LGBTQ

Lesbians Deserve More Sex Scenes Like The One in 'Disobedience'

Much of the modern lesbian film canon is based on books by women, but all too often, the good stuff is lost in translation.

by Rachel Rabbit White
26 February 2019, 8:30am

Disobedience, 2017 (Photo via IMDb)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Where are the good lesbian movies?

It’s a question so synonymous with a queer coming of age that to ask it is essentially a rite of passage. From the time of video rental stores to the current era of streaming, young queers have had to slog through a lot of movies that are simply bad in order to find something that feels real, palatable—never mind horny and also artful.

The lesbian movie is still connected to a sort of softcore mise-en-scene, even as more films with lesbian characters have reached mainstream cinema in recent years. While The Handmaiden (2016) offered a visual spectacle, some queer critics took issue with the way the male director handled the sex scenes, the women’s lithe bodies arranged in perfect symmetry, like “an immaculately arranged tableaux.”

Blue is The Warmest Color (2013) featured a seven-minute sex scene that took ten days to shoot, all wide angle shots lingering on the women’s bodies, a scene made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the actresses said that shooting made them “feel like prostitutes.”

Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which Blue is the Warmest Color was based took issue with the scene, saying, “as a lesbian it appears there was something missing from the set: lesbians.” The Handmaiden was also based on a novel by a lesbian, Sarah Waters, and 2015’s Carol was another film by a male director based on a novel by a gay woman, Patricia Highsmith.

Disobedience (2017) is seemingly the latest in this trend of lesbian prestige cinema. Known as the movie where Rachel Weisz spits in Rachel McAdam’s mouth, it’s directed by a man—Sebastian Lelio—and based on the novel by Naomi Alderman. Rachel Weisz has a producer’s credit on the film and specifically sought the project outl she’s been vocal about how she was looking to tell a story with two female protagonists, and how the surest way to make that happen would be to make them each other’s love interest. Both actresses have been almost giddy in talking about their chemistry to the press, which they note, is apparent in the movie’s one sex scene.

The film is about the relationship between queerness and conformity. Rachel Weisz (who's perhaps best-known these days for her role in The Favourite, another overtly queer film) plays Ronit, a bisexual photographer who ran away to New York to escape her Orthodox Jewish community in North London. Traveling home after her father’s death, she is reunited with Esti (played by Rachel McAdams) her childhood friend who has chosen the opposite path, wearing conservative dress and a sheitel, the wig worn by some Orthodox Jewish women to conform with the requirement of covering their hair.

As Esti and Ronit reacquaint themselves, it becomes clear that the two shared more than a friendship. Because of this, we realize, Ronit decided to escape to New York, while Esti stayed and decided to stay and live a traditional, heterosexual life with her husband Dovid.

The six-minute-long scene comes a little over an hour into the movie, after a lot of build up. They’ve kissed, been caught, and finallydecided to go for it, getting a hotel room. The scene is so drenched with tension, you can smell it. There’s a tenderness as Ronit removes Esti’s sheitel and unsnaps her leotard. The women remain clothed as they moan, fingers in each other’s mouth, in underwear, tongues wildly searching for each other. The money shot comes with Ronit tenderly holding Esti’s head as Esti opens her mouth, moaning, tongue pulsing, waiting for Ronit to spit in it. Although the scene is extreme, it’s incredibly hot and realistic for forgoing unrealistic acrobatics, and because the women stay clothed, the male gaze doesn’t invite us to evaluate their bodies.

In contrast to this is the sex between Esti and her husband, a rote affair that happens every Friday. In a somber and slow scene, we are shown Dovid and Esti undressing and getting into bed to consummate their marriage. It is a clinical scene, devoid of passion, in which a husband and a wife who hold each other dear are made aware of the painful differences that separate them and how their obligations stop them from living otherwise. Dovid is a devoted and gentle husband, but that doesn’t alleviate the structure of dominance in which he and Esti live.

Queerness inherently defines itself against the status quo, against normalcy, so it’s a bit of a misnomer to have a film that’s both queer and mainstream or popular. In their book Queer Cinema in the World, Karl Schoonover and Rosaline Galt explain that popular depictions of out lesbian and gay men read as Western neocolonialism rather than as queer radicality: “Critiques of homonormativity find troubling precisely those places where formerly oppositional LGBT activism has fallen for the trappings of the mainstream, limiting queer aspiration to the same bourgeois citizenship, repressive institutions, and limited lives that hetero society prescribes.”

If heteronormativity holds the “regular is best” approach to sex, it means that good queer sex scenes will often, if not always, surprise the critic by reaching out for the unexpected. The critic’s appeals to realism or to a proper representation of sex will always be misguided because queerness is in its own meaning an expression of defiance of norm and of freedom. We deserve more lesbian sex scenes like the one in Disobedience; lesbians deserve sex scenes that slap, sex scenes that are willing to challenge our expectations of what is realistic in sex, and that inspire us to move and imagine beyond the habitual, for a way of life that can hold together love, pleasure, freedom, and nastiness.