She Kissed a Girl and I Liked It - Seeking Myself on Screen
I was thirteen when I first had feelings for a girl. The butterflies batting their wings in my chest both confused and excited me. That first crush was the start of six years of grappling to understand my sexuality, until I became fully comfortable with it. There were crushes on boys that made me question if I was simply straight, and crushes on girls that made me question if I only thought I was straight because everyone else was (or seemed to be). There were drunken kisses at parties that my friends thought were to attract the attention of boys, until they realised that they were happening too frequently (and too enthusiastically) for that to be true. There was my outing, to most of my school year, forcing me to accept the label of bisexual before I was ready. There were tears explaining myself to friends, tears explaining myself to family, tears explaining myself to myself.
But there were also films and TV shows. There was a trip to see the film Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, 2015) in the cinema. It was the first film on my journey to understanding myself, not that I knew it at the time. It was the Christmas holidays and I was fourteen, very much still in the questioning phase; I went with a friend, a year older, who had been out as gay for a while. Carol was playing in the matchbox screen of Aberdeen’s Filmhouse with only three other people in the audience - I was nervous at first, being a year younger than the film’s certification, but more from worrying I would run into someone I knew at a “gay film”. But as the film started, I was swept away into a cold New York winter, entranced by the cinematography and setting of the film, but most of all by the performances of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. They are electric in Carol. It filled me with joy to see women in love on screen. I had never seen a woman kiss a woman in a film before. I had never seen a woman kiss a woman, ever. Seeing it normalised my experience, and I realised that what I was feeling was completely natural. Representation is so much more than a tick-box exercise, it makes you know that you’re not alone.
Yet, there were frustrations too. The protagonists didn’t end up together, but far apart. Their love was sparkler love, bright and beautiful, but soon extinguished. Carol may have taught me it’s natural and beautiful for women to kiss women, but it also seemed to suggest that women who kiss women don’t have happy endings.
Carol is a pitch-perfect Academy Award-nominated drama. No longer fourteen, and with the gift of hindsight, I now realise that the film could never have ended with the reunion of the lovers, it would have sacrificed the film’s sincerity and devotion to its 1950s setting. But Carol just joins the long list of queer films that present love as impossible and fated to fail.
Carol was my first lesbian film of many. I asked people I knew who were out of the closet for recommendations and endlessly trawled through online listicles which often contained the same films. But I’m a Cheerleader (dir. Jamie Babbit, 2001) cropped up many times as a cult classic and I was eager to watch it. Whilst it made me smile with its humour and happy ending, it was far too kitsch and cheesy for me. Cinema doesn’t necessarily need to be realistic, but I was intentionally searching for representation on screen, and understandably, I didn’t find it in Natasha Lyonne’s incredulous shrieks of “but I’m a cheerleader!” every time someone assumed she was gay.
I continued searching, and was browsing through Netflix when Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) appeared. On that first watch I was disappointed that it, like Carol, perpetuated the impossibility of lesbians staying happy in love, especially as I found more believable characters here than in the other films I watched. However, after reading the novel that inspired the film, my disappointment turned to anger as I realised that Kechiche not only chose to change the ending for his film, but also chose to portray everything through the male gaze. This is, quite frankly, insulting to queer women, especially as the novel was partially based on the author’s own experiences (but it also caused me some confusion, when I watched it too young, about what women do in the bedroom…).
Throughout my teenage years I continued to watch lesbian films - both the critically acclaimed and the critically disdained – searching for some kind of accurate representation in them. It had been a journey, pin-balling between kitschy cheerleader films and lesbian films made by and for men (of all people), but at university I finally found my footing. I finally found a film whose depiction of queer women was something with which I could resonate. Brincando el Charco (dir. Frances Negron-Muntaner, 1994) is about a Puerto-Rican lesbian coming to terms with her identity in the diaspora. I like it for its difference. It’s not about women falling in love and the difficulties of that; but a woman, who happens to be a lesbian in a healthy relationship, living her life. I had never seen a film like it. Too much of queer cinema is coming out stories that present queerness as a struggle. It doesn’t need to be. There is a simplicity to the Kissing Girls sequence in Brincando el Charco which portrays women loving delicately, gorgeously, and naturally.
These are just a handful of the films I have watched, it all started with seeing Carol’s Mara and Blanchett kissing when I was fourteen. That kiss affirmed that my sexuality was valid. The following six years of watching lesbian films has helped me understand my sexuality, but more than that, has helped me to feel seen and heard in the media. There is still a long way to go on the road to true representation, but the growing amount of mainstream queer cinema and TV has allowed me to feel comfortable with who I am. I am bisexual, I am here.
Alexa Sambrook is currently studying at the University of Edinburgh and is the editor of the Film and TV section of The Student, the UK's oldest student newspaper.