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Bisexuality in film

July 30, 2015

When I wrote my piece on transgenderism in movies, I thought that the T in LGBT was the least well represented of the four. Having thought about it since, I think on balance it is actually the B.

Bisexuality in movies is simultaneously over-represented and under-represented It is becoming ubiquitous and the reason is sadly all too obvious; whilst unattainability may be an attraction factor, the ultimate in unattainability – namely, a complete lack of attraction to men – is off-putting to a male audience, who are to this day generally (and illogically, considering the demographic breakdown of movie goers) better served by the movie industry. For some reason, we just hate the idea that someone who we’re never going to sleep with – possibly because they don’t actually exist – would in theory never sleep with us. Just see how people react to the news that X-beautiful-celebrity is gay. Such anger, for a hypothetical failure to have sexual relations with someone you have yet to meet.

Consequently, in order to eroticise same-sex relations, those relations must be between bisexual women, not gay ones. This loudly announces a total lack of interest in proper gay or bi representation, and manifests itself visually as an over-representation of bisexual women and and under-representation of gay ones. Yet, all this representation means nothing when bisexual people are portrayed wrongly. While trans people are always subject to misfortune, films about them are at least accurate in this respect; abuse of trans people is not the norm but is unfortunately frequent.

Bisexuality is a different story. In movies, it always portrayed as an intensely negative choice that has serious ramifications on the character’s “real” life. It is a sideshow, a phase which wrecks their long term relationships or relationship prospects, upsets their children or other family members, skews their ordered life and perfect career, or renders them sexually ruined and permanently dissatisfied.

This Generally Inadvisable Bisexuality Thing comes about in the first place under similarly negative circumstances; she is confused and lacking direction in her life, her husband no longer looks at her, she is having a midlife crisis, she’s tired of being a housewife, etc. There seems to be a perception that bisexuality needs to be explained. Consider that, if one “explained” homosexuality in this way, viewers on mass would rightly suggest that the movie makers were ignorant bordering on T-party supporting Charismatic evangelists.

There’s a constantly unpleasant, judging / apologetic theme to the whole sorry business. She had an affair with a woman, oh horror of horror. How emasculating. She lied! She’s a whore! A selfish, weak, sinful hussy! And goodness, as for the other one – the initiator – she’s practically the devil. Corrupting children. Breaking families. Stalking. Evil, sex obsessed temptresses, the lot of them. But it’s OK, because you can all reject your bisexuality and be free of the Devil’s shackles. Repent, repent! Go back to your husband. Go now, and all will be forgiven by Jaeezuz.

I only refer to female bisexuality because bisexuality themes are overwhelmingly dominated by female characters. This in itself is indicative of a problem, namely that: either sex scenes between women sell movies better because they are considered more erotic (or at least less off-putting) than scenes between men – which is simultaneously objectification of women, fetishism of lesbian sexuality and indirect expression of disgust towards gay male relations; or, that bisexuality in women seems more plausible, suggesting a common perception that it is more common amongst women. The statistics do not at all support this notion.

The only time I see examples of bisexuality in men, at least in American film, is when that character is sexually emotionless due to either being paid for sex or suffering from sex addiction (On the Road; Shame). Of course, I have not seen every film – nothing like. But the fact that I have seen far more and far better depictions of gay men than bi men, in a significant overall sample, tells me that gay men are better represented. Depictions of gay women are also much better than depictions of bi women – despite the fact that the few existing films about gay women are still generally highly flawed.

Usually, films about gay women are flawed because the relationship is clunky, twee, awkward and lacking in chemistry, over-eroticised, inaccurate or just plain miserable. In the case of The Kids Are All Right, an unusually good film about gay relationships between women, the problem is more complex. It attempts to fuse homosexual representation with bisexual representation.

In theory, I am in favour of this; I think it a highly worthy aim to wish to portray sexuality as a multi-stranded continuum that may not be fixed, or at least not for every individual. The problem is that The Kids Are All Right is a movie that was directed towards a general audience. It is an acceptable relationship drama for people who like relationship dramas and who don’t happen to be raging, chest-beating homophobics. Unfortunately, one does not have to be a raging, chest-beating homophobic to be entirely ignorant of gay and bi issues, and the extent to which they are separate.

