This article contains spoilers for the upcoming film The World To Come.
They say there are five rules to follow if you want your lesbian romance to get critical acclaim, wide release, and nomination for awards:
1. It must be set in the distant past.
2. The women must be white, one with light hair, one with dark.
3. Their love must be kept a secret.
4. The actresses must be straight.
5. The slower and more heartbreaking the story the better.
The new Sundance film The World to Come, unfortunately, nails all of these rules, and throws in violence against its queer women and even a lesbian death just for good measure.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the feature is a beautifully directed, shot, and acted film. Katherine Waterston is great as a repressed farmer’s wife, and Vanessa Kirby is stunningly beautiful as the woman she falls for. But too much of the movie follows those aforementioned rules for me to truly have enjoyed the experience.
The World to Come follows Abigail as she loses a child and mourns as her husband gets colder and colder. She meets Tallie, the free-spirited wife of a local man, and the two of them strike up a romance. They spend the film flirting and making love in secret, always hiding from their controlling husbands, and by the end of the movie, one of them is dead.
In the last few years, we’ve gotten a plethora of new lesbian romances. And while that may be technically true, when you look at the ones that have gotten attention from mainstream entertainment sites, they all seem to blend together. The Favourite, Gentleman Jack, Colette, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Carol, Ammonite, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire all fulfill most of, if not all of, the afforementioned five rules — The Affair, which is available digitally in March, does as well.
Even in some of the best lesbian movies this is all we get. While Carol has a happy ending, we have to sit through two hours of secrets, hiding, and homophobia from family and society. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an even better film, and features a queer director and lead, but our two main characters still end up leaving each other, one to go marry a man. The Haunting of Bly Manor was one of the internet’s (and my) favorite lesbian story lines in years, and it still ends up with one of them dead.
Why is this the only story straight people want to tell about us? Want to watch about us? How many times will I have to watch two beautiful white women stare at each other for two hours until one of them dies? How many times do we need to see women who can’t be lesbians because of their controlling husbands? How many times do we need to see movies about queer women that aren’t made by queer women?
I want lesbians who can be themselves, who aren’t a secret, who aren’t white, who aren’t from 100 years ago. I want lesbian sex filmed through a lesbian gaze. I want queer actors, writers, and directors making these movies.
While a lot of movies and shows about queer women are quite literally stuck in the past, the future of lesbian cinema is bright. With queer filmmakers of color like Dee Rees, Alice Wu, and Angela Robinson, and Desiree Akhavan, more diverse stories are being made. And as soon as we can get away from all of the tropes that seem to come with sapphic romances, the sky is wide open and beautiful.