The Role of Disgust in Contemporary Queer Female Films

Kaitlyn Dever as Amy Antsler in Booksmart (Photo credit: Annapurna Pictures)

There’s a scene in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart that directly challenges its quest to offer a “groundbreaking” representation of queer women’s sex lives: During her first high-school party, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) runs to the bathroom, hoping to find a quiet place for her to cry about a fight she’s just had with her best friend. Instead, she finds Hope (Diana Silvers), her school’s resident “cool girl” and her total opposite. Amy is earnest and awkward, Hope is snarky and cruel, and when Hope mocks her, Amy responds by kissing her. Hope reciprocates the kiss, and soon, the two seniors are hooking up at the final party of their high-school career. It’s supposed to be a tender and meaningful scene, a culmination of Amy’s quest to finally enjoy high school—and then she throws up on Hope. The moment dissipates as quickly as it began: Hope shouts with disgust as she jumps into the shower, and if that wasn’t bad enough, Amy doesn’t seem to have a basic understanding of lesbian sex. Hope even utters “wrong hole” at one point during their encounter.

Booksmart’s writer Katie Silberman told the New York Daily News that she intentionally made Amy’s first sexual experience awkward because she didn’t want the movie to have the typical “love scene.” “The thing we were most excited about was to try and show a love scene, a sex scene, that felt authentic in how awkward it is,” she said. “We talked about all the things that in a normal movie love scene you don’t see, like trying to get somebody’s shoes off.” Silvers told Vulture that the scene “felt even more real because that’s what it’s like.” “No matter who you’re hooking up with for the first time, it’s always awkward and exciting and your heart’s going and your anxiety’s up and the adrenaline’s pumping, and you’re bound to make a mistake on something as simple as taking your shoes off before you take your pants off,” Silvers continued. “I’m so glad we got to show a more accurate depiction of what it’s like to hook up in high school.”

In other words, Booksmart wanted to present an authentic sex scene between a queer teenager who’s exploring someone else’s body for the first time and another teenager who’s seemingly more experienced. Is capturing the awkwardness of sex a worthy goal? Sure. Is it a worthy goal in a year where many movies that included queer sex scenes centered on a gross gag? Not so much. “I saw this film a second time in the theaters with my girlfriend, who like me, enjoyed the film a great deal, but after the vomit scene happened, my girlfriend leaned over and whispered, ‘Why did they have to do that—to her!’” Candace Moore, a women’s and gender studies and cinema and media studies professor at Carleton College, tells Bitch. “It was if Olivia Wilde thought that in order to stay true to genre, the American Pie-style gross out humor had to happen, once again, at the female or queer character’s expense, especially if she’s coded as a ‘geek.’”

Queer teens deserve the smooth and promising sex scenes given to straight teens, and it seems odd to use “realism” as a justification for an awkward sex scene between queer teens, especially considering that straight sex scenes are hardly ever realistic. (Movies with straight couples still tend to skip foreplay and play into the idea that cisgender women can cum immediately from intercourse without any additional stimulation.) “True disgust often presents a total break from the possibility of interconnectedness,” Moore says. “Though the display of vomit kills anything erotic about this sex scene (for anyone who isn’t a fetishist), what we witness, on reflection, is the contagion of shame—a humiliation is experienced, first by Amy, transferred materially onto Hope’s body, and then taken up by Hope as she demands privacy to wash off the substance and the icky feeling.”

Booksmart isn’t alone in having a promising sex scenes that’s ruined by an “icky feeling.” Duck Butter (2018) is a slow, sensual film about Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa), two women who launch an experiment: They decide to have sex every hour on the hour, no matter what else is happening in their lives. The first half of the film is beautiful; Naima and Sergio are clearly into each other, and despite the endless sex, their relationship feels like a satisfying slowburn. Duck Butter doesn’t feel heavy-handed and adopts an almost dreamlike aesthetic with sensual haze and soft lighting. Their embraces feel full of care and both actresses appear to be comfortable, their characters humanized and well-rounded. But, there’s a shift that the film’s title, which is a reference to smegma, suggests: Duck Butter ends with Sergio taking a shit on Naima’s floor.

