There will always be an ongoing discussion about what makes a good lesbian movie. Can a straight filmmaker direct a lesbian film? What types of stories should Hollywood be feeding back to a community eager to see itself on screen? Why are there so many historical lesbians—do we owe them to the flattering glow of an oil lamp or the opportunity to sidestep questions of any kind of diversity? Is there anything funnier than watching an interview of two presumably straight actresses discussing the soul-searchingly difficult but always enlightening work of filming a lesbian love scene? And why is there an assumption that all lesbian-themed films pre-Carol are actually terrible?
When I was consuming the highest volume of lesbian movies (somehow more than I do as a programmer and critic today), I wasn’t invested in any of these perpetually recycled, rarely concluded conversations. I didn’t know what critics, or anyone else for that matter, thought of the films I did my best to scrub from my browsing history. My essential questions in evaluating media—any media—were as follows:
- Are there lesbians?
- Do they kiss?
- Can they teach me how to kiss girls, too?
My salvation was found on YouTube. Through a simple search of “lesbians kissing,” I could circumvent both the money needed to rent movies and the DVD player in the living room needed to play whatever I might find at the library. Thanks to school and local library computers, and eventually my own laptop, I was able to leap from clip to clip in an online network of pirated films with kissing, loving, fucking verbs and women’s names in the titles. “Kissing Jessica Stein 1/10” would lead me to “Long Lesbian Movie Better Than Chocolate 2/15,” which would move to “Loving Annabelle Church Scene.” Suddenly, I had found what I assumed to be the definition of lesbianism: Kissing girls and getting in trouble—and sometimes, if you were very sneaky, getting away with it.
By many critical and popular standards, these are not good movies. They get half stars and disbelieving shakes of the head from (mostly male) reviewers, if they get any theatrical distribution or press attention at all. Falling just after the reign of the New Queer Cinema (roughly between 1999 and 2010), these undulating dram-rom-com flicks are earnest, single-minded and largely unoriginal, with a penchant for morally dubious plots and plausibly softcore aesthetics. I won’t argue with any of that. What I will argue is that a negative cast of this entire grouping of lesbian films leaves out a crucial piece of information: Hundreds of thousands of us watched them, piece by piece, in remarkably poor image quality, because they stoked something in us that we couldn’t find elsewhere.
To me, this boiled down to elements of danger, pleasure and electricity—the pushing of moral boundaries from the very premise of same-gender relationships. With such low expectations and a general mainstream discomfort of lesbian narratives that weren’t outright fatalistic tragedies or total fetishizations, these films weren’t expected to become the accoladed or best-attended movie events of the year. Instead, they created a sense of insatiable attraction, and were frankly buzzing with the joy of showcasing physical lesbian relationships; in fact, many melodramatic favorites are written or directed by queer women. From these movies, I learned that being a queer woman in an unfriendly world was about making terrible choices, and surviving. It was about loving furiously, when you can, where you can, and knowing that there would be more loves of your life. It was also about a lot of other things that definitely damaged my sense of who could be in a queer couple (white, femme, skinny, a frequent blonde/brunette ratio), but that’s not much different than the rest of the film industry.
The Golden Era of the bad lesbian movie may be over, but it’s not too late to appreciate the frenetic, gleefully misbehaving energy that made it so compelling in the first place. Below is a small selection of my most cherished, frequently watched clips of the lesbian media that taught me how to be queer.
Lesson: Wear a nose ring, a ribbed tank top and write your crush a song.
Loving Annabelle is perhaps the most quintessential embodiment of what straight people fear about “predatory” lesbians. They’ll corrupt your monotheistic children into Buddhists, they’ll defile the image of the Virgin Mary as they pull from a bottle of Jack Daniels and regale each other with stories of sweet Sapphic lovemaking, and they’ll turn a beloved Catholic schoolteacher into a horny sinner who daydreams about getting fingered by her students in the chapel. This film is, quite frankly, the stuff of legends.
The plot is loosely based on the much stronger Mädchen in Uniform (1931), with Annabelle (Erin Kelly) as the rebellious senator’s daughter sent to Catholic school to straighten out and Simone (Diane Gaidry) as the bespectacled, closeted poetry teacher she single-mindedly seduces. Oh yes, there is glorious, orgasmic lesbian poetry at the heart of this complicated call to be true to oneself. Aside from the aforementioned church scene, there are many infamous clips that floated around the web to choose from, but I always returned to Annabelle composing a song of Sapphistry on her acoustic-electric guitar and dedicating an impromptu performance to Simone:
“All Over Me” would be a strong bat signal even without its connection to Alex and Sylvia Sichel’s 1997 riot grrrl coming of age masterpiece of the same name. Its performance predicates Annabelle and Simone’s frantic sex during a thunderstorm, and the remarkable feat of taking off a bra between two bodies so that nary a nipple is seen. The performance of songwriter Lindsay Harper’s moody, transparent ode to sexual intimacy was more than enough to teach a young queer to express themselves in pearlescent language only other dykes could understand.
