Go Fish’s Unique and Early Portrayal of Lesbian Communities

{Written by Bel Mander}

Traditionally in society, thus reflected in film, lesbian communities are related and depicted though their relations, or lack thereof, with men. Cinema has traditionally taken a very male centric view of society, and lesbianism, while a threat to this order, is no different. Historically, lesbian communities have been ignored by mainstream filmmakers, and portrayals of lesbians did not feature the bonds of community, instead focusing on lesbian interactions with men. Rose Troche’s 1994 film, Go Fish, was groundbreaking in its depiction of lesbian community, and its financial success proved that there was commercial viability, and a public appetite for the depiction of lesbian communities on the silver screen. 

Go Fish follows Max, a lesbian student, who is struggling to find women to date in her college town.  Through the intervention of her friends, she meets Ely, an older lesbian, who Max is initially uniterested in. Through encouragement from friends, however, their relationship slowly develops as do their relationships to lesbian comminity and masculinity. 

Go Fish explores the tensions within the lesbian community in a college town, centering around the conflicts between older and younger lesbians, with the main protagonist, Max, being the youngest in the group, and her love interest, Ely, being one of the oldest members. Initially, Max is dismissive of her friend Kia’s suggestion that she should date Ely, suggesting that she is outdated and not trendy. Throughout the course of the film, Max and Ely get to know one another and a relationship blossoms. Simultaneously, Ely explores her identity through changing her presentation, exploring her masculinity.  The film ends with Max and Ely, now a couple, hosting a dinner party for their group of friends. 

The “mask of similarity” is a theory by sociologist Anthony Cohen, which describes how members of a community take on a collective guise which serves to mask unspokenly acknowledged differences between members of the group. The social community within this film is unified by them all being lesbians, but this unifying symbolic identity, does not acknowledge the vast differences of experience. Conflict arrises between characters when they do not accept this “mask”, in one case, just because a character is older, and seen as more socially boring than younger characters, does not mean she is any less a part of the lesbian community. When Max, the youngest character suggests this, other members of the group defend the older lesbian, upholding the power of the mask. 

V.S. Brodie in Go Fish (1994)

Part of Cohen’s theory includes the idea that communities are defined by their outer limits. Within the film, characters joke that their lack of sexual activity would make them no longer a lesbian, and one sequence shows a character named Daria questioning if casual physical relationships with men would make her no longer a part of this lesbian community. The other characters in Daria’s daydream are generally unhappy by her calling herself a lesbian while having relations with men. Many of them suggest that it isn’t the relations with men that bother them, but the innacuracy of her labelling herself a lesbian despite no longer fitting the definition, suggesting that the community values honesty and an an attraction to women over specific identity, and the enforcement of it. Throughout the film, Troche demonstrates that within the imagined lesbian community, the main collective criteria required is an attraction to women not exclusive homosexuality, or active lesbian relationships. Max remains a part of the community even when she is not with another woman. In fact, the community works together to help her remedy her inability to find an expression of her desire. Daria also remains part of the community, despite having a casual sexual experience with a man, as while this is largely a group of women defined by their lesbianism, their core shared trait is their attraction to women, not as much their lack of attraction to men.

V.S. Brodie, T. Wendy McMillan, and Guinevere Turner in Go Fish (1994)


Go Fish presents a radical depiction of a lesbian community through carefully examining the differences and common experiences which hold a community and the relationships within it together. Through this “lesbian gaze”, it paved the way for more in depth explorations of lesbian relationships in a wider context. It also showed lesbian communities and lesbian experience exisiting in its own right, rather than through its interactions with heterosexual/male society.

Essays

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