At The Toronto International Film Festival this month, I saw Breathe, French actress Melanie Laurent’s directorial debut about an intense, erotic friendship between two adolescent girls that ends in catastrophe. I’d feel guilty about spoiling that last bit for you, were it not for the fact that nearly every mainstream lesbian-themed movie ends the same way. Breathe, like its critically acclaimed contemporaries—Blue Is the Warmest Color, Water Lilies, and Black Swan—follows a strikingly familiar formula, one that tends to go something like this: Two girls become fast friends, develop romantic feelings for each other, and part ways acrimoniously after a) one of them has sex with a guy, or b) one of them dies.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Sometimes both of them die, Romeo-and-Juliet style, or one of them is institutionalized, having gone completely insane, as lesbians are apparently wont to do. I should note, however, that in The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland’s erotic drama about a love affair between an entomology professor and her maid (which also premiered at TIFF this year), both women remain sane and alive throughout the film—even if their primary hobby is sadomasochism. (They couldn’t just do yoga, could they?)
For the most part, though, lesbian love on screen, especially of the coming-of-age variety, is a bad omen. In the majority of teen dramas (besides ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, where almost every lesbian is a competitive swimmer with a heart of gold), bi-curiosity foreshadows delinquency. Marissa Cooper’s brush with lesbianism on the second season of The O.C. marks the character’s slow yet steady descent into a life of sin, one that includes, but is not limited to, cocaine abuse, impaired driving, and loveless sex in a dank basement with someone named Volchok. (I won’t tell you what happens to the girls at the end of Breathe, but I will tell you that it’s worse.)
The strangest thing about this phenomenon is that the history of my own relationship with my girlfriend, Ella, sounds like it was borrowed directly from one of these ill-fated Sapphic sob stories: We met at sleepover camp when we were 11 years old and we were roommates in university. At 20, we fell in love and carried on a clandestine affair until we were discovered—and lived relatively happily ever after. That is, so far, at least. It’s been five years since we began dating and though we are still monogamous and very much alive, it’s hard not to feel like we’re testing fate sometimes. After all, according to the pop culture convention, Ella should be sleeping with Mark Ruffalo right now, and I should be dead.
How did we get so lucky? Am I speaking too soon? And why, even though the subtext of these narratives is inherently offensive, do we cherish them anyway? It’s not as though horny frat guys are responsible for the thousands of YouTube tribute videos dedicated to Natalie Portman’s twisted, erotic bond to Mila Kunis in Black Swan, or Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox’s literally demonic relationship in Jennifer’s Body—or, on a lighter note, Marissa and Alex’s short-lived romance on The O.C. Lesbians are responsible for the cult following of these characters. Recently, there have been plenty of mature and nuanced representations of gay people on TV and in the movies, from The L Word and Orange Is the New Black to Modern Family and Ellen. Yet stories of potentially doomed, first-time love between self-destructive, closeted teenagers remain as popular as ever.
It may be that nothing beats erotic nostalgia. Today, heterosexual young love is usually portrayed on screen as sweet and awkward, but rarely passionate and dangerous, presumably because adolescence and young adulthood is not where most straight people have their greatest love affairs. But the opposite is true for many gay people, and, in turn, for many young, gay characters in film and on TV. Our adolescent love affairs aren’t sweet and awkward; they are intensely private, forbidden experiences that we can’t call our girlfriends up to chat about. Which is to say, they are also our most erotically charged.
When Ella and I eventually came out together, the thrill of our romance didn’t dissolve, but it was, in a sense, muted. The downside to a first love concealed is debilitating insecurity and psychological trauma. The upside is the sex. You couldn’t pay me a billion dollars to relive that part of my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.