ALISON BOSHOFF: No men required!

ALISON BOSHOFF: No men required!

December 12, 2018

Is the rise in lesbian dramas hitting our screens just naked titillation? ALISON BOSHOFF asks if the ‘sapphic surge’ is a backlash against Hollywood sexism in the #MeToo era

  • British actresses are being tipped for top prizes in the run-up to awards season  
  • Apart from the British factor, there is another unifying theme behind their roles  
  • Movies featuring lesbian sex scenes have caught Hollywood’s imagination  
  • Sapphic theme has become the new staple of mainstream film entertainment 

The run-up to Hollywood’s awards season is, as is customary nowadays, being dominated by British actresses tipped for the top prizes.

The Golden Globe nominations — also viewed as a strong indicator of Oscar success — include Olivia Colman, who plays Queen Anne in The Favourite. She is widely backed to take Best Actress while her co-star, Rachel Weisz, is seen as a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress.

Sadly, another home-grown talent, Keira Knightley, seems to have missed out, despite giving what has been described as the ‘best performance of her career’ in Colette, about the French writer who was pushed by her husband to write novels under his name.

Apart from the British factor, there is another unifying theme behind the roles that have caught Hollywood’s imagination. Each of their movies features lesbian sex scenes.

Colette: Biographical film about Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French writer whose works include the ‘Claudine’ novels. Colette (Keira Knightley, left) married writer and libertine Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), who published her first four books under his own name. Colette struggles to break free from her husband, known as Willy, launching into a romance with American heiress Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson, right)

Indeed, pre-publicity stills for Colette released last week showed Knightley in a rapturous embrace with her topless female lover (played by Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson). 

Is it coincidence that we are seeing two new big budget films with a sapphic theme?

Absolutely not. In fact, they’ve become the new staple of mainstream film entertainment, with dramas featuring a lesbian plotline a major trend in forthcoming productions on both the big screen and TV.

So what’s going on? One explanation is that Hollywood has become so wounded and paranoid by a seemingly endless series of stories about women being abused by predatory males, that it has sought what it considers a safe route out of this tawdry episode.

Allegations about the sexual abuse of actresses sent shockwaves through the whole movie industry. Most significantly, the forthcoming trial of film mogul Harvey Weinstein — facing charges of sexual assault — has forced his fellow producers to seek more female-friendly ways of putting sex onto the screen.

Lesbianism, therefore, is an obvious route. Of course, some consider this a deeply cynical ploy. 

Whatever the case, the fact is that cinema has long been horribly misogynistic — a most notorious example being the 1971 film Straw Dogs, which unforgivably flirted with the idea that rape could be enjoyable.

Lizzie: This is a retelling — more a re-imagining — of the notorious murders of Andrew and Abby Borden in Massachusetts in 1892. His daughter Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny, right) struggles under her father’s domineering rule and falls in love with maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart, left). Together they hatch a plan to kill her father and stepmother

So, by offering women-with-women love scenes in this Sapphic Surge, Hollywood believes it is sending out a message that it has moved on from depictions of coercive sex and has listened to its MeToo campaign critics.

Indeed, producers want to show the world they are being more cautious about exploiting women and the female form on screen. 

For their part, the actresses are keen to explain this cultural change. Speaking about Colette, Knightley said: ‘I didn’t want the lesbian sex scenes to be seen through the male gaze.

‘We were very conscious of keeping it titillating, but not in any way exploitative.’

In one scene, Colette unbuttons another woman’s silk blouse to expose a bare breast, but nothing more is shown. ‘What’s more important is what’s left to the imagination,’ said Knightley.

‘That’s my personal preference; always. You can imagine a lot by being shown quite a little, you know.’ Another contributing factor may be the issue of how sex on film and TV is handled in an age with a range of sensitivities over social issues.

Gentleman Jack: Set in 1832, this BBC series tells the story of landowner and industrialist Anne Lister (Suranne Jones, left) who dressed as a man and was known as Gentleman Jack. She fell in love with wealthy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle, right) — taking communion together in an act regarded as Britain’s first lesbian marriage. They lived together at Shibden Hall in West Yorkshire until Lister died of a fever in 1840

Race has been another problem — with justified howls of protests for the Oscars’ lack of diversity in recent years.

Organisers of the Academy Awards tried to remedy this — for example by choosing black comic Kevin Hart to present next year’s ceremony.

But this backfired badly at the weekend when he was forced to withdraw after it was revealed he had made vile homophobic comments a few years ago.

Of course, films involving lesbians are nothing new. But the tone has changed. 

Early sapphic adventures tended to concentrate on how pioneer lesbians bravely struggled to break down social taboos in a world where homosexuality was against the law.

Today, the Office for National Statistics shows that increasing numbers of women are in same-sex relationships.

Many are high profile and successful in showbiz, such as model Cara Delevingne and comics Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins.

