Domestications and Disruptions: Lesbian Identities in Television Adaptations of Contemporary British Novels

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Emmens, Heather
Lesbian Visibility , Queer Theory , Contemporary Literature , British literature , Film Adaptation Theory , Television Adaptation , Sarah Waters , Jeanette Winterson , Andrew Davies , BBC
The first decade of this century marked a moment of hypervisibility for lesbians and bisexual women on British television. During this time, however, lesbian hypervisibility was coded repeatedly as hyperfemininity. When the BBC and ITV adapted Sarah Waters’s novels for television, how, I ask, did the screen versions balance the demands of pop visual culture with the novels’ complex, unconventional – and in some cases subversive – representations of lesbianism? I pursue this question with an interdisciplinary methodology drawn from queer and feminist theories, cultural and media studies, and film adaptation theory. Chapter Two looks back to Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (BBC 1990). I examine this text – the first BBC television serial to feature a lesbian protagonist – to establish a vocabulary for discussing the page-to-screen adaptation of queer identities throughout this dissertation. Chapter Three investigates Waters’s first novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) and its complex intertextual relationship with Andrew Davies’s serialized version (BBC 2002). I also examine responses to the serial in the British press, tracing the ways in which dominant cultural forces seek to domesticate non-normative instances of gender and sexuality. Chapter Four examines Waters’s novel Fingersmith (2002) in relation to Peter Ransley’s adaptation (BBC 2005) to situate adaptations of Waters’s retro-Victorian texts amid the genre of television and film adaptations of Jane Austen novels. I argue that Ransley’s serial interrogates the notion of Austen as a “conservative icon” (Cartmell 24) and queers the Austen adaptation genre itself. To conclude this study I address Davies’s television film (ITV 2008) of Waters’s second novel Affinity (1999). In this chapter I examine how the adaptation depicts the disruptive lesbian at the centre of the text. I argue in particular that by casting an actress who does not conform to dominant televisual norms of femininity, the adaptation is able to create a powerful audiovisual transgendered moment which adds to the novel’s destabilization of Victorian hierarchies of gender and class. This chapter considers, finally, how Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Affinity have contributed to lesbian visibility on British television.
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