Lesbian Sex is Holding Hands: Why Depictions of Lesbian Desire Matter in UK Historical Dramas

by Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde

CW: this article contains explicit language

As a historian who identifies as lesbian, I often feel excluded from even the most well-meaning of historical dramas. Even chaste straight couples have on-screen kisses, visible points of flustered arousal, subtle side-glances about the size or excellence of their partner’s secondary or primary sex characteristics, or hasty but gentle exit-from-bedroom scenes. But lesbians? Lesbians get to touch fingertips or almost get caught holding eye contact for too long. An immediate response to my critique may be that queerness had to be hidden then so it has to be hidden now in dramatized depictions of the era. However, I feel this hugely confuses the broader public: just because the historical population didn’t ‘see’ lesbian desire as we would now class it, this doesn’t mean women weren’t flirting outrageously, kissing passionately, or joyously discovering inventive and pleasurable ways of being intimate together. In this article I narrowly define lesbian desire as the sexual interest and activities of at least two persons who identify as women (in the broadest and most inclusive sense). My writing aims to make a single point – from the public’s perspective, in the UK, lesbian desire is just holding hands.

My return point of reference for this article is the long-running and famously successful drama Call the Midwife (2012-present). The series was initially based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth (1935-2011), who lived and worked in 1950s and 1960s East London with a community of nurses and Anglican nuns who specialised in midwifery and community care. I have been a fan of the show from the beginning, and indeed the critique of queer narratives in this drama comes from a place of great admiration for what the series has done more broadly for representations of women’s lives. Throughout the twelve seasons, there are less than a dozen queer-coded characters, and only one queer relationship of any length from seasons three to six. In the latest season, a male sibling of one of most popular characters is coded as gay, and some incredibly subtle lines in the final scenes of his episode suggest that his sister supports him. In the same series, the badly paced first episode tries to tackle gay conversion therapy performed on a young man working at a glamorous hotel, the erasure of a life-long lesbian couple’s connection when one dies of cancer (featuring some incredibly supportive and not remotely un-PC attitudes from the ensemble cast), and the race-baiting 1968 speech of Enoch Powell simultaneously. Straight, white characters get whole episodes on wedding planning, whole seasons on managing vegetable gardens – everyone else is sad and frustratingly brief side-show to the main event. Many of the criticisms I make of UK-based film and TV regarding lesbian desire can also be made of South Asian, Caribbean, Asian, disabled or older characters who are equally under-represented and pigeonholed in their sexual and romantic lives. In this article I will focus on lesbian desire as an effective lens to unearth intimacy issues is historical storytelling, particularly when it comes to pleasure.

Patsy and Delia on a bed ‘cuddling’ (BBC)
Sunshine and no touching on the steps of the convent (BBC)
Patsy and Delia narrowly missing yet another on-screen kiss (BBC)
A scene where one would expect restraint, in living room on the Anglican convent (BBC)

Call the Midwife has been praised since its premiere for focusing on women and especially their physical pain and experience of childbirth. With an average of two to three births per episode, the experience of women in pain and their associated health issues are very much to the fore and come with their own complicated politics. Women’s pleasure, however, is significantly less present, and is a problematic absence in a series focuses on the result of what one hopes is usually the happy heteronormative sexual coupling. Physical pleasure of women on screen is a highly taboo subject in general. But even in this series focused on the embodied experience of women, pleasure seems to be regularly indulged in by only one character. An elderly nun is permitted an obsession with good food, sunshine on her body accompanied by whimsical biblical descriptions, the smell of flowers while quoting arcane philosophy, or the pleasure of children’s television watching. This is problematic in itself, as the series reinforces the trope that women are made for pain, and that pleasure is for the eccentric. The frustrating lack of physical pleasure of any women, let alone lesbians, is bizarrely absent.