Vita and Virginia: An account of the lesbian romance between novelist Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki, right) and socialite Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton, left). Flamboyant Vita, married to bisexual diplomat Harold Nicolson, is desperate to meet the famous Mrs Woolf — and seduce her. Their love affair is condoned by the novelist’s husband Leonard, who hopes that it will allay her problems with depression

The ‘pink pound’ undoubtedly plays its part, too. Worth up to an estimated £6million a year, it’s no surprise that film-makers are keen to cash in. 

So Hollywood’s cameras are rolling on an increasingly large number of lesbian stories.

Certainly, we’ve travelled a long way since the first lesbian kiss was broadcast on British television before the 9pm watershed, when Anna Friel embraced fellow Brookside actress Nicola Stephenson on the Channel 4 series 24 years ago.

The kiss was seen by an unshocked TV audience of billions when a clip of it was included in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Few eyebrows, either, were raised recently when the hit BBC drama Killing Eve showed contract killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in love with, or at the very least having a crush on, the intelligence officer Eve, played by Sandra Oh, who was tracking her down.

This week, the film Lizzie opens in the UK, about axe murderer Lizzie Borden, starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. Here, a disputed lesbian element is introduced into a true story.

The Favourite: This dark comedy, set in 1708, stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. It recounts the story of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz, above) competing for the favours of the Queen with lady-in-waiting Abigail (Emma Stone). The Duchess and Queen become lovers — but Abigail also starts a sexual relationship with the monarch, sparking rivalry between the two

The film contends that Borden — who as the rhyme goes ‘Took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks. 

When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one ‘ — killed them because she was in love with the family maid, Bridget, who had been sexually abused by Lizzie’s father.

This is despite the fact that even the most excitable experts on this infamous case have never speculated on a lesbian motive. The sapphic idea seems to have come from a 1984 novel by crime writer Ed McBain.

In several other new productions, lesbian passion is the driving theme. British-American drama series Gentleman Jack on BBC1 is based on the 19th century diaries of Anne Lister — dubbed ‘the first modern lesbian’.

It stars Suranne Jones (of Doctor Foster fame) as a landowner who dresses as a man and is desperate to marry her female lover.

A lesbian love affair is also at the centre of another of this year’s crop of films, Disobedience, an adaptation of a novel about an affair between two Jewish women, played by Rachel Weisz (again) and Rachel McAdams.

Also out this year was the film Vita And Virginia — a retelling of the affair between novelist Virginia Woolf and poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West.

Killing Eve: Recent BBC TV series based on the Codename Villanelle books. Jodie Comer played assassin Villanelle (top) and Sandra Oh the intelligence agent Eve Polastri (above) on her trail. A chance encounter leads to Villanelle becoming sexually obsessed by Eve, who seeks to avenge the death of a colleague killed by Villanelle

All these are central to a MeToo-inspired cultural change — one that has developed out of previous, periodic depictions of sapphic passion — such as the 1994 hit film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet, and the 2002 BBC drama series, Tipping The Velvet, based on the novel by Sarah Waters.

The truth is the new generation of movies showing lesbian love scenes are not niche offerings.

Without doubt they are a reaction to the realisation that audiences are tired of seeing the same old, over-sexualised heterosexual dramas — particularly if they think the actresses may have been forced into such scenes by Weinstein-type figures.

You only have to look at the fate of Wanderlust, the much-hyped Netflix drama said to be ‘the most X-rated’ ever shown on TV, to understand that wall-to-wall on-screen sex no longer attracts a mass audience. It got just 2.9million viewers at 9pm.

And that was only just enough to see off the embarrassment of being beaten by an episode of Long Lost Family on ITV, in which Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell reunite people with missing relatives.

All of which is a refreshing development — a decisive shift away from what used to be called ‘cheap thrills’.

What’s more, some studios now have ‘intimacy co-ordinators’ to make sure actors are not ambushed by sexual demands on-set. 

We are more than four decades on from the notorious transgressions of the 1972 film Last Tango In Paris, which reduced actress Maria Schneider to horrified tears which were captured on film and released in the name of entertainment.

Imperatively for film-makers, the audience reaction must be considered. The fact is now that the MeToo generation will boo if they feel women are being objectified.

Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Favourite, says his film’s lesbian storyline is about far more than just sex.

‘My instinct from the beginning was that I didn’t want this to become an issue in the film, for us, like we’re trying to make a point out of it. I didn’t even want the characters in the film to be making an issue of it.

‘I just wanted to deal with these three women as human beings. It didn’t matter that there were relationships of the same gender. I stopped thinking about that very early on in the process.’

It is telling that producer Ceci Dempsey said that she fought hard to get an early script of The Favourite made in 1998. 

She couldn’t secure finance because there was a lack of male representation and too much lesbian content, which financial backers thought meant it would flop.

In today’s more sensitive culture, which seeks to pry less into sexual orientations or to punish people for their preferences, these fascinating stories are finally being told.

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