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Have We Entered a Sapphic Film & TV Renaissance?

"A lot of the 'problems' we have with mainstream Hollywood films that deal with lesbian behavior and characters have been solved for a long time already."

First Kill, Netflix’s supernatural teen drama about a lesbian couple’s forbidden romance, is an objectively bad television show. The writing is heavy-handed; the lore is convoluted; the CGI is so cheesy, it’s distracting…and it was just canceled after one season.

But what the series lacks in overall quality, it makes up for in sapphic representation. Our star-crossed lovers, vampire Juliette (played by Sarah Catherine Cook) and monster hunter Calliope (Imani Lewis), strike up a steamy onscreen romance right away. We get a hot hookup scene set to Ashnikko’s horny lesbian anthem “Slumber Party” in the pilot, damn it! Forget awkward coming-out scenes or cringey exchanges. Conflicts abound, but Juliette and Calliope’s sexuality is not one of them.

Upon streaming First Kill, I felt an unexpected burst of tenderness for the generation of queer women coming of age today. At 26, I’m not much older than these youth and young adults, but I can vividly remember a time when the “LGBTQ” section on Netflix had slimmer pickings than a U-Haul parking lot on June 1. Nowadays, it feels like onscreen representation of sapphic characters — including lesbians, bi and pan women, and queer women — is everywhere. GLAAD’s 2021–22 “Where We Are on TV” report counted a record-high 360 queer women series regulars on primetime scripted broadcast shows. Simply put, younger Gen-Z queer women won’t encounter the depressing dearth of accessible, complex sapphic media that I did.

It begs the question: Are we in a renaissance for sapphic TV and movies? And if so, how did we get here?

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A brief history of lesbian TV and cinema

Contrary to popular belief, sapphic TV and film did not originate in the 21st century. “There has always been lesbian film,” says writer, critic, and film programmer Shayna Warner, whose work centers queer representation. Old Hollywood movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo have been queering cinema since the 1930s and ‘40s, with films like Queen Christina (1933) and Morocco (1930) depicting sapphic protagonists who rebuked gender roles and seduced other women.

The advent of the infamous Hays Code, which prohibited cinematic depictions of homosexuality that didn’t clearly renounce or punish it, drastically shifted the tone of sapphic representation in Hollywood. Meanwhile, queer cinema prospered outside the United States. It wasn’t until the sexual liberation movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s that overt queerness seeped back into American film, in large part because studio executives recognized the potential for profit. “It was really like, ‘Okay, counterculture is beginning to become something we can monetize,’” Warner explains.

The 1970s in particular saw a surge in sapphic film, with independent horror pictures like Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Vampire Lovers (1970) depicting duplicitous, “highly sexualized” lesbian vampires. Although the trope is a personal favorite of many queer fim scholars, including Warner, its legacy is complicated. “You can't talk about sapphic film without talking about lesbians vampires,” she explains, “yet it was still [presented] in this mode of like, uh, lesbians are not necessarily good.”

In the ‘70s, a number of direct-to-TV movies, such as PBS’s The War Widow (1976), also featured queer characters and storylines. The ephemeral nature of TV pre-syndication and -DVR meant that fewer people actually saw these films. Still, some of them broke into the mainstream. Warner cites A Question of Love, a 1978 direct-to-TV movie with a Carol-esque plot about two lesbians who are forcibly outed amid an aggressive custody battle. It aired on ABC and was even nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Television Film.

In 1985, American cinema finally saw its first major studio film directed by a lesbian, about lesbians: Donna Deitch’s cult-classic drama Desert Hearts. Importantly, the movie features “a happy ending for lesbians,” something that was still hard to come by in post-Hays Code Hollywood.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s also saw a boom in “incredible” independent sapphic cinema, which Warner says is key to understanding the overarching timeline of queer onscreen representation. The bulk of these films were made on shoe-string budgets by queer women, about or starring the queer women in their local communities. Some of them organically feature queer women of color, something that was sorely lacking up until this point in history.

“[Today’s queer cinema] is all foregrounded,” Warner adds. “A lot of the ‘problems’ we have with mainstream Hollywood films that deal with lesbian behavior and characters have been solved for a long time already.”

The “mainstreaming” of sapphics onscreen

Like the world of cinema, sapphic representation on TV was scarce until the ‘80s and ‘90s. With the exception of the aforementioned TV movies, most depictions of queer women on the small screen made them out to be “objects of fascination and study” via medical dramas or police procedurals, Warner explains.

