Why Are Movies About Queer Women Mostly Terrible?
Four writers discuss the latest lesbian film — which stars Katherine Heigl and Alexis Bledel — and its place in the storied history of bad popular gay cinema. When so few lesbian films manage to get made, why aren't more of them any good?
Jenny’s Wedding is a 2015 independent film written and directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue. Jenny (Katherine Heigl) decides to marry her live-in gal pal, Kitty (Alexis Bledel) — but Jenny’s conventional Midwestern family has long since been under the impression that Jenny and Kitty are just roommates. As the wedding nears, Jenny’s parents and sister have to decide if they’ll accept Jenny for who she is, gayness and all. The film currently has a 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Four women invested in the representation of queer women in popular culture gathered by group Gchat to discuss why so few lesbian films actually manage to get made — and why those that actually do see the light of day are, for the most part, pretty bad.
Shannon Keating: What struck you guys as off about Jenny’s Wedding, if anything?
Sarah Karlan: First of all, Izzie Stevens playing a lesbian had so much promise, especially when you have Izzie Stevens dating Rory Gilmore. How did it all go so wrong when it was perfect in my head?
Brittani Nichols: It sure did lean on the "I can't change" part of that Mary Lambert song to do a lot of the emotional lifting. But I wouldn't say it was a bad movie. I'd say it was bad at being a lesbian movie. And boring. And long. And we've just been there before. But at the same time, I don't think we should stop making coming-out movies just because that story has been told before.
Ellen Cushing: I disagree, Brittani! Jenny's Wedding is, without a doubt, a Bad Movie, full stop — like, politics aside, it's just treacly and trite and weirdly boring. But in terms of queer politics, it felt like it was conceived of in a world that doesn't entirely exist anymore.
Sarah: Apparently Donoghue based the film off of her niece’s coming out (Jenny IRL). So my question is…what year did this all go down for their family? It feels like it takes place in a vacuum or in an underground bunker with no internet. I would have believed it more if they simply made the film take place a few years ago — placed some time markers in there that made it clear this is not 2015 — because it felt like 1990.
Ellen: It felt very '90s to me! And not just because of Katherine Heigl's wardrobe.
Brittani: I think we might be jaded, though. I mean, it's not like this [coming-out] story doesn't still happen today. It does. And as far as lesbian films go, this was sort of something new in terms of having big-name actresses.
Sarah: Speaking of being jaded, I searched for tweets about Jenny’s Wedding on Twitter and it’s clear a lot of people DID love this film. People were saying they cried, watched it five times, that it "hit to close to home."
Shannon: That's crazy to me.
Sarah: So for some it’s still filling that void of seeing your story on the big screen, even if it’s not exactly...well told.
Shannon: Totally. I do think that many queers are just so starved for any kind of representation that seeing A-list actresses tell this story could have been a big deal to them. But can we talk about the chemistry between Jenny and Kitty?
Brittani: There was a moment they hugged and I was like, "Oh no, they're going to act like this is a hugging moment when this is clearly a kissing moment" — but then they stopped hugging and backed away from each other and went in for a kiss and it was so awkward that I wished they'd only hugged.
Shannon: Total kiss count, of the whole film: three. Right? Three kisses.
Ellen: One of which was filmed from like 100 yards away.
Sarah: Three kisses, and no wedding kiss. That was unreal to me. I mean, I don't need a full-blown lez orgy sex scene. I don't. But if this is Jenny's Wedding, I would like to see the wedding kiss! Because I'm a romantic. And there was no romance to me in this.
Ellen: To be fair, it wasn't really a love story, though — it was much more about Jenny's relationship with her family, and Alexis Bledel's character was sort of an empty vessel.
Brittani: I think it was clear this was a movie made for the "mainstream" and not for lesbians. At least some lesbian movies, no matter how bad, were made with us in mind.
Sarah: That's true. It didn't feel like a "made by us for us" film. It was "made by them for them.” “Them” being the general population of non-queer people.
Shannon: Like in a "here's why you should accept your gay children" way?
Sarah: Was this for parents? WHO WAS THIS FOR? I thought the plotline about Jenny's sister's dead lawn was more enticing and filled with passion than Jenny’s relationship plotline.
Shannon: Yes! Jenny's sister and her deadbeat husband were a more interesting couple than Jenny and Kitty. Let the record show that the girlfriend's name...is Kitty.
Brittani: That was painful.
