Queering History: Why are historical LGBTQ films suddenly so popular?

Right now, historical and period queer female films are having, what could be called, a ‘moment’ in cinema. It seems that wherever you look queer stories on screen are set during times with questionable medical practices, featuring historical figures and are awash with opulent period costumes, with lady-loving-ladies donning some stylishly gender-bending suits (ahem – Keira Knightley). Knightley’s turn of the century Colette being just one example in this list which also includes the Oscar nominated The Favourite, as well as Vita and Virginia, Ammonite and Tell It to the Bees. The sudden rise in historical films within queer cinema is an unusual development to say the least, much in the same way that a sudden rise in queer thrillers or queer sci-fi would be. That is not to say it is necessarily a bad or a good thing, I mean give me lesbian spaceship adventures any day. However, the issue here being that the sudden proliferation of a very specific genre must be investigated for its causes and, consequently, its influences on queer art and culture.    

In this I am not trying to suggest that historical queer films have been an absent presence in wider queer cinematic canon. Todd Haynes 2015 film Carol, for instance, being a tour de force in ‘sweeping romantic melodrama’ which Anita Katz describes as immersing ‘us in 1950s styles and attitudes’. However, it is difficult to say exactly why this trend, as with any trend, has suddenly appeared so prominently. Whereby, the historical and period genre has been the backbone of multiple films in the last year and this is set to continue well into next year. It is because these films make money at the box office? Or, because they are critically well received? Or, because the costume industry needs some work now Game of Thrones is ending?

The allure of the historical and period genre has always been a magnetic one for cinema-goers. This type of film transporting viewers to different times and places in ways that contemporary-set films simply cannot. In this manner, the queering of historical events, figures and characters effectively reclaims and re-orientates history away from the monopoly of heteronormative, cis-centric narratives. This trend of historical and period queer films perhaps then arising from the validity the community feels from having their histories finally representing on screen; histories that have traditionally been obscured.

One issue that could arise from the prominence of historical queer films is that takes away from the issues and stories that are happening today, in 2019. These narratives of hidden identities and love affairs set to the backdrop of the great depression or 18th century aristocracy makes it feel like anti-LGBTQ sentiments are a staple of the past. Not, in fact, a very real thing in today’s world where at least 14 countries still impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

I cannot deny that historical queer films are a wonderous art form, but they must be balanced with pressing issues of the day.


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