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Fake lesbians on film: will audiences only watch women if they’re in bed together?

It used to be that there were hardly any same-sex relationships on screen and very few lesbian ones in particular. Now, it seems, there is an abundance. In the past year, audiences have flocked to Colette, Disobedience, Lizzie and, most notably, Olivia Colman’s Academy Award-winning turn in The Favourite, in which Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone vied for her affections (tough gig).

The latest sapphic storyline to get tongues a-wagging is an upcoming film about Mary Anning, who – according to the Natural History Museum –, was “the unsung hero of fossil discovery”. Shut up. Anning was a rock star. She was not, as far as anyone knows, a lesbian – but she will be when played by Kate Winslet in Ammonite, which began shooting in Lyme Regis this week.

The film is directed by Francis Lee (of the beautiful God’s Own Country), with Saoirse Ronan to play Anning’s made-up wealthy younger lover. A spokesman told the Telegraph that the film, although inspired by Anning’s life, is “not intended to be a biopic”.

Although the aforementioned Colette (played by Keira Knightley in the film) is an actual queer icon, the breathless lesbian love affairs of both Lizzie Borden (played by Chloë Sevigny in Lizzie) and Queen Anne seem to have been somewhat exaggerated for cinematic effect. Now same-sex relationships are being made up altogether, apparently without any basis in fact. Are producers saying that history is not sexy enough? Or that women are not interesting enough?

One could argue – and many keen geologists online are – that Anning is a fascinating enough figure to hold cinemagoers’ attention without the need for a steamy affair. Barbara Anning, a relation, was quoted as saying: “I believe if Mary Anning was gay she should be portrayed as gay and this should also be by a gay actress. But I do not believe there is any evidence to back up portraying her as a gay woman. I believe Mary Anning was abused because she was poor, uneducated and a woman. Is that not enough?”

Speaking only for myself – scratch that: speaking for all lesbians – it is often very exciting to see ourselves reflected in popular culture. Whether they are fictional characters or based on historical ones, I’m all for lesbians on screen. But it is immensely damaging that LGBTQ relationships are being fetishised for entertainment – and depressing to think that the mass audiences may not be interested in women unless they’re in bed together.