19 Movies That Show The History Of Romance Between Women

Today, one of the most beautiful films of the year opens. Carol tells the story of the romance between Therese (Rooney Mara), a young department store shopgirl, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a suburban woman in the middle of a divorce. Directed by Todd Haynes, the movie follows Therese and Carol as they pursue their mutual attraction through coded language — and then let their relationship flourish. Therese comes of age; Carol affirms her identity. "They don’t suffer as a result of their sexuality," screenwriter Phyllis Nagy told Refinery29 in an interview this summer. "They suffer over other things, but not that."

In an essay for New York, Frank Rich notes that the film allows its audience to "realize how much we don’t know about a past that unfolded in the shadows until not very long ago." He also points out that "lesbians rarely receive the same measure of attention as gay men in our culture, pop culture included." But the on-screen history of romance between women goes back a long way — at least to 1931. So, in honor of Carol, we decided to explore that rich history, from the crass and exploitative to the mature and thoughtful. Click ahead for our list.
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Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

Yes, we’re starting this list all the way back in 1931, with this underrated but revolutionary German movie about a schoolgirl who falls in love with her teacher. The Nazis banned it in Germany, and it did not screen in the U.S. until Eleanor Roosevelt lifted the bans in the U.S. When the film opened in 1932 in New York, The New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall wrote that “The New York State Board of Censors at first frowned upon the suggestion in this film of the ‘Captive' theme, but recently they reconsidered their refusal to grant it a license.” (The Captive was a lesbian-themed play that was on Broadway in 1926.)
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The Children’s Hour (1961)

In the 1930s in the U.S., the restrictive Hays Code was in effect, so when Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children's Hour was first adapted into a film (directed by William Wyler), the lesbian themes were scrapped. But in 1961, Wyler took another stab at the material and directed a second film version of the play, in which the true plot was reinstated. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine star as schoolteachers accused of having an affair.
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The Fox (1967)

Based on a D.H. Lawrence novel, The Fox stars Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis as Ellen and Jill, two women living alone on a chicken farm. A man named Paul (Keir Dullea) disturbs their peace and romances Ellen. Jill ends up dying, and Ellen goes off with Paul. “The fox, which Lawrence intended as a male symbol in the book, seems to represent lesbianism in the movie,” Renata Adler wrote in the New York Times in 1968. “Since Paul kills it — by my count, two chickens and the fox died for this film — it seems to make more sense.” Writing for the site AfterEllen, Jenni Olson called the movie the “ne plus ultra example of homophobic lesbian movies — and in that sense a great vintage landmark to show how far we really have come.”
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Personal Best (1982)

Personal Best is about two female track-and-field stars who become romantically involved. However, the book In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films argues that the movie “ends by exalting female friendship at the expense of lesbianism.” Complex wrote that it has one of the “most gratuitous girl-on-girl scenes in movies,” but AfterEllen disagreed, noting that "for audiences hungry for well-produced, big-budget depictions of non-allegorical lesbian lovemaking, Personal Best was a first."
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Desert Hearts (1985)

Desert Hearts is considered a groundbreaking film and has been deemed the first mainstream movie focusing on a lesbian relationship and also directed by a lesbian (Donna Deitch). In the movie, a professor, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), moves to Reno in the 1950s to get a divorce. There, she meets a young woman on the ranch where she's staying. As the executive editor of DAME Magazine, Kera Bolonik, recently told New York magazine when she cited Desert Hearts as an important “lesbian-culture artifact,” for her, the film has “a lesbian-positive ending — which is to say neither woman died or went crazy or got punished or returned to men.”
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Go Fish (1994)

Rose Troche’s film may be black and white, but it's anything but old- fashioned. The story of a group of lesbian friends was part of the “New Queer Cinema” of the early '90s. “Most gay films deal with the trauma of coming out,” Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. But "the characters in this lesbian dating game are happily adjusted, if sometimes mismatched.” The protagonist, Max (Guinevere Turner), searches for a girlfriend.
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Bound (1996)

When people talk about the Wachowskis’ Bound, they are likely to mention the infamous sex scene between Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly). But fans will argue that the romance in this thriller about two women who plan to steal from the mob is more than just titillation. “Seen today, with the Basic Instinct era having long since disappeared from the rearview mirror, Bound looks like a genuine benchmark for LGBT cinema, particularly in light of Larry Wachowski’s gender transition into Lana Wachowski,” Scott Tobias wrote for the AV Club. Autostraddle put the film on its list of the “Top Ten Best Lesbian Movies," calling it “visually stunning and sexy as fuck." Autostraddle added that "Bound is a masterful film-noir-style suspense flick known as one of the first mainstream films to include homosexual lead characters without centering the plot around homosexuality.”
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The Watermelon Woman (1997)

