Almost a year ago, sitting in a bar with Sarah and a few other friends and rehashing a ridiculous conversation she’d had with a man who insisted that male bisexuals don’t exist, Aviva decided that she wanted to become a bisexual superhero. Not in any sort of flashy, large-scale activism way, which she wasn’t sure was suited to her personality, but by talking to people, engaging everyone she encountered who said something deeply stupid about bisexuality and seeing if she could get them to think about it a little bit more. There’s value, after all, in having someone say “Actually, I do exist;” in knowing that someone you like and respect claims an identity you denigrate. She started reading all of the books she could find on the subject (and there aren’t many), but she was soon sidetracked by a pressing need for trans activism elsewhere in her life.
A little while later, both of us went with friends to see Bi The Way (directed by Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker) as part of NewFest, New York’s LGBT film festival. And we were so irritated with so many aspects of the film, and there were so many things we wanted to say to the directors (and everyone else in the theater with us), that it reminded us of Aviva’s original vow to become a superhero. In the Q&A, Aviva asked the only political question, and the directors avoided answering it meaningfully. Sometime during the long dinner that followed, while we criticized and analyzed the film, Sarah turned to Aviva and said, “We should start a blog!” And now, several weeks and other writing projects and a lot of procrastination later, here we are sitting down to finally do it.
So, let’s start with the thing spurred us to get off our butts and actually start something, shall we? That will have the added bonus of introducing in brief things that we’re sure to blog about at length later, since an analysis of this film touches on so many of our pet peeves in its perceptions and treatments of bisexuality.
Bi The Way sets out to explore how Kids These Days see and experience bisexuality across the U.S., and the film left us with the distinct sense that the directors really didn’t get it. This is sad, because as filmmakers, Blockman and Decker are skilled at their craft. The subjects they chose were engaging, the soundtrack was great, the road trip theme inspired some beautiful visuals, and the editing made the film entertaining and often very funny to watch. But the underlying assumptions the directors brought to the project resulted in a presentation of bisexuality that was completely unexamined, politically problematic, and pretty unrecognizable to us.
Over an opening montage of teenagers in dance clubs interspersed with scenes from The O.C. and the goddamn Britney-Madonna kiss we thought we’d never have to see again, a voiceover asserts that bisexuality is everywhere in popular culture and in the sexual landscape of today’s youth. But seriously, these pop-culture examples are supposed to be representations of bisexuality? The Britney-Madonna kiss is just an iteration of an old trope: a girl-on-girl kiss as a performance for men. It’s unfortunate when that trope is conflated with female bisexuality, because the kiss-as-performance is generally about titillating men, attracting attention, and inhabiting a culturally sanctioned “bad girl” persona, but it’s only incidentally about feeling and acting on attraction for another woman. Their clip from Buffy the Vampire Slayer came closer to a representation of actual bisexuality, but even that skirted the topic of bisexual identity. Willow had relationships with both men and women, but she never identified herself as bisexual. The show portrayed her as exclusively gay from Season 4 onward and her previous feelings for men were never mentioned again. As much as we adore Buffy, we both found that pretty damn offensive, and it’s surprising that the filmmakers selected a portrayal that totally erased the possibility of bisexual identity to illustrate the supposed ubiquity of bisexuality in the media. And most of the media portrayals cited or alluded to in the film’s opening are similarly problematic. Yes, they portray hints of eroticism between women who are also seen to be involved with men, but very few actually identify as bisexual. Also, isn’t it kind of odd that they’re all women? I would think that this is worth interrogating, or at least noticing, but nope, no comment. Girls are kissing girls on TV, folks! That means that bisexuality is EVERYWHERE!
