Once again we find ourselves in the beautiful time of year that is Pride month. A time in which LGBT audiences surround themselves in media that truly understands, respects and acknowledges them as they celebrate the progress made by the community and media in the previous year.
In recent years, homosexual romance has consistently received increasing prominence in the media. In fact, in a history-making moment, Moonlight, a drama centring around a young gay black man coming-of-age, won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture. Within the span of two years Moonlight, Love Simon and Call Me By Your Name all received large media coverage and reception ranging from positive reviews to widespread acclaim. Despite the positive strides in cis gay representation, lesbian cinema remains obscure and impenetrable to most audiences. It is time to ask why stories of lesbian romance never reach the level of fame of their gay counterparts.
Last year GLAAD reported that in 2017, of 109 films released by major studios only 14 (12.8%) contained LGBT identifying characters. Only 36% of these characters identified as lesbian and male representation was over double that of women. With an industry comprised almost entirely of male filmmakers, the numbers are sadly not surprising. Although lesbian relationships are (slowly) receiving more prominence and exposure within cinema, they are inherently non-romantic. Even when a loving lesbian couple is depicted, they usually exist within the background and are fetishised by leading (mainly male) characters. Intimate scenes between women primarily exist to cater to the ever-present male gaze.
Naively, when researching this piece, I decided to google “lesbian films”. It’s safe to say that while the returns that I received should not have shocked me, they definitely did. Lists of hottest female kissing scenes (almost all of which featured that scene from Jennifer’s Body) dominated the search results and almost all were written by white cisgender men. These artificial and performative scenes appeal to heterosexual men because they are the very demographic that these films and scenes are made for and by. They don’t see a difference between genuine lesbian romance and the imitation of it that has been created for them.
A lack of female filmmakers allowed into the industry leads to these films having almost entirely male sets, who have no idea what truly appeals to a demographic that they are not part of. It also creates a feeling of falsehood in these pieces of media, supposedly made for LGBT audiences, that is hard to shake. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that most major (that being critically acclaimed or internationally acknowledged) pieces of LGBT cinema have been made by cis white men.
An Unexpectedly Delicate Affair
That being said, it is unfair to claim that heterosexual men are unable to depict beautiful instances of lesbian romance. Park Chan-Wook’s 2015 erotic thriller The Handmaiden has seen widespread acclaim for its depiction of the matter. Although some have criticised Wook ‘s films portrayal of lesbian intimacy, others have lauded it. While divisive, the film is a rare and welcome example of audiences not entirely hating a depiction of lesbian sex and romance but instead sharing diverse opinions and overdue conversations.
Labelled a return to classic erotic cinema, The Handmaiden places focus on tension and foreplay. It’s belonging to the thriller genre allows it to explore a slow burn romance as it’s narrative moves at the same pace. Throughout, the psychological aspects of romance are explored more thoroughly than in other portrayals of lesbian love or any other form for that matter. Wook seems to understand the traditionally female notion of psychological romance to its very core. Small intimate moments that are shared between the women aid in the believability of their falling in love rather than lust. It is empowering to see that the two women genuinely love and care for each other by the film’s conclusion.
Although directed by a male filmmaker, The Handmaiden is in fact inspired by the lesbian romance thriller novel Fingersmith by British writer Sarah Waters who is a lesbian herself. Her female influence is evident throughout much of the film due to the subtlety of its eroticism. The moments where protagonists Sook-Hee and Hideko dress and undress each other, the bath scene and bedtime “education”: all are straight out of female fantasies.
The Handmaiden is able to understand women’s wants and desires due to its inclusion of women not just in front of the camera but also behind it. frequent female writing collaborator Seo Kyeong-Jeong’s presence can be felt throughout the film in the form of distinguished female characters. Wook looked to Jeong and a lesbian friend for advice on female and lesbian sentiments throughout the script writing stage and the extra effort shows.
Rather than just explore women’s relationships both romantic and sexual, The Handmaiden also tackles the beast of relationships between men and women. Yet again, this is often done through sex or the notion of it.
The inclusion of the Hokusai print The Dream of the Fishermans Wife in the film represents female pleasure lacking a male presence. In The Handmaiden, this piece is used to depict Lady Hideko’s uncle, Kouzaki’s, perversion. This, however, results from a misunderstanding of the intentions of the work. Initially believed by western scholars to be a depiction of rape, Hokusai’s print is, in fact, a portrayal of feminine pleasure. The assumption that the work depicts a man raping a woman rather than a woman being pleasured is horrific and reveals how our society instantly assumes a man’s presence in any depiction of sex, whether that be for better or worse.
Like in his previous works, Park Chan-Wook comments on male perversion and fetishisation of women constantly throughout the film. Although there are some somewhat violent scenes, these pale in comparison to the films prominent focus on feminine relationships. The film successfully explores female relationships and mutual trust in a way that not many others are capable of doing.
From the director of the acclaimed “revenge trilogy”, this is some unexpectedly soft territory. In 2003’s Oldboy, Wook details women solely through a male lens. Each female character exists in their relationship to a larger male character. The female characters are a wife, daughter and a love interest who the protagonist attempts to rape early on, suggesting that the world of the male characters holds little value in these women.
