The history of lesbian representation in film is neither a long, nor a pleasant one. The existence of lesbianism, along with other forms of female sexuality, was denied throughout history, which resulted in a lack of representation followed by decades of misrepresentation. Lesbians, in popular mainstream media, were often linked to crime, mental instability, psychopathy, sadism, aggression and carnality. Lesbian relationships were stereotypically depicted as being immature, a phase or a pairing with an imbalance of power. Within recent portrayals of lesbianism in film a new trend can be discerned; the telling of lesbian love stories in a historical setting. Since 2015 there have been several examples of films doing so and the number seems to be growing still. This thesis aims to examine the influence this historical setting has on the representation of lesbianism within the films Carol (2015), Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019), Ammonite (2020) and The World to Come (2020). Special focus will be placed on the way in which the representations are (un)able to challenge the existing patriarchal, heteronormative structures of society. In addition, by using films that were released between 2015 and 2020 this research intents to understand society’s current considerations regarding lesbianism. The results of this research show that the historical setting when telling lesbian love stories has its fair share of problematic aspects when it comes to representation. The historical setting of these films is used to, on the one hand, criticize existing patriarchal structures of society, both in the present and the past, while, at the same time, creating enough distance between these historical representations and the present to maintain the existence of heteronormative stereotypes concerning lesbianism. The historical setting seems to provide a safe haven for filmmakers to maintain negative stereotypes of lesbianism in the name of historical accuracy, while simultaneously allowing them to openly criticize the restrictions that were historically placed on women by the patriarchy.

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Sommier, M.
Media, Culture & Society
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication

Gijze, Jody van der. (2021, July 12). Lesbianism, back to the future! The Impact of Setting Lesbian Representations in the Past. Media, Culture & Society. Retrieved from