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The evolution of lesbian romance in film

May 09, 2023

The evolution of lesbian romance in film

Lesbian romance, much like other queer narratives, has been portrayed as a one-dimensional, simplified afterthought in movies, books, and media for decades. 

Up until very recently, LGBTQIA+ characters had one of two possible faiths: be the victim of a tragic death (Ahem, Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Poussey from Orange is the New Black, Maya from Pretty Little Liars… need I go on?) or instigate a chaotic, unfinished, hypersexualized plotline. 

But, at long last, things are changing for the better. Lesbian relationships are finally getting the complex, clever, and profound representation they deserve in the media. And so, we’re gathered here today to talk about the evolution of lesbian movies and the queer love stories that helped redefine sapphic cinema.

So, before we get into it, let’s set the scene and contextualize how queer and trans people have existed in (and been explicitly excluded from) the film industry from its inception.

A brief history of lesbian representation in the film industry

It’s not until we really sit down and take a look at the legacy of sapphic love in the film industry that we can really begin to metabolize how far we’ve come, and how terrifyingly late this shift happened.

I won’t get into an overtly detailed history of cinema here, but there are a few important things to note that will help us make sense of how long it took for us to start seeing accurate lesbian stories on the big screen. 

The first showing of a film to an audience took place in December 1895. That being said, it wasn’t until 1914, during World War I, that the film industry truly became a cultural and economic powerhouse. By 1917, the US had established itself as a successful oligopoly in the market — cue, the birth of Classical Hollywood Cinema.

What was an all-time Classical Hollywood Cinema trope? Beautiful lesbian love stories. Ha. Just kidding. Straight white couples (often from different socioeconomic backgrounds) falling in love — under the context of war — coming together in allegiance to some good ol’ fashioned blind patriotism. Oh, that and the Hays Code. Let me explain.

What was the Hays Code?

In 1934, multiple religious groups rallied to instate, the Hays Code. A self-imposed code made up of 36 “rules” that filmmakers had to follow that limited the representation and destigmatization of characters that the group defined as being morally corrupt. 

You know where I’m going with this. Yup. Banned, at the top of the list: depiction of sexual perversion. Modern-day translation: any form of intimacy between anyone who wasn’t white, cis, and straight. 

I am sad to say I’m not even exaggerating here. I mean, just take a look at the first three general principles of the code:

  1. No picture shall be produced, which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the audience’s sympathy shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to drama and entertainment requirements, shall be presented.
  3. Law-divine, natural, or human-shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation

This monstrosity of a do’s and don’t’s list led to the demonization, exclusion, and erasure of queer and trans characters until it was officially abandoned by Hollywood in 1968. 

You might be asking yourself  — what about LGBTQIA+ representation between 1914, and 1934? The answer is as heartbreaking as it’s predictable. If and when queer characters were written into films, they were vehemently stereotyped, exploited, and humiliated. 

The rise of queer-coded villains

Writers and directors weren’t allowed to give queer characters humanity, much less happy endings, and whirlwind romances, according to the Hays Code. So, what did they do instead? They created queer-coded villains.

Queercoding in film and tv is when a character is given traits that implicitly allude to them being queer. Think Ursula from The Little Mermaid, HIM from The Power Puff Girls, and Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

This reinforced the stigmas that were especially present around queer people at the time by perpetuating the dangerous stereotype that queer people = inherently evil. 

To make matters worse? This was all happening while being queer in the US was still considered illegal, and coming out could get you institutionalized and displaced. 

Why is this backstory relevant? Gimmie lesbian romance movies!

I know you probably didn’t sign up for a history lesson. But whether you’re a fellow queer or an ally — it’s this knowledge and backstory that helps us understand not only how far we’ve come, but how much further we can fight to go. 

Seeing that the first movie depicting a forbidden lesbian romance came out in 1927 is one story. Knowing that after having the context of all the forces that were fighting against our narratives being told at the time is a different story. Wrapping our heads around all the codifying, stereotyping, and twisted narratives that modern writers and directors have to undo in order to tell stories that actually represent queer love? That’s an entirely different book. 