Lesson: If you have sex in a library, sit on the table to avoid rug burn.
WolfeOnDemand, streaming service of legendary LGBTQ+ distributor Wolfe Video, describes Bloomington as “Teacher-Student Romance in the tradition of Loving Annabelle!” This is both hilarious and apt; who am I to deny that Loving Annabelle is the ur-text? That tells you most of what you need to know about this student-teacher college romance—except this time the student (Sarah Stouffer) is escaping her previous life of child stardom/notoriety, the professor (Allison McAtee) is known for dating students, neither of them are underage and they’re both blonde.
Bloomington is a film that I didn’t see in its entirety until maybe five years after I had first stumbled across its famed “quiet in the library” scene, and even now that I’ve seen the film, I can definitively say that nothing quite captures the spirit of bad lesbian film danger like forbidden sex in a university’s hallowed, hushed halls. The supposed PhD-level reverse psychology used by McAtee’s Catherine to encourage her young lover to be louder in bed is gobbledygook, but the thrill of a dangerous liaison in plain sight rings true. This also happens to be one of best vocalizations of desire left untainted by the ever-present thrum of 2000s acoustic pop in the Bad Lesbians era, so please enjoy!
Lesson: Don’t let your mouths stop touching, not even to talk.
In a rare show of giving the people exactly what they want, this clip comes directly from Pecadillo Pictures itself, the distributor of this soapy, sensual drama. Elena Undone carries the same level of unspeakable impropriety as each previous entry, with the addition of fully wrecking the sanctity of a straight woman’s heterosexual marriage—to a pastor! As dutiful housewife and mother Elena, Necar Zadegan emotes the hell out of every scene, but especially those paired with Thunderbird Dinwiddie as noted lesbian author and instantaneously attractive love interest, Peyton.
There is so much rich, multi-layered dyke drama to dig into around this film, it begs its own investigation into lesbian moviemaking in and of itself. As simplistic and somewhat trite as its black-and-white “The Church versus Lesbianism” plot is, it reportedly stems from a true story of director Nicole Conn’s relationship with her then-partner, Marina Rice-Bader, who has claimed that lesbian movies helped her come to terms with her own identity. But that was hardly on my mind when I was introduced to Elena Undone by way of the then longest kiss in film history.
To borrow from the words of Faith Hill, this kiss is unstoppable. It’s a full three minutes of a follow shot that puts today’s 360 immersive experiences to shame. Gasping for air, nudging each others’ noses out of the way and whispering into each other’s open mouths while blindly making their way to a convenient settee—now that’s love. Aside from teaching me that a couple needs to be exactly the same height in order to make a marathon kiss work, it confirmed that tank tops are lesbian culture, denim 4 denim is a legitimate preference and that the key to existing as a queer person is simply the mutual, burning desire to be queer with another person.
It’s also important to note that this fully-clothed clip is now age-restricted, following policies from YouTube that shutter youth access to many LGBTQ+ resources, including sex education vlogs, reviews of queer films, and trailers and clips of the films themselves.
Lesson: There’s always something to learn.
I will be forever grateful to a 2009 YouTube algorithm that made it possible for me to see dozens of clips of Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray in the casting partnership that I wish had lasted for more than two films. In both The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight, the two swap harrowing circumstances and roles as seducer/seduced to play with the complications of lesbian love across time, space and cultural divides. The former is a sometimes somber, ambitious period piece about love in apartheid-era South Africa, while the latter is a soapy, contemporary affair of runaway brides, based on director Shamim Sarif’s own relationship with producer Hanan Kattan.
Sheth and Ray have a genuine chemistry anytime they connect on screen, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention some of the original fandom montages—often set to Alanis Morrisette or Melissa Ethridge—that brought them to my attention. However, even more important than that, were the clips circulating of seduction-by-teaching. In The World Unseen, Sheth teaches Ray’s housewife character how to drive stick shift. In I Can’t Think Straight, Ray’s bold and flirtatious Tala teaches the reserved Leyla (Sheth) how to dance.
Not to be sincere in an article about steamy clips watched during puberty, but these scenes are both excuses for women to get close to one another, and a reminder of how attractive the concept of queer people teaching each other was. Without the security of an accessible physical community, finding someone to show me how to move through the world, even in small ways, was a fantasy. Watching two women who had found each other, and who wanted to share what they knew, even in a bid to just spend a little more time around each other, was a gloriously vicarious experience.
Lesson: Do whatever you want!
Sorry, this is just artsy queer gals having sensual, silly, body-painting sex. It was something to look forward to.
Shayna Maci Warner is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.