Tipping the Velvet starts with a woman dropping an oyster between her lover’s pillowy pink lips. It’s not long before the two of them are under the sheets together, one hand gripping onto the bed bannister. The 2002 BBC screen adaptation of the Sarah Waters’s novel follows naive Whitstable fishmonger Nancy (Rachael Stirling) as she falls in love with cross-dressing stage impersonator Kitty (Keeley Hawes). Tipping caused a scandal. “Scenes in the drama involve crude sex toys, swearing and sex acts,” the Daily Mail gasped, while other male critics seemed aghast it wasn’t more like all “girl-on-girl” porn scenes: “It was all very tastefully done – unfortunately. In fact, it was rather dull”, wrote Jim Shelley in the Mirror.
Much has changed since 2002. It seems we are much more accepting of cinematic explorations of women loving women, even when they are not back-arching and pillow-fighting their way into impressing the male gaze. The past few years have seen a glut of lesbian period dramas on our screens: many based on true stories, most critically acclaimed, from 2015’s Carol to 2016’s The Handmaiden to 2018’s Lizzie. This year alone, we’ve had the biopics Colette (following the writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s rumoured relationship with socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval), The Favourite (Queen Anne’s with Sarah Churchill), Wild Nights with Emily (Emily Dickinson’s with Susan Gilbert) and Vita and Virginia (Virginia Woolf’s with Vita Sackville-West), as well as the post-war romance Tell It to the Bees, Netflix’s Elisa Marcela, and the BBC One series Gentleman Jack.
There’s more to come, too: from Céline Sciamma’s drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Carmilla, an adaptation of the Gothic vampire novella to Francis Lee’s Ammonite, based on the life of palaeontologist Mary Anning, and Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which tells the story of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century lesbian nun.
But aside from notable titles such as Blue is the Warmest Colour, Rafiki, Disobedience and a handful of badly written softcore frolics at the bottom of a Netflix scroll, significantly fewer modern lesbian love stories are making into the mainstream. So why do filmmakers keep returning to the past to explore romances between women? Are we discovering histories erased or forgotten? Or are we just frightened of seeing lesbian love as it exists now?
Often, these dramas find their erotic tension in lesbianism’s forbidden status. But that’s not to say they reduce these relationships to one-dimensional displays of physical titillation. These stories are typically interested in intimacy in all its prosaic forms: women fall in love over shared interests, they have arguments, they cheat and lie and fall out – just as in any romantic relationship.
In The Favourite, Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is only at peace when her lover Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is busy bandaging gout-ridden legs, and when Abigail (Emma Stone) is playing with her rabbits or playing under her skirts. “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me,” the Queen gloats later on to a neglected Sarah. In Lizzie, hiding from the glare of an abusive father, love between Miss Borden (Chloë Sevigny) and her servant Bridget (Kristen Stewart) is yearning and tentative: they share misty-eyed glances as Bridget hangs up white cotton bheets in the garden, eventually making hay in a barn filled with straw. In Carol, our protagonist (Cate Blanchett) calls the younger Therese (Rooney Mara), “my angel flung out of space” before a four-minute-long sex scene of jaw-biting and interlocking bodies. In Tell it to the Bees, a bee flies out the hive and lands on Lydia’s (Holliday Grainger) neck, and Jean (Anna Paquin) leans closer than required to blow it away.
There are, of course, notable and dullish exceptions. Some lesbian period dramas suggests love between women is nothing but girlish frolicking. The guiltiest party here is Eliza Marcella, where the two women are shown wading through the sea in white petticoats giggling and splashing each other with water like teenage nymphs. “This is real, isn’t it? It’s not a dream?” asks the whispering voiceover, seemingly cut from a lesser Terrence Malick speech. Worse still are the wholly absurd sex scenes, one which involves an octopus and another a naked body wrapped in seaweed. Must all lesbian sex be spiritually ethereal?
