To Be Seen and Heard: The Importance of Lesbian Visibility in Film

Gabbie Liberetti

“All movies are important and dangerous.”
-Susan Sarandon, The Celluloid Closet

“Can you name any queer women in movies?” She squints and scrunches her nose in concentration, rattling off a few, not pertinent, but honorable mentions before giving up. Being a queer woman—that is, a woman who identifies herself as lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, or anything other than heterosexual and is attracted to other women—isn’t easy. Finding positive portrayals of queer women in film isn’t easy either. I asked my friend, who is a lesbian, whether or not she could think of any positive examples of lesbian films that she had watched. She struggled before naming an obscure episode from a British television show, True Love, which was similar to a short film. She could count the number of films with queer women that she’d seen on two hands, and she couldn’t remember the first time she saw a queer woman in a role that wasn’t in a specifically “lesbian” film. She could remember a few movies well, but they made being a lesbian, in her eyes, seem awful and demonized. It wasn’t until she came out that she even started to see queer women on film, because, for the first time, she felt comfortable looking for them. And she had to look. Searching for lesbian movies is like searching for buried treasure with a metal detector on a beach—instead of gold you’ll probably end up with someone’s forgotten pennies. It’s an experience any queer woman who’s tried to find a good queer movie has had: you end up settling. The directing is bad, the acting is worse, the costumes are laughable, and, most likely, the lesbian character is a psychopath/villain/not-gay-at all (see: Cracks, My Summer of Love, Chasing Amy). But we still watch them, because they give us something we crave: visibility and community. Movies create culture, and in turn, culture creates community. Queer visibility on film is vital because it allows for the creation of a community that queer women, marginalized from their own communities, crave. The struggle for queer female community is evident in queer films themselves, such as But I’m a Cheerleader (1998) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), and the queer struggle for film visibility.

Queer film may seem like a new concept because the language and politics of queerness can often feel modern; however, queerness has a deep, rich film history that the movie The Celluloid Closet analyzes. Film is, in some ways, a mirror, and it has power as such. The lack of visibility on film, therefore, has a negative potential. Those invisible groups are made to feel as though something is truly wrong with them; they begin to feel isolated (The Celluloid Closet). Movies also serve to teach lessons on gender and sexuality; those who don’t adhere to those lessons are made to feel like outcasts. While homosexuals have lacked visibility on film in comparison to heterosexuals, homosexuality has still materialized in film in a variety of ways. Many Hollywood movies have painted queerness as something to be feared, pitied or laughed at (The Celluloid Closet). These “homophobic lesbian images are used most frequently to validate the superiority and desirability of heterosexuality” (Hollinger 10). Queerness also fluctuated in film because, during Warren G. Harding’s presidency, Will Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, pushed for “cleaner” films. His “Hays Code,” which was enforced, prohibited the following: open-mouth kissing, abortion, prostitution, white slavery, nudity, profanity, seduction, sex perversion, rape, and more in American-made movies. Homosexuality fell in the category of “sex perversion” and remained banned in motion pictures from 1930 to 1968 (The Celluloid Closet). This didn’t mean that homosexuality didn’t appear in film—it just meant it had to be subtle or villainous in order to be shown. Film was “in the closet” and movies, like 1953’s Calamity Jane, had homosexual subplots written “between the lines.”

