GenderSexuality and Gender

Gender: the heteronormative representation of lesbian relationships within film

‘Love is Love’, ‘gay is okay, ‘we’re here and we’re queer’ are all recognisable and to some extent over-saturated queer sayings. Such phrases have been echoed throughout queer movements, i.e. the fight for equality, queer recognition and the legalisation of gay marriage.

The heteronormative representation on the big screen

However, such slogans, in contemporary times are more commonly painted upon queer pride floats or plastered as glittery wording pasted onto clothing during pride month. With such out and proud attitudes circulating, it is easy, even as a queer person, to fall under the false illusion that we live in a homophobic free utopia. Though this is not the case.

Despite Queer Cinema existing in its own realm, having us believe that we are worlds apart from the harsh reality that queer women have been disregarded throughout history and law. For, it is Queen Victoria who once said that lesbianism quite simply does ‘not occur’, therefore there are and have been no laws to ever recognise the existence of lesbians. Whilst, quite hyperbolic, lesbian cinema still perpetuates a similar stance in terms of the denial of lesbian relationships.

I will further elaborate and discuss queer representation through three lesbian cult films: The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko 2010), Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)(only briefly as though justified, criticisms of this film have been done to death) and Below Her Mouth. (dir. April Mullen 2016) who all in one way or another appease men or exist through heteronormative means whether that be through gender conventions, tropes or the depiction of the Male Gaze.

The Kids Are All Right- Reputation and Tropes

The Kids Are All Right had initially been praised for its clear representation of lesbian characters and Cholodenko’s positive portrayals in normalising lesbian relationships and lesbian-led households. So much so, esteemed film critic Roger Ebert declared that The Kids Are All Right ‘centres on a lesbian marriage but is not about one. It’s a film about marriage itself, an institution with universal challenges.’[1]

Supporting the thought that Cholodenko normalises LGBTQ+ families to such an extent that the knowledge they are queer women is almost deemed as an afterthought. Conversely, it is noticed that Cholodenko’s LGBTQ+ family representation has been normalised through heteronormative trope and therefore queer representation has become invisible.

For instance, the two lesbian mums featured within The Kids are All Right, Nic and Jules are depicted through heteronormative displays. Hence, ‘Nic (Bening), the more traditionally masculinized of the couple, don’s tomboy chic…Her hair is short and spiky, contrasting to Jules’ long red hair…wearing flowy tops and t-shirts that feminize her form and wifely persona.


The physical gender conventions of Nic and Jules

Thus, the typical heterosexual gender norms that Cholodenko has placed upon this lesbian relationship, reaffirm the belief that the audience acceptance of queer marriage must be understood through a ‘normal’ heterosexual format.

Feminist filmmaker, Barbara Hammer, suggests that a classic narrative ‘is unable to address the experiences or issues of lesbian perceptions, concerns, and concepts… Even if the characters are lesbian, the script projects lesbian characters with a heterosexual world of roleplaying, domestic and professional life.’ [3]

This is a feature Cholodenko is guilty of producing and subsequently her attempts in highlighting the existence of lesbian-led families are instead invalidated through patriarchal norms and traditional, heterosexual gender conventions. It can be argued that Cholodenko’s attempts to show lesbian marriage as ‘normal’ essentially exemplifies ‘normal’ heterosexual marriage instead.

Below Her Mouth -Reputation and Tropes


A photo that conveys the heteronormative gender norms between Dallas and Jasmine

Spectators of Below Her Mouth were originally impressed with Mullen’s ‘woke’ use of an all-female production crew and it was acknowledged that it highlighted ‘female sexuality and the oft-overlooked idea that women’s desires are so much more complex than the heteronormative depictions.’[4]

However, films inevitably age and outgrow the political context of their time and in recent years opinion has changed and it was felt that the lesbian relationship within Below Her Mouth was damaging to lesbian portrayals: ‘A few crass scenes with a whole lot of toxic masculinity … Dallas wears a strap-on as naturally as men’s clothes.’[5]

Thus, it is Mullen’s promotion of gender conventions and toxic masculinity that problematises the relationship between Dallas and Jasmine. Although Mullen had six years on from Cholodenko to improve upon the clichéd gender conventions through characters such as Nic and Jules, Mullen creates stereotypical characters who adhere to the stereotypical fem/butch dynamic.

Dallas, the lesbian character is shown to wear strictly ‘masculine’ presenting clothes, work as a roofer, a male-oriented occupation, approach Jasmine in a male domineering way, wear a phallic object out in public, and takes on the role of the male when performing sexually.

Contrasting, Dallas, Jasmine the heterosexual/questioning character is presented to stick to feminine norms, wear ‘feminine’ clothes, work in a female-dominated industry, fashion, play the submissive role not only sexually but also throughout the relationship.  This yet again promotes the ideology that love is only valid within such heterosexual spaces and disregards a large section of the female queer community, butch loving butch women and feminine loving feminine women.