When a film has a queer focus – i.e., is intended primarily for an LGBT audience (it’s usually obvious) – exploring all avenues of sexuality is not only expected but required. We know all the basics, so we don’t expect to be spoken down to with the film equivalent of the “It’s OK to be gay” ditty. What makes The Kids Are All Right so good is that it definitely doesn’t do that. However, there’s a threshold. If its concepts are too advanced for a heteronormative audience, they will misinterpret things and draw incorrect conclusions.

Julianne Moore’s character in The Kids Are All Right has an affair with a man while in a gay relationship with a woman. This is the kind of plotline that makes straight people who are not well versed in unconventional sexuality scratch their heads and ask “Does that mean she’s straight, then?” or worse: “I always knew every gay woman secretly needs dick from time to time.” Wikipedia says that Julianne Moore is well known for playing “troubled women”. I hope the author of that addition is not counting any of the many times Moore has played women who have had relationships with other women. One could ask why it is that she is so often selected for that role. Is it mere typecasting, or casting opportunism (coupled with Moore’s own preference), or is it the opinion of casting directors that her troubled persona particularly suits a bisexual character?

The reason it is so important to segregate bi issues is because this kind of thinking betrays an inability to recognise bisexuality as its own distinct, valid sexuality with its own issues to be examined fairly, rather than waved away as a problem the character caused for herself thanks to some temporary weakness. While bisexual individuals themselves may be of the opinion that sexual orientation is not fixed at all, that opinion is not one that should be presented prematurely to a heterosexual population who haven’t yet quite grasped the comparatively simple concept of being-attracted-to-more-than-one-sex. Any indication that bisexuality might be a phase must therefore, for the timebeing, be carefully eradicated from any and all depictions of same-sex sexuality.

These indications are not presented purposefully. This is part of what makes them so problematic; while some movie makers may be consciously deciding that bisexuality is a delicious plot-point full of drama and intrigue and sorts of stuff that sells movies, other film makers are perfectly well-meaning. The much lauded Kissing Jessica Stein is a perfect example of a film which in my view failed in its very ambition. It came across as a film that wanted to be about unconventional sexuality, but the bisexuality was represented as the uncertain faffing of a wishy-washy, loosey-goosey woman-child who doesn’t know if she’s coming or going. Though I am certain it was not intended to be, this is an insult to bisexual people, most of whom know exactly what they want.

On its own, it wouldn’t matter. Both these movies, it could be considered, were expressing their own individual, valid points. However, when taken as a body with other films about bisexuality, these contribute to a pernicious and growing perception that bisexuality is a modern problem to be solved by better commitment to long-term relationships, a return to the good old days of solid marriages where no one had any sexual confusion and frustration whatsoever.

When bad portrayals of a group of people are accidental, there is a need to make a purposeful attempt to explore the issue individually, not fused with other related but separate issues like gay, trans or pansexuality. It must also be done with due care and with positivity; mainstream movies about LGBT people are bound to be worked on by a majority heterosexual cast and crew.

There will be little first-hand understanding of the issue. Even equipped with a veritable army of LGBT consultants, what they say would still be the subjective perceptions of individuals within the highly variable in-group, the facts about whom are unknown to hard science. This would not translate well onto the big screen, presented by people from the out-group for people from the out-group.

Thus, the need for great effort and care put into positive representation is crucial. Bear in mind, the positivity here is different to the positivity needed in trans movies; whereas more sunlight and humour is needed in movies about trans people, what bisexual movies need is representation that acknowledges a happy history of bisexuality, not a fractured existence of abuse, regret and desperately reaching out for love wherever one can find it. I fear that if one tried to inject humour into representations of bisexuality, what we’ll end up with is Valerie the Venereal-Disease-Infested Plucky Slut, with mandatory kookiness.

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