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How Current Cinema is Decoding Lesbian Stereotypes Forged by the Hays Code

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This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today.

One of the biggest films to come out of the festival circuit last year, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is finally opening in theaters around the United States. Céline Sciamma’s love story is a marvel of a movie: beautifully shot, lyrically written, and emotionally unforgiving. This romance about a lesbian couple told by a lesbian filmmaker is more than just a fabulous film. It exemplifies everything that was barred from lesbians in cinema throughout history. To truly understand the years of codifying and stereotyping that filmmakers like Sciamma have to undo in order to tell lesbian stories, let’s take a step back in time.

As with most minorities in cinema, the full history in the early stages of filmmaking involving lesbians is scarce. This is especially true with any kind of queer cinema because the very survival of it depended on it being hidden within heterosexual films. During the silent era of filmmaking, there was more overt evidence of lesbian relationships because there weren’t strict regulations until the 1930s. Silents like Pandora’s Box and A Florida Enchantment showed clearer images of women together than what would follow in Hollywood. In one scene of the former (see the clip below), Louise Brooks dances with another woman, but after she is taken to talk to a group of people, the woman turns down a man who offers her a dance.

Though this may seem like a very small gesture in representation, an act like this meant a lot in a time when audiences gleaned more from what actors did on screen than what was said in a scene. The main character of Pandora’s Box (played by Brooks) is not necessarily phased by the interaction, but the camera cuts back to the woman on the dancefloor, looking longingly at Brooks. She turns a guy down, a defiant choice not to revert back to the affections of a man.

Moments like this were okay in early........

© Film School Rejects