The concept of writing movies “between the lines” persisted even after the Hays Code, when homosexuality was technically allowed on film but far from accepted. No major movie producer wanted to show a “gay movie,” unless the queer characters were unhappy, suicidal, or depressed (The Celluloid Closet). However, women were allowed on-screen intimacy, in small ways. These films had just the right amount of intimacy, enough to “titillate their viewers with hints of lesbianism,” which allowed queer women the opportunity to read the movie as a lesbian romance “while providing heterosexual viewers with reassurance that the characters could be just friends,” giving the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing beautiful women intimate on screen without “challenging heterosexist norms” (Hollinger 7). Sometime around the nineties and up to today, lesbian intimacy became more explicit and pervasive on film, but in a way that was “an experimental phase” and non-threatening, made for the voyeuristic pleasure of heterosexual men (The Celluloid Closet). Before that, though, movies like Fried Green Tomatoes and Thelma and Louise hinted at a possibility for a lesbian reading while openly passing as friendship movies for women. These ambiguous queer flicks have similar set-ups: the females are feminine and beautiful (allowing for easy interpretation as either lesbian or straight) and “the focus is clearly placed on the strong, passionate affectional bonds and the exchange of long, loving looks between the two women, which can be read ambiguously as either erotic or friendly” (Hollinger 7). This clouded, semi-visibility is both positive and negative. Unfortunately, these films seem to deny the validity of lesbian existence, telling viewers that what might appear to be lesbian desire is just female friendship, casting doubt on women trying to understand their sexuality (Hollinger 7). Yet these characters escape the negative portrayals that visible lesbians often receive; they aren’t predatory, they aren’t exploited pornographically, and neither separation nor death plagues the lovers at the end (Hollinger, 8). The “ambiguous lesbian film” is important, historically, to understanding the more modern lesbian film. And it is important to also note that lesbian films, though no longer banned, since 1968 have been perceived by Hollywood as “risky ventures with limited appeal to target audiences” (Hollinger 11). While queer female film has had some history, it has mostly been a minority community, banned, villainous, closeted, or sexualized.

In 2013, GLAAD conducted their first ever study of homosexuality in films for the previous year, and it spoke volumes on the lack of lesbian cinematic visibility that prevails even now. The study emphasized that “going to the movies is part of the American mythos and identity” and that minority marginalization has two roles: making the minority feel less than and making it more difficult for the majority to see them as a reality on film and in their own lives (GLAAD 4). The report then goes on to analyze the six biggest film companies (Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Sony Columbia, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers) who produce most “Hollywood” movies; it found that “out of the 101 releases from the major studios in 2012, fourteen of them contained characters identified as either lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Not one of the releases contained any transgender characters” (GLAAD 6). Out of the fourteen films, thirty-three percent had lesbian characters. Only one had a bisexual character, a male “Bond” villain. Out of the thirty-one LGB characters, twenty-six were white (GLAAD 7). The report created a “Vito Russo” test (the author and AIDS activist who wrote The Celluloid Closet) to assist in analyzing if these portrayals could be considered “positive” or not. In order to pass, the qualifications are: the film contains an identifiably LGBT character, the character is not solely characterized by that identity and has a personality (much like a straight character would), and that the character is tied to the plot—the character isn’t there just for a punch line or “urban authenticity.” Out of the fourteen movies, only six—less than half total and a tiny amount of the total 101 movies made—passed the test (GLAAD 7). Movies that have been heralded for positive or, at least, visible queerness, films like Black Swan and Boys Don’t Cry, weren’t made by these six production companies, who appear to want little to do with “risky” queer portrayals. While queerness seems to be popping up on film, it’s still being marginalized because mainstream producers won’t make queer films. The two films I wish to analyze, But I’m a Cheerleader and Blue Is the Warmest Color, while commercially successful, weren’t made by any of the major motion picture companies in Hollywood.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) is a cult classic lesbian movie that highlights the queer struggle of marginalization and subsequent search for community. The movie centers around the story of a cheerleader, Megan, who is sent by her family, friends, and boyfriend to a camp for homosexuals where they can learn to “rediscover” their “natural” gender and sexual identities, becoming straight and cisgender. The movie about camp takes place in outlandish “camp” style, which is why it has managed to become a cult classic. “Camp” is an artistic style, while not exclusively homosexual, often pertaining to homosexuals and is “ostentatious, exaggerated, and theatrical” (King-Slutzky). But I’m a Cheerleader shows this theatrical exaggeration in its character choices, colors, backdrops, and scenes. Many of the actors in the film are actually known gay actors or associated with famous queer icons; RuPaul, a famous drag queen, plays one of the main counselors at the camp. The colors in the film are exaggerated: brown for Megan’s family, blue for the boys, pink for the girls, and garish greens or purples. The house in which the camp takes place is a massive blue-and-pink Victorian monstrosity. The film is thoroughly theatrical; Megan’s expressions are dramatic (she goes cross-eyed and then faints when she realizes her homosexuality), the dialogue is often purposefully ridiculous (RuPaul yells at the male campers, “If I catch you looking at a man like that again, I’ll have you watching sports!”), and the editing is campy as well (Megan’s “thoughts,” as we see them, are often clips of cheerleaders in slow-motion, emphasizing their butts or breasts). But I’m a Cheerleader contains key elements of camp: parody and irony (King-Slutzky). And it also has the subversive potential of camp; by parodying gender norms and heterosexuality, But I’m a Cheerleader exposes heteronormative ideology (King-Slutzky). And it displays homosexual loss of community and the search to regain community.