So, with this necessary framing in mind, let’s dive into some of the most historically significant movies depicting lesbian romance, to date. 

The most historically significant lesbian romance movies

Fortunately, we’re at a place now where many movies featuring lesbian love stories can actually remind us of our own. But, as we just mentioned, this has not always been the case. In fact, I’d say it wasn’t until this past decade that we actually started a significant, and steady upward trend in the quality of lesbian romance portrayals in cinema. 

We’ll be diving into some of the most historically significant films through the decades featuring lesbian romance, like:

  • ‘A Florida Enchantment’ (1914)
  • ‘Mädchen in Uniform’ (1927)
  • ‘Morocco’ (1931)
  • ‘Desert Hearts’ (1985) 
  • ‘Go Fish’ (1994)
  • ‘The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love’ (1995)
  • ‘Fire’ (1996)
  • ‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)
  • ‘Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres’ (2007)
  • ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’ (2013) 
  • ‘Carol’ (2015)
  • ‘The Handmaiden’ (2016)
  • ‘Rafiki’ (2018)
  • ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

‘A Florida Enchantment’ (1914)

While this technically might be the first known instance of two women kissing during a movie, (as a result of a magical transformation), it’s hardly a lesbian fantasy romance. Sidney Drew’s silent film, A Florida Enchantment, was released in 1914 by the Vitagraph studio. 

Source: Film at Lincoln Center

The movie’s about Lillian Travers, a young heiress, who goes all the way down to Florida from New York to visit her husband-to-be, Dr. Frederick Cassadene. 

When she arrives at the hotel where he’s seasonally employed as a doctor, she’s overcome by rage and jealousy. Why? Because all these women are hitting on her man. So what does she do? She eats a magical seed she found in a random chest that could turn women into men, and men into women. But what happened, instead? She turned into a butch lesbian. Before you know it, Lillian is kissing and flirting with women left and right. 

Is it worth your time? Honestly, probably not. Have I mentioned the blackface yet? There are other movies that do a better job of exploring gender fluidity without reinforcing harmful stereotypes.  

The film’s premise, involving a magical seed that can transform women into men and vice versa, had the potential to delve into queer representation and challenge heteronormative expectations. 

However, like many movies of the period, A Florida Enchantment primarily reinforces these norms by portraying Lillian’s gender transformation as an anomaly and a source of amusement, rather than a genuine exploration of queerness and non-binary identities.

‘Morocco’ (1930)

On an early December evening in 1930, director Josef von Sternberg released Morocco. Remember the reductionist take I gave on what Classical Hollywood Cinema entailed? Well, that’s the general synopsis here. Shocker. 

Source: Park Circus

Morocco is, at its center, a quintessential-ish love story set during the war that follows its two protagonists, Amy Jolly, and Tom Brown. These two were played by Marlene Dietrich, and Gary Cooper, respectively.

But, wait. Weren’t we talking about lesbian romance? We’re getting there! 

Somehow (okay, I kind of get how), Morocco waltzed into the canon of lesbian romance movies because it was the first film to unapologetically, and non-perversely (for the most part?) feature a real and intentional woman-to-woman kiss. 

It’s literally just one scene, but it was powerful, people. 

Picture this: Girl meets boy, they fall in love, movie happens, movie happens, movie happens — suddenly — they’re at a cabaret, and Amy Jolly (Dietrich) is performing. She comes out in a top hat and a tuxedo, which was unheard of at the time. 

Men everywhere are clutching their wives, wives are shamefully looking away —  I’m thirteen and falling in love through a screen — everyone is interested while pretending to be afraid. 

Shots show Dietrich’s suave performance as her nonchalant attitude and sultry voice fill the room with tension and vibrance. About halfway through her song, she locks eyes with another woman in the audience — who’s obviously mesmerized — slowly walks up to her, and leans in for a kiss. Mind you, this movie came out pre-Hays Code.