For three seasons, in the historic complexities of lesbian relationships in London was explored through the characters of Patience (Patsy) Mount and Delia Busby. Patsy properly appears first in season three – an aloof and distant midwife, and definitely victim to the trope of queer baiting. Her sexuality was hinted at but not confirmed until writers perhaps felt her character viable for another season. We meet Delia at the end of the season, when the reserved patsy sneaks into her nurses’ home to find comfort – but the romance is not confirmed at all until season four. Queerbaiting is common on both TV and film as a way of drawing in a queer audience while also perhaps retaining a slightly more conservative demographic of viewer. Delia almost convinces Patsy to move into a flat-share with her, but in season four she fell victim to the ‘bury your gays’ phenomenon, having been the victim of a traffic accident and rendered amnesic – entirely forgetting her years’ long relationship with Patsy. ‘Bury your gays’ is a noted narrative pattern in which many, many shows kill off or incapacitate their queer characters in often sudden and violent ways. In season five, some moments of intimacy are suggested when Delia moves into the ensemble cast’s main residence; but most episodes show them fully clothed on a single bed holding each other like relations rather than lovers. In their final series, Patsy is sent for most of the action to Hong Kong and Delia is left with no intimacy even by letter until the final moments of the series in which they share one, brief, desperate kiss in an alley. Even a scene at London’s famous lesbian club, Gateways, the crowd of women dancing with each other do not hint at any desire greater than that of dancing like partner-less maidens at a debutante (season five, episode 7 in the last three minutes for the interested reader). Even with four whole seasons of airtime, this prime-time drama made the passion of two women less visible than a priest and his fiancée, and less satisfying than a nun with a slice of Battenburg cake.

Women have been fucking together – and imaginatively – just as long as anyone else.

The biggest issue for me as an historian is the persistent incredulity of the public that women can and always have passionately desired other women sexually. The Anglo-North-American audience reaction to the film Ammonite (2020) demonstrated this. In this film, the life of the palaeontology pioneer Mary Anning (1799-1847) is re-imagined as a lesbian love story. A sketch from the popular North American comedy show Saturday Night Live parodied this and other films such as The Hours (2022), The Fingersmith (2002), Gentleman Jack (2019-2022) and Tell it to the Bees (2018) (among others) for their common themes. These include stilted flirting, candlelight, overcast skies, mental health issues, usually hugely wealthy but jilted former lovers, and restrained love-making – all of which seem to define various ‘serious’ TV and film productions about involving lesbian sex. There are several scenes from the SNL sketch which highlight the public’s uninformed opinion of the historical lesbian reality. Ammonite does (thankfully) contain several scenes which shows positions and activities that, to a lesbian viewer, ring true. The SNL sketch ridicules one sex scene with the lesbian comedian Kate McKinnon telling the two copulating characters: ‘Hey gals, it’s 1840, I don’t think that’s been invented yet’. The criticism is being made about male directors asking impossible things of female actors. But to a lesbian historian, I have to tell you: Women have been fucking together – and imaginatively – just as long as anyone else.

Mary Anning (right) and her fictionalised lover in the 2020 film Ammonite, a dark and moody stare in a poorly lit room (BFI and BBC)
The main characters of The Fingersmith stare moodily at each other in a slightly better lit room (BBC)
Nineteenth century lesbians finally get their well-lit room and can look above the level of the chin, in Gentleman Jack (BBC and HBO)
The old ‘please awkwardly meet my ex’ quintessential to the lesbian period drama series or movie, in The Night Watch (BBC)
The ‘I’m going to leave you and the audience wondering if we ever get to be happy’ film ending trop in Tell It to the Bees (Reliance Entertainment)

In the UK perhaps the aesthetic is informed by the works of elite queers of history such as Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness (1928) or Virginia Woolf’s novel-come-love-letter to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando: A Biography (1928). But the aesthetic is stilted, narrow and now over-used to the point of ridicule even by lesbian commentators. If the public is not presented with sexual desire on par with what the straight white couple get, then it is only logical that it should seem that lesbian desire is fairly recent, fairly radical, fairly politically motivated ideal. If historical drama – through lack of diversity in actors, writers, directors and casting agents – continue to elide lesbian desire or women’s positive pleasure and sexual experiences then drama will continue to be taken for historical reality. At best this leads to far too many people asking the average lesbian minding their own business: ‘But, how do you even have sex?’ At worst, it snowballs into misconceptions of the longevity of queer, gender, and even racial and disability emancipation movements throughout history. Various issues arise in lesbian narratives set in historical UK locations. The women are almost always white, usually one or both has an affluent background, they identify with the sex assigned them at birth, and are rarely bisexual, pansexual or asexual. If they’re disabled, like Delia in Call the Midwife, their ‘affliction’ is transitory – more plot than identity. If lesbian desire is present and acknowledged (not queer baited), and the character manages to survive beyond the itching axe of ‘bury your gays’ then the final blow to many lesbian characters is the lack of a stable or happy romantic ending. Historically these could and did exist; the National Archives even have instructions on how to find them. An exception to the tragic end or the restrained love scene on the UK or about the UK may be Tipping the Velvet (2002), in which the main character encounters many and various women all quite keen on physical intimacy. But otherwise, the pool is quite shallow for lesbian desire on British screens, which itself is surprising for the self-proclaimed liberalism of anglophone regions. To look for realistic representations of desire, one must often look beyond the UK canon.

