We’ve all done it. You’re watching a movie and you let out a yelp in fright; or guffaw at a comedic moment line; or simply cheer. And then you realise: it’s in the middle of the night on a long haul flight and you’ve woken up half the cabin. My most recent on-board cheer was a small but significant moment because it was the first lesbian moment I had seen in a movie for what seemed like forever.
It was at the end of ‘This is Where I Leave You’, where a widowed Jane Fonda snogs the face off her female neighbour. It wasn’t a long moment. The kiss lasted about 10 seconds and the dialogue after it around two minutes. But given the famine of Sapphic film fodder, I replayed it again and again until a rather nervous looking air stewardess gave me a dubious look. I wanted to explain the reason for my rapture. Not only did the scene involve my first girl crush but, in three years of movie watching: on flights, with the wife for the Bafta shortlist, in the cinema, on the television, via the web… that was probably the only lesbian scene that I had seen. I could count the miner’s wife kissing the token lesbian in the otherwise fabulous Pride. But I won’t.
According to an audit by the BFI Festival office, the portrayal of lesbians on the big screen has been pretty miserly, with only nine movies with significant lesbian content distributed in the three years prior to 2015.
No such dearth in the portrayal of gay men, with a stonking 29 movies dedicated to gay male subject matter in the same period. Heck, they’ve even dominated the awards season for the last few years. This year, The Imitation Game won an Oscar for its screenplay and Hong Khaou’s Lilting was a breakthrough nominee at the Baftas, whilst Pride won a Bafta for outstanding debut film.
Look, this isn’t jealousy thing. I am as chuffed as the next lesbian when one of “my people” win an award. And even though a relatively few lesbian-themed movies have been nominated for awards, let’s face it: the nearest a lesbian has got to an Oscar was when Ellen Degeneres hosted them last year.
So, wherefore the Disappearing Lesbians?
Some people think they’ve migrated to the small screen, and to a certain extent I would agree. In recent years there has been the groundbreaking The L Word and the hip Lip Service, and lesbian characters in dramas such as Waterloo Road, Last Tango in Halifax and Call the Midwife.
Blimey, even Broadchurch had a lesbian kiss between Charlotte Rampling and Maggie Radcliffe. Perhaps older lesbians are more de rigueur.
However, The L Word and Lip Service are long gone, and the lesbian characters in drama series are always temporary, transient and tedious (do something with Coronation Street’s Sophie Webster, for goodness sake!)
The loveliest lesbian relationship on British television, by far, has just been killed (literally in a hit and run) by Last Tango in Halifax writer Sally Wainright. This was swiftly followed by another lesbian accident in Call the Midwife, which has had fans complaining online about the BBC’s continuing reliance on the “lesbian death cliché”.
So if you count and compare the amount of small screen time dedicated to gays with that dedicated to lesbians, the boys win it again. There are whole series devoted to boy-on-boy action. In the US, there is HBO’s superbly understated Looking and the timely The New Normal, whilst almost every television series has major gay characters: Modern Family, Revenge and How to Get Away With Murder, to name just three.
In Britain we have the wonderfully relevant Cucumber (where is the lesbian Russell T Davies when you need her?) but whereas the expertly drawn male characters inhabit the main channel, the weaker lesbian characters are relegated to Banana on the digital channel E4.
Maybe it is only on the digital channels and the web that lesbians can flourish. For sure this territory has proved fertile with Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, whose concept rests on the relationship between the two main female protagonists and which features a smorgasbord of characters, all mostly lesbian.
But this one series does not satisfy the lesbian appetite. So why are we being starved? Is it to do with a lack of writers, either lesbian identified or empathetic to lesbian stories, or does it lie with the television commissioners and studio executives who think that a “gay quota” is inclusive of both gays and lesbians and that the lesbian appetite is sated by serving dramas about gay men.
After working in British television for 15 years, five as the commissioner responsible for gay and lesbian programming at Channel 4, I know there are lesbian voices out there writing, directing and producing talent.
While some complained about ghetto programming, at least it provided the funding and space in the schedule for this burgeoning talent. It also did nothing to harm the Channel 4 remit, whilst similar programming zones on the BBC helped with its diversity quota.
As a nursery slope, it did work. Look at Lisa Cholodenko, whose short films were supported by Channel 4 in the late 90s, and who went on to write and direct the one mainstream lesbian hit of the last few years, the delightful The Kids are Alright, the only lesbian movie in recent years that got within smelling distance of an Oscar.
It would seem that the only dedicated screening space for lesbian films now are the LGBT film festivals, but organisers of this year’s BFI Flare festival have recognised the relative lack of lesbian films with a session titled “Where are all the lesbians?”
We need more lesbian drama on all screens: cinema, television, computer and mobile. And as soon as you can please.
• This article was amended on 25 March 2015 to remove the claim that Delia was “killed off” in Call the Midwife. In fact, she was hit by a car and left with no memory
BFI Flare “Where are the lesbians?”, ran on 25th March 2015, 12pm-1pm, as part of BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival.