Monday, December 4

Why does it make me uneasy when straight women write TV shows about lesbians? | emma brockes

Tor quote Nora Ephron in her take-down of Dorothy Schiff, I feel bad about what I’m going to do here. It’s not a take-down, but still, I feel bad. I am probably wrong. I’m being all the things one is accused of in these instances, in good faith and bad: chippy, oversensitive, territorial, ungenerous and, as my mother would have said, looking for nonsense. I have tried to frame the following less as opinion than reporting. I am, merely, passing on a conversation presently taking place among lesbians who watch a lot of prestige TV and tend to notice who wrote it. But I can only maintain the delusion so far. At some point, neutrality gives way to something else.

It’s about Sally Wainwright – sort of – who of course, we all love. We love Wainwright because we love Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones, her two leading ladies of her. There isn’t a lesbian in Britain who isn’t in love with Suranne Jones. I have no opinion about this, I am simply reporting the facts. The same goes for Sarah Lancashire. Wainwright is justifiably one of the most beloved creators of TV in Britain. Last week, she was to be found in this paper promoting season two of Gentleman Jack, her de ella BBC / HBO show about Anne Lister, the landowner who rocked around Yorkshire in the mid-19th century, enthusiastically seducing women. Lister has been styled, by HBO and others, as the “first modern lesbian.”

Most of us agree that, as a broad principle, anyone can write about anything they like, and Wainwright has written a lot about lesbians; in Last Tango in Halifax, in At Home With the Braithwaites, and now in Gentleman Jack. Lesbianism is a useful plot point, like murder, or infidelity and historically has tended to be treated in one of three ways on screen: with lurid disdain, with lascivious voyeurism – think Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct – or with dreary, agonized despair. Lesbians are, generally, so grateful not to be depicted as weirdos, murderers, or sexless creatures in bonnets picking up stones off a beach, that when a halfway decent writer comes along and gives them attention, they – we – are quite forgiving if the details are off. Better a sympathetic straight woman than Jed Mercurio.

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I’m making a wild assumption here. Wainwright, who until they separated was married for 29 years to a man with whom she has two adult children, could conceivably identify as queer. But anyway, her de ella lived experience de ella, shall we say, is not that of a woman married to a woman in a starkly homophobic society. In the Guardian last week she said of Gentleman Jack that it was a story, “so life-affirming, uplifting and clever. She didn’t die at the end – she got her big romantic reconciliation. That’s what gay women responded to”. She put this in contrast to Last Tango in Halifax, a great show with a central storyline about lesbians in which Kate, one half of a gay couple, goes under a car. “I got slated for that,” said Wainwright. “Apparently, there lesbians die in telly, which I just didn’t know.” Ha; yeah; it’s almost as if you don’t know much about the experiences of the people you’re writing about.

See? We’re chippy. It comes from decades of shitty representation, or no representation at all. And by the standards of what came before, Wainwright’s treatment of lesbians is of course nuanced and sympathetic. And so here I am, wringing my hands. Why am I being mean about this nice straight lady writing gentle plot lines that, OK, in some places bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to experiences an actual gay person has had – in Last Tango, Kate shags her ex-boyfriend to conceive a baby she wants to raise with her girlfriend, while the girlfriend sits uncomplainingly downstairs. Have you ever sat next to a lesbian? We complain. alot About everything. That woman is not sitting there in a hotel bar while her girlfriend has sex in the room with a guy. If she’s not storming upstairs to create a scene, at the very least she has a drink problem.

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Some of the irritation here is just market economics. Women’s stories take up less space than men’s; lesbian stories a tiny portion within that. Production companies will routinely say they have their “one gay” story of the season and it will inevitably be about gay men. It is easier to be a gay man than a lesbian because it is easier to be a man than a woman. Just look at Ryan Murphy, swaggering around Hollywood promoting great stories about gay men. Where is his female counterpart of him? (I’ll tell you where she is, she’s in the closet.)

I’m aware that none of these leads anywhere good. The appropriation debate only ends in gridlock. If a writer is vetoed on the basis of who they are, what about an actor? Sarah Silverman raised this issue last year when she called out non-Jewish actors for effectively donning “Jewface”, pointing in particular to the non-Jewish actor who plays Mrs Maisel, and the property of Felicity Jones being cast as Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Nuances might be missed, but in my view this isn’t about performance. With a good enough writer or actor the differences can be largely surmounted. It’s not even about employment opportunity, although there is that. It’s a largely emotional response, a request for basic acknowledgment. If you belong to a minority that has, historically, been blocked from proportionate access to the market, it sits really badly to watch someone from a category of greater privilege use your stories for their own advancement.

bitter! Did I mention we’re also quite bitter? And here’s the worst part. The defense often used by straight people writing about gay people is that they, too, have felt estrangement in their lives and so understand the terrain. This extends beyond writing to less tangible areas. Here’s Tilda Swinton, identifying as queer “not in terms of my sexual life,” as she told the Guardian this year, but because as a young person she was “just odd”. I’ve seen similar comments by other artists, referring to a disconnect they represent in their fiction as gayness. Guess what? We don’t entirely love that! Gayness is not a catch-all category for people struggling with feelings of rejection. No one wants to be used metaphorically. No one wants to be a proxy for someone else’s social join. People tend to be wedded to the specificities of their own experience, particularly when it comes to representation. Common cause is wonderful and with any luck, in 20 years, none of this will matter. But it matters now.

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And so here we are. I loved Happy Valley. I loved huge chunks of Last Tango. I feel abject and unhappy raising all this. But as a friend – a massive dyke, let’s be clear, not someone with a nebulous sense of generalized anxiety looking for a convenient peg to hang it on – said to me the other day on the subject of Swinton, Wainwright, and some of the others gently congratulating themselves for claiming affinity with an experience to which they bring good intentions but no particular insight: “What the fuck does any of this have to do with us?”

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