Homosexual marginalization in queer female movies often plays out as what I would call “the lesbian witch-hunt.” Protagonists are exposed as lesbians by small details in an aggressive manner and regarded in a manner of disgust by their accusers. In But I’m a Cheerleader, one of the first scenes in the movie is when Megan comes home from school and finds herself in the middle of a lesbian witch-hunt, staged as an intervention with RuPaul about to drag her off to camp. She sits down on the couch, and her mother, father, best friend, and boyfriend barrage her with evidence of how she is a lesbian; she denies her sexuality because she has yet to discover it. Their “evidence” consists of ridiculous little things—Megan is a vegetarian with a floral pillow (yonic designs), a Melissa Ethridge poster is on her wall, and she’s not that into her boyfriend—all things that are associated with lesbians but none that actually make a person a lesbian. This circumstantial “evidence” is hilariously viewed as overwhelming, more than enough reason to cart her off to camp. There, she and others are marginalized by their families. One character shouts, “I can’t wait to be straight!” showing his internalized self-hatred as a result of his marginalization. At camp, the characters are further marginalized, taught that their natural state of queerness is actually unnatural, and something happened to them to queer them. It takes time for Megan to accept her queer identity. She achieves acceptance through her friendship and subsequent romance with another girl at the camp, Graham.

Megan, as a result of her marginalization, searches for a queer community that will accept her. Graham is a large part of that community. Oftentimes, LGBTQ+ people who have been forced to live in the closet find most of their community with their partners or a select few loved ones. “Lesbian existence has been lived (unlike, say, Jewish or Catholic existence) without access to any knowledge of a tradition, a continuity, a social underpinning…” (Rich 641). Lesbians have been denied real communities throughout history, so many formed mini-communities. These serve to make the marginalized feel normal, to establish connections with similar people, and to regain the community they lost as a result of their marginalization. Megan clearly searches for this in the scene when she runs away from the camp. Knowing that she will likely not be accepted at home (as her family and friends have already ousted her from their community by sending her to camp), she runs to the rainbow-splashed house of Larry and Lloyd, two “ex-ex-gays” from the camp now living together as partners. Megan sits down across from them and begs, “I thought you could teach me how to be a lesbian—what they wear, where they live, you know.” Her desperation is more hilarious than depressing as Larry and Lloyd pass her a mug emblazoned with the word “QUEER” and tell her that there’s not one right way to be a lesbian. In that moment we see her struggle for community—she runs to a house where she presumes she will meet similarly ostracized individuals, and she tries to figure out how to conform to lesbian society in the same way she had to conform to heterosexual society. She’s willing and eager to conform because conformity breeds acceptance, but the situation is ridiculous because, as Larry says, there is no “right” way to be a lesbian. Still, Megan’s struggle for community is a search many queer women can relate to, and her search is comparable even years in the future.

