The Ghosts of Emily...

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Specters on Screen

by Elizabeth Dinneny

The past five years have seen a rise in “lesbian period dramas.” Our screens are well-versed in the recurring tale: Carol (2015), Colette (2018), Vita and Virginia (2018), The Favourite (2018), Elisa & Marcela (2019), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Gentleman Jack (2019), Ammonite (2020)—the list, incredibly, goes on. The lesbian period drama is characterized by extended silences and eye contact, a lack of vocabulary for (and explicit discussion of) queerness, cis white women, isolation, and a sad finale: the two separate, or are separated, in the end.[1] Each piece contains its own specificity, and exceptions exist, but the general form of the lesbian period drama has undoubtedly overtaken recent representations of queer women in film and television. The genre has been rightfully critiqued as reductive, repetitive, and racist.[2] As a result, new lesbian period dramas should be approached critically, with the question in mind: what value does this narrative add to the growing list of historical and literary lesbian dramas?

Among these on-screen romances stand three Dickinsons: the Emilys of A Quiet Passion (2016), Wild Nights with Emily (2018), and Dickinson (2019-2021).[3] Each adjacent to the popular form of the lesbian period drama, these depictions conjure vastly different versions of Dickinson’s spirit. In this section of the exhibition, we will analyze these on-screen representations of Emily Dickinson for their contributions to her evolving mythology. We wonder: what is the role of the archive in the summoning of these specific ghosts? Where are gaps filled in, where is scholarship included or resisted, and what new interpretations of Dickinson (and her family, friends, critics) do these variations offer us?


 [1]The genre is so recognizable that comedy show Saturday Night Live recently created a parody skit titled “Lesbian Period Drama,” in which characters and themes from the mentioned films are blended into one narrative.


 [2]See Cristobel Hastings, “It’s time for lesbian love stories that aren’t white period dramas.” Stylist.


 [3]After the writing of this exhibition, the Netflix television show The Chair debuted, featuring Sandra Oh as an English professor who specializes in Emily Dickinson, another instance of Dickinson's haunting on screen.