Portrait of a Lauren on Fire

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In November 2008, Californians voted on Proposition 8, the “California Marriage Protection Act,” which sought to amend the California Constitution to read, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” That fall, in my central Californian farm town, all I saw on the drive to school were yellow signs peppering my neighbors’ lawns, featuring silhouettes of nuclear families and bearing the words “Yes on 8” in bold. Although few of my classmates fully understood what these signs meant, it was clear in whispered conversations that there was only one opinion to be had on the matter: that which could be seen. And that didn’t bode well for the tall blonde girl who was playing with the boys’ basketball team.

At that age, I didn’t really know what a gay person was. I had grown up watching “The Birdcage” and “Will & Grace” with my mercifully liberal family, but I thought Robin Williams’ and Nathan Lane’s characters were just eccentric and that Will and Grace made a cute couple. I had never even heard the word “lesbian” until it was levied upon me as an accusation when I offered to split a mini pizza with a new girl in the school cafeteria that year. Indeed, all I knew at the age of 10 was that I was petrified at the thought of embarrassing myself in front of the girls in my class and that Keira Knightley was a really good actress. 

Yet, I could still feel Prop. 8 and the conservative culture that had precipitated it dampening my spirit and making me feel the need to hide myself away. And I did exactly that, trading in my athletic shorts for skinny jeans and my T-shirts for Hollister tops, erasing all of the scary parts and leaving me to my otherwise inoffensive existence as a white, middle-class honor student.

I’m fortunate to exist today in a place where I feel comfortable living exactly as I am, with a community, friends and family who support and uplift me. But I still feel the effects of the years I spent in isolation, and I often find myself thinking of queerness as something distinct to contemporary culture  because queer people seem virtually absent from the popular historical record due to prejudices and legislation, such as Prop. 8, that sought to write queer people out of history. When I feel the weight of internalized homophobia, my greatest comforts are queer period films, as their fictional characters remind me of the hidden, unrecorded history of my LGBTQ+ ancestors.

On Tuesday evening, I made a pilgrimage across the Bay Bridge for a screening of the 2019 film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which follows the forbidden love affair between Héloïse, a young woman set to marry a Milanese man, and Marianne, the female painter commissioned to complete her wedding portrait, in 18th-century France. In the Q&A following the film, director Céline Sciamma discussed how “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” seeks to contend with the erasure of women from art history, noting that she herself is “not a pioneer” as a filmmaker because “there were great women artists before (her).”

But these ideas of erasure and pioneering extend further into the question of LGBTQ+ representation in history, as Sciamma — an out lesbian whose filmography has largely been dedicated to exploring contemporary queer adolescence — uses this film as a site to explore the inevitable reality of queer love throughout time despite the multitude of ways in which those experiences have been suppressed. My friend Sarah beautifully captured this essence of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and queer period films in general, saying: “This movie helped me finally put into words why I love queer period pieces: They show that regardless of time or place, and even without the proper words to express it, queer love has always and will always exist. It’s inevitable.”

When I was in the fifth grade, iPhones replaced Motorola Razrs, the first African American president was elected and Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad” graced the airwaves for the first time. Yet whenever I consider that period of my life, all I can picture are little yellow pieces of cardboard, seen from the back window of my mom’s Suburban. While LGBTQ+ rights have been greatly forwarded since then, it is important to remember that it was only five years ago that federal marriage equality was established in the U.S., and queer people are still fighting for many rights, from serving in the military to adopting children to safely using the restrooms of their choice.

As such, it is essential for queer people to assert their presence and claim their place in history in order to stem the cycle of queer erasure. That is why I use my privilege as a writer to paint a portrait of my own history, hoping to honor those who have been silenced before me and those who live in the shadows today, bearing in mind the words of Sciamma that “being radical … being uncompromising is being free.”

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.