'Critical Lesbian' Aria Velz talks the queer gaze, TikTok and marriage equality in jeopardy
Looking for a good LGBTQ+ film to watch? Aria Velz recommends some favorites here.
Aria Velz’s love for queer film began when a friend showed her “Imagine Me & You,” a lesbian romantic comedy, back in high school.
That 90-minute will-they-or-won't-they brought up a critical question for Velz: “Are there other movies about women falling in love?” To her amazement, she found that there were. Now, Velz introduces her favorite lesbian films to more than 121,000 followers on TikTok under the moniker The Critical Lesbian.
But Velz didn’t always consider herself an authority on lesbian films.
“I felt like I was starting from zero,” Velz says. “I didn't know where to go.”
That was until her mom started taking her to Blockbuster, a now-defunct video rental shop, every few days to tear through the shelves on the hunt for sapphic stories. She rented every queer movie she could from Netflix back in the DVD-by-mail days. And, to this day, she meticulously documents every film she watched or wanted to see.
When she’s not chipping away at her must-see list, Velz works as a theater administrator and freelance theater artist in Washington, D.C. When COVID-19 shut down theaters in spring 2020, she put hours of her creative energy into transferring her Word document of films to watch into a spreadsheet.
Entitled “Seen and To See,” Velz compiled more than 600 entries with suggestions from friends and kind internet people — one of her followers, Lisa DeBruine, even turned all the entries into a database.
Despite her username, Velz grapples with the title “critic” given by her followers. She often asserts that she doesn’t have a formal film education, therefore does not feel comfortable assuming the role of critic and the implications it can bring. Rather, her philosophy on film mirrors that of common nutrition advice. Instead of focusing on what not to consume, it’s about adding more variety to the current diet.
“I use the term ‘critical’ as a way to kind of like uplift,” she says. “I think through criticism, through analysis, through intellectually engaging in lesbian and queer cinema, it legitimizes it.”
Look at any of Velz’s videos and you’ll find her most-asked question in the top comments: “Does it have a happy ending?” Her followers ask this so frequently that she created two columns in her spreadsheet answering whether the couple ends together or if anyone dies.
And Velz is a little sick of the question.
“I've actually spent a lot of time watching a lot of movies, and there's actually a huge plethora and huge diversity of queer female films out there that people just don't know about,” she says.
However, she understands where the yearning for positive stories that feature the queer gaze comes from. Most mainstream and accessible LGBTQ+ cinema depicts queer women tragically through stories that lack happy endings: no lover to run into the arms of on a sandy beach, only a barren closet to remain trapped within.
“The queer gaze is one in which queer people take control of the narrative and do not view people through the gender role’s expectations that they have,” Velz says. “Instead, it is a way to experience people's humanity by breaking through of those heteronormative standards.”
Velz has become the person she wishes her lost 15-year-old self knew — someone who could guide her on the journey to seeing herself as she is. From 2021 to 2022, the number of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the U.S. went from 5.6% to 7.1% according to Gallup. Some attribute COVID-fueled isolation with intense consideration of one’s identity. And many of the people who recently came to understand their sexuality flock to Velz’ TikTok account, seeking those with similar experiences.
“I started at zero, but I can tell [my followers] like, ‘you don't have to start from scratch like that,’” she says. “ ‘You can start right here.’ ”
Velz herself is quite simply, “just a woman who loves her wife and lesbian movies,” as she puts it in her TikTok bio. During Pride month, she did 30 days of “The Past 30 years of WLW Films,” or movies about women loving women. WLW is a widely-used acronym to encompass the full spectrum of lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual women.
She also celebrated Pride by going out to Washington, D.C.’s two lesbian bars — A League of Her Own and As You Are — and staying in with her wife.
The two were recently married in a wedding officiated by a lesbian couple who were among the first 100 gay couples to be legally married in the U.S. Wedding photos showed Velz wearing a dark red three-piece suit bespectacled with a large smile that turned to tears when her wife walked down the aisle.
For Velz, the ceremony represented a “really beautiful moment of the previous generation giving us their blessing from one generation of lesbian couples to another.”
But Velz feared for the future of her marriage, even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“Even with marriage having been legalised, I don't think there's ever a sense that this fear ever goes away, that this could be taken from us again,” she says.
Although she lives in an accepting community, she knows that for most of the world queerness is a stimagatized, painful experience.
“The understanding that people do want to take rights away that never leaves my mind,” Velz says. “That never leaves our minds.”