Apparently not. Following on from Whit Stillman’s 2016 comic Jane Austen adaptation Love Friendship, the bulk of these lesbian period dramas are humorous, often described by critics as “romps” for their brusk dialogue and vaudeville jeopardy. In Wild Nights With Emily, Dickenson (Molly Shannon) hands her lover Sue (Susan Ziegler) a poem she inspired. As Sue reads aloud it becomes clear something’s wrong. “One cup flour, add milk–“, it appears Emily has written a shopping list: “no, it’s on the other side”. In Gentleman Jack, a sour-tongued old woman reveals her plans to coax Anne (Suranne Jones) to “dip into her purse” before smirking, “alongside whatever else she has been dipping into”. Upon seeing a pretty maiden blushing under her cumbersome lilac bonnet, Anne turns to look at us through the camera lens Fleabag-style, raises a brow and winks.
Despite the harsh prejudice of their eras, most of these films avoid turning women into Brokeback Mountain-style victims of gender repression. Colette is a successful socialite whose husband endorses her affairs with women (albeit with the understanding he will steal all her writing). In The Favourite, the raised eyebrows of Queen Anne’s court seem to have little impact on her ability to petulantly wield power. The chief obstacle raised by her desire is that she has to decide which gorgeous lady she wants to live with: the one that lets her eat cake or the one that doesn’t because she cares so deeply about her health. When married women leave Gentleman Jack’s chambers, the only judgement she faces is the pursed lips of her servants. And even in men’s clothes, Jack still manages to be her family’s favourite child.
But for all these films’ frank depictions of sex and romance, it’s worth considering why lesbian dramas are always cloistered behind corsets and crowns, and why contemporary lesbianism struggles to flourish on screen in the same way.
The current wave of these dramas perhaps has its roots in a contemporary desire to re-establish queer histories that have often been erased. These films fill in the blanks. Scholars found that where Emily Dickenson’s poems were dedicated to a “Sam”, the word “Sue” had been rubbed out underneath: it is from here that Wild Nights With Emily takes its narrative. The real Anne Lister of Gentleman Jack is often considered to have been one half of “the first lesbian marriage in Britain” (granted, not a recognised one). Elisa and Marcela also lived a life beyond fiction: in 1901 the partners became the first recorded Spanish same-sex marriage after they managed to convince a priest one of them was a man.
Other times queer histories are invented, or exaggerated. Some historians contest that it was little more than gossip that Queen Anne was romantically entangled with women. Lizzie Bordon might have hacked her parents to pieces with a hammer but there’s no evidence she did it to be with her servant Bridget. And Ammonite, the upcoming biopic of fossil discoverer Mary Anning, invents a plotline that she had a wealthy young lover. Anning’s relatives bristled with this, citing it as unnecessary. Director Francis Lee defended his decision by asking: “Given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”
Specific histories aside, the past offers a safe, distant context for explorations of lesbianism; one that enables viewers to feel retroactively progressive. The vast majority of modern audiences would maintain that gay figures from history faced discrimination, even if they hold more divided views over the LGBTQ movement today. Everyone can get on board with a portrayal of two traditionally feminine actresses (who are most often straight in real life) stealing longing glances at each other from over the silverware: a contemporary staging of two lesbians falling in love might actually be more, not less, likely to incur homophobic responses.
It’s easy to retrospectively celebrate transgressive acts that would today seem far less threatening: women living together, falling in love, having sex, holding hands, getting married. We can watch these films and look back with nostalgic righteousness, we can pat ourselves on the back. How awful. It allows us to distract ourselves from the undeniable prejudices lesbians still face today, as LGBTQ hate crimes rise: two lesbians are beaten up on the bus for refusing to kiss each other; an LGBTQ play is cancelled after two cast members are attacked on their way home. While we might be willing to confront homophobia in TV and film, it seems we’re only comfortable imagining misogynistic homophobia when we can safely condemn it to the past, as a curious relic of a former, unenlightened era.
The queering of the period drama is no doubt a victory. We’ve had too many men in breeches trying to impress fathers in airless drawing rooms and young ladies wheeled out to play the piano or display a trembling falsetto to a suitor twice her age. Now the women making snide comments from underneath big hats are make out with each other instead. But a diverse, queer cinematic landscape ne contemporary depictions of LGBTQ romance to flourish, too – including lesbian dramas without the cumbersome bonnets and blushing damsels.