Is this a lesbian romance? No. Was it, however, the first real kiss between two women on-screen? IMO, yes. 

Add to it all that throughout Dietrich’s career, she was a member of “the Sewing Circle.” A group of quietly lesbian and bisexual Hollywood celebrities at the time.

‘Mädchen in Uniform’ (1931)

Okay, now, we’re talking. Mädchen in Uniform is what I, alongside countless others, believe is the first actual lesbian romance movie ever made. 

Source: IMDB

The movie premiered in Germany in 1931, and it takes place in an all-girls boarding school. Think you know where this is going? You don’t. 

Mädchen tells the story of Manuela (Hertha Thiele), who was sent off to said all-girls boarding school after her mother passed away. And who’s there to help her navigate, and work through her grief other than her young, caring teacher, Elizabeth von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). 

Obviously, Manuela falls in love with Elizabeth — setting off waves of gossip throughout the school. Gossip and a plethora of events that are relatable, heartbreaking, and simply striking. 

All praise and pride aside, it’s important to acknowledge that by no means does this film tell a perfect story. Despite this film being an iconic, and powerful step toward well-rounded portrayals of lesbian romance, it’s not perfect. There’s an inherent power dynamic at hand, and instances of desire being portrayed through patriarchal colored glasses. 

At the time of the film’s release, Berlin was thought to be the lesbian epicenter of the world. There were a dozen lesbian social clubs, sports leagues, and newspapers — all of which were shut down when the Nazis came into power in 1933. 

Despite Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s cultural minister, ordering for all copies of the film to be burned to ashes — it survived thanks to its wide circulation in other countries. 

Mädchen was directed by Leontine Sagan, a Jewish actress, and director who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, less than two years after the film’s release. 

Christa Winsloe, who wrote Mädchen’s, and was openly bisexual, fled to France during this time and joined the French Resistance. 

‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968)

The Killing of Sister George is a 1968 British film directed by Robert Aldrich, based on the play of the same name by Frank Marcus. The film follows the life of June (Beryl Reid), an alcoholic actress who is best known for playing Sister George in a soap opera called “Applehurst.”

Source: CONGY

June is in a turbulent relationship with her much younger lover and co-star, Alice (Susannah York). As June’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, she’s fired from the show. 

The producer’s plan to end her plotline? Well, it’s in the title. They were planning on killing Sister George. This sends June into a spiral, eventually leading to a dramatic and charged confrontation between her and Alice.

The film is considered progressive for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship, which was rare for its time. However, the relationship between June and Alice is complex and often fraught with tension. 

Despite the Hays Code coming to an end the same year this movie was released, elements of queer mockery still felt everpresent in Hollywood. That remains true for this movie, which features a few outrageous moments. The saving grace? The leading characters felt more dimensional, and I can’t even lie, Beryl Reid’s incredible performance. 

‘Desert Hearts’ (1985) 

Donna Deitch’s groundbreaking film debut, Desert Hearts, came out in 1985 — and cemented itself in the American cinematic canon. It is an adaptation of the 1964 lesbian romance novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. The screenplay adaptation was written by Natalie Cooper. 

Source: Janus Films

Set in 1959, Desert Hearts follows the love story of Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), and Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau). 

Vivian, a university professor, arrives in Reno from New York in order to get a quick divorce. There, she meets Cay, a ceramicist (swoon). They’re magnetically drawn to one another from the moment they lock eyes, and what follows is a series of breathtaking desert landscapes, moments rich with tender sensuality, and a whole lot of liveliness.

It shows the two characters as they individually navigate through their own struggles and hesitancies, allowing an honest and rich romance to unfold. 

If I could only rewatch anything from this list — this movie would have to be it. 

Desert Hearts came out during an incredibly monumental time for the LGBTQIA+ community in the States. Though it was released after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which left an incomparable mark on our community, things were by no means easy.