After this extremely promising opening sequence, the film takes us along on the directors’ road trip across America. Interspersed with brief “man on the street” interviews and conversations with social or scientific “experts,” the film follows four young bisexuals: two men and two women. (There’s also an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t have a fixed sexual identity yet, and while he was very entertaining, we were never sure exactly how he fit into the rest of the film.) Of the adults, the men both happen to be dating men, and the women both happen to be dating… men. Funny, the subjects they ended up choosing conform exactly to the stereotype that bisexual men are really just gay and too afraid to come out, and bisexual women are really just straight but want to be “edgy.” It also plays into the idea that all sexuality exists to benefit men – that of bi men by providing them with sex, and that of bi women by titillating them. Aviva even asked the directors about this in the Q&A following the film, and they brushed it off. They would have liked to cover all “possible combinations,” they said (and it’s worth noting the cisgender privilege inherent in the assumption that a man dating a man, a man dating a woman, a woman dating a man, and a woman dating a woman would be covering all of the bases), and that would be possible in fiction, but this is real life and all of the people they were following just happened to be with men at the time of filming. Maybe in their 750 hours worth of footage, they couldn’t find anyone who was dating a woman and was interesting enough to follow up on? That strikes us as extremely unlikely. Even in this tiny sample of two friends starting a blog, we happen to be a bisexual woman with a boyfriend and a bisexual woman with a girlfriend. It’s just not that hard to find – and doing so is worth the effort if you want to present a diverse view of bisexuals and combat these stereotypes.
In addition to the lack of bisexuals actually showing romantic interest in women, we noticed a definite lack of bisexuals who seemed to identify with and consider themselves a part of the queer community – or, really, a mention of the queer community at all. It’s baffling to us how anyone could discuss bisexuality without the context of the queer community in general and the many ways it responds to bisexuals in particular. This divorcing of bisexuality and bisexual identity from the larger queer community led to a portrayal of bisexuality that was oddly unrecognizable to us. We realize that our radical queer lefty community of twenty-something New Yorkers is not representative of the country as a whole, but we can’t really believe that they didn’t interview or encounter anyone with an articulated queer identity. Not only did we not see anyone we knew on that screen, we didn’t see anyone we felt we could have known.
Of course, it only makes sense to discuss the place of bisexuals in the queer community or seek out explicitly queer spaces to include in the film if you see bisexuals as real queers, and it’s not at all clear that Blockman and Decker do. We are honestly not sure that they even know that when bisexuals date people who identify as gay/lesbian, we sometimes encounter biphobic attitudes that are pretty prevalent in queer communities. One rare mention of this when Tahj said that all of his gay friends regard him as being halfway out of the closet rather than legitimately bisexual, and we’d have liked to see the filmmakers follow up more on this very common attitude. And while we at least got to see Tahj and David interact with their (gay-identified) boyfriends, the women were never even asked specifically about their previous relationships with women. Pam’s was discussed briefly in the context of the discrimination she faced for her sexuality, and Taryn never mentioned any relationships with women, just threesomes she has now with her straight male partner. It would be useful to see a plurality of stories here. Bisexual women dating lesbians, for example, often face a completely different set of prejudices from those encountered by women who primarily date men and/or other bi women, but the types of stories being highlighted didn’t allow for a look at that. We are automatically suspicious when the relationships the filmmakers choose to portray and talk about and have their subjects talk about fit so neatly into stereotypes, and leave out such a wide range of other experiences.
While we’re criticizing the directors for not seeming to ask anyone about their queer identity, though, we should also give them credit for the one queer narrative they did portray. Pam, a bisexual teenager in Memphis, is closeted from her family at the beginning of the film because she fears her father’s reaction. When he does find out, he kicks her out of the house. While there was no discussion of it, that did in some ways place bisexuality squarely within the realm of queer experience – coming out as a teenager and ending up on the street is such a well-known queer narrative, and here was a bisexual facing it. The portrayal of the very real discrimination Pam faces is striking and surprising in a way that highlights just how rarely bisexuals are actually portrayed as victims of homophobia in the media — when of course it happens all the time out in the world.
We almost thought we were going to get to praise them for critiquing another myth as well, but were disappointed. When Taryn’s boyfriend Rage was first introduced, he got our hopes up that he was going to express a point Aviva finds herself repeating ad nauseum in the queer women’s community. “Yeah, it’s possible that Taryn could leave me for another woman,” he said, and her heart soared. Finally, she thought, someone is going to point out that she could also leave him for another man just like a straight woman could, and that the betrayal involved in leaving your partner for someone else is not about gender, but cheating and abandonment! (Expect more on this in a future post.) Instead, the second half of the sentence was “but it’s also possible that a meteor could fall on my head right now.” Which should give you a pretty good idea of the guy’s character and how much he added to the film (and that’s all we’ll say about that).
