Figuring the Lesbian: Queer Feminist Readings of Cinema in the Era of the Visible

  • Clara Bradbury - Rance

Student thesis: Phd


Lesbianism has received unprecedented screen time in the cinema in the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century. This marks a significant shift away from a prior invisibility, historically interrupted only by invocations of pathologisation, isolation and tragedy. At the same time, critical discourses have increasingly replaced identity categories such as "the lesbian" with the more fluid notions of "queer" sexuality. In this paradoxical context, this thesis identifies and theorises the kinds of cinematic language through which the figure of "the lesbian" has continued to be made legible on the screen.If the cultural invisibility of lesbianism is arguably a thing of the past, the invisibility of lesbianism in academic scholarship is an increasingly notable feature of the current critical landscape. The majority of anthologies on "queer" or "gay" cinema exclude lesbians both as contributors and as objects of study, rendering insecure the equation of political progress with screen visibility. Identifying a shift away from defining lesbian cinema as "about lesbians", this project offers a series of close readings of narrative feature films released between 2001 and 2013 that put lesbianism in motion.The thesis discusses a range of recent films to consider how the cinematic language of lesbianism has moved beyond the twin burdens the term has historically carried, as deplorably singular and threateningly doubled. In dialogue with debates in psychoanalytic feminist film criticism about the woman in cinema, the first two chapters consider the relationship between lesbianism, narrative and genre in Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001), Nathalie (Fontaine, 2003) and Chloe (Egoyan, 2009). My argument explores how these films expose the contradictory relationship between absence and presence in cinema's production of lesbianism, troubling the ease with which sex can be read as the visual evidence of sexuality. The subsequent two chapters move from psychoanalytically informed studies of the cinematic coding of lesbian fantasy to an investigation of the affective, spatial and temporal registers of desire and eroticism that have provoked recent debates in feminist theory. These chapters consider the ways in which the in-between and expectant modes of subjectivity and sensation that characterise adolescent sexuality coincide with, and accent, lesbian desires in Water Lilies (Sciamma, 2007), She Monkeys (Aschan, 2011) and Circumstance (Keshavarz, 2011). Moving from transactions of power to those of pleasure, the final chapter offers a close reading of Blue is the Warmest Colour (Kechiche, 2013) and of the discursive constructions of explicit lesbian sex surrounding it. My reading of the film argues that it formally queers desire in a way that unsettles the over-privileging of sex in the characterisation of lesbian sexuality.Across these five chapters, this thesis explores the relationship between the figuration of the singular lesbian and the multiple registers of her desire and sexuality. In conclusion, the thesis argues that a new field of figurations, emerging from the influences of queer theory, has pushed at the limits of lesbian legibility and generated nuanced and sensitive renderings of debates about sexuality on the screen.
Date of Award1 Aug 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJacqueline Stacey (Supervisor) & Monica Pearl (Supervisor)


  • screen
  • cinema
  • gay
  • sexuality
  • lesbian
  • queer
  • film
  • feminism
  • gender

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