The dam finally broke in 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres’s televised coming out in her ABC sitcom made her the first openly lesbian lead character in TV history. That pivotal moment occurred during an era dubbed as “The Outcasting” by lesbian writer and culture critic Jill Gutowitz, who writes about contemporary queer pop culture in her 2022 essay collection Girls Can Kiss Now. Queer women were no longer just anomalies to gawk at or pathologize; now they could have starring roles in Disney-owned shows, although not without pushback. When news of Ellen’s coming out leaked, the production company’s office got “bomb threats,” Warner says. “And that was the ‘90s. That’s not that long ago.”

Sapphics continued to appear in TV and film throughout the 2000s, with popular primetime shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Glee (2009–2015) depicting complex queer women in major roles. This era saw the introduction of premium series like Showtime’s The L Word (2004–2009), the iconic soapy drama from showrunner Ilene Chaiken about a group of lesbian friends and lovers in Los Angeles.

At the same time, the legal landscape for LGBTQ civil rights in America was on a precipice. In 2004, marriage equality was made legal in Massachusetts, a victory that signaled shifting cultural attitudes toward queer people; by 2015, the Supreme Court deemed it a constitutional right nationwide. In the years leading up to this Court ruling, mainstream TV shows and films that featured queer women often presented very flat, sanitized characters, ostensibly to aid the cause of normalizing same-sex relationships. Gone were the days of depraved lesbian vampires or freakish queers. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction.

That brings us to the 2010s, which Gutowitz describes as “The Mainstreaming” period for sapphic media. “That moment in time feels very ‘chicken or the egg,’” she tells Logo. Did the influx of complex queer representation in media prompt landmark political and judicial victories for LGBTQ Americans, or vice versa? Who’s to say?

Gutowitz points to works like Carol (2015) and Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019) — both of which received accolades from their respective industry groups — as prime examples of The Mainstreaming in action. However, the early days of this era did see some prominent examples of the infamous “bury your gays” trope, with TV writers violently killing off lesbian characters (Lexa of The CW’s The 100, anyone?). “There was this huge uprising amongst fandoms being like, ‘We can't do this anymore,’” Gutowitz recalls. “Like, you can't just have queer relationships that last for truly one minute.”

Which carries us through to the late 2010s and 2020s — so, the present moment. A defining characteristic of contemporary queer TV and film is its humanization of sapphic characters, flaws and all. It’s something Gutowitz wrestled with personally while writing and directing The Ladies, her short-film directorial debut that premiered at Outfest in late July. The hilarious short stars Alexis G. Zall as Emma, a queer twenty-something-year-old who has a chaotic and clandestine affair with her grieving grandmother’s best friend. Refreshingly, Emma’s behavior is messy as hell.

“We had so many conversations between me and the producers, and even the cast, to clarify some things — like, nobody's mad at Emma because she's gay,” Gutowitz explains. “And Emma's not hiding this because it's a gay relationship. … The kind of stories I want to tell are stories about queer people, not necessarily stories that have to do with homophobia.”

Indeed, queer filmmakers and TV writers today have more freedom than ever in how they can portray sapphic characters and relationships, even in larger, more mainstream productions. I hesitate to describe First Kill, a mediocre Netflix series that didn’t even get a second season, as a sign of progress, but a series like that would have been a hard sell 10, maybe even five years ago.

Today’s crop of sapphic shows and movies aren’t expected to deliver unrealistically flawless protagonists in service of a political agenda, or to somehow represent all queer women. There’s breathing room for sapphic characters to be — well, everything else. This simple but profound shift echoes the unapologetic attitude of independent queer cinema from decades past. Even if it doesn’t constitute a renaissance, I still believe it is worth celebrating.

Of course, the work is far from over. Warner is quick to reiterate that the vast majority of films and TV shows she mentions are “very, very white,” a racist phenomenon that has been covered at length by queer culture critics of color, including comedian and TV writer Ashley Ray, Autostraddle Editor-in-Chief Carmen Phillips, and Xtra magazine’s Kinsey Clarke, among others. Media like Suicide Kale (2016), Tanya Saracho’s Vida (2018–2020), and The L Word: Generation Q, Showtime’s more diverse reboot of the aforementioned drama, are three examples of recent intersectional works rewriting this legacy.

There are also very few portrayals of transgender lesbians or queer women in community with cisgender queer women, which is both sad and ahistorical.

These issues are systemic, but sapphic TV lovers and cinephiles can still do their part to ensure that more queer media gets made. Watching this media on cable or streaming services, and thereby contributing to its viewership metrics, is a great place to start. Warner also recommends buying virtual or in-person passes to attend LGBTQ film festivals, such as Frameline, Outfest, and NewFest, to directly support sapphic writers, directors, and filmmakers.

Last but certainly not least: If you see a queer show or film you like, say something. Your voice matters, especially in the era of social media.