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) is a French queer film releasedthat follows the love story between a young girl, Adele, and another girl, an artist named Emma. While the movie has been deemed a lesbian film in the press, there is no specific self-identification of lesbianism in the film—Adele is involved with men a few times (though appears to be more attracted to women) and Emma says that she prefers women but has been with both. This queers the typical lesbian narrative, which is, in part, why I’m focusing on queer women rather than strictly lesbian women. Blue Is the Warmest Color is fundamentally different than But I’m a Cheerleader. As opposed to But I’m a Cheerleader, Blue Is the Warmest Color was released over a decade later, when sexuality is seen in more of a spectrum than binaries and gay rights are beginning to be legally viewed as part of human rights. Blue Is the Warmest Color won a Palme D’Or, an award comparable to the American Oscar for French filmmakers. Blue Is the Warmest Color was directed by a heterosexual man (Abdellatif Kechiche), not a lesbian woman (Jamie Babbit). Often, Kechiche’s camera style is voyeuristic. Kechiche includes detailed, extensively long sex scenes in the film (the whole film is about three hours in total); he pans over naked bodies and breasts, highlighting the sex appeal of the main actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. Adele has said that “Kechiche shot very close up,” and her co-star, Lea, revealed that filming the sex scene took extensively long, ten days, with Kechiche trying to make it look as real as possible (Stern Interview). This separation of the women into different parts fetishizes and dehumanizes the actress; we see the movie through the voyeuristic male gaze (Mulvey 3). Although rated NC-17, the fact that the movie was even produced is astounding when juxtaposed with But I’m a Cheerleader. Jamie Babbit, the director, had to cut the sex scene between Megan and Graham down to a little more than heavy breathing and hands in darkness in order to receive an R-rating from the MPAA, because of their alleged bias against homosexual sensuality in cinema. Before that, the movie was given an NC-17 rating, making it hard to fill seats and get theaters to show the film (Bendix 1). However, Blue Is the Warmest Color, due to its context in time (2013) and place (France) didn’t have to cope with MPAA discrimination in the same way as But I’m a Cheerleader.

For all of the differences between the two films, Blue Is the Warmest Color, years later, still shows the queer woman’s struggle of marginalization and search for community. Initially, we see Adele as a young girl in high school. A boy is attracted to her, and they end up flirting, going out, and she loses his virginity to him—all of which we see. When she loses her virginity, she looks distant and sad, and later she tell her friend that she feels like she “is faking.” There is a scene where an unnamed girl with bangs who we presume to be a lesbian flirts with Adele and kisses her. The next day, Adele finds her in the bathroom and tries to passionately kiss her, only to be rejected by the girl who was just fooling around with Adele. This is one of many hints in the film to Adele preferring women, although her identity is never perfectly clear. Her passion towards Emma is obvious, though. She sees Emma in passing and later meets her again at a gay bar. Emma finds her after school and walks her away from her school—never touching her, nor doing anything sexual or romantic (in fact, Emma, at this point, is in a relationship with another girl). The next day, Adele’s lesbian witch-hunt ensues at the hands of her closest friends, not unlike Megan’s. Her friends regard her with disgust, and the conversation between them becomes increasingly intense. Her one friend screams that Adele and Emma were “too close,” so she’s obviously a lesbian. They shout, “admit you eat pussy” and “you’ll never eat my pussy” at her. Adele becomes a partial-outcast—not all of her friends leave her, but many do. She never appears to tell her family about her relationship, and when Emma comes over for dinner, she acts like Emma and her are “friends” and that Emma has a “boyfriend.” It is clear that she never gets over the “witch-hunt.”

