Philip Hensher: Watch out... it's another sad and lonely lesbian

What film-makers like is a plot about a hideous gay or lesbian being predatory towards a heterosexual
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Sometimes, you wish that one of the favourite themes of literature and film would just go away. Not everything goes on being interesting indefinitely; sometimes social changes mean that, for instance, jokes about race just stop being funny. In the meantime, one has to put up with the immensely long and dying fall of favourite themes, pursued for reasons which only have to do with the anxieties of the majority.

Dame Judi Dench has just won plaudits for her portrayal of a psychotic lesbian, Barbara Covett, in a new film, Notes on a Scandal. Tweedy, sour, lonely and obsessive, the character falls in love with a beautiful, younger colleague, herself in trouble for having sex with a 15-year old boy. We're left in no doubt about the difference between the two situations. Taking advantage of a 15-year-old boy may be wrong, but, hey, girls, it's a temptation. A lonely old dyke, however, is just terrifying.

It reminds one of that other recent film, Enduring Love - both are films of books, by Zoe Heller and Ian McEwan, which received rapturous critical praise when they came out. In that, too, a standard stalking plot was given additional frisson, and perhaps consciously removed from any accusation of misogyny, by the violent obsession being that of a gay man. A couple of minor sympathetic gay characters played a part, as if to ward off a reader's objections, but it seemed, too, to occupy rather a favourite territory; the unattractive gay person forcing their attentions on an innocent heterosexual.

There was quite a cheerful moment in the late 1990s when the television series, Queer as Folk, appeared to herald a new way of presenting minorities. In it, gay people fell in love with each other, fell out, pursued obsessions, and generally were thought of in terms of how they might look to themselves, rather than, as ever, in the supposed threat they presented to the majority.

If anyone ever expected anything very much out of this, it clearly came to an end with Richard Curtis's successful film, Love Actually. Nothing here disturbed the tranquil heterosexual surface. That is, until you had a look at the extras on the DVD. A whole unconvincing narrative about a lesbian marriage turned out to have been cut at the last moment.

Anything like that will always be at risk of being discarded. Most film-makers are just not interested in lesbians and gay men when glimpsed in their own preferred circumstances. What they do like to see is an ancient old plot about a rather terrifying gay man or lesbian, being appallingly predatory towards some hapless, but supposedly irresistible, straight person.

I don't say that it doesn't happen in real life. It's certainly true, as well, that when anyone falls conspicuously in love with someone who is never going to be able to love them back, it can be an unpleasant experience in any circumstances for the object of the passion. Many gay men will have had the unpleasant and sometimes rather frightening experience of being the object of devotion of a straight woman who seems to discount their nature altogether - actually, I would guess that is a much more common experience than the other way round. You just won't see it in the movies.

On the whole, gay people direct their interests, whether they are returned or not, in the direction of other gay people. The number of cases of sexual harassment reported of a gay person towards a straight person is minimal (and, believe me, they would complain quickly enough). If you gathered your information about gay people from films and books written by straight people, however, you would gain the impression there is nothing more irresistible to them than a nice straight boy.

Howlingly funny though it is, the belief that gay people slaver at the prospect of "converting" the straights is held in the utmost seriousness by the most unlikely people. A perfectly amiable married couple, acquaintances of mine, took a trip down to Heaven in its gorgeous heyday, and afterwards, the wife confided to me that they had been "a little bit worried, but luckily, nobody seemed to bother Paul." I had to bite back the comment that, frankly, you needed to make a bit more effort than her husband to persuade anyone to bother you in that temple of pulchritude.

What's wrong with comments like this, and ridiculous films like Notes from a Scandal, is that it can only envisage any minority as having its nose pressed up against the shop window of the glorious majority. If they aren't interested in us, they hardly exist. There is no French book that sells as well in England as a French book about the English. Watching the long, drawn-out embarrassment of Celebrity Big Brother, it was absolutely astonishing how little the housemates managed to find out about the unique and, surely, fascinating life of Shilpa Shetty, how they struggled to interest even that polite and dignified lady in the dull details of their own.

I would rather like to see a film in which a gay person falls in love with another gay person, not necessarily with happy results. What one can really grow a little sick of is cardboard figures, invented principally to reassure the mass heterosexual audience that however unattractive they may grow, there's always someone who will love them. And there's nothing to make you feel more secure in that than being able to turn an imaginary stalker down, and run a mile from someone you secretly despise anyway.