“Though the film teases with the potential of their connection, full of them staring into one another’s eyes, caressing, processing, and taking care of each other emotionally in a way usually reserved for long-term couples, in the end the film disavows completely the irreverent spark between the two, thumbing its nose at the risk they took in jumping in completely, and in effect rendering the meaning of the film largely mute,” Moore explains. I was similarly astounded by Gentleman Jack, which oddly chooses to splice a sex scene between protagonist Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) and Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) with clips of a pig literally eating an abusive man to death. Why couldn’t we have a sex scene between two women without  intermixing such disgusting visuals? These aren’t simply questions of authenticity; these are decisions that force feelings of disgust into a moment that would’ve otherwise been hot.

Duck Butter's Sergio (Laia Costa) and Naima (Alia Shawkat) (Photo credit: The Orchard)

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The sordid history of lesbians and queer women onscreen complicates this conversation: In the introduction to a special 1981 issue of Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, lesbian writers Edith Becker, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, and B. Ruby Rich wrote, “Ironically … the most explicit vision of lesbianism has been left to pornography, where the lesbian loses her menace and becomes a turn on. Men maintain control over women by creating the fantasy images of women that they need … As long as lesbianism remains a component of pornography made by and for men, that will affect the ‘positive image’ of lesbianism.” Given that Hollywood is still dominated by male directors, producers, and writers, the crafting of lesbian and queer characters onscreen is predominantly dominated by men. (Only 4.3 percent of the top-grossing films between 2007 and 2018 were directed by women, while women directed 33 percent of the indie movies.)

The male gaze, influenced as it is by pornography and lesbophobia, continues to shape the ways that lesbians exist onscreen. “Frankly, the more that queer women are creatively involved, whether behind-the-scenes or in front of the cameras, in depictions of women having sex with each other, the better,” Moore says. “The fact that [some] are directed by men, can’t help but influence the way we understand any impulses we find within them to demean the very individuals or relationships that they so centrally eroticize.” Whenever I watch a modern queer female film, I think a lot about what the film tells straight viewers and what it aims to provide queer viewers. Because there’s a limited amount of films that center queer women, I have high expectations about each one. Maybe that isn’t a fair stance. 

In an October 2019 essay about Vita and Virginia for Bitch, Rachel Vorona Cote writes, “There’s an accompanying anxiety to screening queer cinema, because our options are finite, and we cannot assume that there will be more choices in the future. Consequently, we want to champion everything: We want each film or television episode to represent us eloquently and poignantly.” Whenever I watch a queer film, I am simultaneously thrilled at the prospect of ingesting the good queer film I’ve been waiting for, and holding out hope, as many have failed me. So often it feels like to criticize something queer is to indict it, but I’m less interested in deciding what’s good or bad for a viewer, and more interested in investigating it’s context, especially alongside other films within the same genre. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) might offer one of the most egregious contemporary examples of hypersexualized lesbians.

The film infamously includes seemingly neverending sex scenes between Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student, and Emma (Léa Seydoux), the mysterious blue-haired older girl she quickly falls for. They connect almost immediately; Adèle begins obsessing over Emma and seeking out her affection and attention. The film eventually turns dark, and the pair breaks up in a violent and heartbreaking way. There’s only one consistent decision made throughout the film: the sex scenes are long and very up close and personal. “…Once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything,” Exarchopoulos told the Daily Beast in 2013. “Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful—you get reassured during sex scenes, and they’re choreographed, which desexualizes the act.” (Both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos said they’d never work with Abdellatif Kechiche again, and in 2018, another actress accused the director of sexual assault.)

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color (Photo credit: Vertigo Films)

Similarly, Below Her Mouth (2016) offers extended sex scenes, though the painful acting turned the movie into a quality just a little higher than porn. A predatory lesbian goes after a pretty straight girl; they have a lot of sex; and then the no-longer straight girl’s male fiancé catches them in the act. Below Her Mouth is a disaster of a film, and its existence is just more proof that many directors and screenwriters still have little understanding of the interior sex lives of lesbians. Through their lenses, these relationships are little more than masturbatory material, though Below Her Mouth was directed by April Mullen and had an all-woman production crew. Now, some films are aiming to combat this hypersexualization. Increasingly in the last five years, films seem to be leaning toward invoking disgust as a means of tempering the historically hypersexualized queer woman in film. But these films have gone so far to fight this issue that they strip the sexuality of their characters entirely, leaning heavily on disgust to do so, and that focus on “grossness” is a misguided attempt to combat hypersexualization.

