The Performativity of Lesbian Women in the 18th Century Europe

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The Performativity of Lesbian Women in the 18th Century Europe

The objective of the research paper is to examine Celine Sciamma’s 2019 French historical romantic drama movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire and to find out whether the acts of the two leading characters meet the qualities of lesbians by observing and assessing their acts. The chief goal of the study is to assess whether the video depicts an alternative to the argument in Judith Butler’s theory of performativity and also if it counters the conventional use of looking or other manifestations that seem queer and out of normal in Hollywood productions. The paper includes a methodology section that is formed based on the discourse analysis embraced to examine four diverse levels or facets of examining the idea of grille as presented by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Consequently, the writing falls into distinct sections that examine whether the video counter’s the claim in Butler’s theory. Furthermore, the writing puts the Portrait of the Lady on Fire in the context of lesbian films. The outcomes from the methodology section indicates that the film utilizes looking as a critical medium for building the power dynamics between the primary casts and viewers in a manner that appears to counter with the selected theory and the conventional forms of looking in old Hollywood productions. Nonetheless, it is not possible to rule out with surety whether looking and other lesbian-related acts in the selected film is a constituent of an additional and broader discourse changes with lesbian film products. Specifically, the paper addresses whether particular repeated acts by Heloise and Marianne amount to lesbianism in light of Butler’s theory of performativity.

Tracing the history of lesbian video shows considerable conflict between what is visible and not visible as depicted by various scholars. The writing refers to an evident trend in present-day queer film production where lesbian stories are restrained to dramatic period sessions created prior to the 21st century, more specifically in the eighteenth century. A film that displays this feature is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which forms the basis for this analysis. The development of the film is appealing, because the story impose unclear indications regarding the queerness in the characters – a significant portion of the casts cannot be evidently lesbian if the story happens in rural settings in the 18th century. In the 2019 French film, two ladies (Heloise who is a noble woman and Marianne, a painter) encounter each other toward the close of the 18th century. Heloise is compellingly engaged to an Italian wealthy man who was supposed to marry her sister before taking away her life. She declines to pose for a picture that was supposed to be placed in front of the venue where the wedding to the Italian is to take place. Thus, in a desperate trial to develop the portrait, her maternal mother brings in a professional painter (Marianne) whose role is to follow up on Heloise under the disguise of being friends, but with the intention of studying her face and create her image. In many scenes while the two ladies walk together, they choose to minimize how they engage each other. Nonetheless, the audience identifies how the two make suggestive glances at each other. Their association starts on a low note, but pick up steadily with the two ultimately falling in love.  

The film is a narration of two women who meet only for a brief time and do not have much time to engage each other. Cultural factors and societal obligations inhibit them from sticking together, and so they have restricted time and opportunity to become well acquitted to each other. This situation compels them to find a chance that would allow them to take a keener assessment of each other. Looking is critical to the telling of the story in the film. The practice of looking has since time immemorial been employed to form and underscore tensions between casts on screen when it is impossible to deploy strong elements of action.

The essay explores the concept of looking or glance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and determines whether they amount to determining the gender of the two leading casts in the film as described by theory of performativity. According to Butler, an action is performative if it generates a series of desired effects. The theorist argue that gender is performative because it is difficult to specify a particular gender identity before indulging in particular gendered practices, because these actions constantly contribute towards the identity. The scholar contended that it is impossible to be assigned a particular gender without indulging in acts associated with the particular gender. Hence, the essay will examine whether how the application of the concept of looking qualifies the characters as lesbians. The essay also includes a brief overview of the development of lesbian representations in film and its association with the notion of gendered acts. The report will then describe the utilized method for the critical analysis of the film before proceeding to the actual analysis.

Development of Lesbian Productions

Initially, the Motion Picture Production Code countered any portrayal of homosexuality on media platforms. Hence, film producers had to switch to implicit forms to identify approaches to overcome the restriction. In the same manner sexual portrayal would have to be hushed in the subtexts of many films when the directives of the Code were strict. Consequently, unwritten forms were created to depict homosexuality on films, usually in the nature of stereotypically homosexual features. Particularly, the portrayal of homosexuality was regarded as immoral, and censorship has been a fundamental aspect in dictating its presentation to modern productions and portrayals. However, the presentation of lesbian acts has taken a different trajectory from that of male homosexuality throughout the history of cinematic presentations. Based on the argument by Bradbury-Rance, films that depict lesbianism acts have been largely impacted, not by censorship, but by the absence of these regulations thereof (20). Bradbury-Rance asserts that lesbianism has not be subjected to any kind of suppression, which resulted in little focus on this area. Whereas homosexual ties between men were regarded as heterosexual sex and blasphemy, issues touching on blasphemy was not even addressed in the censorship regulations. The absence or regulation throughout history has almost qualified lesbian videos a sub-genre of a broader, queer cinematic engagements. According to the analysis by Bradbury-Rance, between 2011 and 2018, there were at least 90 cinematic productions nominated for awards (7). More of such films have developed since then.