Sarah: Who signed off on that? Lesbian girlfriend: Kitty. Sounds good!
I have to believe a film could be made for us AND the general population.
Brittani: I wanna see another version of this movie without a happy ending.
Shannon: Ah, Brittani, do we really need more sad lesbian films?
Brittani: But they're always sad in big, ridiculous, outrageous ways. This one would feel real.
Sarah: Wait. Do you mean unhappy as in the family doesn't come around? So the couple remains together but sans family support? I think that would have been super interesting. But I still would want the couple to make it, because in most lesbian films [the relationships] seem to fall apart.
Brittani: Yeah, like, They didn't support us, and look, we're fine. You can be fine.
Ellen: In terms of inspiring people, that might actually be more meaningful! Sad in that way I could root for. Because not everyone's parents are going to just come around — but that doesn't mean you won't be all right.
Sarah: It's almost as if the family went to the wedding and *poof* everything was OK.
Ellen: That conga line cured them of their homophobia, Sarah.
Sarah: As conga lines often do.
Shannon: This film also came around basically right after the SCOTUS marriage decision, which makes the timing really interesting. It seems very much to be saying, "Just be a completely normal, wholesome, marrying couple, and everything will be fine!"
Sarah: Be a white, suburban lesbian couple, and it will be OK.
Shannon: And pretty and femme!
Shannon: And not too sexual. Or really, any bit sexual.
Sarah: Super pretty, super femme, very safe and Midwestern. Your standard Midwestern lesbian, really. Hugging your partner in your turtleneck.
Shannon: Patting your partner comfortingly on their back while you’re both in bed, with clothes on.
Sarah: Which only further backs up the point that this film wasn't really made for lesbians? But I have to believe a film could be made for us AND the general population.
Ellen: It was also interesting to me that a lot of Jenny's conversations with her family were framed around feelings, not politics. Like, unless I'm remembering incorrectly, the argument was "accept me because I'm your kid," not "accept me because it's the right thing to do." Does that make sense?
Shannon: Oh totally, Ellen. This film stayed far away from any kind of political argument at all.
Sarah: Right, Ellen! Which is also why I was like...what year is this supposed to be? I wanted her to cite some politics in her arguments, some "catch up with the times" talk.
Brittani: I like that really the only reason for [Jenny’s parents] not being into gays was "we're old!"
Shannon: Lol Brittani. Yeah, they weren't particularly religious or anything, they were just old-fashioned? "We're not rebels!!!!"
Sarah: "We're not rebels!"
Shannon: Jinx, Sarah.
Sarah: Hahaha. Getting a bumper sticker that says "I'm not a rebel.”
Ellen: Which I think is what makes this movie really insidiously regressive! Being anti-gay shouldn't be written off as a a temperament thing, like not liking cilantro.
Sarah: Some people aren't fancy, they don't eat cilantro! They are normal simple people with no garnishes. They aren't rebels. This is making me think more and more the "unsupportive family" ending would have been so much better.
Shannon: Then maybe Jenny and Kitty could have banded together against them and shown a spark or two of personality. I still don't think the film being mostly about the family excuses their lack of ANY CHEMISTRY.
What this movie lacked, and what so many lesbian movies lack, is any kind of levity or sexiness or FUN.
Ellen: So, Sarah, to your point about how there's room out there for a good mainstream lesbian movie, I was talking to a friend last night about this, and she was like, "What we need is for Judd Apatow to direct a lesbian movie." Which I actually think is sort of a great idea! Because what this movie lacked, and what so many lesbian movies lack, is any kind of levity or sexiness or FUN.
Sarah: I was about to ask...so what do we WANT in a lesbian movie? The lesbian movie of your goddamn dreams, released tomorrow: Go.
Shannon: Not sure about Apatow specifically, but TOTALLY agree that we need more sexiness and more fun.
Sarah: Sometimes I would wonder, Where is the lady version of Brokeback Mountain? But we are beyond that, I think. Now I just want to laugh my ass off and watch two women fall in love.
Brittani: I think what I want is for the movies to not just be about being a lesbian.
Shannon: Agreed, Brittani. I want smart, funny lesbians with personality, who have an actual sex scene or two or three — and the plot is saturated with queerness, but it isn't centrally *about* coming out or dealing with oppression.
Sarah: Exactly, so the lesbian part is a nonissue. No big coming-out drama. No big family drama. Or it could be like, a sub-issue. But not the main issue.
