The Ammonite backlash: Queer narratives in film finally given centre stage

A trailer was recently released for the film Ammonite, a biopic of famed palaeontologist Mary Anning, starring Kate Winslet as the lead role. Written and directed by Francis Lee, who previously penned the 2016 queer drama God’s Own Country, it is both a critical and financial hit that is very worth seeing. 

The trailer for this film looks promising, being very intimately directed and well performed. However, one aspect in particular has stirred controversy, and one that is rarely seen in contemporary cinema.

One of the primary aspects of the trailer is Anning’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison (played by Saoirse Ronan), a relationship which goes from unenthusiastic acquaintances to a growing friendship to a passionate romance. This makes the film another addition to the growing genre of period lesbian dramas (albeit far too often only white-lesbian), which has produced such works as Carol, Tell It To The Bees and Vita & Virginia

However, this example of the genre is different as there is no definitive indication that Anning was a lesbian, bisexual, or had been involved in any romantic relationships with women. There’s no proof that she was 100% straight, but the film has come under accusations (including comments from Anning’s distant relatives) of fabricating this queer romance and changing the figures sexuality for the purpose of the film. 

As a queer person, my initial reaction to seeing these complaints can’t help but be ‘Wow, how hard that must be. Hollywood taking someone’s sexuality and changing it despite evidence? Must be hard, can’t relate whatsoever.’ Sarcasm aside, it is somewhat amusing to see complaints of making historical figures gayer when far more often than not it tends to be the other way around.

Queer erasure in cinema is a major problem 

When making films, tv shows, and plays about people, where there is strong evidence to suggest same-sex romance or attraction, there can be a tendency to side step these pieces of evidence in order to present them as fully heterosexual. This has been done to figures such as Alexander the Great, Howard Huges, Alexander Hamilton, Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse; queer erasure in cinema is a major problem. Though this isn’t just a problem in cinema, but in education. Queer people’s accomplishments are taught without mentioning their sexuality, leading to many young queer people not being able to see themselves in history. 

This is the approach that Lee took when defending the film against these accusations. In a Twitter thread back in March he wrote, “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout the culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context…?” He also points out the hypocrisy of only focusing on the change to portray the character as gay, an accusation that presents heterosexuality as default or ‘norm’. 

“Would these newspaper writers have felt the need to whip up uninformed quotes from self-proclaimed experts if the character’s sexuality had been assumed to be heterosexual?” – Francis Lee via Twitter

Sexuality on paper and on screen

Analysing a historical character in terms of contemporary views of gender, sexuality and identity is never easy. Words like Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Lesbian have only become the default terms to refer to sexualities since the end of the 19th century, sometimes even more recent than that. Even today, new terms are used to explain and define sexuality and gender identity, showing how fluid and changeable the language is. 

So there’s never going to be clear indications of someone’s sexuality because you won’t find a letter or newspaper column of someone in the early 1800s calling themselves a lesbian, because they would have no idea what it meant. However, this is used more often than not used as an excuse to not have to deal with their sexuality and present them entirely as straight. Even someone like William Shakespeare, who wrote countless sonnets to fair youths, is seen and taught as straight just because there are no moments when he called himself bisexual.

For many people, where there is a lack of clarity in regards to their sexuality, it should be as perfectly valid to portray them as gay rather than straight. Both interpretations should have equal weight, and to say that they don’t only demonstrates the homophobia that remains in our society.

Is a lesbian story arc just more profitable?

There have been other accusations towards the film regarding this. Some have said that the film has merely invented the lesbian story arc in order to cash in on the recent success of films like The Favourite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, whilst others have said that if the film is choosing to portray Anning as a lesbian then she should be played by a lesbian actor.

The former criticism I have no sympathy for, it reduces the capacity of queer cinema to mere box office numbers, as well as undermining the artistic vision of its gay director. The latter, however,  I believe has more legitimacy. Straight actors playing gay roles means that LGBT actors get passed over for roles that reflect their lives, in an industry where it is already difficult for members of the community. Such accusations given to Ammonite deserve to be acknowledged, just not in the way many people are focusing on.

What does this mean for queer cinema? 

Whether Mary Anning was attracted to women sexually or not is a mystery lost in time. But the increased normalisation of the presentation of LGBT+ themes and characters is an important topic, and I deem it a noticeable step that a historical figure is not automatically presented as straight. There’s still a lot of progress to be made in terms of representation, such as including LGBT+ characters in more mainstream films and telling more intersectional queer stories .But the fact that this film can take a prominent step forward with the normalisation of queer interpretations of history feels like a milestone that should be celebrated, not demonised. My message to the critics of Ammonite and Francis Lee is this; If you don’t want to see possible straight characters being portrayed as gay, encourage other creatives to stop portraying gay characters as straight.

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