On Wednesday, the DC Shorts Film Festival aired a collection of eight LGBTQ-themed films at E Street Cinema. Despite the wide-reaching acronym on the marquee, just one of the shorts explored female sexuality. In fact, only two of them touched on any aspect of LGBTQ life beyond the G.
The timing of such a showcase was ironic: Also on Wednesday, Alison Bechdel, graphic novelist and lesbian folk hero supreme, was named one of this year’s recipients of the MacArthur genius grant. In 1985, in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel invented a litmus test to put a finger on the infuriating (lack of) female representation in art. (Works of fiction that pass her test feature at least two female characters with names who talk to each other about something other than a man.) Many films, both mainstream and indie, don’t include any significant female characters at all, and those that do include women often use them simply as vehicles for male expression—-and thus, Bechdel gave new words to a traditional feminist critique about filmic representation.
A cursory glance through the list of films prior to Wednesday’s DC Shorts show didn’t leave me hopeful for representation in the realm of LBTQ, but a few seemed to feature female leads. Still, in an otherwise geographically and stylistically diverse selection, there was very little female character development, and no women whose desires (sexual and otherwise) revolved around anything other than a man.
The LGBT slate opened with the one film that touched on women’s sexuality: The Princess of Love, a French meta-narrative featuring a schoolteacher reading a story to a group of kindergartners. Her narration begins as a typical fairytale, “once upon a time” and all. But the princess’s sexual deviance among a cadre of bold suitors throws a wrench in her father’s dream of heteronormative grandparenting; our fair princess develops a polyamorous, bisexual consciousness (and acts on it) by the end of the story.
Gaysian (above) takes an incisive, parodic look at racism in the male dating world, but ultimately shrugs at the darker implications of idealized norms of white, middle-class masculinity. In the final scene, the principal characters forget their worries by diving back into a busy gay bar, butt-bumping and giggling included.
Change Over Time, a story about gender transition, features the only representation of a transman in the festival. And while the film organizers may have chosen this entry for brownie points based on inclusion, the film itself is poorly produced—-visually and thematically sloppy.
Then, there were a slew of shorts about cismale sexuality: A male character in Je t’aime finds liberation when he leaves his female partner for a male priest; Red, about an adolescent making his first gay chatroom encounter IRL, produces a sort of creepy, hypermasculine dread; Bears (top image), a superficial celebration of men of “all shapes and sizes,” seems to otherize and fetishize large, bearded male bodies; and Cruise Patrol, an excellent, animated melodrama, is nevertheless a story about the power of the phallus.
Lambing Season (right) offers the most complex female character of the bunch. In the film, a female protagonist meets her father for the first time and struggles to come to terms with his absence. And yet, the Bechdel bell went off in my head: There’s only one female character in this story. She finds herself surrounded by men, and consumed by her quest to understand her father (a cisman).
So what’s with the lack of queer women in a showcase that claims to be LGBTQ? Could it be that lesbians just don’t make movies? Jon Gann, DC Shorts’ programming director, seems to think so.
“We just didn’t get a lot of lesbian content [submitted] this year,” he says. “What I’ve been hearing from other festival organizers is there’s just not a lot of lesbian content out there right now.”
Instead, Gann says, artists and viewers alike, desensitized by the plethora of coming-out stories now available in the mainstream, are more interested in queer and trans narratives.
“I don’t think people are making lesbian films anymore. If you’re under the age of 30, LGBT means nothing to you,” he says.
I’m not so sure. There’s more queer female representation in media these days than ever. Orange is the New Black, features queer and trans women of color in leading roles, is a highly acclaimed hit on Netflix; Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; and Adam, Ariel Schrag’s intoxicating queer coming-of-age novel anchored in the lesbian community, is a hit of the summer.
“We did get a lot of trans submissions this year; that seems to be a trend,” Gann says. “Trans stories are the hot thing in the LGBT circuit, because it’s a point of view you haven’t seen yet. I think everyone’s seen 4,000 coming-out stories already.”
True, and yet, the LGBT selections at DC Shorts hardly seem on a path to chart unexplored territory. To Gann’s credit, most of the films featured are not traditional coming-out narratives, but their emphasis on male sexuality feels like something we’ve seen before. Many, many times.
Even in this brave new media world, white men remain the cultural gatekeepers to film production, as they still hold the majority of top industry jobs. Even when it comes to gay storylines, Vox points out, white men mostly make or review movies about other white men, which helps to explain (but not excuse) the lack of diversity in films from big-budget Hollywood flicks to entries in the DC Shorts Festival.
This year’s LGBT shorts slate used diverse storytelling techniques to transmit narratives on sexuality from around the world. But its neglect of female sexuality makes the argument for why we still need the Bechdel test—-even in supposedly inclusive queer media spaces.
The DC Shorts Festival runs through Sept. 21 at various locations. $0-$15.