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Finally, On-Screen Representations of Lesbian Relationships Are Becoming More Complex.

The shift follows decades of narratives that dismissed romantic love between women as futile or a phase.

To be homosexual or transgender in the majority of the world is to eventually recognize that you have been trained to deny who you are and to feel shame about your desire to love and be loved — to be entitled to a complete existence. This is also true of queer lives onscreen, where, until recently, the majority of narratives centered on death, whether it was the trans person who was too tragic to continue living — either as a result of murder ("Boys Don't Cry," 1999) or suicide, a trope that dates all the way back to 1953's "Glen or Glenda," one of the earliest films to address transgender issues — or gay men felled by their own murderous impulses.

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"Untitled (Riis)" (2017) by Naima Green is part of a series the artist created at New York City's Jacob Riis Park, an L.G.B.T.Q. gathering place. "I'm considering queer waterways," she explains. "The ways in which the beach is or can become a location of gay people's freedom, enjoyment, and transience, as well as the ways in which we connect."

Then there were the lesbian protagonists. They, too, have been subjected to a plethora of on-screen deaths, from Tara on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in 2002 to Poussey on "Orange Is the New Black" in 2016, but LGBTQ women have also been disappearing in a different way: For nearly a century, female affection has frequently been portrayed as unrequited, predatory, transitory, or otherwise unimportant. Consider the terrifying, lonely Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film "Rebecca"; or, on a more lighthearted note, Roseanne Barr and Mariel Hemingway on the former's 1994 comedy, or Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu on "Ally McBeal" five years later.

All of these stories seemed to indicate that lesbianism's greatest tragedy was that it was a choice, and that intelligent women desiring marriage and children chose differently. According to Sarah Kate Ellis, 50, the chief executive officer of GLAAD, such "lesbian kiss episodes" were typically (and predictably) dreamed up by straight male Hollywood showrunners as a form of titillation. "Lesbian storytelling has historically been told through the eyes of men and their experience of that, of their own desire."

Now, nearly two decades later, lesbian representations onscreen are beginning to evolve beyond the aspirational (mostly wealthy, mostly white) women who dominated shows like Showtime's "The L Word" in 2004 or Todd Haynes' 2015 film "Carol," based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel of mannered glances and starring Cate Blanchett as a housewife forced to choose between her female love and her male love.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" stars Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan).
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" stars Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan).

Within the last two years, there has been "The Wilds" (2020), Sarah Streicher's Amazon Prime video series about a group of teenage girls that does not conflate coming out with conflict, as well as indie films like Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (2019) and Miranda July's "Kajillionaire" (2020), in which love stories revolve around mutual desire rather than shared sexual frustration. When Showtime relaunched "The L Word" in late 2019, fans lauded the show's more diverse ensemble — and more authentic writing that didn't shy away from menstruation, cunnilingus, or simmering jealousy.

We no longer have the tragic lesbian forced to choose between love and a complete life; we now have unpredictable, untidy, and confusing lesbian lives. "The ultimate privilege is the ability to do whatever we want," Marja-Lewis Ryan, the show's 36-year-old showrunner, adds. "We're getting closer to being able to have genuinely flawed people who do not represent all of us."

And, if not, what is the point of gay representation? Not simply that there is less death and despair, or that there are more happy endings, but that the pain and pathos of life are rendered more complex, because everyday life is occasionally miserable as well. "It's critical for us to have characters who are weird and crazy," says Lena Waithe, 37, of the BBC thriller "Killing Eve," which is about to enter its fourth season and has thus far subverted the "will they, won't they" clichés of the past — as well as murderous impulses — by layering each episode with chaotic, bizarre sexual tension.

The third season of "Master of None" focused on Alicia (Naomi Ackie) and Denise's marriage and relationship (Lena Waithe).
The third season of "Master of None" focused on Alicia (Naomi Ackie) and Denise's marriage and relationship (Lena Waithe).

Waithe achieved a similar feat earlier this year when she co-wrote and starred in Season 3 of Netflix's "Master of None," a five-episode storyline about two women who are greedy, who cheat on each other, and who watch their aspirations fall yet continue to move forward. After their marriage inevitably disintegrates, they bend, break, and then begin to heal themselves, providing a radical portrayal of queerness that simultaneously references decades of oppressed lesbian narratives and yet remains hopeful. As Waithe puts it, creating the piece was a matter of "life and death," both for herself and for the other L.G.B.T.Q. creators it might inspire in the future. "We spend our lives attempting to fit into a world into which we do not wish to fit," she continues. "We are not required to."


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