Queering historical figures on film

Queer narratives have been both erased from and inserted into historical narratives on film. Why does queering historical figures elicit such a strong response?

When Ammonite was released in 2020, one of the major criticisms aimed at the film was that it was ahistorical. Fans of Mary Anning’s contributions to paleontology felt that her accomplishments were minimized in favor of a romantic relationship that may or may not have ever happened. Director Frances Lee and actor Kate Winslet were both quick to point out that inserting a straight romance into a work of historical fiction is incredibly common and has rarely been so heavily criticized when featuring straight couples. Lee asked, “Why are historical figures presumed straight?”

In fact, more often than not, historians and film studios alike have downplayed or outright ignored historical fact when it comes to the existence of queer people. Personalities that we know were queer due to statements either by them or by those close to them have been generally portrayed as heterosexual in Hollywood adaptations. Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, and Cole Porter are all examples of people who have been portrayed as essentially straight in various renditions, while many more recent films like Bessie, Wild Nights With Emily, Reaching For The Moon, and Daphne have all openly embraced the queerness of their protagonists. Because even just grappling with queer people that history regards as out is still an ongoing issue, inserting a queer romance into a historical story is a somewhat more recent phenomenon, yet not without precedent.

Murderous Maids (2000), Image courtesy: StudioCanal

Sister, My Sister (1994) and Murderous Maids (2000) are both based on the infamous Papin sisters, Lea and Christine, who may or may not have been involved in an incestuous affair with one another. Both of the films show the development of a bizarre, unsettling attraction between the two which leads to a steamy tryst that culminates in the violent murder of the mother and daughter that employed the two highly overworked maids. Obviously, we have no idea if there was such a relationship between the two, only that Christine’s fixation on Lea was off-putting, particularly after their imprisonment. Regardless of what happened behind closed doors, in the moment the case generally interested leftists because it offered clear commentary on the hellish working conditions the two women were forced to work under since early childhood and the brutal violence their boss was allowed to inflict upon them, but for the film renditions, any greater connection to society at large is more or less buried, and instead the idea that it’s a tale of “forbidden longing” is embraced.

This is likewise true of Heavenly Creatures (1994), which focuses on a volatile relationship between two schoolgirls and is based on the true story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme. The two teamed up and murdered Parker’s mother, ostensibly in hopes that they’d then be able to live together. The person formerly known as Hulme came forward later to be clear that there was no lesbian relationship, while acknowledging their interactions had been obsessive and toxic. Meanwhile, in Lizzie (2018), Lizzie Borden is imagined to have been motivated to murder when her relationship with a servant that her father repeatedly attacks, using his position of power to demand a sexual relationship with her. Ultimately, Lizzie snaps, and loses her love in the process. Critics have expressed concerns around rebooting and reimagining Lizzie’s story, as these adaptations generally move pieces of the story around until we feel comfortable with the horrific acts of violence she was accused of. In the end, it can seem like a negotiation, pleading with us to redirect our ire towards “more deserving” targets. As for what really happened, we’ll likely never know.

Lizzie (2018), Image courtesy: Saban Films

Not every reimagining is rooted in real-life murders. Still, the tendency to link female murderers with lesbianism regardless of how tenuous the evidence might be can’t be placed on films alone, as the sensationalism around these crimes is based either in the frenzied reports contemporary to the events, or, in the case of Lizzie Borden, in an unrelated novel nearly a century after the fact which nevertheless predated the film by close to four decades. For these films, the lesbianism seems not necessarily inclined to make any kind of a statement outside of adding some sensationalism and stressing the status of these young women as being uniquely outside of society’s grander view of their gender in their respective eras.

In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), Wonder Woman creator Professor William Marston’s polyamorous marriage is the focal point of the drama that unfolds. Written and directed by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.), the film eschews many of the general facts around Marston’s life and his relationship with Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne in favor of telling a sensual love story, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Family members have come forward to denounce the film as a fiction, noting that there was apparently no sexual relationship between the women whatsoever.

queer film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), Image credit: Annapurna Pictures

Yet, given what little we do know of their private lives with Marston, it isn’t particularly surprising that so many people would want their story to go in that direction. With all of the implications of Wonder Woman as a hero and feminist icon, we so often envision her as being more progressive than she has ever actually been on the page. Imagining a lesbian love story at the heart of her creation is tempting. While it is true that lengthy research has uncovered very little to confirm that this ever occurred, it is unlikely that its shaky basis in fact made the film any less enjoyable for its intended audience. Generally speaking, biopics are rarely so beholden to history as they are to the telling of a good story, which is a larger conversation than whether or not fictionalized queer romances have a place in the genre.

In Shirley (2020), the author Shirley Jackson is reimagined to fit into a story that is more about the disillusionment and regret that so many housewives of the era experienced than it is specifically about Jackson’s life. Jackson is sick in bed due to intense agoraphobia which is in some ways aggravated by her husband’s gaslighting and manipulation of her often understandable discomfort with his behavior. While Jackson is years into this unending, toxic marriage, a young woman named Rose comes to live with them as a favor to her husband who hopes to gain tenure at the same college Jackson’s husband teaches at. Rose is newlywed, and doesn’t at first see the pattern of male exploitation that her own marriage is rapidly falling into.

The queerness of Shirley appears in only a few short snippets, but it adds significant characterization to the story. First, when Rose sees a group of theater kids climbing on a short tree, one of them makes eye contact and smiles at her, and it speaks to the life that she walked away from by choosing marriage and motherhood. Then, after she and Jackson spark a friendship due to their mutual despair and their interest in a new book of Shirley’s, they share a sexually charged moment on a swing set that speaks to her rapidly waning interest in being “just” a housewife.

This is another film in which family members have spoken out against, while director Josephine Decker has stated that the factual omissions were intentional, as were the attempts to make her somewhat unlikeable for much of the audience. Indeed, like Professor Marston, Shirley spends very little time with cold hard facts and relies instead on a dreamy, emotional backdrop and captivating reimaginings of its core characters.

queer film Ammonite
Ammonite (2020), Image courtesy: Lionsgate

Which, in the end, is much the same effect as the one that Ammonite’s creators intended. Ammonite doesn’t tell the full story of Anning’s life, but it makes no attempts to do so. Instead, we are asked to look through a window to see a specific moment in time as it may have existed for her. Imagining this allows us to view her a bit differently, not so much a legend or a martyr but as a living, breathing human being. The film leans into its romance, but to say that it’s all the movie communicates about Anning would be wildly reductive. If anything, as with so many films, people who may not have ever heard of Anning’s work were compelled to seek her out.

Many biopics smudge or even erase the facts around a historical figure’s life in order to make an allowance that gives us a better story. Being as queer people have so often been left out of history entirely, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to see that there are more cases of reimagining stories with queer overtones as of late. While there is something to be said for delivering information, it’s also generally accepted that biopics are generally at least somewhat fictional in nature. It’s true that these films are, at times, ahistorical, but it would be wrong to say that they can’t teach us anything.

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