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Categories: Features

Savannah James-Bayly breaks down the tropes and stereotypes used to represent non-monosexual identities in mainstream media and whether or not things are getting better.

Last year, a dear friend of mine, and experienced writer, encouraged me to co-write a show with him about the increasing visibility of non-monosexual identities. Primarily, I’m a producer, but it’s a topic he knew to be close to my heart, so I nervously agreed. The process of writing and pitching the project highlighted a number of issues about the representation of bisexuality in the media that I had previously not given much consideration.

With LGBTQ+ cinema in the spotlight following the recent award success of Moonlight, and the upcoming BFI Flare Festival, I feel it’s time I add my own thoughts to this important and often ignored conversation. Please note I use “bisexual”, “pansexual” and “queer” interchangeably, but I am talking about all sexual identities that aren’t covered by “gay” or “straight”. Please also be aware that this is only a critique of the representation of female bisexuality on screen; male bisexuality is plagued by its own damaging stereotypes.

The first thing that struck me, when we began pitching our show, was that it was repeatedly categorised as a “lesbian project”, despite the fact that the bisexual experience and lesbian experience share little other than the occasional bedfellow. I suddenly became very aware that whilst we’re hardly flooded with lesbians on screen, the bisexual experience is even more rarely portrayed. Perhaps the concept of fluid sexuality challenges heteronormative culture even more than homosexuality does? Previously, people who felt opposite-sex attraction could feel safe in the comfort that they were part of the dominant straight majority. Now that more people are talking openly about sexual fluidity, that no longer applies.

Of course there are a few brilliant talents, like Desiree Akhavan and Jill Solloway, who are bringing non-mono sexualities to life in incredibly powerful, modern and entertaining ways (if you haven’t seen Appropriate Behaviour or Transparent I urge you to). All too often however, the way bisexual women are portrayed on screen falls into one of the following four categories, all of which reflect wider societal prejudices:

1 – Bi-Erasure.

Most commonly seen when a character swaps sexual orientation from straight to gay or vice versa, rather than defining as bisexual or pansexual.

Example: Even Orange is the New Black, fantastic in its diversity in terms of trans-women and women of colour, falls victim to this. Alex says about her ex-girlfriend Piper “rule number one: don’t ever fall in love with a straight girl” and Piper is also referred to as an “ex-lesbian” or “lesbian” on multiple occasions yet there is just one mention of the word “bi” in the first two series. Sexual fluidity is a key theme of the show, but their hesitance to define her as bisexual or pansexual reinforces the idea of monosexuality. For more on this, read this more in-depth article by the Huffington Post.

You encounter the same sentiment off screen, in the most infuriating form of prejudice I’ve experienced: the complete denial that your sexuality exists. I’ve heard the phrase “I don’t believe in bisexuality” from straight, gay and lesbian friends alike, and if I hear it one more time, I may well become violent for the first time in my life. I’m here, I’m queer, what more proof do you need?

2 – Bisexuality for the Male Gaze.

This is when male-targeted shows or films, have two conventionally “sexy”, feminine-presenting girls having sex for the pleasure of their predominately male audience. I admit, it can seem pretty hot, but it leaves you cold when you realise your sexuality has been co-opted for hetero-male fantasy.

Example: Black Sails. Initially, I was thrilled to be watching two beautiful women making out, but then one betrays the other and jumps back into bed with her ultra macho ex-boyfriend (whilst the other is gang-raped, just to add insult to injury).

“But doesn’t this show her to be bisexual rather than lesbian, and therefore shouldn’t you be celebrating?”, I hear you ask. No. The male creators haven’t written these parts to celebrate the diversity of female sexuality, two pairs of boobs were simply deemed more profitable than one. 

In the real world too, bisexuality is fetishised in a variety of ways: the expectation that bi automatically implies kinky; the requests to be the third partner in someone else’s relationship; the hope that you will share your intimate stories as arousing fodder for heterosexual men; the assumption that sharing your orientation is an open door to ask anything about your sex life (the number of times near strangers have asked me “how many girls have you been with?” is ridiculous).