Mullen like Cholodenko illustrates that lesbian love is only probable in a way that reflects heterosexuality, therefore conventional gender roles support the belief that ‘filmmakers aiming for a wide audience assume that viewers will not read a relationship as “real” unless it contains at least the hints of a “proper” masculine/feminine combination.’[6]

This exudes the concept that love can only be understood in a way that traditional society would wish you to believe and that lesbian cinema is made for anyone but lesbians, instead, for the pleasure of cis-gendered, heterosexual men.

Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory Within The Kids Are All Right, Below Her Mouth and Blue is the Warmest Colour

According to Mulvey the ‘eroticization of women on the screen comes about through the way the cinema is structured around explicitly male looks or gazes.’[7] Meaning, spectators are placed into a male perspective and view women with a masculine voyeuristic approach which objectifies women and displays them as sexual objects.

You would assume that by having two female directors of these female queer-identifying films that the Male Gaze would be deterred. Though this seemed to be too presumptuous as within both films all lesbian characters are heavily sexualised.

The Kids Are All Right

Both films utilise female sexuality through sex scenes, although they are achieved in very differing ways. Unlike Mullen, Cholodenko does not display sex scenes in a pornographic style but instead uses humour to justify the looming presence of the Male Gaze. For example, Paul’s POV where the spectator is placed within a males perspective enables the audience to spy upon the underwear of Jules.


Paul’s POV of Jules

Thus, fetishizing upon the deep-rooted societal thought that lesbians can be ‘turned’ if introduced to or dominated by the right man. Still, the sex scenes themselves, although X-rated does not expose Jules in necessarily an erotic light.

It should be acknowledged that sex scenes existing between a homosexual woman and her sperm donor are problematic in themselves due to the invisibility of Jules’s sexuality. Nevertheless, Cholodenko’s sex scenes are largely comedic, unlike Mullen and the multitude of male directors who notably exploit the typical Male Gaze in the sense of eroticisation.

For example, the 2013 drama  Blue Is the Warmest Colour [8] directed by, Abdellatif Kechiche is notorious within the lesbian community but for all the wrong reasons and very much follows the rule, made by men, for men.

‘The men who make films about queer women disregard the importance and reasoning behind the inclusion of a love scene…directors must be involved in examining their motives behind the insertion of these scenes in their films.’[9] It can be argued that whilst they are controversial, at least Cholodenko’s sex scenes steer away from erotization and occur with purpose; designed to clarify the problems existing within Jules and Nic’s marriage which sheds light upon queer relationship problems.

Below Her Mouth

Mullen’s work juxtaposes that of Cholodenko as she overtly uses the Male Gaze and relies on erotic and almost fantastical lesbian sex scenes. Mullen’s work has been compared to the blatant misogynistic traits of Blue Is the Warmest Colour due to the films ‘glam porn’ type scenes and the films secondary storyline. ‘Mullen… hollows out the very bodies that are supposed to be excited…turning them into dolls that are sex-obsessed but lack the actual intricacies of sexuality.’[10]

Jasmine’s sexual discovery and the rarity of lesbian representation is overshadowed by the way Mullen depicts lesbian sex, for although the scenes are very much ‘lesbian’ in anatomy, the physical displays are associated with that of a heterosexual dynamic.

Dallas the ‘butch’ lesbian plays out the typical male roles, and Jasmine the ‘fem’ heterosexual complies in a way that makes the reality that this is a lesbian ‘relationship’ invisible. Such heterosexual displays are submerged in ideology as they preach to heterosexual audiences that binary categorisation gives one class of people the right to exploit another.

This wrongful concept promotes that heterosexual roles can exist within queer realms which consequently lessens lesbian visibility. Nevertheless, it is essential to reference the current progression within queer film.

For instance, the much well-regarded reputation of Cêline Sciamma’s 2019 Portrait of a Lady on Fire [11]  has been said to subvert portrayals of the Male Gaze, heteronormative trope, and almost exists without any reference to man. A review of the film proclaims that the ‘female gaze is inadequate shorthand for its thorough exploration of the entanglements between artistic creation and burgeoning love…

The film is about the erotic, electric connection between women.’ An element lost in both The Kids are All Right and Below Her Mouth, as they seem transfixed in appeasing the male, including heteronormativity and abandoning a focus on queer women altogether.


The Kids Are All Right

Within The Kids are All Right Jules, although shown to identify as a lesbian and is married, she is also shown to lust over male character Paul.


The heterosexual relationship between lesbian character Jules and Paul.

This is damaging for it not only disregards a lesbian relationship but disregards Jules’s orientation altogether and expresses that despite being a lesbian,  women are unable to resist a man.

This feeds into the wrongful and yet still current ideology that gay women just haven’t found the right man, denoting that lesbianism cannot exist. Additionally, Cholodenko amplifies the sexual tension between Jules and Paul by dulling down the sexual relationship between Nic and Jules.

