We’ve come a long way, baby. As celebrations continue across the country for LGBT Pride Month (especially after the Supreme Court decision making gay marriage legal in all fifty states), it’s a great time to look back and see how far queer women’s stories have come in cinema. Over the decades, the state of lesbian film has mirrored the progress LGBT advocates have made politically. The portrayal of same-sex attraction on screen has gone from tragic sickness to unspoken secret to self-acceptance and beyond. Yet for all the strides lesbian and bisexual characters have made in film, there’s still a ways to go.
The release later this year of the high-profile projects “Carol” and “Freeheld” could signal the next step in mainstream lesbian films. But until then, here’s a chronological look at ten films that show the progress we’ve made on the big screen. Happy Pride and happy watching.
1) “Madchen in Uniform” (1958)
The German film (which translates to “Girls in Uniform”) was a remake of an earlier 1931 German film of the same name. The story of a young woman who falls in love with her boarding-school teacher featured what the New York Times acknowledged at the time to be “incipient lesbianism.” The two share a kiss while practicing a scene from “Romeo & Juliet.” The student later admits her “unnatural” desires to the whole school, which causes a scandal that drives her to attempt suicide. But her fellow students stop her from throwing herself down a stairwell. Available on Wolfe Video.
2) “The Children’s Hour” (1961)
If you’re looking for the origin of the “Dead Lesbian Syndrome,” look no further than this Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine boarding-school drama. The two friends open a private girls school together, only to have their lives upended when one of the students falsely accuses them of having a lesbian affair. MacLaine’s character ultimately confesses that she actually is in love with her friend. The revelation that she is “guilty” and “sick and dirty” causes MacLaine’s character to hang herself. Since “The Children’s Hour,” the tragic lesbian storyline has played itself out in numerous subsequent films, from “Lost & Delirious” to “High Art” and TV shows from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “E.R.” and “Chicago Fire.” Thankfully the tearful admissions of self-loathing and revulsion depicted in “The Children’s Hour” have become few and far between. Available on Amazon Instant Video.
3) “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975)
Yet another film set in an all-girls boarding school, this Australian mystery revolves around a group of students and their teacher who disappear after an outing. While there is never any overt mention of it, the story features strong lesbian subtext. One of the students in particular expresses her affection for another, though it’s unclear whether it is reciprocated. The underlying themes of same-sex attraction, sexual repression and hysteria are left open-ended as well. The film notably ends without answering clearly what happens to the girls. Available on Hulu.
4) “Personal Best” (1982)
This Mariel Hemingway film about a relationship that develops between two female track stars vying to make the Olympic team came out in a time when there was only one out queer female pro athlete: Martina Navratilova. Since then, professional sports has seen a slew of women come out, from Billie Jean King to Patty Sheehan, Sheryl Swoopes to Megan Rapinoe and Brittney Griner. Still, because of the stereotypes about lesbians in sports, the professional sports’ locker-room closet door continues to be one that some athletes seem reluctant to open. Considered a watershed at the time, the film featured a love scene between its two female leads. But Hemingway’s character ends the film in a relationship with a man. Available on iTunes.
5) “Desert Hearts” (1985)
Considered the first romantic drama to feature a truly happy ending for its queer female characters, the landmark film by Donna Deitch was based on a book by lesbian author Jane Rule. Vivian, a college professor from New York, travels to Nevada to get a quickie divorce from her husband. While staying at a ranch for women, she meets free-spirited Cay. The two begin an affair, which is complicated by worries about what their friends and colleagues will think. But ultimately, the string of lights they’ve placed around each other’s hearts wins out ,and they ride off on a train together. The through-the-window, in-the-rain kiss between Cay and Vivian is seen as an iconic moment in lesbian film. Available on Netflix.
6) “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991)
Imagine a whole film about a lesbian couple that never acknowledges they’re a lesbian couple. That’s “Fried Green Tomatoes,” which got spun by Hollywood into a feel-good chick flick about the Depression-era friendship between two women. While the Fannie Flagg novel the film is adapted from never discusses their lesbianism directly, it makes clear their relationship is romantic and that the entire town is aware of their situation. It was another sign of lesbian invisibility of the time that two women could live together, raise a child, start a business and care for each other in sickness and in health, yet still somehow be considered just “gal pals” on screen. Available on Netflix.
7) “Chasing Amy” (1997)
Any movie where a lesbian character has sex with Ben Affleck is a movie that fundamentally does not understand lesbianism. See also: “Gigli.” Available on Netflix.
8) “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999)
This teen comedy about a high school cheerleader who gets sent to gay-conversion therapy by her conservative parents played up the Technicolor camp. Starring Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall as students who meet at the ex-gay camp and fall in love, the film took great pleasure at lampooning the hypocrisy and idiocy behind conversion therapy. Its leads were given a happy ending, complete with a custom-made queer cheer. Sadly, the practice of conversion therapy remains today. So far only three states — New Jersey, California and Oregon — ban the practice on minors by licensed medical professionals. Available on iTunes.
9) “Loving Annabelle” (2006)
The film is a modern-day take on “Madchen in Uniform.” A rebellious senator’s daughter, Annabelle, is sent to an all-girls Catholic boarding school (yes, another one) as her last chance. There, she meets and pursues her teacher, Simone, who is still mourning the death of her former girlfriend. Annabelle is candid with her fellow students about her past relationships with women, and her sexuality is treated more as a cool badge of honor than a scandalous detail. The film ends, like the original, with the teacher and student torn apart. But the barriers to their happiness have more to do with the school’s religious doctrine and rules against teacher-student relationships than societal scorn of their sexual orientation. Available on Wolfe Video.
10) “Pariah” (2011)
Dee Rees’ debut feature was a deeply nuanced look at butch lesbian identity. The story follows 17-year-old Alike as she comes to terms with herself and her family. It starts out with her leaving her home each day in more conservative clothes and then changing for school into tomboy attire. The conflicts in “Pariah” come from within the household, with Alike’s strict mother’s disapproval of her appearance and refusal to accept her sexual orientation. The film also explores the African-American butch identity as Alike seeks to become comfortable in her own skin. In the end, she rejects her mother’s rejection of her, choosing instead to leave for college early and begin forging her own identify. Available on iTunes.