Writing as a queer woman in 2019, I am lucky enough to say that we are currently experiencing a “Lesbian Renaissance” in film and TV. Over last year and the start of this one, there has been an explosion of incredible lesbian and bisexual talent on screen. We were treated to Keira Knightley reclaiming the story of Colette, Chloë Grace Moretz made us laugh, then cry in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Kate Siegel gave one of the most beautifully nuanced portrayals of a queer woman in The Haunting of Hill House and finally, we got not one, but two queer Rachel Weisz movies, one of which is nominated for several Oscars. And it makes me proud to say that this was not all, the growth of female queer representation in 2018 was strong across world TV and cinema and 2019 promises to be just as good (The L Word is coming back !!). However, in 1994 the panorama was very different.
Before 1994, most films that featured lesbians went like this: Girl meets girl, girl falls in love with girl, girl can’t handle the pressure from society and either marries a man or kills herself. Not exactly an encouraging storyline. Most of these films had either explicitly tragic endings (Think of Martha’s downfall in 1961’s The Children’s Hour) or had ambiguous finales where it was up to the viewer to decide what happened next (I myself have several theories on how Desert Hearts could have continued). Then, in 1994 along came an independent movie called Go Fish. Directed by Rose Troche (who went on to direct and write the first seasons of The L Word), Go Fish was shot in black and white, starred some (very!) amateur actresses and sounds like it was recorded in a tinny basement. But it was the first queer film to depict lesbians in a casual setting. There was no need for a melodramatic plot, the queer protagonists were not femme fatales yearning for the male gaze, they were unapologetically queer women who went around their daily routine, cooking dinner together and picking up girlfriends along the way. That said, Go Fish is also an awkward product of its time and I guarantee that you will find yourself laughing out loud at how little has held up today. So, let’s dive into this mismatch of a film and see how lesbian cinema has come so far in the last 25 years.
Meet Max, our protagonist. Max (Guinevere Turner, who you may remember better as Gabby, Alice’s bitchy on-and-off girlfriend from The L Word) is a lesbian child of the 90s who wears nothing but baggy t-shirts, an oversized denim jacket and will not be seen without her baseball hat. Even Guinevere Turner thought the hat was a bit too much: “I wouldn’t have worn that fucking baseball hat. Do you know there’s not one scene in the movie where I’m not wearing that hat?!”. Max is frustratingly single, sharing an apartment with lesbian couple Kia and Evy. If there is one thing I love about Go Fish, it’s the strong community of women it portrays. The relationship between Max and her friends is endearing, if 13-year-old me had seen this, she would have been hopeful that other people like her existed and that they could build a network of support.
Max’s love life takes an unexpected spin when she meets Ely, an older woman who is conveniently breaking ties with her out-of-town girlfriend. At first, Max isn’t remotely attracted to Ely because she is “extra crunchy”, in other words she has (gasp!) long hair and wears hippy-like clothes. In an uncomfortable scene, Max literally insults Ely behind her back in a café, chanting that she is ugly. Even the camera feels bad, it painfully lingers on the moment and abruptly cuts to black. At this point, it is safe to say that Go Fish has some of the weirdest cut-scenes ever put to screen; Rose Troche is like the David Lynch of lesbian transitions. Max and Ely’s courtship is interspersed with bizarre vignettes such as the “Women-making-love- juxtaposed-with-cutting-bread-scene” or the classic “Girls-in-wedding-dresses-while-a-poem-about-heterosexual-love-plays-in-the-background-scene”. It is almost impossible to describe these sequences, they are best experienced visually.
Ely soon discovers that Max does not appreciate her fashion sense, so instead of finding a woman who accepts her for who she is, she shaves off her locks of hair. Despite having called her ugly five seconds ago, Max instantly falls in love with this new Ely and the two start to hit it off. Looking back, Max and Ely’s relationship is somewhat problematic today and does not stand the test of time. Max is cocky, downright rude to Ely and their on-screen chemistry is underdeveloped. However, notes of Max and Ely’s romance can be seen in some queer TV shows today. Piper and Alex in Orange is the New Black for example have become the epitome of on-again-off-again romances.
The (excuse the pun) climax of this movie arrives when Max and Ely, after what seems like an agonizing wait, finally hook up together. What follows is the most bizarre excuse for foreplay I have ever seen. Max and Ely are sitting on the couch and Max, upon seeing Ely’s long nails decides to cut them for her. During the clipping session, Ely seizes the moment and proceeds to kiss Max passionately. I don’t know if Rose Troche wanted to make nail-cutting sexy but, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work. At this stage of the film, I felt eternally grateful that I grew up with Mulholland Drive and Carol as references. Nonetheless, the scene where Ely skips down the street with a goofy smile on her face after having sex with Max cracks me up every single time.
Go Fish is a beautifully messy product of the 90s. It is not a perfect lesbian movie, but for a while it was the only lesbian movie that did not either present queer women as a disguised attraction for men or kill off the protagonists by the end. After speaking to women who saw this on the original release date, I realized that it is shocking to think that queer audiences flocked to see Go Fish because they had no other alternative. They were willing to sit through the cut-scenes, the sound mishaps and the nail-clippings just so they could see female characters who were unabashedly queer. Moreover, Go Fish explicitly brought up questions that still circulate within lesbian culture: How does bisexuality work? Can a lesbian sleep with men? With what words can you define female anatomy without falling into the male gaze?
Go Fish also opened up the eyes of filmmakers all over the world, who saw that the lesbian gaze was underrepresented and produced a host of now-cult-status lesbian films including Bound (1996), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) or Gia (1998). It is thanks to Go Fish that queer women around the globe can enjoy a wide catalogue of cinematic portrayals of women who love women. It’s one of the reasons that I can go to the cinema 25 years later to see The Favourite without having to hide my sexuality. Go Fish was an innocent but sincere and heartfelt attempt at bringing lesbian narratives into the mainstream, one that (as its tagline reads) reminds us that “the girl is out there”.