Television appears to offer queer women more space for character development and growth, especially given the length of a series (though many queer series are canceled after a single season or two—Autostraddle notes 21 such shows) versus a film. Here, shows are able to succeed or fail in their representation of queer experience in a more flexible way. Big Mouth simultaneously offers the best and worst bisexual representation; shows like She’s Gotta Have It find queer audiences even as they’re accused of queerbaiting; and BoJack Horseman found its footing regarding asexuality, working on issues of representation as episodes progress. We’re also seeing a lot of reboots these days (not all good), which uniquely allows creators to course correct. Take, for example, The L Word, one of the most important series for queer women and lesbians. The original series didn’t get everything right, but its spinoff, Generation Q, intentionally aimed to right those wrongs. As creator Marja-Lewis Ryan told me, “When I pitched this show … I set out to widen the umbrella—widen the lens of who’s included in this world.” And widen the lens she did.

Films don’t have the same space. In a little more or less than three hours, movies that engage with queerness must reckon with objectification, the male gaze, and voyeurism, and prioritize what should matter most to the audience. Some of those decisions can be deduced to the gendered double standard that dictate how orgasms are portrayed onscreen. Films that prioritize female pleasure are given more vulgar ratings than those that center male pleasure, so films that feature sex scenes between women are even more likely to be censored. In October 2019, Delta Airlines removed Amy and Hope’s sex scene from the in-flight version of Booksmart and removed every reference to the word “lesbian.” Delta’s decision broke Wilde’s heart. “There’s insane violence of bodies being smashed in half [in other movies], and yet a love scene between two women is censored from the film,” she told Variety. “It’s such an integral part of this character’s journey. I don’t understand it.”

In a little more or less than three hours, movies that engage with queerness must reckon with objectification, the male gaze, and voyeurism, and prioritize what should matter most to the audience.

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This censoring of a queer pleasure harkens back But I’m a Cheerleader’s (1999) director Jamie Babbit being forced to make cuts to get the film from a NC-17 to to a R rating. “I had to shorten Megan’s masturbation scene, and cut a line of Hilary’s where she says ‘Did you go down on Megan?’” Jamie told i-D. “They don’t like female masturbation and they don’t like any reference to oral sex between women.” In a world where the word “lesbian” is considered worthy of censorship and queer relationships are deemed inappropriate for an in-flight viewing, why bother trying to lean into the rules of appropriate queerness? Why not give Amy and Hope a fluffy, giggly, aspirational sex scene? Why not let Naima and Sergio have orgasm after orgasm?

Some films are beginning to find a middle ground that satisfies queer audiences and evades censoring: In Disobedience (2017), Ronit (Rachel Weisz) spits in Esti’s (Rachel McAdams) mouth as they have sex. This scene might’ve been more hypersexualized in Below Her Mouth or Blue is the Warmest Color and played for laughs in Booksmart; in Disobedience though, the music continues swelling—just as it would in a scene with a straight couple having sex. That simple inclusion offers insight for both straight and queer reviewers: Those who’ve never experienced queer sex can better understand what’s happening while queer viewers may better understand what’s causing them both to moan. “Often, you’re trying to decide if it’s gratuitous or not. But this scene felt so integral to the plot and moving the story forward,” McAdams told Entertainment Weekly in April 2018. “The characters need this release to open up.”

To be a queer woman is to have moments that feel like they’re straight out of porn, to have moments of disgust, and to have moments in between. What’s missing is the people behind the scenes who understand that nuance, and create space for experiences that feel authentic. “I think there need to be all kinds of films depicting queer women, ideally made by queer women—and that explicit sex itself is not a problem, if there are other romantic options and narratives not built around sex out there too,” says Moore. I don’t want to choose between films that either hypersexualize the women involved or interject something crude and violent to halt their heat. Disgusting moments happen during sex, but until filmmakers elect to show every bodily function that occurs in the bodies of straight women, it seems purposeful to elect to only highlight this for queer women onscreen—and one that, per usual, slights lesbians and queer women.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.