The over-sexualisation and objectification of women is nothing new – men have been utilising patriarchal power in the realm of arts and culture since the beginning of time. For queer women, the sexualisation and commodification of their personal relationships is violently obvious; it permeates into their romantic and personal lives. As a result, it is obvious that representations of women in same-sex relationships will not be represented in a natural, egalitarian light. As a queer woman, it is impossible to avoid the feeling that my personal relationships are watched, scrutinised and sexualised.
Representations of myself in cinema, television and literature are often inaccurate, inappropriate and demeaning. I take issue with the heterosexual male directors who claim they are working hard to ensure cinema based on women’s same sex relationships is accurate – from this perspective, it is impossible to portray these relationships accurately and without ingrained prejudice.
The arts and cinema have, now more than ever, an unfathomable influence over viewpoints and popular culture
One example of a lesbian film criticised for its representation of young women is ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’ (2013), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. This film, depicting a story of first love and connection between two female students has been criticised for its sex scenes which are seemingly there to pander to the male gaze. Whilst it is sometimes easy to feel grateful for any representation in cinema, we should not be settling for damaging depictions of lesbians seemingly presented to fulfil a male sexual fantasy. Julie Maroh, writer of the graphic novel which inspired the film, stated her disappointment in the scenes which she called “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex”.
It is at once unsurprising and disheartening to note the famous films featuring queer scenes which are directed by heterosexual men. Films such as ‘The Favourite’, ‘Black Swan’, ‘Colette’, ‘The Handmaiden’, ‘Disobedience’ and ‘Carol’ were all directed by men. Similar to the problem of male directors overseeing representations of lesbian relationships, is the low number of lesbian actresses in many of these films. How can women’s relationships be fairly portrayed when there is largely only heterosexual input in film? This is not their lived experience.
For many coming to terms with their identity and sexuality, films, television and literature are their main way to discover who they are, who they want to be and how the world will perceive them. Whilst some young women enjoy the range of representation film offers them, others feel uncomfortable about their portrayal in the media, leading them to repress their identity due to fear of ostracization.
Recent films directed by women present more truthful portrayals
However, there has been a welcome move towards queer cinema directed by women and centring the female gaze. It is impossible to overestimate the impact multi-dimensional characters can have on young women discovering and exploring their sexuality. In presenting these relationships as three-dimensional and genuine, we are sending out the clear message that queer women can take up space in society, that they have the capacity to define what sex and romance mean to them. The arts and cinema have, now more than ever, an unfathomable influence over viewpoints and popular culture. Ensuring women’s queer relationships are represented with respect and freedom from the glare of a male director is crucial if we want to move forward as an accepting society. Moving away from tropes such as how a queer woman should look, act and present herself, with the inclusion of transgender and non-binary woman, is the only way to fully represent the wide scope and spectrum of sexuality in our society.
There are, of course, some films which I feel have done this effectively. Recent films such as ‘The Half of It’ (2020) and ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ (2018) are directed by women, and present more raw and truthful portrayals of women’s same sex relationships. In particular, a rise in portrayals of these relationships in historical settings offers comfort and a sense of belonging to those who have been told they have no history – these films offer us warmth, reassurance, and the knowledge that we have a shared past and struggle. The more we empower female and queer directors to tell their stories, the more we come closer to eradicating the violence of the male gaze, which no longer has any place in representations of our queer relationships.