Long Live Carol and Therese: On Loving Vintage Lesbians

Though they have existed since at least the 1980s, over the past couple years there have been a number of films and television series released that fall within the category that I like to call ‘vintage lesbians’. By ‘vintage lesbians’ I simply mean films or series that include historical representations of queer women – ie. queer or lesbian period pieces. Popular examples include Carol (2015), Collette (2018), Desert Hearts (1985), Elisa & Marcela (2019), The Favourite (2018), Fingersmith (2005), Gentleman Jack (2019-), The Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Vita and Virginia (2018) –  just to name a few. I’ve always loved historical representations of queer women and I know I am not alone in this. The question is, why? Why are these historical depictions so downright addictive to me and so many others?

I think I might have an idea. In 1980, Adrienne Rich wrote of the “lesbian continuum”. which she argued encompasses a vast range of female-centered relationships across time and space. This concept suggests a more expansive and less binary view of lesbianism, as Rich contends that the lesbian continuum can encompass relationships that might not otherwise be explicitly defined as lesbian. These films and television series are in some sense an example of Rich’s theory – that queerness is not a modern creation; it exists, and has existed, in many different forms and contexts.

As Rich acknowledges, queer women are often forgotten by history. This erasure is exemplified by Queen Victoria’s supposed inability to imagine lesbian sex, leading her to apply Britain’s anti-homosexuality law only to men and simultaneously writing lesbians out of (legal) history. (As Anne Lister herself notes in Gentleman Jack, it was not illegal to be a lesbian in 19th century England, just unthinkable). These queer period pieces expand our historical imaginations, allowing us to imagine versions of ourselves in figures from the past. Of course, they’re not perfect; most of the examples mentioned focus exclusively on white characters, which illustrates the limits of our historical imagination and the need for a deeper analysis of queer storytelling conventions.

Importantly, these period pieces are also stories of queer survival, often under debilitating circumstances. But far from making us feel hopeless, they instead often enrich and speak to our lives in the present. In Gentleman Jack, when Anne Lister breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience, it’s like she is reaching out to us from the 19th century, showing us how she not only survived but even thrived. It’s like she is telling us that if she can do it – live a happy and fulfilling life – then so can we. As Sharmane Tan put it, “Gentleman Jack makes me feel that my life is possible.”

At the end of Carol, when Therese walks across the room towards Carol and she smiles, this happiness, however muted and brief, is infectious for queer women. (I cannot explain to you the effort it took not to scream during the film when I saw it in a theater populated exclusively by elderly people). Indeed, at the time Patricia Highsmith wrote the book – originally published under a pseudonym with the title The Price of Salt in 1952–it was the only lesbian pulp novel to include a happy ending. Imagining lesbians reading the book then, and thinking about the queer women obsessing over the film now (I once had a week-long conversation with a girl on Tinder exclusively about Carol), allows us to envision a connection between queer women today and those of past generations. For me, this ability to imagine queer continuity over time makes me feel connected to and supported by this cultural history which I never knew existed before.

Far from being erased, these films highlight lesbian existence and survival in ways that enliven our understanding of history and connect us to a past that is both mythical and deeply relatable. Stories that are based on real historical figures, like Vita and Virginia and Gentleman Jack, give us access to the queer heroes we never knew we needed. These characters, though based in the past, allow us to imagine happy futures: futures where survival is possible and joy is just on the horizon.

In her 1998 book Heroic Desire, Sally Munt wrote that “becoming a lesbian is a perpetual expression of hope, it is an active intervention of optimism, a profession of belief in social transformations”. These queer period pieces, even when they don’t have storybook endings, are expressions of such hope. They tell us that our histories are rich and our stories are worth telling. They remind us, as Gentleman Jack’sAnne Lister so forcefully puts it, that we are, and always will be, “always alright.”