Not strictly a period drama, but a rare example of desire on screen, Fire (Kaleidoscope Films)
Intimacy doesn’t just mean sex, it means moments of intimate, quasi-sexual connection, Reaching for the Moon (Leap Frog Films)
Lilly and Felice in the tragic Second World War drama Aimée & Jaguar (Senator Film)
One of the few, a lesbian drama with riotous sex, complex and realistic historical reactions, and a happy ending Tipping the Velvet (BBC)

One of the most erotic and realistic depictions of both historical attitudes and historical desires I have found in English is Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) which is frustratingly difficult to access online, but highly representative or how lesbian desire works. Aimée & Jaguar (1999) is an historical German-language drama which is similarly celebratory of lesbian sex, but as it is based on the true story of a Nazi’s wife and an undercover Jewish reporter (Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim), it is horrifically tragic. The same tragedy goes for the Portuguese-English biopic of Elizabeth Bishop  and Lota de Macedo Soares, Reaching for the Moon (2013). In the UK context, Ammonite leaves Mary Anning lover-less, and Gentleman Jack, The Night Watch (2010) and Tell It to the Bees are frustratingly lacking of desire by the end of their run; though their treatment of the characters and their love lives is far more complex, nuanced, and acknowledges the messiness of human relationships from time immemorial. Prime-time English dramas could learn a trick or two about realistic and fearless depictions of lesbian desire. For period dramas incorporating queer characters into ensemble casts such as Call the Midwife, it is perhaps even more important that the intimate snapshots of lesbian love be viewed as often, as openly, and as gently as the kiss of a nun and a male doctor, or a priest with a nurse, or an interracial couple. Historical attitudes may have made public displays of effectively taboo, illegal, and dangerous. But enthusiastically consenting sex between adult women has always been part of the human story. A kiss is a kiss, and an orgasm is an orgasm – they should be depicted as often and as joyously as they really did occur.

Editors’ note: The author would like to thank Sarah Gray and Tariq Mir for their support in editing this piece.

Suggested Reading

Brown, Judith C.. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. London: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Brown, Lucy. ‘Mind the Road: Lesbian Tragedies in Last Tango in Halifax and Call the Midwife’, The Apollonian 2 (2015): 49–57.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241–1299.
Davis, Glyn, and Gary Needham. Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. London: Routledge, 2008.
Drif, Kévin and Georges-Claude Guilbert. Intersectionality in Anglophone Television     and Cinema. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020.
Ellis, Kate and Mike Kent: Disability and Popular Culture: Focusing Passion, Creating Community and Expressing Defiance. London: Routledge, 2016.
Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité [The History of Sexuality] (Volumes 1-4). Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1976–2018.
Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness”. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Hulan, Haley. ‘Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context’, McNair Scholars Journal 21 (2017): n.p.
Imre, Aniko. TV Socialism. New York: Duke University Press, 2016.
Kabir, Shameem. Daughters of Desire: Lesbian Representations in Film. London: Bloomsbury: 2016.
McDermott, Michael. ‘The (Broken) Promise of Queerbaiting: Happiness and Futurity in Politics of Queer Representation’, International Journal of Cultural Studies 24 (2021) 844–859.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Smith, Kate McNicholas. Lesbian on Television: New Queer Visibility & the Lesbian Normal. London: Intellect, 2020.

Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde (Image: A. White)

Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde


Ellan (eh-LAHN) is an Australian-trained freelance researcher and multi-disciplined performing artist. Their research interest in the history of music during conflict has included papers and presentations on disabled troop entertainers in WWII, the Civil Rights era and opera, and the creation of Chinese socialist realist mass songs (1920s-’40s). Their PhD research at SOAS explores the spread of Western classical music in China. Ellan has previously worked for The Australian Ballet, The Australian Federal Ministry for the Arts, and Opera Australia. Ellan is also co-founder of The (In)Equal Temperament project and former founder/director of the Con to Kabul charity concert series.

OCRid: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde
LinkedIn: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde
Email: el30@soas.ac.uk

SOAS History Blog, Department of History, Religions and Philosophy, SOAS University of London

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