Adele seeks community in various small ways. Unlike Megan, she never self-identifies as anything. Later in the movie, when she is with Emma, she cheats on her with a man. However, their relationship lacks passion, and it seems to be a reaction to Emma’s growing distance from Adele. Over this time, Emma is developing a relationship with the woman she will eventually become partners with, and Adele feels herself losing her only community: Emma. Adele, like many queer women throughout history, hides her sexuality in various ways. She tells Emma that she didn’t “want to say I went out with a girl” to her co-worker, and Emma calls her “ashamed,” to which Adele replies, “No, but they don’t all need to know.” Adele is never fully “out” during the course of the movie, yet still marginalized, and her only community, like queer women throughout history, is her partner. When Emma leaves her, Adele cries, “Where do I go without you?” We see Emma with other women in the movie, but besides the first girl Adele kisses, we never see Adele with other women—although it is implied that she is attracted to women, we see her in unhappy relationships with men. Even Emma, near the end of the film, asks her if she has a “boyfriend” since they are broken up, only later asking if maybe she has a girlfriend—although Adele herself has always seemed to be more interested in women, queer women like Emma consistently treat her like she is “straight.” Too gay for the straight community and too straight for the gay community while never quite identified, Adele is a double outcast. We see this in the last scene: alone, she walks down the street. The tone is melancholic; she is lonely and empty without Emma. She is lonely and empty because she has no community.

Queer marginalization and struggle for community is not just an issue solely within movies, but it is also an issue of movies and the movie industry. Queer women are marginalized in film. As I have pointed out with film history and modern-day film statistics, queer female visibility in film is almost non-existent. Major motion picture companies weren’t allowed to make queer films for years, and even now, they are too risky. And when queer films are made, they run the risk of over-sexualizing women through the voyeuristic gaze, even as Blue Is the Warmest Color does at times. But queer women need portrayals and cinematic visibility in the same way they need community; that film culture is part of community. Queer women seek validation on screen, and they find very little. Queer film can help highlight struggles that most queer women go through, as they face rejection from people around them and look for some sort of queer community, and it can also help build a culture to form that community.

When I talked to my friend about lesbian movies, she said that she just wanted someone with which to identify. She was raised to avoid lesbian portrayals because she was taught that lesbianism was gross, and perhaps that’s why, she thinks, so few portrayals exist—the majority seems to view her and her sexuality with disgust. Her marginalization as a queer woman appears in every facet of her life; she is even marginalized on-screen, when she tries to watch films. And she seeks validation; she looks for characters with which to identify. Until more queer female filmmakers become empowered to make movies, and until the movie industry takes up the challenge, queer women will remain nearly invisible on film. The queer women watching at home or in theaters will live in a world where community is kept from them. They will struggle to relate, to identify, and to feel validated by seeing other queer women.

Works Cited

“2013 Studio Responsibility Index.” GLAAD. GLAAD, 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Bendix, Trish. ““Black Swan” and Its R Rating Shows Progress for the MPAA When It Comes to Lesbian Sexuality.” N.p., 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Blue Is the Warmest Color. Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche. Perf. Lea Seydoux and Adele
Exarchopoulous. France 2 Cinéma, 2013. Film.

But I’m a Cheerleader. By Brian W. Peterson. Dir. Jamie Babbit. Perf. Natasha Lyonne. Ignite Entertainment, 1999. DVD.

The Celluloid Closet. By Vito Russo. Dir. Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein. TriStar
Pictures, 1996. DVD.

Hollinger, Karen. “Theorizing Mainstream Female Spectatorship: The Case of the Popular Lesbian Film.” Cinema Journal 37.2 (1998): 3-17. JSTOR. Web. 4 May 2 014.

King-Slutzky, Johanna. “Camp.” The Chicago School of Media Theory. The University
of Chicago, 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5.4 (1980): 631-60. Print.

Seydoux, Lea, and Exarchopoulos, Adele. “Telluride Film Festival Interview with the Stars of “Blue Is the Warmest Color”” Interview by Marlow Stern. The Daily
Beast. N.p., 1 Sept. 2013.