Welcome to Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene, a series by Drew Burnett Gregory and Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about queer sex scenes in film. Today Kayla writes about The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook’s film adaptation of the iconic lesbian novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
The horniest parts of The Handmaiden aren’t the film’s climactic sex scene — a moment we see twice, context and perspective bending our experience of it — or its final sex scene set to melodious bells. The horniest parts of The Handmaiden wouldn’t really be called sex scenes by the average viewer and certainly not by the vast majority of straight viewers. But to me, they are sex. And to merely call them moments of sexual tension or erotic foreplay is to not only subscribe to a narrow view of sex but also to deny how queerness historically and continually blooms right under the watchful eye of the heteropatriarchy. Push us to the margins, and we’ll find ways to fuck in those margins.
I had sex with women before I had sex with men, but I still considered myself straight. Not bisexual. Not uncertain. I thought myself staunchly heterosexual, these sexual experiences with other women self-erased, downplayed as somehow not real. When I came out, I turned my queer self-discovery into a simultaneous anthropological exploration in the field and academic exploration at the desk. What I mean is I started fucking a lot and reading queer theory.
It didn’t take long into these dual processes for me to realize this self-erasure had been rooted in an internalized rigid and heteronormative understanding of what sex is. I learned new definitions of sex, created new definitions of sex. I unlearned the rules of before: that sex required penetration, that sex required orgasm. (In truth, a lot of the sex I’d had with women I thought “didn’t count” actually did meet these markers of certified normative straight sex, and yet, I still dismissed the encounters as somehow unreal.)
After coming to better understand these previous sexual experiences, I queered my own memories even further, coming to understand all the ways gaze and touch allowed me to access my latent desires without even realizing it. All those backrubs that lingered a little too long, all those sleepover games that required close mouths and tickle-pricked skin. There were so many ways girls could touch each other without it being deemed deviant or wrong.
In The Handmaiden, there are two significant instances of erotic touch and gaze prior to central characters Lady Hideko and her handmaiden Sook-hee fucking by conventional standards. (I’m not going to delve too specifically into the film’s plot in this essay, but my review from 2020 does so if you’d like more context.) In the first, one of my favorite erotic movie scenes of all time, Sook-hee files Hideko’s too-sharp tooth down with a thimble, inserting her thumb into Hideko’s mouth while she’s giving her a bath. Sook-hee takes her time with the tooth, and her eyes move down to Hideko’s tits perched just above water level.
Later, Hideko dresses Sook-hee up as a lady, a sort of class-based cross-dressing. In the privacy of Hideko’s bedroom, she tightens Sook-hee’s corset, powders her face, does her hair in an elegant bun. A shot from behind the two women shows their twinned hairstyles in close proximity, a doubling of sorts. The boundaries between them set by society are collapsing. It’s in this moment that we get another instance of erotic touch. Sook-hee undoes Hideko’s dress, and we hear her internal monologue, which leaves no room for interpretation as to just how intimate Sook-hee views this form of touching Hideko:
“Ladies truly are the dolls of maids. All these buttons are for my amusement. If I undo the buttons and pull out the cords, then, the sweet things within, those sweet and soft things…If I were still a pickpocket, I’d slip my hand inside.”
Period dramas that contain romance often confront and disrupt categories of class and power, and it’s impossible to consider the dynamics between Sook-hee and Hideko outside of the context of the film’s historical setting of Japan’s occupation of Korea. While other characters frequently regard Sook-hee as expendable or otherwise underestimate her for being not just poor but also Korean, that derision never comes from Hideko, whose very first observation about Sook-hee is her beauty. Hideko is pedestaled by other characters — men, especially — for her beauty, for her wealth, for being the pinnacle of Japanese femininity in their eyes. Sook-hee and Hideko’s love is socially forbidden in more ways than one. And yet, both women find ways to transgress their social positions and the heterosexual expectations forced upon them.
To an outside, oppressive gaze, Sook-hee is perhaps merely only fulfilling her handmaidenly duties by inserting her thimbled thumb into Hideko’s mouth or by unfastening her many buttons. But Hideko and Sook-hee’s body language in the bathtub scene and Sook-hee’s narration in the dressing/undressing scene highlight that, for them, they’re stepping far outside these expected roles. They’ve found ways to access erotic touch that not only are imperceptible to the detection of others but perhaps even hidden to themselves.
And that tension doesn’t detract from their agency or desire. Neither Hideko nor Sook-hee are passive in the ways other characters think they are. They know what they want, just like the girls whose hair I braided and who braided mine knew what we wanted, too. But sometimes that type of carnal, urgent knowledge is still at odds with how we really think of ourselves.
Lesbian period dramas, specifically, are often mocked for this suffusion of erotic tension in “safe” forms of looking and touching. Heavy eye contact made across a room, extended hand holding, the unbuttoning of a complicated garment, such as the scene of this exact nature we see in The Handmaiden. These moments get derided for being too tame, for lacking explicit sexuality. They’re held up as proof a film ultimately tempered its queerness, softened the edges of its lesbian erotics in order to present something more palatable to a wider (straight) audience.
Now, one would be silly to lodge this complaint toward a lesbian erotic thriller like The Handmaiden, which does indeed contain explicit sex scenes, too. And despite all my waxing poetic on these other scenes, I do find the film’s central sex scene incredibly worthy of dissection. It’s hot. It’s sex so nice we see it twice. Jokes aside, the differences in how we see the same sex scene unfold at two different points of the film deepen the dynamics and meaning of the sex itself.
But I have my reasons for wishing to focus more intimately on these alternative sex scenes, the ones you might think don’t depict sex at all. These reasons are personal: I want to give myself permission to cast a new lens on my own memories of early erotic touch and gaze. But my reasons are cultural, too. I think critiques of lesbian period dramas are sometimes too broad, too dismissive of the power and radical nature of queer eroticism that looks acceptable to a heterosexual gaze and yet functions on a different level for the characters themselves. It’s why I want to take things to an extreme place and say these scenes from The Handmaiden aren’t just sexual; they are sex. Mainly because my reading is that the characters engaging in the touch would certainly think so. And sometimes, the truest definition of sex is the one we write ourselves.