Movie critic Judy Stone wrote that the film was “hailed by the gay press as a landmark film about lesbians,” given that it portrayed a lesbian romance “as casually as any heterosexual affair.”

Deitch did something remarkable and unthinkable (at the time) by creating a narrative that de-sensationalized lesbians during an era where queer narratives in film were notoriously sidelined. 

‘Go Fish’ (1994)

Almost ten years after Desert Hearts was released, the gays scored another victory: Go Fish. 

Source: IMDB

The film follows the lives and relationships of a group of young lesbian friends living in Chicago. The main character, Max (Guinevere Turner), is a young writer on the hunt for love. Her roommate, Kia (T. Wendy McMillan), is a college professor who is determined to play matchmaker and set her up with Evy (V.S. Brodie). 

Max initially shrugs that off because she says Evy is too much of a crunchy granola lesbian. Evy’s also uninterested in Max because she has a long-distance partner (who she hasn’t seen in over two years, I might add). 

Their friends encourage them to open up their hearts, and what unfolds is a beautiful, funny, and clever story about love, friendship, and infectious charm. 

This iconic movie was part of a series of LGBTQIA+ movies that came out in the 90s that were doing something that hadn’t been done before. They were telling profound, complex narratives featuring characters who were gay — rather than making the whole plot of the movie about their queerness. 

But it gets better! The movie was directed and co-written by two iconic and brilliant lesbians. Rose Troche (the director), and Guinevere Turner (who you might recognize from her role as Gabby Deveaux on the L Word). 

In a 1994 interview with the New Yorker, Turner said, “our sexuality is far more upfront than that of the older generation of lesbians.” 

So, is this worth a watch? You bet it is.

‘The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love’ (1995)

Maria Maggenti’s 1995 movie, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, was groundbreaking in its portrayal of lesbian romance at the time. 

Source: IMDB

Like Go Fish, this charming and tender film created a world in which the queer experience was represented outside of trauma. It tells the story of 17-year-old Randy (Laurel Holloman, also from the L Word), who’s close to flunking out of high school. When not at home, where she lives with her aunt, Rebecca (Kate Stafford), and her girlfriend, she’s at her job at a local gas station.

Enter Evie (Nicole Ari Parker), a popular student who comes from a wealthy family. They have a meet-cute at the gas station as Randy helps her put air in the back of her car — and after bumping into each other in the bathrooms at school, the rest is coming-of-age lesbian romance history.

The movie magically recreates exactly what it’s like to be that age and fall (awkwardly) head-over-heels in love for the first time. It’s full of endearing stumbles, physical comedy, and tender moments that will literally make you aww in the darkness of your living room. 

When the credits start rolling, we’re hit with the most iconic lesbian thing I have ever seen in my life — the director, Maggenti, dedicates the movie to her first girlfriend. Saying, “may our relationship finally rest in peace.”

The film is notable for its realistic portrayal of lesbian relationships and for its focus on the everyday lives of queer people. It features a diverse cast of characters, including people of color and trans actors — highlighting the importance of community, representation, and support within the LGBTQIA+ community.

Go Fish was well-received by critics and became a cult classic within the queer community. It’s still considered a landmark film in lesbian cinema and is credited with paving the way for more nuanced and realistic portrayals of queer characters in film and television.

‘Fire’ (1996)

Fire is the first installment in the Indo-Canadian erotic romantic drama trilogy written and directed by Deepa Mehta. It’s loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 lesbian romance story, Lihaaf (the Quilt). 

Source: MUBI

The film explores the relationship between two women, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), who are both trapped in unhappy marriages in a conservative Hindu community.

Radha and Sita’s bond deepens as they share their experiences of lovelessness and abuse in their respective marriages. As their relationship becomes more intimate, they must navigate the societal and cultural expectations of their community, which views queerness as a sin.

Now, while Radha and Sita’s romantic relationship is a core aspect of the movie’s plot, more so, Fire is at its core, a movie about emancipation and liberation.

