Films about queer women rarely stray from "lesbian drama" clichés – but things are improving

The vast majority of films about lesbians are underpinned by a uniquely cringemaking brand of earnestness; Appropriate Behaviour breaks the mould.

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If the phrase “lesbian drama” means nothing to you, I’m going to take an educated guess that you’re not a lesbian.

In fact, I’m going to try and imagine what “lesbian drama” might mean to anyone other than a lesbian. An all-female production of A Streetcar Named Desire? An operatic custody battle over two cats and a houseplant? Clare Balding walking a tightrope over a fiery abyss?

Granted, those things are all quite lesbionic and dramatic. But, to an actual lesbian, none of them contains the ethos, the essence, the nuance of this thing we call lesbian drama. Lesbian drama stems from the intensity of a romantic relationship between two women. It’s Sappho, it’s Radclyffe Hall, it’s having a crush on a straight woman, then drunkenly sleeping with her and then having her tell you that she’s always wondered about women, but she was raised a devout Catholic, and she’s secretly in love with a handsome Spanish priest, but you’re the best sex she’s ever had, and this is really all too much for her, so she’s running off to a nunnery. And, by the way, she also slept with two of your closest lesbian friends. At the same time. Lesbian drama.

It’s EastEnders with more cunnilingus. And it’s all too real. But it’s also the subject of the vast majority of films about lesbians. Films with scenes so emotionally charged that the actors have to learn how to convincingly swallow their own snot during the teary climax (I’m looking at you, Blue Is the Warmest Colour). Then along comes Appropriate Behaviour, a debut by American director Desiree Akhavan, which has just made it to UK cinemas. And I can honestly say that it’s the first film I’ve seen that takes the piss out of lesbian drama quite so refreshingly.

Watch the trailer:

Akhavan, who’s been touted as the “new Lena Dunham” certainly seems to want to do for queer women what Dunham has done for straight ones with Girls. That is to both parody and highlight the struggles of twentysomething Brooklyn-dwelling, anxiety-ridden women. In Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan plays Shirin, a bisexual Iranian American who loves her fairly traditional (although not so traditional they can’t pass around a picture of a surgically constructed vagina at an afternoon gathering) Persian family, but also loves fucking women and living in borderline squats with artists who may or may not practise witchcraft.

The film traces the rise and fall of her emotionally exhausting (lesbian drama) relationship with Maxine, a politically aware woman in Woody Allen glasses. Drawn together by their mutual jadedness (“I hate so many things too,” Shirin says to Maxine before kissing her for the first time) the women fall into a loving relationship that starts to crumble when Shirin, who wants to be the perfect Iranian daughter as well as the perfect bisexual hipster Brooklynite, refuses to come out to her parents. Meanwhile, Shirin is teaching a filmmaking class to a group of six-year-old boys, which may sound self-consciously quirky but actually works pretty well as a joke about pretentious Brooklyn parents.

The strength of Appropriate Behaviour is in the dialogue. In one particularly funny scene, Shirin gets an unprompted, post-breakup, pep talk from a saleswoman in a lingerie shop who tells her, “just because your breasts are small, that doesn’t mean they’re not legitimate”. Which, written down, doesn’t look all that hilarious. Maybe you had to be there. The same goes for another standout scene in which Shirin has a magnificently awkward threesome with a heterosexual couple she meets in a bar. Anyone who’s ever thought about how potentially uncomfortable a threesome could be will appreciate the pure choreography of this scene. Who should be doing what to whom, and at which point?

Cracking lines and well-observed sex scenes aside, I couldn’t help finding the whole thing a bit smug. It’s hard to like Shirin. She’s arrogant, rude and her “look at me, I’m so cynical and dead inside” shtick wears thin quite quickly. After her breakup with Maxine, she has absolutely no trouble rebounding, as she’s irresistible, it seems, to nearly everyone she meets. So, after one unsuccessful date in which her offer of sex is turned down, she’s disproportionately bummed out. At this point, it’s hard not to want to shake her and say, “Bitch please. Try going a year without sex in which you live with your parents and your closest encounter with anything resembling romance is being woken up at 3am by your cat licking your arm.” But that wouldn’t make a particularly compelling film, I suppose.

That said, Appropriate Behaviour offers a smart and reassuringly funny take on the phenomenon of lesbian drama. In the places where it manages not to be grating, it’s relatable. And when it fails to be relatable, it’s at least witty. There aren’t nearly enough comedies written for and by queer women. “Lesbian” films, almost as a rule, are underpinned by a uniquely cringemaking brand of earnestness. This one isn’t. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.

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