Shannon: What I DON’T want is for a film to be so bleached of the gay element that the characters could be switched out with straight characters and the plot would remain the same.
Brittani: I think both should be happening. There should be [more traditional coming-out] stories but with people who aren’t cis beautiful white women, plus big movies where one of the characters just happens to be gay, plus genre movies about groups of friends that just happen to be queer.
I want smart, funny lesbians with personality, who have an actual sex scene or two or three — and the plot is saturated with queerness, but it isn't centrally *about* coming out, or dealing with oppression.
Shannon: Have any been successful so far? Are there any lesbian films that currently exist that you guys like?
Sarah: I keep thinking of all the tropes lesbian films have — lesbian falls for straight girl is common but always seems to keep my attention. Is it the drama of it all? Forbidden love / unrequited love is something everyone can relate to.
Brittani: I liked Life Partners.
Sarah: Here we go. It begins. Life Partners: Pick a side.
Brittani: Haha. It wasn't without its issues.
Sarah: I couldn't watch it all the way through, I don't know exactly why...but I do like that it focused on a friendship? They weren't in love; they were friends.
Ellen: I liked Life Partners too
Shannon: I wish I liked Life Partners more! I wanted to love it because my best friend is straight and Leighton Meester as a lesbian is a goddamn dream. But it focused too much on the straight best friend's straight relationship with dumb Adam Brody for me. I did like that it was about friendship and there was more than one lesbian character, though.
Brittani: Yes, the way Meester's situation ended wasn't cathartic at all.
Shannon: Yeah, the straight best friend had a happy ending, but Leighton didn't! Come on, man.
Sarah: I liked how it touched upon straight women/gay women friendships and how that is sort of a unique thing that can be rocked when one of us pairs off. That was new and interesting. And Leighton Meester's orientation was more or less treated matter-of-factly and without a big It's So Hard to Be Gay arc.
Ellen: YES. Yes.
Sarah: She just was, and they laughed about it and joked about it.
Shannon: Yes. But she was still very much unapologetically gay! Like she wasn't an apolitical gay who doesn't talk about being gay at all. I really appreciated that.
Ellen: Right! And while she certainly wasn't *butch*, she wasn't entirely femme-y either. She seemed like a person I might know in real life.
Sarah: So maybe that's the formula for a good lez rom-com? Make the gay part a nonissue and focus on all the other things that everyone can relate to: love, breakups, being single, just trying to live your goddamn life?
Shannon: I would love to have seen her SUCCEED, though. Idk, we don't see ourselves succeeding enough. It would be awesome to see a lesbian character triumph, especially in a non-romantic way. Not to say we can't see failures and sadness too, because that's true to life obvi, but failing and sadness is very much the way the tiny market is skewed right now.
Sarah: I think there is just so much more comedy to be had. Being gay can be so funny. IT IS A HOOT. So many awkward little situations a lot of us can relate to navigating a mostly hetero world.
Shannon: "Being gay is a hoot" —Sarah Karlan.
Sarah: I want to see the "I'm a single twentysomething struggling to get my shit together, oh and I'm gay too, but that's just part of my life" movie. That's what I'm craving, I think. Because that's me right now.
I want to see the "I'm a single twentysomething struggling to get my shit together, oh and I'm gay too, but that's just part of my life" movie. Because that's me right now.
Brittani: Yeah, and I think this weird thing happens with "lesbian comedy" where the jokes that we've told a million times get told onscreen for the first time and so it feels corny.
Sarah: +1, yes.
Brittani: We've seen the schlubby white dude who needs a woman to help him get his shit together a million times, told a million different ways, so we should just keep going until there's a movie about a schlubby lesbian that needs a woman to help get her shit together. Starring Sarah Karlan.
Sarah: More schlubby lesbians, please. I can be that schlubby lesbian.
Brittani: You'd def have to up your schlub factor. Start eating cheese fries right now.
Shannon: But I want to see the schlub lez come on top in the end! A schlubby winner. I'd also love to see a baby comedy but with lesbians. Like a Baby Mama or a Knocked Up.
Sarah: Lez Mama Drama. I guess there was The Kids Are All Right.
Shannon: Oh no.
Sarah: Hahahaha. I know.
Shannon: Why did Mark Ruffalo have multiple good sex scenes in that movie but the queer leads had a sad two-second lesbian bed death scene????? Will never be over it.