The creation of lesbian portrayal on screen has seen transformation from an invisible form to a more visible nature. There have been concerns with some parties seeking to take away lesbian films from the heteronormative, a practice that is evident in the growing different stories regarding lesbian women. The narratives are separated from the earlier stereotypical portrayal of lesbianism. In addition, the distancing can be viewed in the makeup of filmmakers that now incorporate more LGBTQ individuals and women. Moreover, queer film appears to be distancing itself from Hollywood productions that are dominated by men by following new trends where queer individuals get to present their stories on screen.  

Expounding on the Theory

Various scholars impacted on the views of Judith Butler and her theory. Particularly, structural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and Claude Levi-Strauss and phenomenologists such as George Herbert and Edmund Husserl influenced Butler’s knowledge of performativity of individual’s identities. The scholar therefore comprehends gender to be a corporeal approach an action as it were. That approach has no connection to important truths regarding the body but is largely ideological (Morison and Macleod 570). It has an historical connotation that exists past the subjects that ratify the conviction. Thus, Butler argues that the act that a person does, the actions that they conduct, is in real sense, the action that has been happening before one reached on the scene. Therefore, gender is an action, which has been exercised, much as a script moves through the characters who utilize it, but which need the intervention of individual players in order to be regenerated and actualized once more. In other words, the repeated depiction of gender is largely performative, which means that it forms the notion of gender, as well as the impression of two important sexes (Morison and Macleod 571). It is also possible to argue this statement by saying that rather than women or men, people can act as a man or woman, thus forming the divisions of both masculine and feminine genders. Based on the argument by Butler it is apparent that one who depicts practices that depict lesbianism is a lesbian.

Now, the purpose of this report to examine if the leading characters in Portrait of a Lady on Fire are lesbians based on their acts, including the constant looking at each other and the interactions that they make even after being separated. However, the study examines whether the ladies perform other acts other than looking that qualifies them as lesbians.


The study approach is suitable for this analysis because it offers the chance to examine the film that is under investigation from a critical perspective. The approach is beneficial due to various reasons. The research method technique allows the researcher to develop a connection between an issue, people, and the situation at hand. In addition, the technique is suitable because it is flexible thus making it easier to be utilized at different points of the research process. In addition, the research method allows a researcher to pay considerable attention to the case under investigation thus increasing the likelihood for identifying and understanding the issue under investigation. However, the process acknowledges the limitations associated with the case study approach and how this could impact on the research process. One of the potential limitations associated with the case study approach is that it can take unnecessarily longer to assess the collected data, a deficiency that could impact on the research process significantly. The other limitation of the approach, and which requires considerable attention while conducting the research is that it could result in some inefficiencies. However, the identified benefits outweigh mentioned demerits, which make the research methodology the most suitable one for this instance.

The most suitable data analysis for this study is descriptive data analysis. The technique requires a researcher to analyze data that makes it possible to describe, illustrate, or brief data points in a constructive manner and in such a way that it is possible to identify particular patterns that meet every aspect of the data. In other words, a descriptive data analysis provides an opportunity to describe the primary components of the data in a research. The method offer easy-to-understand summaries regarding the sample. Hence, deploying the technique will help to answer questions on “who”, “what”, “how”, and “when”.

Looking at Portrait of a Lady on Fire various performative acts depict some level of closeness between Marianne and Heloise. The two meet by coincidence after Marianne is invited to master Heloise’s face and draw it in preparation for a wedding that the lead cast appears to oppose. The two begin by walking, especially in the evenings along the coastline. However, Marianne does not get to finish the image and even chooses to destroy it making a promise that she will not betray Heloise, with whom she is increasingly becoming closer. The two continue to be even closer and share more things. At one point, the two ladies read the account of Orpheues and Eurydice and argue the real reasons why Orpheus opts to look back in search of his wife, leading her to be subdues to the world of the less known. The next morning, Heloise and Marianne have their initial kiss and indulge in sexual intercourse later in the same evening. The two ladies spend their time together for the next few coming days, during which the affection that they have for each other intensifies. With the newly found love nearly to be spoilt by the news of The Countess returning, Marianne develops a rough sketch of Heloise for her remembrance and the latter request the painter to make her picture while naked on her book as remembrance.