This attempt to depict sexuality in a manner that caters for a heterosexual audience may also be responsible for the fact that bisexuality gets the most media airtime compared to other identities on the spectrum of non-binary sexualities. It is seen as the most palatable to non-queer audiences, because it doesn’t also challenge gender-binary. I’m sure the same incentive lies behind why most lesbians depicted on screen conform to heteronormative feminine beauty standards!

3 – The Wild Child.

A conventionally attractive young woman who sleeps with men and women in a shallow attempt to show how fun, kooky, or out of control she is.

Example: Black Swan. A great film in many respects, but Nina’s fantasies about Lily come at a time where she’s being encouraged to tap into her darker, wilder side and coincide with her doing drugs, making reckless decisions, and generally going a bit off the rails.

This superficial depiction may be responsible for the phobia amongst a few in the lesbian community that bisexuals are curious tourists looking for a thrill, who’ll be back to straight-land once the holidays are over. It’s a stereotype that equates bisexuality with moral ambiguity or emotional flippancy, and creates distrust.

4 – The Vampire.

Example: True Blood, Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, The Hunger (1983), Van Helsing (2004) etc. Why do so many blood-sucking monsters seem to have a sexual proclivity for various genders? It equates bisexual people with promiscuous, amoral, hedonistic, and murderous creatures whose primal urges cannot be controlled. If you feel that is an accurate representation of your sexuality, please seek professional help. 

I joke about it, and it may seem trivial, but these types of stereotypes can fuel the injurious notion that, as a bisexual person, you’re naturally more promiscuous, and can’t be happily monogamous with only one partner, because they can’t fulfil your attraction to other genders.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz aptly pointed out, “Vampires have no reflections in a mirror… if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves”.

This is why it’s important that the media reflects the true diversity of the LGBTQ+ community – not just in terms of sexuality and gender spectrums, but also race, class, religion and locale. 

Moonlight, one of my favourite films of the year, shone a light on a unique element of the gay experience, where it intersects with race and class in America. It captured hearts not just because it was so delicately crafted, but because it allowed us insight into a world that is rarely explored on screen. The authenticity of the story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of the play it is adapted from, is apparent in the subtle nuances of the relationships. We need to see a greater diversity of queer stories on our screens, and I’m thrilled that it became the first LGBTQ+ film to win best picture. 

When BFI Flare opens next week, London will again be host to a range of new and exciting LGBTQ+ films. In terms of bisexual representation I’m particularly looking forward to A Date for Mad Mary, Lovesong, and the web-series Different for Girls. More generally, Signature Move, Out of Iraq, Torrey Pines, Rewind/Fast Forward, The Pearl of Africa, It’s Only the End of the World, and the many interesting shorts programmes promise to be a treat. You can view the full line-up here.

I hope this article encourages writers and directors of all sexualities to consider these stereotypes when they include bisexual characters in their films. And to other sexually fluid filmmakers out there, please get out and tell your stories; you have at least one audience member right here.

Finally, I’d love to hear any viewing recommendations that defy the sorts of stereotypes I’ve written about.

Savannah James-Bayly

Savannah established Fox Cub Films in 2012 and has since produced over eight short films, starring talent such as Jason Flemyng, Bill Paterson and Alice Lowe. These films have shown at a range of festivals internationally, and in 2014 Arthouse Cinema Crouch End included a feature length collection in their December programme. She's currently working as Associate Producer on A Guide to Second Date Sex, written/directed by Rachel Hirons, and developed by Starfield Productions with the support of the BFI. She’s also developing her own slate of features. She was participant in American Pavillion's Film Programme at Cannes 2015, Film London's Micromarket 2015, Bird’s Eye View’s Filmonomics 2016, Edinburgh International Film Festival's 2016 Talent Lab, is part of the recently launched Female Film Leaders, and has served on the jury of Watersprite Film Festival 2016.

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Posted on Mar 6, 2017

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