Brittani: Another unpopular opinion: I liked it despite things like that.
Shannon: Oh, I did too. I didn't hate it as a film. And Julianne Moore is a great gay.
Sarah: Mark Ruff is like...an honorary lesbian to me. He's all right. The kids are all right, and so is he.
Shannon: I am also a fan of the Ruff.
Brittani: I just remembered making such an effort to go see that. And how I always make An Effort to see these movies. Even when I know they're gonna be trash.
Sarah: You must endure, Brittani.
Shannon: But that was yet another lesbian movie where a man's storyline was prioritized. Like, I feel bad for Mark Ruffalo in the end. Why do I feel bad for the man????
Ellen: Never Feel Bad For A Man.
Sarah: Still waiting for the film that just literally has no men in it.... *dreams a dream*
Brittani: We really get painted into a corner because we have to go see these queer movies because they need the support so people keep making them, but then the success of bad ones makes it seem like there's no need to make them better because we'll watch them anyway.
Shannon: Yes. Also, I feel bitter because I know that there are so many talented queer filmmakers out there whose projects are not funded or not supported at some stage. Especially women's projects. But the mess that was Jenny's Wedding was made by a bunch of straight people with two huge actresses! Like, what gives? We aren't given the tools to tell our own stories, and tell them the way we actually want to see them. Queer film is still seen as niche — studios don't believe the straight majority will relate to them.
Sarah: Right, it's assumed nobody can enjoy lesbian films except for lesbians. So they shouldn’t be LESBIAN films...just films that happen to have lesbians. Sigh. And then there's Freeheld coming out, and we know that's going to leave us all a puddle of goddamn tears. It has a lesbian playing a lesbian, plus honorary lesbian Julianne Moore. Is that our Brokeback?
Shannon: Yes, Sarah, it is. I am here for Freeheld.
Ideally, it wouldn't have to be framed as an accident. Like "I'm telling a story and oops here are these lesbians."
Brittani: Ideally, it wouldn't have to be framed as an accident. Like "I'm telling a story and oops here are these lesbians." I think unfortunately some of the work will have to be done in major films where they purposely say, "I am making this character a lesbian on purpose because they exist."
Shannon: That's so true. Right now it's still seen like, but WHY does this character have to be gay? Because straight characters are the default. Making the choice to add a gay character is still seen as a political choice.
Brittani: Yeah, there has to be a reason or some joke to pay it off and it's like...wait, why?
Sarah: Shonda said something about that, yes? “I'm putting gay characters in because they exist, that's why. Case closed.”
Shannon: Oh, Shonda. Love you, Shonda.
Sarah: Shonda, make movies please.
Ellen: Shonda for president.
Shannon: What I loved about Grey's Anatomy, besides the main gay characters, was that totally random patients would be queer. Like, they'd just be sick and queer and have probz but their problems weren’t about being queer. Love you, Shonda!!!
Sarah: Make Grey's for the big screen but without everyone dying, but still with lesbians. Love, me.
Shannon: A good note to end on.
Sarah: Before we go, out of curiosity...what is everyone's favorite lez film?
Brittani: Yikes. If I'm not including the two we mentioned, maybe Puccini for Beginners? But not even in a way of I wanna go watch it right now. I just remember having favorable thoughts about it.
Ellen: Does Buffy Season 5 count?
Shannon: I never got to that season! I quit when I found out Faith would never be gay even though she obvi was.
Ellen: Eliza Dushku, forever in our hearts
Sarah: Imagine Me & You has my heart because of Lena Headey.
Shannon: That movie is so bad, Sarah.
Shannon: Oh duh Fried Green Tomatoes!!!! Yes. We can agree on one half of the things.
Sarah: I'm putting a poster of Imagine Me & You between our desks.
Brittani: lol I like Imagine Me & You.
Shannon: It’s another lesbian movie partially about a sad man!!!
Sarah: BUT IT’S ALSO ABOUT MAKING OUT ON A BED OF ROSES.
Sarah: And mostly Lena Headey being a hot Brit lez. Case closed. I have had a thing for florists ever since.
Brittani: We are all just sad men whether we know it or not. That's why movies think it's infinitely relatable.
Shannon: OK, now for real a good note to end on.
Sarah: Haha, goodbye, y’all. Gonna go google Lena Headey a bit.
Brittani: Thanks y'all. Byeeee
Ellen: This was fun!