This mockumentary — or rather, a Dunyementary, named for its filmmaker — is known as the first feature film by a black lesbian director, Cheryl Dunye. Dunye stars as Cheryl, who in turn is making a film about a fictional black lesbian actress called "The Watermelon Woman."
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Chasing Amy (1997)

Depending on whom you ask, Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy is either one of the worst movies of all time or one of the best romantic comedies ever. You remember the plot: A dude (Ben Affleck) falls in love with a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams). In the book All The Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America, Suzanna Danuta Walters writes about how though the film "has the most sustained and explicit discourse of lesbian sexuality ever in popular movies, actual lesbian relationships are largely invisible." Even though the movie gets easily read as the story of a man trying to "turn" a gay woman straight, there is an argument to be made that its discussion of sexuality has depth.
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High Art (1998)

Before Lisa Cholodenko made The Kids Are All Right, she wrote and directed High Art. An upstart working at a photography magazine (Radha Mitchell) enters an affair with her semi-retired photographer neighbor (Ally Sheedy) — and her heroin habit.
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But I’m a Cheerleader (2000)

Megan (Natasha Lyonne) isn’t aware she’s a lesbian until her parents and crappy friends send her away to a program that's supposed to turn her straight. Instead, she falls in love with Graham (Clea Duvall). Jamie Babbit’s film has a John Waters-esque color palette and a solid sense of the absurd. It’s also sweet and uplifting. The movie did not get good reviews upon release, but has since won quite a following.
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Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Jennifer Westfeldt does neurotic New York comedy well, as Kissing Jessica Stein makes amply clear. Westfeldt (who also co-wrote the movie) stars as Jessica, a woman who decides to try dating another woman, Helen (Heather Juergensen, the other co-writer). Ultimately, Jessica and Helen break up, and as the movie ends, it seems that Jessica is likely to end up with a man.
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D.E.B.S. (2005)

Though D.E.B.S. has a ludicrous premise (girls in school uniforms doing spy work), the same-sex relationship at its center seems genuine. "The most endearing aspect of D.E.B.S., a sweet-spirited spoof, is that the lesbian romance is played for real, with no nudge-nudge wink-wink irony," Jennie Punter wrote in her review for the Globe and Mail. "And that is perhaps the most subversive aspect of all." One of the recruits, Amy (Sara Foster), falls in love with the villain, Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster). BuzzFeed even has a list called "20 Times 'D.E.B.S.' Sparked Your Lesbian Sexual Awakening."
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The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Unlike in Cholodenko’s High Art or many of the other movies on this list, there is no woman-on-woman seduction in The Kids Are All Right, since the movie focuses on a lesbian couple well into their marriage. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have two teenage kids who decide to seek out their mothers’ sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Some objected to the fact that Jules ends up sleeping with Paul — an occurrence of the age-old “Lesbian Who Sleeps With A Man” trope.
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Pariah (2011)

Aside from The Watermelon Woman, most of the films on this list focus on a whole lot of white people. The critically praised indie Pariah tells a different story: A black lesbian teen in Brooklyn comes out to her family.
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Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

The most controversial film about a lesbian relationship in years, this story of a high schooler (Adele Exarchopoulos) who falls in love with an art student (Léa Seydoux), was first known as That Movie With The Really Long Sex Scene. At Cannes, it won the Palme d’Or, which was given to the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, and, for the first time ever, the two lead actresses. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos made headlines when they said that making the film was "horrible." Then, Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the film was based, wrote, “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.” She also compared the film to porn, and the reaction from the lesbian community was mixed. At Jezebel, Ashton Cooper explained: “I think that the sex in Blue is more similar to the sex I have than any other lesbian sex I’ve ever seen on-screen, and that is important — even if Kechiche didn’t get everything right.”
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Freeheld (2015)

Freeheld stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree, two real-life women who were the subject of an earlier documentary by the same name. As Hester was dying of cancer, the couple fought so that Andree could receive Hester's police pension. Reviews for the 2015 film were not warm; in a recent speech, the screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, implied that the movie had been "de-gayed" and that the characters were "turned into Lesbians with lower-case 'l.'" He later apologized for his comments.
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Grandma (2015)

Grandma is another film that features a lesbian character without making her sexual identity the focus of the plot. Sexuality is certainly a part of who Lily Tomlin's Elle is; over the course of the movie, she grieves her deceased partner and breaks up with her new girlfriend. But the movie is about the generational gap — and connection — between Elle and her granddaughter, who comes to Elle in search of money for an abortion.
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Carol (2015)

Carol is a beautifully classic love story with an aesthetic that perfectly matches the early 1950s period in which it takes place. But, of course, it likely wouldn't have been produced during that period, given its subject matter. It is based on a 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, which was written by Patricia Highsmith but was published under a pseudonym.
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