Permission to Yearn: The Problem with the Popularity of White Lesbians in Period Films

The prevalence of white women in popular queer media attaches an erroneously exclusive definition of 'palatable' lesbianism.

As a self-proclaimed Saoirse Ronan stan who has easily watched her performance in Little Women over fifteen times, I was overjoyed with the news that she’s starring alongside Kate Winslet in the new period drama, Ammonite. However, just seeing the first-look images alone have me questioning not the project itself, but the new overarching obsession with delicate White lesbians in period dramas.

In the same vein as The Favourite and the well-loved Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there is a growing trend that has been appearing. It makes ‘representation’ palatable for an audience who not only wants lesbian characters on film, but wants lesbianism defined in already-familiar bounds — but these margins of familiarity dictate a demonstration of who is allowed to yearn.

AMMONITE
See-Saw Films

The eras in which these women exist are governed by patriarchal rules of femininity, where they are subject to the will of maintaining ‘ladylike’ demeanors, and this directly translates into the depiction of sex scenes in these films. When I first saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it was clearly understood that the two protagonists kept a forlorn distance between them, but even once they finally had sex with one another, the scenes were painted in a way where their whiteness was unavoidable.

Over the years, White women have been allowed to come across to audiences as innocent figures. In the context of lesbianism, these films reinforce what gay women have always wanted to hear — that lesbians have existed throughout history and we are not a new trend. However, positioning White women in the center of that narrative is harmful. While it aptly represents the idea that lesbians have always existed, and have had to battle compulsory heterosexuality (in Portrait’s case, Héloïse’s forced marriage and ideals of femininity, and in The Favourite’s case, Rachel Weisz is the ‘tomboyish’ Sarah Churchill), at the same time, it inherently situates this idea of timeless lesbianism with the faces of White women who hold power, whether it be from wealth or a monarchical position.

This doesn’t discount the fact that there are rarely any ‘good’ lesbian dramas for the community to refer to, which makes these films extremely important in expressing shameless female romance, or even addressing difficult subjects (like abortion in Portrait of a Lady on Fire). However, in the same breath, we have a right to recognize that these narratives are popular because they have White women in the leading roles. 

POALOF
Neon

Audre Lorde once said, “As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define women in terms of their own experience alone, then women of color become “other,” the outsider whose experience and tradition is too ‘alien’ to comprehend.” The aforementioned films take place in eras that feel long gone, and therefore, become what we, in contemporary times, use as a model of what lesbianism was like in the past. But in consequence, this dilutes the experience lesbians of color, creating a narrative that suggests these films only deserve mainstream reverence when portraying White women in gowns who exist against expansive or detailed backdrops that reinforce their yearning. These attempts feel deeply anachronistic, and only point me towards films such as The Handmaiden, which is the antithesis to this pattern. 

The Handmaiden is a tale of lesbianism providing comfort to two women in a time of lifelong trauma and within the context of imperialism. Interestingly enough, this film was adapted from “Fingersmith,” a White, lesbian period novel, but reinvented for the screen. The film covers class, the Korean and Japanese conflict, and sexual trauma as well. Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) are women who have come from different backgrounds, but are equally familiar with having to make ends meet for their safety — Sookee cons and provides childcare, and Hideko lives under the will of her uncle.

The Handmaiden doesn’t present its central love story as a reactive plot point that aims to make a grand demonstration of historical lesbianism; rather, it shows two non-white women abandoning societal expectations and falling in love because they have a shared understanding of not only one another, but of life at large. It’s a film that teems with unbridled love and attraction. The sex scene between the two women is raw, and lasts for minutes on end — it doesn’t care to censor their desperate need for each other, even showing Sookee’s wet chin after she’s went down on Hideko. 

handmaiden
Amazon Studios.

Leading up to all this, they manipulate the men around them. They are permitted to show anger and grief without the hindrance of the ‘white fragility’ trope that is seen in popularized female characters across queer media. For once, I saw onscreen lesbians that were not white women in corsets, sanitized for the viewer, and restricted to wide, doe-eyed glances across rooms.

Although, there is something notable about the strict dichotomy in which lesbian media is set. On one hand, The Favourite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire present a whitewashed, dainty lesbianism; on the other, The Handmaiden is wholly based in eroticism, as the film features three gratuitous sex scenes, one of which is repeated twice (which comes across as off-putting considering it is directed by a man). However, the only solution to proper, fulfilled representation is to show lesbians in contexts that we aren’t accustomed to. 

Lesbians want to see relatability in their yearning onscreen, as well as the internal fear we experience when our attraction to a woman is realized; we want to be allowed to be sexual when we choose and unsexual when we don’t. For these reasons, there is a pressing need for more dynamic, representative lesbian media — not the same exclusive stories of pale-faced women falling in love in the different historical costumes and contexts of the past. 

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Nia Tucker

Nia Tucker is an undergrad at Emerson College studying Writing, Literature and Publishing. You can find more of her work — personal essays and race-related features — at niatuckwrites.wordpress.com.

5 Comments

  1. This is so insightful and well-written. I really appreciated this perspective, Nia. It’s very revealing how in steps towards bringing visibility to queerness, mainstream entertainment maintains a Eurocentric and white-centric focus, which as you said dilutes and distorts cultural understanding of what constitutes lesbianism or queerness in history.

  2. I definitley agree with everything stated here but want to note that the sex scenes in the handmaiden were not overseen by the male director. Park Chan-wook has noted that he only had a women behind the cameras of the sex scenes (and I think it may have just been one women? I’m foggy on the details).

    I would also recommend for viewing Fire (1996) which was an Indian film on lesbianism with a woman director. It’s very one of a kind.

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