If there is one on-screen plot device that I could kill, burn, and desecrate, it would be this: lesbian has affair with straight man, but goes back to her partner in the end. I can't think of many plotlines that are more erroneous, dismissive, and harmful to an entire demographic.
Lesbian characters in film are one of the toughest demographics to get right. I adore Famke Janssen's Judy in "Eulogy", Lena Headey's Luce in "Imagine Me & You", and both the main characters in "But I'm a Cheerleader!", but more often I find myself slapping my forehead at screen lesbians who are either overly butch and nastily played for laughs, or preternaturally feminine and gorgeous.
Lesbian relationships are even more difficult to get right. Since most conversations between women on screen happen about men or over men, screenwriters can't seem to imagine what lesbians actually talk about. (A similar problem exists with depictions of gay men, who, apparently, see more women in their underwear than heterosexual men could ever dream of seeing.) This leads to the usual "conversion/cheating experience" — most film lesbians don't realize they prefer women until they've been in a relationship with a man, usually cheating on him with another woman. When it comes to portraying difficulties in an established relationship, this problem escalates. Instead of dealing with any of the myriad things that couples face on an every-day basis, the go-to plot seems to be, "make one of the lesbians have an affair with a guy".
I first saw it in Queer as Folk, an abysmal waste of an hour a week, when Lindsay — for no reason I could fathom — ignores her long-time partner and their two children for a tryst with a man who's been pursuing her at her gallery. Um, okay. My relationship with the show was always stormy at best, but this was the final straw that got me to stop watching for good. It was such a blatant slap in the face to the legitimacy of lesbiansm (ironic and hurtful considering none of the gay men in the show ever had an affair with a woman) that I was flabbergasted and furious.
I've come across it since several times since then, and each time I just get angrier. Lesbians have a different problem in society than gay men do — where gay men are much more visible and would like to be left alone to live their lives, lesbians have to struggle to be recognized at all. Lesbianism's unjustified reputation as a "phase" (no doubt bolstered by the innumerable female celebrities who grab an extra fifteen minutes by citing the quintessential "bisexual college phase") is so ingrained that very few people take it seriously. (The only other orientation that has it worse on this front is true bisexuals, but that's a rant for another time.) Even beloved (?) gay icon Lady GaGa has stated that women are fine for fooling around with, but when it's time for a real relationship, that's when you go for a man.
It's insulting, it's untrue, and it's horribly dismissive. As a woman not interested in sex with men, I can't count how many times a man has leered at me and told me "just to try it" because then I would find out what I've been "missing". I've also lost track of how many women have told me, quite kindly, that that's all well and good, but one day I'll meet the "right man" and put all this behind me. Ask an 'out' lesbian and I can guarantee she'll have at least one experience of this. In some cases it's been a one-off comment, a sort of joke that falls flat, but in others, I've been harassed and followed and badgered — down side streets, no less — until I was forced to call in reinforcements to rescue me.
Since society is being so pigheaded about this, I suppose it's too much to ask that movies abstain, but I keep hoping. The worst part is how deep this myth has dug its little claws. It would be easy for me to dismiss this as a male fantasy, and sure enough, the writers of Queer as Folk, Gigli, and most instances of this trope are, in fact, men. But that's not always the case, and this is where my brain explodes.
The most recent example is found in "The Kids Are All Right", a film with Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. Oh, look at the nice lesbian couple and their kids. Uh-oh, one of the kids is looking for his birth father (an anonymous sperm donor). Oh, they found him, and he's cute! Oh lord. Eventually the birth father comes to dinner. I hoped, nay, begged that the film would not go where I knew it was, but I was wrong. Julianne Moore's character does indeed have an affair with him. Apparently, not even over twenty happy years of partnership and two children is enough to keep a lesbian happy; one dimpled, rumpled man comes into her life, and of course she jumps in the sack with him.
Annoyed, afterward I checked the film's credits and was flabbergasted to find that the film was written by a lesbian. And not just any lesbian: Lisa Chodolenko, whose prior films I didn't personally enjoy but the cultural relevance of which I would never deny. Remember the scene in "The Two Towers" (film) where Treebeard sees the waste of the forest of Isengard and howls, "A wizard should know better!" That was basically my reaction. Not just anger, but betrayal as well. If any film should be free of this horrible trope, you'd think one written by a lesbian would do it. But apparently not.
Because of this, I find myself baffled over what the target demographic of these films is supposed to be. If it's written by men, that answer is fairly clear; consciously or not, these films chip away at lesbian relationships by insinuating that all lesbians are up for sex with a man, whether they're single or committed. These films are gratification for men, but also subtle education for women, enforcing the unwritten rule that all women need a man at some point or another.
If written by a lesbian, however, then I just have no idea. I don't know what message Chodolenko was attempting to pass on with her film, but as a lesbian she must be aware of the culture of dismissiveness surrounding female-female relationships; ignorance is not an option. As such I find myself more saddened by her film's inclusion on this list than any of the others.
Regardless of the intent, though, I think we can agree that this needs to stop. It's bad enough that filmmakers can't come up with a better conflict for an established relationship than infidelity, no matter what the sexuality, but when this only adds to a public consciousness that refuses to recognize the validity of an entire set of relationships, then it stops being funny.
Lesbians deserve respect in life; film should be no different.