The Lesbian Experience In TV Period Pieces

The year is 1055. In eleven years, the Duke of Normandy William the Conqueror will defeat Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at Hastings, beginning the Norman conquest of England. Right now, however, you’re a lesbian peasant in a tiny hamlet of about 60 people in southwest England. In a word, you’re screwed.

In 2019, exposure to gay and lesbian issues is broad enough that almost anywhere in the world, lesbians can know that they are part of a global population that spans every country. Even if lesbians live in an environment in which they can’t be true to their identity, at least they know they’re not alone. In previous times, however, this knowledge wouldn’t have existed, and the odds of finding another woman who loved you back would have been slim. What must life have been like, to believe that you were the only same-sex loving person on the planet, and then, in the best case scenario, trying to find that one other needle in the haystack and somehow, against all odds, forming a life together free of patriarchal, heteronormative control?

As the undying popularity of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has shown, humans always enjoy a good against-all-odds love story, and while lesbian romances across all genres often intrinsically incorporate this element, setting a lesbian romance in a different time period compounds the challenges that same-sex star-crossed lovers face. At the same time, it gives viewers insight into what life was like for lesbians living in different eras: how they understood their own sexuality, how they found others with the same sexuality, and how society reacted to that sexuality.

Period lesbian romances are important because they remind us that however difficult it is to be authentic to our identities today and to find love, it was a hell of a lot harder back in centuries past. AfterEllen highlights the following examples from TV of how lesbian romances have been depicted in different settings to show the great diversity of the lesbian experience over time and space:

Godless (1880s, America): It’s hard to know what life on the Western frontier might have been like for lesbians because of Hollywood’s fetishization of the Western genre. Nevertheless, we have some glimpses through shows like “Godless.” When a mining accident kills almost all the men in the town of La Belle, New Mexico, the late mayor’s wife Mary Agnes McNue finds a previously unavailable opportunity to take solace in the comfort of former prostitute Callie Dunne. While Callie is publicly unabashed by their romance, Mary Agnes prefers to keep the relationship under wraps, despite the fact that they’re clearly fooling no one in La Belle. Unfortunately, most Hollywood depictions of lesbianism in the American Old West seem to revolve around the annoying and unoriginal trope of lesbian prostitutes (for example “Deadwood”). Of course, the trope also exists for pirates (for example “Crossbones” and “Black Sails“), which speaks more to male fantasies than actual historical realities.

Tipping the Velvet” (Victorian England): There are many depictions of lesbianism in Victorian England, a byproduct of the numerous shows in general coming out of the UK set in that time period. Most of these depictions are set among Britain’s upper class, but in “Tipping the Velvet,” Nan Astley is a naïve young oyster shucker from Whitstable whose life is inalterably changed when she meets the charming and vivacious performer Kitty Butler. In a divergence from what would likely have been the norm at the time, the two take to the road, performing as male impersonators. Later, Nan passes as a gay male prostitute and meets a rich woman whose friends pass their female lovers off as male before finally crossing paths with the social movement in London. In this depiction of homosexuality in Victorian England, as with many other shows from this period, no one seems super concerned about gayness, probably because female sexuality was still largely invisible. “Fingersmith” and “Affinity,” other works by author Sarah Waters, also set lesbian romances in Victorian England.

Boardwalk Empire” (1920s-1930s, America): Angela Darmody is a common law wife and painter who put her dreams on hold to be a mother, but then discovers she has feelings for the wife of the town photographer. The war allows the two to carry on an affair while the men are away fighting, but when the men come back, the two plan to run away together to Paris, where they can follow their dreams and love freely given that Paris was known for its permissive and libertine environment. Later, Angela meets a bohemian novelist from San Francisco and is able to start a new affair, indicating an increase in the ability of women at this time to find other non-heterosexual women and carry out affairs, but limited long-term prospects.

“Seis Hermanas” (“Six Sisters,” 1913-1916, Spain): The inter-war period in Spain was inimical to lesbians and women in general. When upper class Celia tells her best friend Petra that she’s in love with her, Petra tells everyone that Celia is sick and needs psychiatric treatment. While in conversion therapy, nurse/stealth lesbian Aurora helps her get a beard so that she can continue to live her life unscrutinized. Aurora, too, marries a man to hide her sexuality, although later Celia and Aurora strike out on their own and try to live a life together, indicating the tiny window of opportunity that women at that time could have with luck and diligence.

Bomb Girls” (1940s Canada): WWII was a boon to lesbians throughout North America: many lesbians were able to join the workforce—including the army—and make contact with other lesbians, often beginning relationships that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. In “Bomb Girls,” lesbian Betty McRae works in the Victor Munitions bomb-making factory to support the Canadian war effort while all the men are at war. Although her crush on Kate is unrequited, at one point she finds love with Canadian Women’s Army Corps Sargent Teresa Hill, an accurate depiction of how life would have been like at the time.

“Perdona Nuestros Pecados” (“Forgive our Sins,” 1950s Chile): Bárbara Román, wife of the town’s new chief inspector, already knows she’s lesbian when she meets Mercedes (Mechita) Möller, the girls’ school headmistress who may never have heard the word “lesbian” spoken aloud. For Chile’s high aristocracy in the 1950s, homosexuality is both a heretical sin and an illness that might be cured with conversion therapy. Amazingly, Bárbara never gives up hope that she and Mechita can create a life for themselves despite vehement and violent opposition from all sides that shows the lack of agency for women in Chilean society at that time.

Overall, the theme that persists throughout these storylines is not the absolute impossibility of same-sex love in the pre-modern era, but the difficulty of maintaining it over time against the centrifugal force of heteronormative society.

Although it has become easier globally to find someone and live together, it is important to remember the almost impossible odds that our forebearers had to overcome to do the same.

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