The new era of Lesbian films is making sex fun again

love lies bleeding
Lesbian films are making sex fun again@a24

Welcome to the era of sexy, silly, sapphic cinema. At a time when actors and audiences alike may be fretting about erotica on-screen, a new age of lesbian cinema has arrived. Over the last few months, we’ve been gifted with a triptych of lesbian stories: Rose Glass’s high-octane Love Lies Bleeding (out in May); Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke’s contemporary Thelma and Louise, Drive Away Dolls (in cinemas now); and Emma Seligman’s teen comedy Bottoms, which had its UK release last November.

A far cry from stolen glances in period dramas or sex scenes for titillation's sake (looking at you, Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), these films finally give us queer women who have sex for the enjoyment of it. In doing so, they position sex not just as some kind of revelation, but as a fun, messy, sometimes absent, but a fundamental part of queer life.

Take, for example, the climax of the will-they/won’t-they storyline in Drive Away Dolls, when shy, buttoned-up Marian’s (Geraldine Indira Viswanathan) world melts around her into a sea of technicolor as she’s brought to orgasm by her roguish and swaggering friend, Jamie (Margaret Qualley). It’s the culmination of their sexual tension and Marian’s self-imposed repression. She then immediately falls asleep before returning the favour.

The moment is played for laughs, and ratcheted up a notch when Marian awakens to find Jamie furiously masturbating with a stolen dildo, but the film also doesn’t shy away from actually being sexy. It’s one of several sex scenes throughout the film, including the film’s opening where Jaime tries to screen calls from her girlfriend while another woman’s face is between her thighs, and a shower scene featuring the two protagonists and the aforementioned pilfered dildos. Admittedly, Drive Away Dolls overarchingly falls into the ‘vibes-over-plot’ category of filmmaking. Loosely speaking, the story follows Jaime and Marian as they drive a rented car down to Florida, but unbeknownst to them, the car they’ve picked up contains stolen goods that a violent mob is hot on their tail to recover. Between psychedelic cut screens, a bizarre Miley Cyrus cameo, and story arcs that sort of go nowhere, the character’s motivation to somehow get laid while journeying through the Deep South is what ties the film together.

Love Lies Bleeding, directed by Rose Glass and starring Kristen Stewart as Lou – similarly falls into this slightly plotless category. On paper, it’s about a lonely gym owner (Stewart) trying to escape her past as the daughter of a mob boss, who falls in love with Jackie (Katy M. O'Brian), a bodybuilder who’s in town on her way to a competition in Las Vegas. But the love affair between Lou and Jackie, which blossoms as Lou fights not to be dragged back into the dark underworld of her father’s business, is the star of the show. At once a revenge thriller, love story, and dark comedy, the film sees K Stew masturbate to vintage lesbian book Macho Sluts and erotically inject her girlfriend with steroids. It’s in these moments that we can see who the film is really for. The humour and sensuality of the film isn’t trying to explain or justify itself to a perceived heterosexual audience. The women in it can be masculine and get off to masculinity, their gender expressions don’t need to be explained or neatly defined, and the sex they have can be kinky without being fetishistic.

a woman with long hair
Kristen Stewart in Love Lies Bleeding@a24

Popular blockbusters about queer women who actually have sex have been a long time coming. That’s not to say there aren’t brilliant films with lesbian sex in them, but unless you’re willing to dive into the archives of queer indie cinema, they usually only have one sex scene, and, let’s face it, it often feels like they’re making a bit of a big deal out of it or it’s played purely for the male gaze.

After all, while Todd Haynes’ lesbian love story Carol (2015) is a celebrated piece of media about two women’s illicit affair, there is surprisingly little physicality between the two women, apart from its three-minute-long sex scene. As profound, moving, and erotic as this scene may be, you get the sense that it wasn’t directed with queer women’s viewership in mind. It’s soft and sensual, and, in many ways, plays up to the kind of lesbian sex that’s palatable to a mainstream audience. These two women love each other deeply. They are tender and soft. They’d never bite each other’s toes like Lou bites Jackie’s in Love Lies Bleeding.

In Love Lies Bleeding, Drive Away Dolls, and even Bottoms, sex is portrayed in a way that winks at queer women directly – and humour is key to that (*gasp* queer women sometimes use toys). Sure, queer sex can be a moment of revelation like it is in Blue is the Warmest Colour, but it can also be… fine. After all, it’s important to manage your expectations that sex between women won’t always end in mind-blowing multiple orgasms. There can be humorous moments in sex, like in Drive Away Dolls. It can be super-hot and life-changing, but with someone who maybe isn’t good for you, like in Love Lies Bleeding. It can also be absent from your life, like it is in Bottoms – because when you’re a teenager, you feel like everyone around you is having sex and you’re not – and you suspect that the reason you’re not is because you’re queer (when, in reality, everyone around is having way less sex than they’re making out because they’re also teenagers).

Loneliness is often a core theme in sapphic media because feeling isolated is a common experience for queer women. When we meet Lou in Love Lies Bleeding, she’s verging on reclusive; Marian in Drive Away Dolls reveals, to Jamie’s horror, that she’s in a four-year dry spell, as she struggles to connect with the queer community; in Bottoms, the protagonists are outsiders to their peers partly because they’re gay. But unlike the yearning genre of sapphic film – often not directed by queer women – sex is not deployed as the antidote to that loneliness. Sure, Marian, PJ, and Josie might think that getting laid will be the answer to all their problems, but actually, there are other issues they need to work on — including within themselves — as well.

And it doesn’t have to be. At a time when cinema is buttoning up its pants to reflect changing attitudes towards sexuality, queer cinema is putting sex front and centre again. Sex is at the heart of queer culture, including for queer women. So here’s to more cinema that celebrates the fun, silly side of our erotic lives.

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