This is problematic in the way that not only does it segregate the sexual presence of older lesbians but the sexuality between two women altogether. This is furthered by Cholodenko’s incorporation of two back-to-back scenes, the failed sexual initiation of Nic which leaves Jules sexually unsatisfied. This is followed by a sequence that shows Jules falling into a steamy embrace and kiss with Paul.

This is the first time Cholodenko hints at sexual desire, occurring between a homosexual female and heterosexual male which in the realms of sexual attraction, simply does not make sense. This resonates with the notion that ‘lesbians of contemporary media are depicted as ‘endlessly sexually fluid and polymorphous in their desires.’[12] Cholodenko too portrays this message which in turn denies lesbians the right to be seen accurately on the screen.

Moreover, Paul seems to be the catalyst for all good things within the family home, he inspires his ‘daughter’ to stand on her own two feet and his ‘son’ to reject his bullying best friend. Cholodenko, promotes the concept of the Nuclear family, a family consisting of heterosexual parents, being the ideal due to the narrative arc that it takes a man to set a lesbian family, straight.

Below Her Mouth


A photo that signifies Dallas’s predatory nature towards Jasmine.

In Below Her Mouth the ideology that men are deemed better than woman manifests amongst a predatory narrative. The ‘straight’ character Jasmine is shown to be experiencing relationship issues with her male fiancé.

She feels unloved, ignored, and in need of attention. This paints Jasmine as a vulnerable kind of prey, one which womaniser Dallas seems to take advantage of.

Arguably the ‘Predator Vs Prey’ analogy may seem rather hyperbolic in its definition; this may be because such structures are placed upon men controversially being seen as predatorial towards women.

It is when we closely examine the female queer audience of Below Her Mouth can we understand the more contemporary outrage at such predatorial plots.

In 2018 a YouTube video titled ‘Drunk Lesbians Watch: Below Her Mouth’ [13] queer viewership of the film was documented, and a consensus formed, that the film was offensive in Dallas’s animalistic approach and the denial of Jasmine’s heterosexuality.

The viewers exclaimed: ‘If this was a dude, this would be the fucking worst, she’s being pinned against the wall.’ Proving the negative attitudes towards such queer cinematic trope. It is also worth noting that Jasmine had said no before Dallas’s continuous stereotypical pursuit of the ‘straight girl’ which not only invalidates typical lesbian relationships but also demonises lesbians and rids the community of a valid onscreen romance between that of queer women.


Cholodenko and Mullen can both to some extent be somewhat praised for their involvement in bringing queer struggle into the spotlight. However, it can also be argued that both

films overuse heterosexual elements that go beyond normalising queerness and instead of destroying heterosexism, reinforces it. This decreases the overall visibility of queer women. I have successfully explored ideologies within both films, shown examples, and explain the damaging ways each issue invalidates lesbianism not only within film but within wider society.

This essay refers to the contemporary progression of queer cinema and shows that queer films can exist without furthering the invisibility of queer women. However, due to the new and forever changing opinion of queer cinema, it is difficult to draw upon scholarly sources or academic criticisms of Below Her Mouth and relying on audience opinion could have created a biased view of Mullen’s depiction of queer women.

[1] “Film Forum: An Interview With April Mullen, Director of “Below Her Mouth”, GoMag, accessed April 12th, 2021,  http://gomag.com/article/film-forum-interview-april-mullen-director-mouth/

[2] “Below Her Mouth is Yet Another Disappointing Film About Lesbian Experiences”, Loser City, accessed April 13th, 2021,  https://loser-city.com/features/below-her-mouth-review

[3] Vicki L. Eaklor, “The Kids Are All Right But the Lesbians Aren’t: The Illusion of Progress in Popular Film” Vol.38, No. 3 Berghahn Books. 159.

[4] “But the moms have some issues”, RogerEbert.com, accessed April 12th, 2021, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-kids-are-all-right-2010

[5] Tammie M. Kennedy, “Sustaining White Homonormativity: The Kids are Alright as Public Pedagogy”, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 18:2, (2014) 126.

[6] Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar and John Greyson, Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), 70

[7] E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, Methuen. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 1983. 35.

[8] Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, 2013, Wild Bunch.

[9]“The Fetishization of Queer Women in Cinema”, FilmDaze, accessed 14th April 2021. https://filmdaze.net/the-fetishization-of-queer-women-in-cinema/

[10]Review: Below Her Mouth, Slant, accessed 14th April 2021.  https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/below-her-mouth/

[11] Cêline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019, Lilies Films

[12] Suzanna Danuta Walters, Sexualities, The kids are all right, but the lesbians aren’t: Queer kinship in US culture, North-eastern University, USA (2012) 927.

[13] Girl Ship TV, Drunk Lesbians Watch “Below Her Mouth” (Feat. The Gay Women Channel), May 6, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xBAVoHsdn0&t=334s