When asked about the significance of the film, Mehta responded, “Fire is a film about loneliness. It is a film about the hypocrisy of our society today. It is a film about how women don’t have choices in a patriarchal set-up.” 

At the time of its release, a traditionalist party known as Shiv Sena called the film a threat to Indian culture and tradition. They claimed that there was no such thing as queerness in India. In a country with 122 languages and over 1600 regional variations and dialects, there is still no word for ‘lesbian’.  

Even though Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, and its scriptures are rich with same-sex, gender-queer and trans deities and Gods — colonization and European missionaries brought shame, oppression, and traditionalism to once magnetically liberal and free lands. 

Wafa, a reviewer of the film, perfectly encapsulated what I asked myself as I watched Fire: “I believe when art is so audaciously made you must at times forgo your critique and ask yourself one question; would I have been so brave to create this?” 

So, when we think of Fire, we must also take a moment to celebrate the magnitude of its braveness. It emerged at a time when it went against traditionalism, uplifting and advocating for true liberation — creating new conversations around long-existing topics surrounding oppression and inequality. Its impact can’t be overstated.

‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)

In 1996, actor-writer-filmmaker, Cheryl Dunye, released The Watermelon Woman, an outstanding work of cinema that’s still referenced as industry-altering to this day.

The seminal film, which is believed to be based on Dunye’s own life, centers around Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a young video-store clerk and aspiring director. Throughout the movie, she’s searching for a 1930s actress who was stuck playing stereotypical “mammy” roles, and was only ever credited as “the Watermelon Woman.” All while navigating her new relationship with Diana (Guinevere Turner).

Source: IMDB

Remember earlier when I said that the 1990s was full of queer films that were looking to shift the ways in which queerness had been previously represented in the industry? Well, this wave was called New Queer Cinema, and The Watermelon Woman is a landmark of this movement.

Not only does it feature a Black, queer protagonist — but it explicitly eschews narrative conventions, all while shedding light on the macro and microaggressions that Black people in America were facing at the time. 

The Watermelon Woman created its own “filmic language.” Its deep textures and narratives challenged boundaries, and social norms — demanding action. 

Spoiler ahead: When the movie ends, it’s revealed that Faith (The Watermelon Woman) never existed. That it was the one name that all Black actresses at the time, all individually unnamed, were credited under as they were erased from the history of cinema. 

The Watermelon Woman subverted traditional Hollywood narratives and empowers marginalized voices. 

As the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian woman, the film serves as a milestone in cinema, challenging dominant representations of identity and offering a rich and intersectional perspective. 

The film and its legacy have paved the way for further exploration of Black lesbian identities, experiences, and art in the film industry, and will continue to inspire and resonate with audiences for years to come.

‘Water Lilies’ (2007)

About a decade later, in 2007, 27-year-old Céline Sciamma’s debut film Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres), was released

Source: IMDB

Water Lilies is set in the humid, self-enclosed world of three teenage girls who are in a synchronized swimming team in suburban France. 

It centers around the love triangle (or, tbh, quadrangle) that emerges between Floriane (Adele Haenel), the team’s star swimmer, Marie (Pauline Acquart), who’s moody and quickly enamored by Floraine, and Anne (Louise Blachère) — Marie’s best friend, who has a thing for SomeGuy, François (Warren Jacquin), who Floraine is secretly dating. 

In short: Floraine is just chilling and casually entertaining Marie. Marie is actually in love with Floraine and secretly dating François. François is SomeGuy her best friend Anne is obsessed with. And they’re all fifteen. What can go wrong?! 

The movie is, at its core, an homage to emotional chess, friendship, and desire — one that up until that point, had been largely reserved for cis, straight narratives in the industry. 

In regards to the film, Sciamma said, “I want the audience to embrace the journey of being a girl. Everyone in the room has to identify [with] a fifteen-year-old teenage girl. That’s why there are no adults in the movie, nor boys.” 

Water Lilies is notable for its honest and nuanced portrayal of adolescent sexuality and desire. 

