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When Will Lesbian Films Have Their 'Moonlight' Moment?

Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to queer female representation.
Illustration: Lia Kantrowitz

Hours after Moonlight won its historic Best Picture Oscar last month, GLAAD's website posted the triumphant headline "Moonlight is first LGBTQ film to win best picture"—as always, a victory for one letter in our acronym is greeted as a victory for all corners of the queer diaspora. But while that principle may hold true when we win legislative and legal battles, it raises the question: will Moonlight's success, as a film about queer men, make things any easier for films about queer women? Because when you look beyond headlines, it becomes clear that there is no such thing as "LGBTQ films." Each subset of the queer community has its own cinematic heritage and future, and their fates, though interconnected, are hardly the same.


First, the numbers. Of the fifty highest-grossing queer films of all time, according to Box Office Mojo, only nine are focused on gay or bisexual women, and only one of those breaks the top ten. (Granted, that's not an all-inclusive list, but it's one of the best available.) GLAAD's annual Studio Responsibility Index, which monitors Hollywood representation for the entire queer community, doesn't paint a compelling portrait either. In 2015 (the most recent report available), only 17.5 percent of mainstream releases featured LGBTQ characters. But of those 17.5 percent, 77 percent of those films featured gay men. Only 23 percent featured lesbians; bisexual and trans characters lagged far behind, representing an abysmal 9 and 5 percent, respectively.

Lesbian films—here meaning films that depict romantic relationships between queer women of all stripes—face a double-edged sword in Hollywood. They must contend not only with homophobia writ large, but difficulties faced by all female-fronted films in an industry notoriously unwilling to invest in them. Indeed, lesbian cinema arguably shares more problems with films about straight women than films about gay men. As film critic Scott Mendelson writes, "male-driven hits are often seen as something that can be duplicated and replicated, while female-driven hits are often seen as flukes." Year after year, studies show that women command less than a third of all speaking roles in mainstream Hollywood films. It may be obvious, but no industry that consistently fails the Bechdel Test can truly serve queer female audiences.


Even our success stories are riddled with asterisks. 2013's Blue Is The Warmest Color and Park Chan Wook's 2016 film The Handmaiden were both mainstream critical darlings widely criticized by queer women for perpetuating the male gaze and their aggressively graphic yet bafflingly unrealistic depictions of lesbian sex. Even 2015's Carol, which won near-universal acclaim from both straight and queer audiences, failed to garner a single Oscar win despite six nominations, which many felt spoke to pervasive Hollywood homophobia and misogyny. "I was at the NewFest screening of Carol when screenwriter Phyllis Nagy spoke about how hard it was to get the movie made. It took over a decade," Autostraddle senior editor Heather Hogan told me. "Even after the main cast had signed on, it took years for a studio to get behind it, which seems ridiculous, right? It's Cate Blanchett in a period piece, and she's gay on top of it. It's Academy Awards catnip."

Hogan emphasized that the vast majority of LGBTQ Oscar darlings that came before Carol haven't centered on lesbians, from Brokeback Mountain to Dallas Buyers Club to Milk. "Lesbian movies are a double-whammy of Hollywood terror: It's women. And it's women who don't need men," as she summed it up.

Despite the significantly tougher path female-fronted films must tread, Hollywood can't bear all the blame; part of what we're witnessing may be a genre facing an awkward adolescence. As Angela Robinson, writer-director of 2004 lesbian romantic comedy D.E.B.S, put it, "I'm not even sure what [lesbian film] means anymore. I knew what it meant. When I made D.E.B.S., [the goal was] to make a 'lesbian movie,' for expressly creative but also political purposes. But now I don't feel like that in and of itself is greenlight-able." With queer women's culture facing an overarching state of flux—even the word "lesbian" itself is a site of contention—our films can't help but reflect that confusion.

If there's any cause for optimism in the modern landscape of queer female filmmaking, it's the increased diversity—for women, people of color, and sexual minorities on the whole—that the Trump administration may be encouraging. "I actually think the Trump presidency is going to have profound implications on the content that's going to be made in the next couple of years," said Robinson. "Many in Hollywood were lulled into a false sense of security that everything was fine. And it's been a pretty seismic shock that, oh yeah, a lot of the country is still racist and homophobic, and the need for telling stories is still important." However, she cautions that "the pendulum may swing, but it'll still have to be a new wave of fresh stories. I do think those will get financing, I just don't know what they are."

Robinson (herself a black lesbian) thinks that Moonlight's success might make it easier to pitch a story about black lesbians, but credits the shift to its financial success, rather than an imagined Hollywood moral imperative. "I do think in a post- Moonlight world, there is an opportunity across the board, but I always think it's harder for women than men," she said. "I sense some movement on the race question in Hollywood, which is historical, but the misogyny is still alive and kicking."

Of course, Moonlight's commercial success and critical acclaim are significant milestones. It would be wrong to suggest that Carol, a big budget period piece about white lesbians, has more intrinsic value than Moonlight, a low budget contemporary story about black gay men. The best thing that can be said about our current cinematic moment is that Hollywood may finally be beginning to learn that diverse stories—in the most intersectional sense of the term—are in both its philosophical and financial best interest. But until that lesson becomes as true for women as it is for men, to borrow from straight cinema, gay films will always be like Titanic's Rose on the door, with lesbian filmmaking like Jack in the water: neither in a great position, but one with a much better shot of making it to the lifeboat.

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