Like any mainstream documentary, this one peppered its interviews with appeals to Science, in the form of expert talking heads. We don’t know exactly what questions Blockman and Decker asked them offscreen, but we suspect they mostly centered around these two: does bisexuality “really” exist, and if so, why? Scientific investigations of bisexuality often center around these questions, and we have many issues with this framing, including its tendency to lead to overly broad conclusions that tend to indirectly prescribe conformity to existing stereotypes. For example, there was the study in which a sample of 33 male bisexuals were shown to predominantly be physically aroused by erotic images of men or women, but not both. This was widely reported as casting doubt on whether male bisexuals “really” exist, which is kind of an odd and insulting conclusion, and beyond the scope of the study. How, after all, do you determine if a certain sexual identity is “real,” especially considering that our categories of sexual identity are fairly recent inventions? What counts as “real?” If you can’t scientifically explain why someone wants what she wants, does that take away her right to want it? Ultimately, we do not care if bisexuality is biologically “real” or not, and that’s a question we’ll definitely touch on in the future. We do care when science is used to tell us we cannot possibly have had the experiences we have had, and cannot possibly want what we want.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they did take some steps to problematize this particular study. After presenting it, they also showed experts who rightly said that the sample size for this study was very small, physical arousal in response to visual stimuli is only one of several components of attraction, and the difference between someone’s response to gay porn and straight porn might have to do with the difference in sensibilities in gay and straight porn, in addition to or instead of the differences in the genders presented. However, they didn’t question the underlying assumption that we can measure if a given sexual orientation is “real” or not (and that there are valid reasons for doing so). Still, as incomplete as this rebuttal was, we were at least happy that they tried.
Another study, however, was presented by the parade of talking heads and went very much unquestioned, perhaps because it came to conclusions Blockman and Decker had already drawn. This study showed that women, no matter their self-reported sexual orientation, were aroused by images of women as well as, and often more than, images of men. There was no interrogation of the possible reasons for this, though one possible explanation that seems pretty obvious to us is that we are all socialized to view women’s bodies as symbols of sexual desire in general. But no, this study was immediately spun as proof that ALL women are bisexual, because of our “fluid female sexuality,” which is a meme we really, really hate. First of all, it is suspiciously similar to images of femininity that have been around for a very long time, and we’re kind of amazed when nobody notices or questions this coincidence (female sexuality is there for everyone to exploit, anyone?). But more importantly, we think this image of female sexuality as mutable and fluid paradoxically renders female sexuality invisible. Women are sent a lot of conflicted messages regarding sexuality in this culture, and many of them center around the pressure to render ourselves sexual objects of desire but not to admit to having any sexual desire ourselves. Our bodies are seen as the symbols of sexual desire in general, and this is what “fluid female sexuality” says to us: women are supposed to radiate sexuality, symbolize desire, and be seen as interested in the trappings of sexuality, but we are not taught to ever explicitly want sex. And this “fluid female sexuality” idea really undermines our ability to articulate our desires, or our sexual likes or dislikes, since a bunch of experts who have never met us are supposed to know more about our desires than we do. If we are supposed to vaguely want everything, then we can’t ever want anything particular at all.
And sadly, this assumption seemed to underlie the conclusion of the directors: they grudgingly admit that some men are bisexual, but proclaim that ALL women are (they even explicitly said this during the Q&A after the screening!) Sorry, no. Not all women are “really” bisexual. If you claim we are all bisexual, then that renders women who actually claim and live that as an identity completely invisible. It’s quite patronizing – when a woman tells you she’s bisexual, this is like patting her on the head and saying, “Sure, honey, of course you are! We all are!” It negates the fact that bisexuals have a different experience of life than the straight- and lesbian-identified women who, according to this idea, are “really” just like us at heart, but aren’t enlightened or flexible enough to act on their “true” orientation. So not only does this claim render bisexual women invisible, it also insults women who don’t identify as bisexual by implying they’re too deluded or repressed or unenlightened to even know their own sexual desires. How fucked-up and antifeminist is that? Sadly, this is exactly the kind of territory you get into when you refuse to examine the politics of sexuality and gender when making a film about bisexuality, and this film’s resolutely apolitical stance was at the root of almost all that was wrong with it.
