The talk about queer representation in the media is one that we’re constantly having, and with every validated right to do so. It’s not a cliché, it shouldn’t be considered one, no matter how much we discuss it, since it has only so many angles to see how it is reflected upon our everyday life, choices, and the formation of our personalities and identities.
I – shamefully – fear discussing trans rights – that legitimately happen to affect my life – with my parents, because I know from the beginning it will be a lost cause due to a harmful and problematic generalization they have formed in their minds because of Greek TV, and I also live in a society that constantly erases one part of my identity, bisexuality – urging even me to question it at times – because some popular series and films make bisexual girls a punchline, or outright refuse to utter the damn word, as if it carries smallpox.
When we discuss representation of queer women on TV, a lot of things can be said, some of them being rightfully optimistic. Contrasting to five years ago, European and American big and small screens can boast for several films and series that do have well-rounded LGBT women in them, queer women that are not the butt of the joke anymore, but actually realistic and interesting characters that other women can relate to.
Of course, there are some major issues due to which we can agree we have cried or ranted at least once: our favorite LGBT female characters will either suffer and die, suffer and break up (because no ending can be a happy ending in same-sex female relationships, while at the same time we’re flooded with a storm of unnecessarily cheesy heterosexual happy endings that the point in counting has been lost about fifty years ago), or sexualized and used as tropes by male directors, even when the characters are well-developed, such as Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color.
This year brought us The Handmaiden, a South Korean psychological thriller adaptation of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith that is considered cinematographically a masterpiece.
In Shannon Keating’s article on BuzzFeed, parallels are drawn between Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Todd Haynes’ Carol and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color that are seen as sharing certain elements that point out they were written by women and directed by men.
Respectively, Carol was written by Patricia Highsmith in 1952 and Blue Is the Warmest Color was based on a graphic novel written by Julie Maroh.
All three movies are seen as turning same-sex relationships between women into aesthetically pleasing compositions that focus on panoramic views of almost identical, thin, white bodies, catering to the needs of a mostly male audience, instead of depicting romantic and sexual feelings realistically in ways that lesbian and bisexual women usually experience them.
But how is that tendency explained?
Female sexuality is still perceived by society at large, as something that, in one way or another either belongs to men, belongs to them, can be controlled by men, or somehow exists to cater to their needs. Even queer women are not easily seen – or depicted, in art and popular media – as people who own, perform and share their sexuality with themselves or with other women. That is sadly seen in real life, with LGBT women facing the threats of hate crimes, corrective rapes, harassment and lastly, fetishization.
In many movies and TV series, lesbianism or bisexuality are often punch lines for “experimentation” or “can I watch” jokes, that make men entitled to women’s sexuality even when they’re not invited, depicting queer women as owing something to men who deserve it, either eye-candy, or the trophy of ending up with them after going through a phase. These are extremely harmful stereotypes, especially when lesbians and bisexual women have to fight all the time to have their identities accepted and validated.
Besides, women are denied the rights to their sexuality, while at the same time depicted as solely sexual beings. Marketing campaigns and ads that show women read as involved, usually underline lust and conventional beauty, with women staring directly at the photographic lens – and the viewer – instead of at each other. There are much fewer popular ads depicting women that share a deep emotional bond between them, forming a family together and being visibly invested in each other.
Now, even though representation standards are better met up to than they used to be, one can’t put their finger on diversity: most bi and lesbians in the examples of recent films are conventionally feminine, responding to social beauty standards, and usually white. The Handmaiden has South Korean women and The Pariah black (and less gender-conforming) teenager girls from Brooklyn, but these movies definitely are not the norm. Even in Orange is the New Black, the majority of the non-straight women loved by the fans – aside from Poussey but don’t even get me started on that – are pretty homogenous.
In The Handmaiden, the two protagonists appropriate two Ben Wa balls used as weapons earlier in the film to use them as sex toys, in the symmetrical, aesthetically arranged final scene of the movie, in ways that have been criticized as non-realistic by women viewers who love and have sex with women. The two women engage in several occasions in role-play and symbolic dressing-up, only to soon return to their feminine – sexual – selves.
At this point though, I cannot forget the almost comical exaggerations of Blue is the Warmest Color, how I watched it while accepting my own sexuality and seeing it as a test I failed into: the torturously long scissoring scenes had seemed so boring to me it almost worked as an affirmation I should probably leave questioning sexualities to other people, more bi or more lesbian than I was. Of course, that was a ridiculous way to think at 17 but, if you think about it, it’s also not. Being with a girl, as a discovered later, was in no way as boring as that movie had made it seem.
Not to mention that, as Léa Seydoux said in interviews, a sex scene took ten days to shoot, while the two women were asked to do things that made them feel humiliated.
The Handmaiden also has a controversial – according to many – scissoring scene.
What’s even more eyebrow-raising worthy than the scissoring shenanigans is the entitled guy in the party in Blue is the Warmest Color who sees women as his muses and gives an inspirational ridiculous speech about female orgasms, in a movie, let me remind you, that features two female protagonists being in a relationship with each other.
In a much more refined way, Carol also shows an obsession with aesthetics – which is not a weird thing when you talk cinema – in ways that, according to Keating’s analysis, works into a pattern of women mirroring each other or comparing themselves to each other, just because they are both women.
Added to that, Keating adds that queer women have had enough of their sex lives being depicted as spectacles for straight men, depicting scissoring more often than not and avoiding explicit “finger-dialogues”, as they are often not seen as valid, “full sex” for cishet people. Heaven forfend if they ever show a strap-on on the screen, a woman or a gender-non-conforming person pleasing another woman or GNC completely satisfactorily in a way a male viewer has learnt to think only he would be able to.
All women, and especially queer women, should stop being viewed as owing their sexuality to men, whether that is its direct performance, or a pass for men “to share”. Men don’t own our bodies, our minds, sexualities and experiences, and they shouldn’t feel entitled to fit everywhere within those borders. Sometimes, depictions of queer women that do not come from queer women themselves, but are a product of a cishet male gaze, contribute to these problems, and this is an issue we can’t leave out of our conversation for representation.