certain coldness and, admittedly, very little electricity.
As it turns out, I hated “Ammonite.” The frigidness, the drabness, the voicelessness — all things I had either tolerated or convinced myself were artful in other films — were unbearable and boring in Lee’s context. It’s unlikely anything could have lived up to the sky-high expectations I placed on just the barest prospect of watching Saoirse Ronan kiss a woman, so maybe it was partially my own fault, but suddenly all of the Twitter criticism I saw levied against lesbian period pieces was running through my own mind and being directed at a movie I was so sure I would love. In a fit of disappointment, I loudly disavowed my longtime love for the genre.
Rather aptly, however, the “SNL” skit also identifies an essential part of my experience as a gay woman who loves movies: Despite their limitations, despite how much my excitement for them has diminished, I’ll probably keep watching lesbian period pieces, simply by virtue of there being lesbians in them. Just a few months after “Ammonite,” I watched “The World to Come,” which centers on a forbidden romance between two women living on the American prairie during the era of manifest destiny. I hardly disliked it as much as I disliked “Ammonite,” but it still left me feeling cold, wondering why gloom, sorrow and an incredible amount of whiteness were all writers and directors seemed to be able to envision for queer women.
I’ve always felt particularly hungry for on-screen queer love stories, in a way that sometimes borders on desperation. I seek them out and tend to cling to what I find, even if it’s clear I’ll end up disappointed or be left wanting more. For a long time, the popularity of lesbian period pieces was fine by me, but the volume of these films coupled with my waning tolerance for them makes the lack of contemporary stories more and more apparent with every new release.
My desperation is still present, but it’s shifted — or maybe it’s just a little pickier, a little more intelligent. The lack of and need for contemporary stories about queer women are clear. Period dramas can hardly be called representation, unless unhappy, 19th-century white women are still a demographic that needs to be represented. Depictions of queer love are important in every context and every time, but on-screen depictions of queer women are pigeonholed into the past. They have husbands or fiancés or boyfriends who prohibit happy endings; a distinct, compulsory femininity which leaves no room for androgyny, butchness or any kind of queering of gender; and there’s never a single person of color in sight.
Lesbian period pieces, then, represent the bare minimum of what films can do in terms of depicting gay women, but the conceptual laziness is couched in “prestige” and “auteurism.” They’re safe, easy and, as Shelly puts it, “fucking boring,” but they’ve also worked their way into the affections of high profile directors and straight actresses chasing awards, which means they’re probably not going anywhere.
I don’t want these films to stop existing altogether, because I still want to watch women fall in love on screen. I’d be lying if I said that I won’t be there whenever the next two-and-a-half-hour-long lesbian drama starring a 20-something ingenue comes out. But they need to start existing alongside modern stories that reflect a diversity of experiences.
It would be so easy — just find a lesbian young adult coming-of-age novel and adapt it. Hire lesbian writers/directors who actually want to make movies set in the 21st century. Stop casting straight actresses and stop thinking that Kristen Stewart and Sarah Paulson are the only queer actresses that exist. Start telling stories that don’t take place in the shadows, that end without death and/or misery. Give me a movie that my best friend and I can actually be excited about at the same time.
Daily Arts writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.