While The Handmaiden does have it’s uncomfortable moments (see erotica readings by a young girl) it is incredibly tender in its portrayal of the blossoming romance between Lady Hideko and Sook-Hee. Their girlish conversations, dress up dates and easy laughter eventually lead to their sexual exploration of each other. The pivotal sex scene begins with the two women pretending that it is an education in male on female intimacy. This holds some uncomfortable connotations due to the male filmmaker yet works entirely in the film’s narrative. Lady Hideko is nervous about what marriage will entail, particularly matters of the marital bed. Naturally, Sook-Hee offers to wisen her up.
Wook maintained an almost entirely closed set for the filming of this major sex scene. The camera was remotely operated and Wook enlisted a female boom operator as well as offering the lead actresses rest between takes. The women’s comfort pays off in an incredibly touching and erotic display of female passion.
Although the scene features tribbing, more colloquially known as “scissoring”, this is not presented as the entirety of their sexual encounter. Instead, it is just one moment in an entire scene of the women giving and receiving pleasure. Their expressions of pleasure are shown from each others perspective in a way that feels more intimate than in other LGBT cinematic counterparts.
In contrast, there are moments in which the women’s entire bodies are on display to see. This both makes a performance out of their bodies and shows the entirety of their interactions. In the scenes final moments, the camera pulls away to reveal the women entwined in each other and holding hands in a both visually and emotionally beautiful spectacle. Despite some criticisms, this scene has been largely applauded for its more realistic and thoughtful portrayals of lesbian intimacy.
Controversy and Festishisation
In contrast, one of cinemas most recognised portrayals of lesbian romance and eroticism, Blue is the Warmest Colour, has been highly criticised for it’s catering to the male gaze and lack of female and lesbian input. Upon its release, Abdellatif Kechiche’s film received universal acclaim. At 2012’s Cannes Film Festival the Spielberg led Jury made history by handing the Palme d’Or to both the director and lead actresses. Although they smiled through the red carpet and the films proceeding press run, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux soon expressed their true opinions on the film and it’s making.
Seydoux famously said after the film’s release that the long gruelling hours spent filming the films controversial extended sex scene made her feel like a prostitute. For The Handmaiden, Wook only made his actresses go through one or two takes filmed by a remote camera, Kechiche would ask for twenty and above.
Following the actress’s public statements, Kechiche expressed a desire to no longer release the film due it’s public tainting. His anger and shock at their statements revealed his lack of awareness of their discomfort and makes it apparent that he probably never thought to ask. Blue is the Warmest Colour has long been argued to reduce lesbian romance to its sexual components. Julie Maroh, the French author of the original graphic novel, has since expressed her distaste for the film adaption. On her blog, she stated that it was a ‘brutal and surgical display of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn’.
Viewing the film, it’s hard to argue with Maroh’s statement. The sexual acts performed by Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are well, athletic and extremely performative. It’s also hard to ignore the sheer length of some of the scenes which were seemingly included to stir controversy. This is not surprising due to cinema often depicting lesbian sex and romance as being an act of rebellion.
Rebellious Explorations of Sexuality
Take Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, a film in which iconic bad girl Megan Fox’s equally bad Jennifer is presented as bisexual. The culmination of previous flirtations throughout the film results in a kiss shared between Jennifer and Amanda Seyfried ‘s Needy. Instead of being a moment of realised sexuality, love and passion: the scene is reduced to a steamy moment for male consumption and marketing potential. This shared kiss is treated as a naughty moment shared by girlfriends during a sleepover. Straight out of a male fantasy, it feels uncomfortable and disingenuous, a fetish come to life.
As a bisexual individual, this film definitely helped me realise some of the feelings I held towards other women. Whilst I cannot thank this film enough for that, over the years it has become more apparent how these scenes were not to serve the LGBT community but the gaze of male viewers. Neither Fox nor Seyfried particularly wanted to participate in the filming of the scene but felt pressured to. While Fox has publicly shared her bisexual identity, Seyfried is assumed to be heterosexual, causing yet more problems with this scene.
This, however, should not be a shock. Often in lesbian romance films, the lead actresses themselves are heterosexual. In fact, I personally cannot recall a single show or film that I have seen featuring a lesbian couple played by real lesbians. This is largely due to my own lack of research into the genre, but also due to its lack of prominence. Like many others, I would like to enjoy a portrayal of actual wlw romance, not just soft porn.
Although cis gay men are gaining prominence and respect in media by being allowed to play themselves, almost every other part of the LGBT community remains in obscurity. When they are allowed to recieve some recognition, they are fetishised, demonised or reduced to traumatised individuals. It’s always a positive thing to see more representation on screen but that does not mean that these portrayals should exist without comment.
Despite the demand for more portrayals of lesbian intimacy and the potential to do so tastefully, the topic is still treated with little care. With rare exceptions like The Handmaiden, it feels as though mainstream lesbian representation is doomed to be tainted by contoversy. However with the exceptional beauty and intimacy of Wook’s film we are left with some hope.
Originally published at https://www.filminquiry.com on June 21, 2019.