Lesbian Gaze – ‘Oral sex – and no scissoring!’; How the lesbian gaze changed cinema
Shot by straight male directors, lesbian sex scenes are all too often pornographic fantasy. But now film-makers are portraying a more realistic experience
The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Photograph: Richard Hutchings
Google “sexiest movie lesbian scenes” and you will find a lot of tawdry thrillers. Cruel Intentions, Wild Things, Basic Instinct … hot stuff, maybe, but not the most realistic or responsible depiction of what women actually do in bed together. Think two feminine women posing for the camera, tongues visible and hands brushing over breasts, only occasionally digits going lower (eg Bound). The visual focus is usually on the women’s bodies, rather than the pleasure they are getting from each other. Even arthouse hits such as Blue is the Warmest Colour have divided audiences: many gay women complained that the seven-minute scene in the film was unrealistic, directed by a man according to his own fantasies – something the lead actors backed up.
“Historically, lesbian sex scenes have predominantly been directed by men, and have a male gaze, the male fantasy of ‘girl on girl action’, much like that found in pornography,” says Ita O’Brien, who consults on film sets as an intimacy coordinator and movement director. Chanya Button, who is directing the upcoming Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West biopic, Vita and Virginia, starring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki, says: “We’ve seen many sex scenes over the years that are really a functional punctuation point at the end of a sequence of scenes. They’re about seduction, and focused around male pleasure. This does not give a true depiction of the quality and focus of lesbian sexual expression.”
However, this could be about to change. Desiree Akhavan’s upcoming film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring Chloë Grace Moretz and based on the book by Emily M Danforth, features several girl/girl scenes that are both believable and sexy. Moretz’s character, Cameron, is sent to a Christian gay-conversion centre, where she receives a very credible orgasm from a female roommate, and remembers her sexual explorations with her best friend, shown in flashback. The scenes are slightly messy and spontaneous – often the reality of female erotic pleasure. Akhavan showed similar nous in her semi-autobiographical 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, in which she starred as a bisexual woman. Other recent films praised by the LGBTQ+ community have included Angela Robinson’s 2017 biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women – about the psychologist who created Wonder Woman – and last year’s Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes, although the marketing for the latter played down the lesbian plotline.
So, which other films have done a good job? Preferences and experiences differ, of course, but I took a straw poll of lesbian, bisexual and queer women to see if there was any consensus. Desert Hearts (1985), But I’m A Cheerleader (1999), La Belle Saison (2015) and The Handmaiden (2016) were all praised; Blue is the Warmest Colour split the vote once again, mostly due to “scissoring” being judged an unlikely first bedroom encounter; 2016’s Below Her Mouth was popular in a guilty-pleasure kind of way, and while it is more focused on lesbian erotica than story or convincing dialogue, it is notable for its all-female crew.
All of the above were written or directed by women (or both). The writer and director Jacquie Lawrence – whose first novel Different for Girls follows a group of lesbian and bisexual women through their lives – thinks this is a key difference. “I believe the gaze of a lesbian or bisexual woman director is completely different to the gaze of a straight man. The object of desire is the same, but the emotional connect is different. The positions and situations have to be authentic. I hate it when two women orgasm without touching. Plus, if you show digital penetration, make sure you cut the actresses’ nails. Some scenes are too eye-watering to watch when you realise the main character has been penetrated by her lover, who is wearing inch-long fingernails. Ouch!”
Sick of unrealistic sex scenes, Lawrence created Lesbian Box Office, Europe’s first channel wholly dedicated to lesbian/bi content, which features a webseries adaptation of Different for Girls. “We cover myriad lesbian sex scenes. There is the implication that a strap-on is used, which is almost never shown in lesbian drama. There is tender oral sex. There is absolutely no scissoring! These women are in their 40s and have gone through childbirth. That position is hard enough when you’re in your early 20s.”
Not all male-directed sex scenes fail with LGBTQ+ audiences. The Handmaiden was directed by a man, Park Chan-wook, although it was based on a novel by Sarah Waters, with a female co-screenwriter. The 2017 drama Princess Cyd, about 16-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) and her famous novelist aunt, Miranda Ruth (Rebecca Spence), is a portrait of coming-of-age sexuality. Writer-director Stephen Cone says he sought out the advice of gay women to ensure the love scene between two young women was as accurate and tender as possible: “The first thing I did was give the script to some female friends of mine, queer and straight, to see if it rang true and passed muster. If it had not, I would not have made the film.”
Hiring an expert is good practice. As Lawrence says: “If the director is not a lesbian or a bisexual woman, then there have to be lesbian sex consultants on set.” Button agrees: “Whenever you’re making a film about something not within your own experiences, you need to take the time to talk to people whose experience it is. It’s about empathy, diligence, about doing your research.” Button is emphatic that anyone can direct a lesbian film with the right attitude. “I’m fully open to the idea that men could tell that story. If we just limited ourself to making work about our own experience, I think that’s a dangerous place to be.”
The future looks brighter for lesbian love stories. Disobedience is an excellent adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel telling the story of a woman who returns to the strict Orthodox Jewish community of her childhood after her father’s death. It features thoughtful love scenes – in one particularly intimate moment, Rachel Weisz dribbles spit into Rachel McAdams’s mouth. The bisexual actor Kristen Stewart will take on her first openly queer role in Lizzie – the forthcoming biopic about Lizzie Borden, who was prosecuted and then acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. She will play the lover of Lizzie – with Chloë Sevigny in the title role. Meanwhile, Ellen Page and Kate Mara will star in My Days of Mercy about two women on opposing sides of death-row politics who fall in love. An upcoming adaptation of Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel about a love affair between two women in 1950s rural Scotland, Tell It To The Bees, will see Annabel Jankel directing Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger.
With many of these forthcoming films featuring young women, Lawrence thinks film-makers have further to go. “We have to get over the coming-out sex. I really don’t want to watch teenage girls having their first sexual experience. We need to represent older lesbians having sex. And I think we have to break the constraints of seeing lesbian sex as between two femme women. We have to move past binary representations.”
Button’s Vita and Virginia may go some way towards reaching this goal: Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) was a cross-dresser, and the film will play with gender fluidity, exploring how Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) conceived of the book Orlando. “The film is an alternative look at the artist and muse, and how a specific moment in their lives inspired Orlando,” says Button. “It explores that world of intimacy without the sense of being predatory. Our film is about many things in Virginia’s world, connecting to her body and sexuality. Sex is powerful and interesting and shows human beings at their most vulnerable, but it must always be justified in its detailed approach.”
Once again, it all comes down to a responsible attitude.” It’s an inside-out way of approaching it, rather than an outside view of: ‘What’s hot? What do I imagine two women do to each other that can titillate an audience?’” says Button. As with Cameron Post, well-judged depictions of lesbian sex have the potential to be even more erotic, which seems like the way to go. After all, if you still want pure fantasy, there’s always Wild Things on DVD.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is released on 7 September, Disobedience on 30 November