What I’m Watching: Steam

Have I mentioned that I’m pretty much incapable of writing movie reviews without spoilers? Do I mention it every time? Good.

I went to see Steam last Friday, the day after it opened. I had read promising things about it from the New York Area Bi Network and AfterEllen, and slightly less promising things from The Bisexuality Examiner. I was excited about a movie made by a bisexual director (Kyle Schickner, who also wrote it), and by the film being “presented by FenceSitterFilms.” Adorable.

Steam is a movie about three women have have “nothing in common,” according to reviews, other than steaming in the same steam room. Of course, I can spot things the women have in common — they’re single at the beginning of the movie, they’re cisgendered and female, and they appear to be from at least similar class backgrounds. My guess is that they live in similar areas, too, and if they don’t the movie doesn’t explain how they came to be using the same stream room. But anyway. We have Laurie, a divorced single mother trying to do right by her son and deal with her overbearing asshole of an ex; Elizabeth, a college freshman getting out from under her overbearing (I know I used it twice, but it’s kind of a theme in the movie) conservative, religious parents’ thumbs and discovering her interest in women; and Doris, a recently widowed old woman who’s grieving harder than the people around her think she should (she’s played by also recently widowed Ruby Dee, and the depth and power of her performance had me by the throat.)

While I won’t join the rumored clamoring for Schickner to turn in his bi card, I also wasn’t terribly happy with how the one bi character in the film was handled. Elizabeth falls hard for Niala, a gorgeous fellow student who identifies as bisexual (Elizabeth then proceeds to write creepy love poetry for one of her classes — I definitely liked her least when she was going on about being opened up to life by her “dark-skinned lover”). Niala is far from perfect in ways that have nothing to do with her bisexuality. She’s aggressive and predatory and controlling, and seems to go for women who are new to same-gender attrsaction and push them to go further and faster than they’re comfortable with. But all of that is about her as a character rather than her as a bisexual. My main problem was when she and Elizabeth were having problems and she hooked up with a man at a party, and continued to sneak around with him for the next month until Elizabeth caught them.

As Shickner points out in his own defense, there are plenty of bisexuals who act this way. And I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong or biphobic for him to portray one doing so. But I think it’s a questionable choice. Movies, books, celebrity “journalism,” etc. are full of bisexuals leaving their partners for someone of a different gender. We’ve heard this story already. I wonder why Schickner chose to tell a story that’s already so tired, when he could have told a new one. Or had Niala be a lesbian, or a bisexual who cheated on her girlfriend with another women, without changing the impact it had on the movie at all. Or had Elizabeth discover her identity as a bisexual rather than as a lesbian, for that matter. Though that could have had an impact on the film, at least in so far as inviting reviewers to suggest that she’s really a lesbian and  hasn’t finished her process of self-discovery yet, just like all other women who identify as bisexual.

I like to hope, at least, that Schickner would not have had other characters in the film itself suggest that. I was pleased to see that, while the bisexual-woman-cheating-on-her-girlfriend-with-a-man trope did come into play, no one in the film spoke about it that way. When Elizabeth called Niala on her behavior, it was “You’ve been lying to me for a month and now you want to talk?!” not “How could you sleep with a man?!” Same with Niala’s dykey housemate, who tells her she’s a shit but doesn’t berate her for betraying the movement. I was relieved to see the situation treated as it would be any time one person cheated on another, rather than being some special and atrocious crime because the person doing the cheating was bisexual and doing it with someone who didn’t share their partner’s gender.

Aside from taking that exception with it, I pretty much liked the film. I thought it was worth seeing. If it has a common theme, as the friend I saw it with pointed out, it’s a movie about women getting stronger and learning to stand up to and get themselves away from abusers. And that’s awesome. I somewhat resent the way we followed all three of the women over the course of a love affair, though. Given the relationships involved, it might have avoided the “Love is the be all and end all and will fix everything else that’s wrong with your life” trap. But it still felt to me like it fell into the similar “All of the significant events in women’s lives involve their relationships.” Unlike men, who can have a variety of sources of joy and pain, love is the only worthwhile narrative in women’s lives. That might be my own issues talking — I’m tired of the stories that I hear telling me that what I have and treasure shouldnt be enough, that the ways I do relationshps are wrong, that I have no worth and my life no meaning unless and until I find someone who wants to be my primary partner and make me the center of hir world — but if we’re following three stories, do they all have to be some form of love story?

Still, Steam is worth seeing. Its run in LA is already over, and I don’t know where else it will be playing. My best guess would be queer film festivals. Its run in New York City goes through this Thursday. I am bad and didn’t write up a review soon enough to be really helpful, in part because I think all of my NYC readers are already friends and saw my post on LJ looking for someone to go with, and the theater decided today not to extend its run for another week. Still, if you get the chance, it’s a good evening. Particularly with a friend discuss it with afterward over dinner or dessert.

3 Responses to “What I’m Watching: Steam”

  1. 1 mary
    25 March 2009 at 8:47 am

    My favourite movies on lesbians are The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight.

  2. 25 March 2009 at 7:21 pm

    I am trying to imagine the youngest character with the bisexual lover…without a love affair. Coming to queer consciousness, political consciousness (and the consequent ripples in the rest of her life), without a love story being the impetus. That’s the way it happened for me…I’ve never seen that story told, have you?

    A story of shifts in the way they move through the world that isn’t partner focused…what would happen with Ruby Dee’s character?

  3. 3 Aviva
    27 March 2009 at 2:05 am

    No, I haven’t seen that story told. And while it’s not cut-and-dried, and I wish I had a clearer timeline on my own life, that’s pretty much how it happened for me, too. My close friends had a much bigger impact on my development as a political queer than any lover (possibly until the current one, but I was pretty far along that journey by the time I got involved with her…my last roommate probably had more to do with that journey than any other single person, and a lot of it has been about finding and learning from community.) I would absolutely love to see that story told. I think one’s first queer relationship definitely matters, and lots of people probably do hook up with political queers who introduce them to the community, but I just don’t believe in relationships as one of people’s main sources of transformation, identity, and growth the way Hollywood seems to.

    I think anything other than a partner — or at least, a longer time before a partner — would have rung more true to me for Ruby Dee’s character than the way things happened. I didn’t believe in her going in such a short time from throwing the phone at the wall in grief to letting a strange man pick her up in the corner store, nor the ease he had getting into her heart. There were times when I was tensed in my seat and thinking “Don’t push it…don’t push her…give her some more time…” at him as hard as I could, and then everything went fine. What could have happened instead? Maybe really meaningful outreach from the church community she seemed to have previously been deeply involved in — if she was that involved, she could have had real friends there. For that matter, she could have had real friends at all. And her daughter could have been more present, too. Even a new friend made in the steam room. Just someone who wasn’t courting her who still showed up at her house, and told funny stories about her husband with her, and cooked with her, and made sure she got out into the sunshine. Or maybe she could have done all of that on her own, when it was time to put the most intense grief inside…people do.

    I wasn’t even saying that I wish none of the stories had been partner-focused…only that I wish not all of them have been.

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