Why Are All Lesbian Films Set in the Past?

'Ammonite', 'Lizzie', 'The Favourite'... these period dramas are dazzling, But a contemporary lesbian story wouldn't go amiss.
Daisy Jones
London, GB
Ammonite Lesbian Bisexual Film Movies Lizzie The Favourite
Screenshot: See Saw Films

As a queer woman who also loves movies, the past handful of years have been full of treats: Rose from Titanic giving rampant lesbian head across a fossil bench. Rachel Weisz in an 18th century Trouser suit choking Olivia Colman against a bedpost. Kristen Stewart fingering Chloe Sevigny on a bale of hay. That scene in The Handmaiden with the 69ing. I could go on. 

The A to Z of Queer Women

All of this has come as a welcome relief. Half a decade or so ago, films which centralised queer women narratives were relatively few and far between. Those that did were usually the low budget kind that can now be found on the absolute backend of Netflix (Below Her Mouth, Loving Annabel) or else rife with trauma and death (Monster, Gia, Heavenly Creatures etc). These days, however, we have a much wider array of blockbusters to choose from, in which lesbian and bi stories are given real attention and care: Carol, Colette, Portrait Of a Lady On Fire, Lizzie, The Favourite, The Handmaiden and most recently, Ammonite, to name a few. 


The aforementioned films are dazzling, smart, intimate in various ways. Ammonite, which came out last week, is a retelling of the story of Mary Anning, a pioneering 19th century palaeontologist. With its minimal dialogue and bright, stark colouring, it positions romance as a deep, fragile thing, regardless of anyone's gender. It's gorgeous. But also, while watching yet another film starring repressed, bonnet-wearing lesbians giving each other loaded glances on the beach, I [Carrie voice] couldn't help but wonder: why are so many films about queer women set in the distant past? Why are all these films period dramas?

In many ways it makes sense that period dramas plus queerness would make for a satisfying equation. “Forbidden” sex and romance can feel particularly exciting on screen, and period dramas offer plenty of room to explore this. There's something thrilling and authentic about seeing two women dare to kiss, for instance, during a time in which same sex practices were illegal or unacknowledged. These scenes also give A-list actors the opportunity to flex their acting muscles in new ways: no one says “you gay?” in these films. Everything is communicated via intense lingering looks and brushing finger tips, which is also very hot.

That said, a few contemporary stories about queer women wouldn't go amiss either. It becomes tiring, only ever seeing lesbian and bi women within the context of historical oppression. It's almost as if writers and directors aren't sure what to “do” with their queer women characters unless there is a dangerous obstacle – such as it being the 1800s – to overcome. It's probably not completely irrelevant here to mention that, aside from Portrait of a Lady On Fire, all the aforementioned period dramas are directed by men. We are experiencing their version of lesbian and bi life.


Obviously not every single recent film about queer women is based in the distant past. Disobedience, for example, or The Miseducation of Cameron Post, out in 2017 and 2018 respectively. But the former is about the complexities of navigating queerness within Orthadox Jewish communities, while the latter is about being sent to conversion therapy. Both narratives could have been set in previous eras – they aren’t "modern" stories, necessarily, but rather timeless stories which are also set in modern times.

What I would really love to see is a properly budgeted blockbuster about queer women set in 2020 (or 2021 realistically, seeing as this year is a write off). I don’t mean an overlooked indie film, or a coming-of-age Netflix romp where the main character’s best friend could possibly be queer. I mean the kind of film that stars an A-lister, like Kate Winslet. The kind of film that might actually be shown at the cinema. The kind of film in which the main characters aren’t being stifled by their circumstances, or in a constant state of doomy yearning, but are instead doing the things that straight people do in films all the time: making out, getting wasted, having regular romances and break ups.

The recent wave of lesbian and bi-centred movies are works of art, undeniably. I have watched Carol, still the best of them imo, more times than I have fingers. Ammonite, similarly, did not disappoint. But it’s also okay to ask for a bit more sometimes. There were queer women in the 18th century. And there are still queer women today. So where are they?