Culture

Why Is Pop Culture Obsessed with Murderous Lesbians?

We can trace a blood-drenched, sociopathic line all the way from Hitchcock's 'Rebecca' to the new series of 'Killing Eve.'

by Daisy Jones; illustrated by Marta Parszeniew
16 April 2019, 8:00am

Lead collage by Marta Parszeniew (credits at the bottom of the page)

Warning: this piece contains spoilers from the films 'A Simple Favor', 'Lizzie', 'Rebecca' and 'Pandora's Box'.

Blake Lively hasn’t always been an icon for queer women. It happened last year, in September, approximately 45 minutes into the film A Simple Favor. In the relevant scene, she’s wearing a tailored grey suit jacket, balanced casually off her shoulders. Stephanie – played by Anna Kendrick – is on the sofa, spilling her darkest secrets to Lively’s character Emily. And before you know it, they’re making out. Stephanie breaks away suddenly, a little dismayed at herself. Emily looks unperturbed. “Oh that?” she says, shrugging off Stephanie’s embarrassment. “It’s all good, baby... Just another Tuesday.”

Blake Lively’s appeal in this film isn’t just her look – any rich person can throw on an expensive suit, wear a few hats and get a facial. The magnetism lies in her whole vibe. Her character comes across open-minded, yet unemotional. She’s charming and overtly sexual. And as the film goes on, she also seems calculating and detached, an enigma – and eventually, it turns out, murderous. After watching the film, I WhatsApped my friend immediately, “You have to see ‘A Simple Favour’,” I wrote, probably cackling out loud to myself because I'm horrible. “Blake Lively’s in it. And she’s queer. And a murderer!” A winning combination apparently.

Emily isn’t the first murderous queer woman to grace our screens though. She isn’t even the first to do so recently. The former crown probably goes to villainous housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca, itself an adaptation of a 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel, in which she tries to set her dead ex-lover’s lover’s new lover on fire (mood). Or at a reach you could say it was Lulu in Pandora’s Box, a 1929 German silent melodrama which sees a beautiful woman with a very evil shiny bob leave a trail of death and destruction behind her (there’s one subtly coded queer scene, so I think it counts).

Following that, the list snowballs: from 1990s ‘psycho dyke’ films like Basic Instinct, Heavenly Creatures and Bound, all the way up to the recent slew of queer-leaning stories with murderous leads, such as A Simple Favor, Lizzie, Women Who Kill and the unequivocal phenomenon that is BBC drama Killing Eve, whose second season begun in the US this week. But why exactly does this archetype persist? Is it inherently damaging? Can it be powerful? Or – like so many other things – does it depend on context?

Emma Smart, a programmer at BFI Flare, thinks the answer is complex and multifaceted. She recently put on a sold-out event at the festival, called Lethal Lesbians, which delved into these ideas at length. Like me, she reckons the ‘killer lesbian’ stereotype can be funny at times, camp, even empowering – especially when catering to the queer gaze. But equally, queerness shouldn’t always be presented as ‘deviant’, particularly when pop culture is often what queer kids turn to first when discovering themselves. “Having stereotypical portrayals of ourselves is difficult to always see,” she ponders. “It can lead to skewered ways in which the world sees us. But you can still find pleasure in seeing these people on screen, too.”

It’s worth pointing out here that not all murderous portrayals of queer women are born equal. On the one hand, we have films like Windows (1980), in which the lesbian lead is obsessive, predatory, essentially ‘othered’. But such films shouldn’t be lumped in with something like last year’s Lizzie, for example, in which Chloe Sevigny’s character is powerful and multidimensional; an outsider in more ways than her queerness. The latter, Emma says, is a narrative we’re seeing more of these days: “I do think there’s something different about recent films. These stories are being reclaimed, and they’re being positioned differently. They’re not these tragic figures, but figures who took agency in their own lives, in an over-the-top killing way, and actually got out from a trap they were in.”

That's also not to say these murderous queers are only appealing if their actions are – in some roundabout way – justified. Because that doesn’t explain our fascination with Villanelle from Killing Eve, or any number of mystifying sociopathic characters like her. But there is something to be said about the ‘queer gaze’ in regard to queer characters. Villanelle isn’t some catsuited Lara Croft-type figure with bedroom eyes. She’s a shapeshifter. She wears a thumb ring. She carries a tiny knife. “The ones that work best are definitely those which have some sort of ‘queer sensibility’ in the making, like the film Breaking the Girls, which has a queer filmmaker and screenwriter,” Emma agrees. “The reason Killing Eve works is because it’s told by women, which is why we’ve embraced it so much.”

If you asked me why I personally find lethal lesbians on screen appealing, I probably couldn’t give you a straight answer. It would take a lot of digging into my psych, and into the psych of pop culture at large, to work this one out. Maybe it’s because I’ve been subconsciously taught to view my sexuality as somehow deviant, or unhinged (although I don’t think so...). Maybe it’s because visibility is visibility, and I’d rather see two women hooking up on screen than not at all, even if there’s murder involved (although that feels simplistic). Maybe everyone – regardless of sexuality – enjoys a complex, enigmatic character in some sense, and being a killer embodies this in a taboo way (because what is more unknowable than literal murder?). Or maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe I just think Blake Lively can work a suit.

@daisythejones / @m.parszeniew

Collage: Villanelle in 'Killing Eve' (via); Emily Nelson in 'A Simple Favor' (via); Lizzie in 'Lizzie' (via); Catherine and Roxy in 'Basic Instinct' (via); Mrs Danvers in 'Rebecca' (via), Lulu in 'Pandora's Box' (via).