In 2017, the trailer for Atomic Blonde debuted. Fully charged with stylish editing and impressive action sequences from the director of John Wick, it excitedly teased what the film could offer — it also revealed a steamy sex scene between Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella. As a fan of action films, I was thrilled. As a lesbian, I was concerned. The way the scenes between Theron and Boutella were being used as a marketing ploy is just a single example of a concerning cinematic trend: structuring queer female relationships, in films often directed by men, to appeal to the liking of a male audience. The industry’s inclination to apply this treatment to queer females in film leads to fetishized view that exploits our bodies and our stories.
In Atomic Blonde‘s defense, Theron and Boutella’s relationship is actually large part of the story, running deeper than just one hookup scene. The issue of it all doesn’t lie in the occurrence of sex, but rather its marketability — being purposefully utilized to excite men into purchasing a ticket to the show. While it was refreshing to see a queer relationship portrayed in a mainstream action film, LGBTQ+ representation in cinema has a long and complicated history. It’s important to see ourselves on screen, but how we are represented is equally critical. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde, but I didn’t enjoy seeing my sexuality used as a tool for the male gaze.
This trend comes in many forms, resulting in complex perspectives on the films in queer cinema, with opinions varying between every person you talk to. Criticism usually arises in reaction to the treatment of female characters and the portrayal of their sexuality. It isn’t uncommon to see love scenes that have nothing to do with character or plot development, but instead exist as self-indulgent, masturbatory catharsis — seeing women have sex because it’s “hot.” Blue is the Warmest Color is a prime example of this form of exploitation. In Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or winner, a seven minute sex scene occurs between the two women who shape the narrative’s center. It’s an unnecessarily long and erotic sequence that comes off as devoid of any value. Filmed straight-on and with closeups, the cinematography bears a striking resemblance to pornography, a likeness that’s hard to ignore. There is no intimacy between the characters because the camera doesn’t allow it: separating the audience from the emotion, the film is more focused on what the women are doing, rather than how they’re feeling.
There are more complicated examples of this trend, as seen in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. The sex scenes in this film are similar in length and equally as graphic as Blue is the Warmest Color. The movie deals heavily with erotica, sexual abuse, and sexuality in general; in a very sex-oriented film, it isn’t a surprise that the love scenes are explicit. The difference is that despite the extremity of the scenes, the love and passion between the lead characters, Sook-hee and Hideko, is clearly represented, as is their discovery of their own sexual pleasure. Behind the scenes, Park Chan-wook handled the filming of these moments with as much care as possible, using a closed set and implementing remote-controlled cameras to respect the actresses.
Although there is a clear issue with the industry’s portrayal of queer people, the solution isn’t simple. Other films directed by men have not received the amount of criticism as those aforementioned, and are loved by many in the community: Joachim Trier’s Thelma and Todd Haynes’s Carol are among these. Both feature graphic sex scenes between women, but these films maintain the emotional intimacy required to progress the characters’ feelings and enhance the story. What’s most complex is that all of this is subjective. People can interpret these scenes differently, finding each of them problematic or none of them at all. Regardless, the community’s widespread recognition of this debate solidifies that the issue cannot be ignored.
The overarching issue seems to be that some of the men who make films about queer women disregard the importance and reasoning behind the inclusion of a love scene. This results in the abandonment of focus on character development by both male and heterosexual audiences, instead focusing on the eroticism taking place on the screen. To change the way audiences perceive queer women — and in turn, how they respect them and their love — directors must be involved in examining their own motives behind the insertion of these scenes in their films.
Having the right voices behind the camera is essential. Involving queer women, who can offer perspectives that lend a more insightful interpretation of the characters being represented, is indispensable to the validity and authenticity of portraying queer love in cinema. If the filmmaker doesn’t care about these voices, then they should consider why they’re telling the story in the first place. Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Watermelon Woman are perfect examples of why having queer voices telling their own stories is so important. The relationships and the love scenes between the women are executed with care and purpose. Both include nudity, but neither are ill-treated or superfluous.
Film criticism exists on a highly individual level, and the variety of opinions is what makes it incredible. I really enjoy The Handmaiden, but the sex scenes make me uncomfortable at times, and some women take no issue with the eroticism in Blue is the Warmest Color — both perspectives are completely valid, and keeping this discourse in motion will only result in better representation moving forward. The most necessary step to improvement is to prioritize queer voices in their own storytelling. Who is at the writer’s table? Who is portraying these characters? Who is reviewing these films? Perception is heavily driven by the media we create and consume, and the film industry needs to take more responsibility, care, and courtesy in how they project the LGBTQ+ image to the masses, and they need to start by asking us.