There are also race issues here, and we don’t want to let that go unmentioned. Attention, filmmakers: including one person of color doesn’t make the film culturally diverse! The film made both America and American pop culture look pretty much like a sea of whiteness. So we have yet another look at white pop culture and white people (with a token exception) that claims to speak to everyone, thus reinforcing whiteness as normative. There are already so many portrayals out there that show queerness as implicitly white, and racism in queer communities is a huge problem, so expect more blogging on this issue in the future. The filmmakers’ America was also conspicuously missing people of varying abilities and sizes – you’d have to look hard, if there are any there to found. And the one mention of trans people was totally negative and dismissive, and was allowed to just slip in there with no follow-up to counter or problematize it. Need we say that’s uncool?
On the subject of uncool things, a lot of men in this film — some partners and friends of the bisexual women profiled, others in those “man on the street” interviews – expressed the ubiquitous “Can I watch?” attitude toward female bisexuality that we’ve come to know and loathe. While this is a common enough sentiment that it certainly has a place in the film, we were surprised and disappointed that it was never examined. Even when the man saying it was the (16 year old) bisexual girl’s mother’s boyfriend! Come on, now. You’re really going to tell us that being journalists forces you to be too unbiased to take a stand on that one? And the creepiness of that aside, not one bisexual woman was shown saying “You know, I really hate it when men objectify my sexuality.” Men acting like women’s sexuality exists for their benefit rather than for those women’s own pleasure is a huge and widespread problem, and their most common reaction to bisexual women serves to highlight it. If the directors couldn’t find a single woman willing to object on camera to that commodification of her desires, we could point them to a few. We’ve probably heard every queer woman either of us knows express that opinion. Clearly they weren’t looking hard enough, or they weren’t asking the right questions.
The idea that bisexuality is a suddenly-widespread trend, and probably a phase these kids are going through before they find themselves and settle down to their adult, most likely monosexual lives, is also troublesome. That angle suggests that young people are so clueless and impressionable that they don’t have their own orientations and deeply held beliefs about themselves. Being young doesn’t make you a sheep who will do whatever the dominant culture tells you people like you should be doing, and seeing girls kissing each other on television is not going to turn a generation bi. That assumption is awfully insulting; it assumes people under a certain age have no will or convictions of their own, no inherent sense of self. And a phase of experimentation and figuring out who you are and what you want has long been part of adolescence. We know 40 year old bisexual men who wax nostalgic about their teenage clubhouse days, and wonder how many of the other boys involved now consider themselves completely straight. It surely goes back way farther than that, but we haven’t spent a lot of time talking to people over 40 about their adolescent sexual experiences. What is different now, most likely, is not the amount of bisexuality or bisexual behavior in young people, but the extent to which it and every other aspect of their lives is enacted in public, thanks to things like the internet. And the extent to which they feel safe being out and open about their sexuality and experiences in a culture that, for all that can be said against it, is not nearly as hostile to queers as it was 50 years ago. Just because we’re seeing it now doesn’t make it new. What we need is not an exploration of why so many of today’s youth are bisexual, but more portrayals of out bisexuals to show teenagers struggling with bisexual desires that they don’t have to stick to their desires for the opposite sex their whole lives in order to be accepted and successful.
Ultimately, we have a huge problem with Blockman and Decker’s conclusion that bisexuality is a symbol of changing sexual mores. In Whipping Girl (which we tend to reference constantly these days because it’s just that brilliant), Julia Serano does a really incisive analysis of the literary use of trans people as symbols or metaphors for larger questions regarding gender and identity. This looks like visibility, Serano argues, but really serves to subordinate actual trans people’s lived experiences and instead uses them as a way for cisgender people to explore thoughts of gender and gender identity in a way that doesn’t threaten their own (“I’m not trans,” the thinking goes, “so there’s nothing confusing or interesting or remarkable about my gender!”) This is a useful framework to bring in here, because Bi The Way veered into similar territory when it concluded that bisexuality was a symbol for the supposed sexual openness and flexibility of an entire generation. Now, leaving off how inaccurate we think that is (sure, plenty of people our age have radical ideas about sexuality, but plenty are still totally homophobic, and plenty have really fucked-up ideas about gender roles in sexuality, and so on), it’s really insulting to be portrayed as a symbol of everyone else’s sexuality.
We are not symbols. We are two people with specific and queer identities, and we have specific experiences – different from each other’s, let alone every other person within five years of our age. That’s really the point of this blog, when you get right down to it. We don’t hear many fictional characters or public figures actually identify themselves as bisexuals. We hear a lot of talk about bisexuals, and we hear a lot of really infuriating stereotypes and generalizations. So here we are, two bisexual women, existing publicly and speaking our truths.