In addition to looking that is mostly applicable when the two ladies meet, looking at the film from the lens of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity confirm that the two ladies are lesbians. It would be possible to argue that the two are straight and not lesbians if they engaged in acts that counter this argument. However, the analysis clearly reveals that the two are not straight in the way they deploy acts repeatedly that signal their true sexual orientation. A key finding from the research process is that the characters do not only deploy the idea of looking as a way of indicating or signaling their sexual orientation, but also depend on other techniques that evidently show their defiance of what the society perceive as the norm. Furthermore, the way the partners feel that they will miss each other after their new found love is cut short with the arrival of The Countess confirms that the two have a unique way of looking into sexuality that determines how amidst many people who ascribe to heterosexuals. However, before the painter leaves, another incident, which confirms that repeated performativity could depict one’s gender is that Heloise asks Marianne to draw a nude picture in her remembrance. The request could sound absurd to normal people, which may not be the case with the two ladies who already have affection for each other and they reaffirm their love for each other through their actions.


It is apparent based on the provisions of Butler’s theory of performativity that Heloise and Marianne are lesbians, judging from their performance and actions. However, the main important thing to understand is that the two give a reflection of the larger society where it is possible to identify members of the LGBTQ community through their attires and practices. However, it would be easier to make the identification of whether one is queer by monitoring repeated actions of a person. Depending on the argument in the theory by Butler, it would be impossible to argue that one is a heterosexual or homosexual without monitoring them for some time and knowing their behaviors and interactions with others.  

However, the fundamental lesson from the film is that regardless of being a member of the LGBTQ community, it is still possible to be successful in life. For example,Heloise attract a rich Italian man who promises to marry her. It is a great chance to attract the love of such a noble man. Thus, this illustration suggests that having queer feelings could deny one the chance to appeal to others, bearing in mind that everyone is human and may not be right in their era (Hartman 472). Marianne, on the other hand, is a professional painter, a profession that she uses to meet her needs. Working as a painter further reiterates that being a homosexual does not make a person any lesser. One‘s talent and skills are still applicable no matter their sexuality, which serves as the reason why it is essential to incorporate and increase awareness on the issue under investigation.

It is imperative for educators and other key stakeholders to pay more emphasizing on developing works that help to understand how queerness works and what need to happen when dealing with people whose sexual orientation is not what many people could term as convectional. Consequently, researchers could come up with more writings that expound on the subject while using relevant theories to pass their message more effectively (Hartman 477). Nonetheless, the process will give needed fruits if the researchers conduct intensive studies to examine whether those who show queerness are actually different from others based on factors other than sexual orientation. The findings is likely to reflect that of  Portrait of a Lady on Fire where one of the ladies is a painter despite being a lesbian does not deter her from indulging in such affairs. However, the most suitable way to engage these people is to consider them as being equally humans who deserve the chance to express themselves. Accepting the group and possibly allowing them to come up with their films will improve awareness about how the group works, as well as strengthen the relationship with even those who belong to the group.


Examining Portrait of a Lady on Fire Judith Butler’s theory of performativity reveals that the two leading characters could be lesbians. The ruling is arrived at after examining the acts that the two ladies perform, thus allowing the audience to describe their character and possible gender. The two have a strong feeling for each other and start to reveal secrets that they would not do if it were not for their brief association. The two develops much pain when it is time for them to part ways, which further emphasizes their relationship. Consequently, conduct a research taking into account. Consequently, to examine whether the two ladies are lesbians, the analysis uses the case study research method to examine the portrayal in their acts that make it possible for the audience to tell their gender. Because the gendered acts by Marianne and Heloise seem to be queer, the paper claims, backed by the theory of performativity. The study findings also reveals that it is not only the concept of looking that present the two casts as lesbians. Various other factors clearly relays that the two characters are lesbians, a feature that is achieved at by examining the performativity in the firm. The happening in the film confirm the credibility of the theory that helps to assess the film. The film and use of the theory should create the urge in the audience to acquire more information about how the theory works and use it to determine whether one belongs to the LGBTQ group based on their acts and behaviors. Nonetheless, the analysis urges the readers of this document to treat members of this group as being equally human beings who deserve an opportunity to express themselves because their sexuality does not deprive them of their human nature. Researchers need to provide more information that would help to understand the group to improve relationship with them and to offer them a better chance in films to express their desires.   

Works Cited

Bradbury-Rance, Clara. Lesbian Cinema after Queer Theory. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.

Hartman, Saidiya. “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner.” South  Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 3, 2018, pp. 465–490.

Morison, Tracy and Catriona Macleod. “Performative-Performance Analytical Approach: Infusing Butlerian Theory into the Narrative-Discursive Method.” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 8, 2013, 566-577.

Sciamma, Celine. Portrait of a Lady on Fire. France: Lilies Films, 2019.

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