Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

Narrowing down the choices for this month’s theme was a challenge and a half. While LGBTQ+ representation both on screen and behind the camera is still well below where it should be, there are still an abundance of excellent films to choose from. Most obvious, are biopics. Olivia Colman won the Leading Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite, a delightful and riotously fun three-hander between Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. American poet Emily Dickenson is the subject of three recent projects: acclaimed drama A Quiet Passion, led by Cynthia Nixon; romantic comedy Wild Nights with Emily, with Molly Shannon in the titular role; and television show Dickinson from Apple TV+ with Hailee Steinfeld. Other figures explored onscreen include Christina, Queen of Sweden, in the 17th century biographical drama The Girl King; Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf in 2018’s Vita & Virginia; British palaeontologist Mary Anning (portrayed by Kate Winslet) in the recently released Ammonite; and the American blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah), in the Emmy-winning television movie Bessie, from prolific black lesbian writer and director Dee Rees.

International films have showcased LGBTQ+ stories against a backdrop of each nation’s relationship with their queer communities. Kenyan drama Rafiki focuses on the romance between two young women amid familial and political pressure, and was the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Writer-director Shamim Sarif adapted her own novel for The World Unseen, a historical drama set in 1950s Cape Town during apartheid that follows the relationship between two Indian South African women. Iran banned Circumstance, an exploration of female homosexuality in modern Tehran; and 1996 film Fire, the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship, prompted widespread protests across India following its release in 1998, and inspired the creation of a new lesbian rights group, CALERI.

Many films aimed primarily at teenage audiences successfully address and celebrate the LGBTQ+ experience. Director Alice Wu showcased the lives of young Asian-American LGBTQ women with The Half of It and Saving Face, and Dee Rees (as seen above!) launched her feature film career with Pariah, a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. Popular recent releases such as Booksmart, Blockers, and Hearts Beat Loud also purport to show LGBTQ+ teens in prominent roles without their sexuality being the focus of the plot.

Filmmakers have triumphed with ground-breaking offerings in recent years. A Fantastic Woman, the first Chilean film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, gave star Daniela Vega the opportunity to become the first openly transgender presenter at the Oscars; Happiest Season, from queer actress and director Clea DuVall, is one of the first major studio holiday films to centre on a same-sex couple; and, in its first major critical survey of LGBT films, the BFI named Carol as the best LGBT film of all time (and it was shamefully snubbed at the Oscars!).

Our top five films for this month feature a cult classic; a biopic; a French period piece; a technological triumph; and an adaptation of a novel cleverly reimagined both geographically and chronologically. Without further ado…

But I’m a Cheerleader

(1999, Dir.: Jamie Babbit)

Satirical comedy But I’m a Cheerleader sees Natasha Lyonne as Megan Bloomfield, a high school cheerleader who is sent to a conversion therapy camp after her parents and friends suspect that she is a lesbian. Critically panned following its release in 1999, But I’m a Cheerleader went on to obtain cult status within the LGBTQ+ community as audiences appreciated director Jamie Babbit’s exploration of gender roles, heteronormativity, and the lesbian experience though a femme lens.

But I’m a Cheerleader is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

Colette

(2018, Dir.: Wash Westmoreland)

Keira Knightley stars as the eponymous Gabrielle Colette, a pansexual Bohemian feminist and French novelist, who rose to fame having ghost-written the ‘Claudine’ novels, published under the name of her husband (Dominic West). This biographical drama charts her literary adventures and relationships with a Louisiana debutant (Eleanor Tomlinson) and a transgender man (Denise Gough), exploring issues such as creative ownership and gender roles in 19th century Paris in the process.

Colette is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video; and rent on the BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

(2019, Dir.: Céline Sciamma)

The critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a historical romantic drama set on an isolated island in Brittany in the late 18th century, and follows the forbidden relationship between a young painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and the aristocratic Hêloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose wedding portrait she is commissioned to paint. The film won the Queer Palm at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first film directed by a woman to win the accolade. Sciamma called her film a “manifesto about the female gaze,” offering a refreshing depiction of female desire.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video; and rent on Curzon Home Cinema

Tangerine

(2015, Dir.: Sean Baker)

In Tangerine, a transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) storms across Hollywood on Christmas Eve after discovering her boyfriend and pimp (James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. Shot on three iPhone 5S smartphones, the film was praised for innovatively utilising new technology. Actresses Rodriguez and Mya Taylor were the first openly transgender actresses to campaign for the Oscars, with the backing of a film producer. While they were unsuccessful, they still garnered admiration for their work.

Tangerine is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video; and rent on the BFI Player

The Handmaiden

(2016, Dir.: Park Chan-wook)

The Handmaiden is inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, but Park Chan-wook transforms the British Victorian setting of the book to Japanese-occupied Korea in this psychological thriller and lesbian love affair. A Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) uses an orphaned pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) in a bid to con her out of her inheritance. The film is truly exquisite, with twists and turns throughout, and while the male gaze is clearly present, ultimately The Handmaiden is a commentary on women outsmarting the men around them.

The Handmaiden is available to stream on Netflix; and rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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