It examines the often confusing and emotional journey of self-discovery that teenagers experience and challenges traditional gender roles and stereotypes. The film was well-received by critics and has become a beloved coming-of-age story in French cinema.

‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’ (2013) 

By this point, the gays had been fed some beautiful and moving movies. So, when Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, hit the theaters and every queer person in the world was promised a lip-quivering, hypothalamus-scratching ride, you can imagine the excitement that ensued. 

About halfway through the movie, that excitement metamorphosized into a quiet and lonely kind of disappointment. 

Source: Slate

Now, by no means am I trying to sit here and pretend that I’m a master of cinema. I’m just a girl, standing in front of a reader, asking them to hear her out for a moment. 

I’m not saying that this movie was straight-up trash — there were a lot of visually striking moments, and it paved the way for some dialogue. That being said, queerness as portrayed and envisioned by straight people isn’t exactly remarkable to me, and many other fellow haters. 

This nearly three-hour-long movie found a way to take every lesbian trope and reduce it to its most basic and uncreative state. It felt like the movie was made for everyone and by everyone except lesbians. No, seriously. 

It felt patronizing, uncomfortable, distant, and like it was undoing so much of the work that filmmakers had been doing the decades prior in order to shift narratives away from these dumb-as-hell tropes. 

So, why am I adding it to this list? Because despite movies like Fire, The Watermelon Woman, and GoFish telling substantially deeper and more interesting lesbian narratives — this is the movie that most straight people reference when talking about queer cinema. 

That, and because sometimes we move forward — and things like this movie risk setting us back. 

I’m not exaggerating. Just read this brief review by Criterion, “It has captivated international audiences and been widely embraced as a defining love story for the new century.” Lol. 

‘Carol’ (2015)

Anyway, back to quality lesbian cinema — I present to you one of the best lesbian movies ever made, Carol. Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, quite literally changed my life. 

Source: The Austin Chronicle

Carol follows the life of Therese (Rooney Mara), a seasonal department-store clerk in her early 20s, who’s dating SomeGuy she doesn’t really like, is at a career crossroads, and loves a good hat. 

One day, when Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant, about-to-be-divorced woman, is out doing holiday shopping for her daughter — she meets Therese. She went in to get a doll and ends up walking out with a train set that Therese cleverly sells her.

From there, the story begins to really unfold. Lunch meetings, walks in decadent estates, Christmas gifts — the whole nine yards, and then some. 

But their story isn’t one of instant and passionate love — it’s rooted in something so much larger than that. Like Fire, it’s about empowerment, emancipation, and carving out a life that feels dignified and meaningful during an incredibly oppressive time.

Together, they must accompany each other as they learn what it truly meant to be two women in love in 1950s America. 

The film is notable for its exquisite attention to detail in recreating the period setting and for its stunning cinematography, which captures the intense emotions and subtle nuances of the two women’s relationship. 

The chemistry between Blanchett and Mara is palpable, and their performances have been widely praised.

Carol focuses on the love story between the two women rather than their sexuality and treats their relationship with gentleness, complexity, and authenticity.

‘The Handmaiden’ (2016)

Park Chan-wook’s, The Handmaiden, is an enveloping movie that will leave you breathlessly wondering just how such a plot was so cleverly constructed.

Loosely based on Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is equal parts a love story, revenge thriller, and a period piece. 

Source: Magazine HD

Set in the 1930s, in Japanese-occupied Korea, it carefully tells the story of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young petty-thief who was handpicked to be the new handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress.

But there’s a twist. Sook-hee is part of a great elaborate scheme to help Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) marry Hideko, take her money, and soon after have her committed. There’s just one small issue. Hideko and Sook-hee begin to fall in love. 

Throughout the film’s long, sweaty, and humid sex scenes — I found myself captivated by their larger meaning. The ease in which sexual desire and pleasure shifted from being liberating or oppressive, depending on who was in control of the larger vision and fantasy.

