Part of the reason Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt, and why the film adaptation, Carol, was so beloved was the simple reason that the two women leads fell in love with one another and did not perish at the end. And while that might seem simplistic, it’s still something unexpected in 2016, as viewers have come to expect queer women characters in both television and film to suffer consequences of the expressions of their sexual identity. And while the conversation as of late has been primarily focused on television, the film industry is certainly not exempt.
Take the horror movie industry, for one. Almost every single lesbian or bisexual character in the genre is killed and has been since its inception. Lesbian vampires were a huge facet of horror between the 1960s and ’70s, with their evil Sapphic intents for unsuspecting heterosexual women and men promising their equally horrifying ends. The Hunger is probably the most well-known film of this genre, which also signified an end to it for the time being, and in the following decades, queer women were largely relegated to victims, being killed off shortly after a sex scene with gratuitous nudity and sexuality.
Miriam’s crimes: She wanted to be young, she was greedy, she was into too sex with Susan Sarandon
In the last 20 years, lesbian/bi women have continued to become early victims in horror films, unless they are the predatorial and obsessive one that is hunting a woman that if they can’t have, no one ever will. Inevitably, they end up both crazy and dead (i.e. Haute Tension, The Roommate, Cracks).
But because the horror genre is synonymous with violent deaths, it is perhaps not as surprising that there are a significant amount of lesbian/bi murders throughout. Instead, it’s the inclusion of these kinds of deaths in more mainstream and/or otherwise non-violent films that can disturb audiences with the necessity to kill a queer woman before the film’s end. These are just a few examples of films and categories that have befallen lesbians in cinema over the last 70 years.
Stories of sapphic suicide
Lillian Hellman’s 1934 stage play turned film The Children’s Hour was one of the earliest and widely known stories of a boarding school teacher who was suspected to be a lesbian and ended up found dead by her reported lover after hanging herself in her bedroom. With starlets Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn playing these leading roles, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards.
“If I am a lesbian, then do I deserve to live?”
The 1998 and 2001 films High Art and Lost & Delirious, respectively, were both from lesbian directors (Léa Pool and Lisa Cholodenko) and part of the tail end of new queer cinema. While Lost & Delirious killed its protagonist in a grand gesture of feeling like a misunderstood outcast of a different time, High Art‘s heroine, Lucy, dies of an overdose that was likely not on purpose, but an addiction that kills her nonetheless. These films set the tone for the tragedy of modern lesbian lives in the era, which was also influenced by the Oscar win for the equally tragic trans story of Kimberly Peirce‘s Boys Don’t Cry.
Tragically true tales
Speaking of true stories of LGBT deaths on film, some of the highest-grossing gay cinema is based on the real tragedies that befell community members. Monster, the portrayal of lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos, was critically successful and won big at the box office. Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for the role, which took her all the way to the electric chair in the end.
“You care more about the fact that I had sex with Christina Ricci than you did I was forced into sex work and started to rebel against the violence I suffered at the hands of men.”
Another highly popular biopic was Gia, HBO’s offering of the drug-addled model Gia Carangi as depicted by Angelina Jolie. Gia’s glamorous life falls apart as she engages in lesbian sex and heroin. Eventually, she dies of AIDS at the age of 26.
The 1999 German film Aimee & Jaguar fictionalized the love story of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, a Jewish woman who fell in love with a Nazi soldier’s wife, and the time they spent together until Felice (Jaguar) is captured by the Gestapo and ultimately killed in a concentration camp.
More recently, Peter Sollett‘s Freeheld had viewers bawling while relaying the fight of Lauren Hester‘s life before she died of cancer in 2006. The fight for equality was tearfully on display from an all-star cast including Ellen Page and Julianne Moore.
“I think it’s fine we only have a brief hint of a sex scene. It’s all about your cancer, you know?”
The Offing of Women of Color
In 1996, Queen Latifah portrayed lesbian criminal Cleo in the blockbuster Set it Off. Starring alongside Vivica A. Fox and Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen was a likable, fun, trustworthy friend whose plight was being born not only a woman but black, gay and poor. Her greed ended up killing her and two of her co-conspirators at the hands of the LAPD while her girlfriend watched on the local news. The film grossed $41 million.
“I’m definitely going to be shot for this!”
Cheryl Dunye‘s 2001 women-in-prison film Stranger Inside saw lead butch lesbian Brownie (Davenia McFadden) who is incarcerated for life, or until she is killed by a shiv to the neck from her neo-Nazi cellmate. The film played on HBO and was based on the real lives of imprisoned women Cheryl met during four years of research before production.
The Chinese Botanist’s Daughter is a 2006 French-Canadian film set in 1980s China whose two female protagonists are ultimately executed because one of their fathers turns them into authorities as homosexuals. Because of its lesbian themes, China would not allow for it to be shot there, and it was filmed in Vietnam instead.
“Don’t you see? Your dad is right—we don’t deserve to live!”
If there is one film that utilizes the death of a lesbian woman for a story that isn’t about or leading up to her tragic end, but instead examines the meaning of a queer woman’s life after it has ended, and the lives it affects around her. In the beginning segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2, elderly couple Edith and Abby are shown enjoying their shared life together. They have created a happy home that is disturbed by Abby’s sudden fall, one that has her suffering a stroke and eventually dying without Edith being able to say goodbye.
“We should be truly happy we made it this far.”
With the film being released in 2001, this was a reality of the time, one that was eventually rectified in most hospitals, thankfully, but still stings to do this day. The treatment Abby’s family gives Edith—disrespectfully referring to them as friends or roommates and then taking Abby’s things and wanting to sell the house—is indescribably painful to watch. And even though it’s just one part of a multi-segmented film from four writers, Jane Anderson‘s “1961” is story that needed telling, and was expertly acted by Vanessa Redgrave, Marian Seldes, Paul Giamatti, and Elizabeth Perkins.
This isn’t to say that the deaths of the other lesbian/bi women in other films have been in vain; it’s just that the abundance of “she was queer, and so she had to die” comes across in a way that is likely subconscious, yet not so subtly apparent. Just like in television, it’s a matter of balance. When the criteria for a successful film that can include a lesbian or bi character is that she must die or fall into one of the other troubling tropes (she cheats on her partner with a man, she’s is an obsessive stalker who won’t take no for an answer, she’s a murderer herself), there are not enough nuanced stories about queer women that can dispell these myths and prove we can behave otherwise. When there’re a plethora of depictions of queer women on the same level of mainstream or highly-accessible indie film, then we won’t be marred by the reputations of poor representation that precede us.
Heterosexuals should not have the monopoly on happy endings, and interestingly, lesbian filmmakers seem just as likely to be attracted to a story that puts queer women in deadly situations. Hopefully, with the monetary and critical success of Carol, the tides will change, and Hollywood will embrace a new era of women who are experiencing a full life, not simply life until an inevitable on-screen death.