The Lesbian Villain
Terry was kind enough to allow me to write this article as part of Gayly Dreadful’s Pride Month coverage. I personally identify as pansexual. While in film, representation of bisexual/pansexual women hasn’t changed much since Wild Things, I want to focus on another aspect of LGBTQ+ representation in film.
There is a long-standing trope commonly found in horror films and dramatic thrillers. This is the trope of the “Lesbian Villain” (referred to as LV for the rest of the article). While the characteristics of this trope have changed over the years there are a few aspects that are almost always present. The LV is typically a sinister woman with ill intentions. She absolutely hates most men and most commonly she is targeting the affections of a straight woman.
Some of the earliest depictions of the LV date back to the 1970’s. European horror films during this time specifically depicted LVs as vampires. Three European horror films come to mind that perpetuate this trope: Daughters of Darkness (1971), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), and The Blood Spattered Bride (1972). While the plots in these three films vary slightly, each of them features a very powerful female vampire. The goal of this woman is to seduce a beautiful young woman. In Daughters of Darkness and The Blood Spattered Bride these young women are married, while in Vampyros Lesbos the young woman has a boyfriend.
One thing I believe these European filmmakers get right is the fluidity of sexuality, especially in women. Yet the LV vampires seem to depict straight men’s greatest desire and greatest fear. On the one hand, straight men usually sexualize and fantasize about two women together. On the other hand, the LV is shown as more powerful than men and she has absolutely no sexual desire towards them. She ends up becoming more of a threat to the straight male because she has the power to steal “his woman.”
Moving into the 1980’s and beyond, the most common depiction of an LV is as a woman obsessed with a straight female she can never have. There are so many examples of this including Windows (1980), Kate’s Addiction (1999), High Tension (2003), Notes on a Scandal (2006), Cracks (2009), The Roommate (2011), and The Neon Demon (2016). In virtually all of these films two woman begin with a platonic relationship. Then the LV develops an attraction to her straight female friend. When that attraction is not reciprocated the LV’s attraction turns to obsession and in almost every case it leads to violence and even death.
One of the biggest issues with this version of the LV trope is that it implies that mental illness and sexual orientation go hand-in-hand. Films about obsession and stalking are very common when it comes to thrillers. Yet there are so many where it is a gay woman going after a straight woman to the point where these films stand out. This isn’t to say some of these films aren’t entertaining and well made. The problem is in how the LVs are consistently portrayed as sinister and mentally unstable. It is a long standing myth that being LGBTQ+ is itself a mental illness, so it is a sad commentary on the film industry that this myth is still so common in film.
More recently, a new version of the LV has emerged. It began with Monster (2003). This brought on films such as What Keeps You Alive (2018) and Lizzie (2018) and even TV shows like Killing Eve (2018 – present). If you haven’t spotted the common thread between these LV examples, it is that they are all about skilled killers.
With Monster and Lizzie the films focus on real women who committed heinous crimes. While they are portrayed as LVs (even though there is no proof Lizzie Borden was a lesbian), they are also portrayed as more sympathetic killers. Both women may hate men and may have killed people, but they were also victims and engaged in consensual relationships with other women.
When it comes to What Keeps You Alive and Killing Eve the serial killers are much less sympathetic. They are cool, calculated, and ruthless. With Killing Eve we again see the LV obsessing over a married straight woman. Of all the examples What Keeps You Alive is probably the only film that has a positive image of a lesbian, although it is not the LV. It is instead her intended victim, who is also a lesbian. This character is one of the more honest and accurate portrayals of a lesbian I have seen in a horror/thriller, yet the presence of the LV takes away from this more progressive character.
In this strange evolution of LVs, it is clear that lesbian representation in film still has a long way to go. They are still portrayed as predatory, man-hating women who target straight women and are mentally unhinged. There have been slow improvements, but it isn’t enough. It’s time films moved past the LV trope and on to more diverse and honest representation. More importantly, it is time to stop making films where sexual orientation and mental illness are intertwined as if they are one and the same.
Molly Henery is a Tomatometer-approved film critic and an avid lover of all things horror. She began writing on her own film blog, The Blogging Banshee, in 2015 and now contributes to other sites as well. Molly has a master's degree in professional creative writing and is currently working on a collection of short horror stories.