The Handmaiden is a landmark film in its portrayal of queer love in Korean cinema. It explores themes of gender, class, and power, while also featuring explicit and erotic lesbian sex scenes, which were a rarity in mainstream cinema at the time of its release. 

The film’s twists and turns, along with its stunning visuals, have been praised by critics and audiences alike, making it a modern classic in queer cinema.

It’s a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary lesbian cinema and is a testament to the power of storytelling to promote empathy, social change, and understanding.

‘Rafiki’ (2018)

Rafiki, Wanuri Kahiu’s stunning film, is all about exploring tender and affecting passion in a forbidden setting. 

Source: Film Movement

The film follows the daughters of two Kenyan political figures, Kena (Samantha Muatsia), and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). The issue? Ziki is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political rival.

They meet, and a connection is instantly felt despite their being opposites in every way.  As their relationship develops, they face disapproval and violence from their families and community, forcing them to choose between their happiness and safety.

Even though forbidden romance stories tend to naturally fall into some common tropes — Rafiki’s original depiction of first love, queerness, and vibrant youth was enough to carve out its own seat at the table of queer cinema. 

The screen is often used to represent feelings, leaving viewers with fragments of the action in a way where the most intimate moments seem larger than life.

Despite being the first Kenyan movie to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, Rafiki was still banned in its home country. Eventually, the ban was lifted for just seven days, so that it could be considered for an Academy Award. The film took over seven years to get made — a testament to Kahiu’s patience and perseverance. 

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ (2019)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 French historical drama film directed by Céline Sciamma (yup, the director of Water Lilies!)

This movie marked the beginning of yet another shift of lesbian romance in cinema, one that has been incredibly fulfilling to witness — and begins to draw us to a close today.

The movie is set in the late 18th century and follows the story of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who is commissioned to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who has just left a convent and is set to be married to a nobleman (aka, SomeGuy). 

To protest to her situation, Héloïse has refused to sit for the said portrait that she’ll take with her as she’s married off. Because she’s an icon. 

When Marianne arrives at Héloïse’s family home (which is very fancy, might I add), she’s instructed by Héloïse’s mother to paint her daughter’s portrait without her knowledge. Obviously, the only thing a girl was gonna do after spending her days observing Héloïse and trying to sketch her from memory, was fall in love. 

The more time they spend together, the more deeply they fall in love. They know they’re doomed — I mean, Marianne is quite literally painting a portrait that Héloïse is going to take off to her soon-to-be-SomeGuy-husband. 

But the soft dread that comes when two people know their love is both, perfect and impossible, is moving and enchanting enough to transport viewers into their temporary paradise of devotion.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautifully crafted film that explores the themes of love, loss, and the role of women in 18th-century society. 

The movie is visually stunning, with breathtaking shots of the Brittany coastline and powerful performances from its lead actresses. The film’s poignant and heartbreaking ending is a testament to the power of love and the sacrifice that often comes with it.

It will forever be remembered as a masterpiece of contemporary lesbian cinema and a powerful and nuanced exploration of the human heart and its deepest desires.

🙌 Thank you to the filmmakers who redefined lesbian romance on-screen, and to the ones that’ll continue doing so

It’s with a muddled mixture of pride, passion, and nostalgia that these movies will continue to be remembered as iconic works of art that help redefine lesbian romance on-screen. 

While we still have ways to go, simply sitting and reminiscing about our progress makes my heart swell with hope for more inclusive futures. 

Lesbian romance movies and plotlines are no longer simple-minded stories about even more simple-minded troubles or grief. They are full of complexities, vibrance, history, and dreams — and we have these brave and incredible filmmakers to thank for paving the way for the future of cinema. 

Daniela Ochoa-Bravo is a writer and creative based in Brooklyn, born in Bogotá. She is the Founder and Editor of Colectivo Tabú, a project dedicated to democratizing the publishing industry by creating a space where the works of emerging and established artists can seamlessly coexist alongside each other.

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