I’ll never forget the first TV show that tried to show me how lesbians flirt. It was The L Word; I was 19, closeted, and renting the DVDs from Blockbuster Video, sandwiching them between romantic comedies so the checkout guy wouldn’t be creepy. The moment that stuck with me, the first lesbian I truly remember watching flirt on my little RCA TV, was Shane McCutcheon, sidling up to Lara Perkins and asking her if she had “any of those sweet little figs.”
It didn’t work on Lara, it didn’t work on me, and it would be nearly fifteen years before I would finally take notice of a lesbian who knows how to flirt well on television.
That lesbian is Anne Lister.
HBO’s Gentleman Jack is adapted from the diaries of Anne Lister herself, and if you haven’t started watching yet, you should probably do so immediately. The first time I watched Suranne Jones strut across my TV screen as Anne, I gasped audibly just seeing the way she walked. We don’t get to see butch women on TV every day! Especially not lesbians as, well, experienced as Anne. She’s a woman who knows what she’s about, and that is never more clear than when she first sets eyes upon the woman she will soon court as a companion, a young Miss Walker, whose first name is also Ann.
From the minute they meet, Anne Lister’s agenda is clear — not only because she tells us as much, with entries in her diary and knowing glances toward the audience — but because she’s just so good at what they used to call “making love.” By the second time the two women meet, Anne is pulling out all the stops, dazzling Miss Walker on what is, essentially, a fantastic first date — without the younger woman even realizing what’s happened. And just when Anne hits the point of no return, she reels it back in, leaving her dear friend always wanting more, until Miss Walker is positively in over her head, and crying each time Anne goes away.
How does she do it? How, in a time when queer women so often had to live beneath the radar, did she succeed so dazzlingly with Miss Walker and all of the women before her?
Step 1: Cultivate a larger-than-life persona
Anne’s reputation precedes her — especially in her hometown of Halifax. Her passions and quirks have made her such a celebrity that when Miss Walker comes to stay nearby with her cousins, their first thought is to introduce her to Anne, as she “might be a friend to her.” A friend indeed!
Step 2: Light up like the sun when the young heiress comes to visit
From the moment Anne turns her attention to Miss Walker, her face lights up, truly for the first time since she’s come home. From that moment on, as Anne moves about the room, Miss Walker’s face follows her like sunflowers.
Step 3: Maintain eye contact and casually touch extremities while saying the word “sex” aloud
I’m pretty sure this is the 19th century version of a lesbian Jedi mind trick, and it’s amazing. Anne Lister’s Meaningful Eye Contact game is truly next level, throughout the series.
Step 4: Lean in — way in
Once Ann Walker enters a room, Anne Lister never breaks orbit, keeping close enough to the other woman that I found myself wondering what personal hygiene was like in Halifax in the 19th century.
Step 5: Share your passions with genuine, infectious enthusiasm
Anne Lister has a passion for dissection. There may be no topic more difficult from which to segue into flirting than the dissection of the human body, and yet! Anne Lister somehow moves from corpses, to the miracle of life, to the beauty of art and music and love, and she does it very nearly effortlessly.
Step 6: Show a true interest in the lady and her talents
Complimenting a lady’s art is an excellent opportunity for intimacy; as she suggests a future in which Miss Walker will have to stare at her for hours, circumstances require her to hover so close that Miss Walker can surely smell the lingering vapors of mercury from her top-hat.
Step 7: Teach the lady about pockets
Anne explains to Miss Walker that pockets are put into men’s pants in Paris so that they may pleasure themselves, which… is that true? I just want somewhere to keep my locks of hair.
Step 8: Tell the lady you want to kiss her
Step 9: Tell the lady that surely she knows what you mean
Step 10: Come Back Again Tomorrow
Always good to give a lady time to get used to the idea!
Step 11: Plan a trip abroad
Plan a whole future together, as dearest friends. Why not? You’ve nearly kissed, once! You’ve spent a handful of hours together! It’s time to book passage on a ship!
Step 12: Take the lady to a cabin in the woods, where she can tell you she’s not afraid of kissing
Anne thoughtfully closes the shutters before their first kiss, which is gorgeously, elaborately slow.
Step 13: Propose to the lady
If we hadn’t known that this situation was extremely gay already, confirmation certainly comes when Anne Lister all but gets down on one knee and proposes a lifelong partnership! Harold! They’re lesbians!
Step 14: Go upstairs
Reader, THEY WENT UPSTAIRS!
So there you have it — our heroines go from meeting to contemplating virtual marriage in the course of just three episodes. Anne Lister is a lesbian who knows what she’s about, and personally, I’d take her over Shane and those “sweet little figs” any day of the week.