The experience of watching Jen Rainin and Rivkah Beth Medow’s feature documentary Ahead of the Curve, which just played Toronto’s Inside Out film festival before heading on to New York’s NewFest, is much like spending an hour and half getting lost in the pages of your favourite queer magazine; insightful, stimulating, empowering, with a deep-dive profile at its centre. The subject of that intimate biographical profile here is Franco Stevens who founded the world’s longest-running most successful lesbian lifestyle magazine Deneuve (later renamed Curve) in 1990. We meet Stevens as she learns the news that the magazine she was forced to sell in 2010 due to chronic pain following an injury, is now in danger of ceasing publication entirely. The film goes on to engagingly trace the origins, evolution and impact of the magazine under Stevens, while exploring her personal story, and examining the current state of LGBTQ+ media representation and identity, and the lesbian space within it, without the doc ever feeling unfocused. Raising plenty of thought-provoking questions along the way.
The history of Deneuve’s launch is largely told through Stevens’ own words, with the help of those who were around at the time, including her mother and sister, as well as former editorial staff, with some fantastic photos and archive footage. Marrying to a man in her late teens, Stevens’ husband outed her to her own family, leading to a period of her living in her car as she began to embrace her lesbian identity. She went on to work in San Francisco’s much-loved gay bookstore A Different Light, before deciding to increase lesbian representation, which she saw was severely lacking, by creating a lifestyle magazine. Unable to secure conventional financial backing, Stevens recalls how she applied for multiple credit cards and then used the money to gamble on horse-racing in order to get the necessary funds together. There’s a thrill in hearing in detail how the magazine got its first wave of subscriptions – “It was like God was a lesbian” Stevens says she felt at the time – as well as the slow progress in advertisers’ willingness to appear in the pages of a lesbian magazine, going from just two paid ads in the fist issue (including one from her father’s company) to major brands like Bud Light creating lesbian specific ads; and getting that first celebrity on the cover, American singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge. Lily Tomlin politely declined by calling Stevens personally. Unfortunately Stevens was in the bathroom at the time, and missed the call!
One fraught but fascinating chapter in the magazine’s history in the mid-90s saw two lawsuits launched against it by French film star Catherine Deneuve who took exception the publication’s original title. The threat of closure during this time resulted in an outpouring of love from the lesbian community and celebrities who valued the representation Stevens and her team were creating. The film builds a real sense of what the magazine meant to its readers, with examples of letters received and anecdotes about women calling the office just to talk to another member of the community. We hear from former cover stars and lesbian icons like Lea DeLaria and Melissa Etheridge on their own relationship with Curve.
We follow Stevens as she travels across the country, including a return to some old haunts in San Fransisco, to question whether there’s still a need for Curve to exist in 2020, both in terms of lesbian representation, given the current wave of political attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, and in its present form as a print magazine in this digital age. Along the way Stevens meets with members of a new generation of queer women working to increase intersectional visibility like LGBTQ+ activist and sexual assault survivor advocate Andrea L. Pino-Silva, poet and educator Denice Frohman, whose powerful Dear Straight People YouTube video has had over 3.7 million views, and the ACLU’s first Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, Amber Hikes. Stevens says that she had always wanted the magazine to be inclusive, for instance by featuring trans men and women, but looking back former editor Diane Anderson-Minshall says she wishes the magazine had included more women of colour than it did in its early years.
One of the film’s most intriguing threads traces the use of the word lesbian from the early 90s to today, with Stevens recalling that in 1990 it was a big deal to even put the word on the cover. Through various interviews and panel footage there’s a frank discussion about what the word means to women today, for some it feels exclusionary, with many younger folks feeling more comfortable calling themselves queer. Others feel the word lesbian has been coopted by straight men. Is it time to reclaim the word?
Told with a lot of heart and humour, Ahead of the Curve is a fitting and at times moving tribute to the determination, inspiration and entrepreneurial spirit of a trailblazer who helped moved our community forward in terms of visibility and acceptance, helping countless women feel seen and less alone, while providing a great, enduring, magazine. Growing up in a small town I can recall the power of the queer magazines I used to peer up at on the shelves of the magazine store, before I was brave enough to buy a copy; it was all a little scary – in case someone caught me looking up at the covers – at the same time it was thrilling and validating, a promise of a queer world that awaited. It’s thanks to people like Stevens for giving queer kids and adults alike hope and reassurance, as well as entertainment and information that was a lifeline in a pre-digital age. It’s a story that deserves to be told and preserved as part of our queer heritage, and this all-female identifying film team have created a documentary that is essential viewing.
By James Kleinmann
Ahead of the Curve was one of the highlights of this year’s Inside Out, Canada’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival, and will premiere at NewFest New York’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Sunday October 18th at 8pm ET, followed by a Q&A, and remain available virtually throughout the United States untl the end of the Festival on October 27th. For more information and to purchase a ticket head to the NewFest website.
For further festival screenings head to the official Ahead of the Curve website.
UPDATE: Ahead of the Curve plays New York’s IFC Center May 28th – June 3rd 2021.