Since the very conception of the motion picture, the LGBT community have been represented on-screen in some form. An early example is Algie the Miner (1912), a short silent film which follows the effeminate Algie (Billy Quirk), who enjoys kissing cowboys. In order to marry someone’s daughter, he heads west to prove that he’s a man. While this is quite an outdated stereotype of being gay, the portrayals have varied greatly over time. Only recently is LGBT representation becoming more positive and common. However, when it comes to portraying bisexuality on-screen, it still seems to be a difficult task.
Many narrative tropes have been birthed through filmmakers trying to show sexuality on-screen and most of them contribute directly to the overall erasure of bisexuality in cinema – usually with ambiguous portrayals, negative stereotyping and characters needing to pick a side. Not all instances are problematic, but their prevalence isn’t helping to combat the stigma that bisexual people face. There are three main tropes when it comes to depicting bisexuality, which is infidelity, picking a side, and the horrible husband. They’re usually found together in a common narrative that erases bisexuality, whether intentional or not.
There’s a long-standing stereotype that bisexual people are more likely to cheat on their partners and are incapable of commitment. This is a trope that is heavily carried in some of the most well-known depictions of bisexuality. Typically, a female protagonist is engaged or married to a man, but she meets a lesbian woman and they become involved sexually and romantically, leaving the protagonist torn between two lovers. This happens in Imagine Me & You (2005) when Rachel (Piper Perabo) falls in love with lesbian flower shop owner Luce (Lena Headey), who provided the flowers for her wedding to Hector (Matthew Goode). It’s a fairly average film that could’ve been amazing had it acknowledged Rachel’s bisexuality, but it’s still one of the better ones considering Perabo and Headey have amazing chemistry.
For some reason, bisexual characters are often in serious relationships when they’re suddenly sexually awakened. This happened to Rachel right after her wedding because she happened to meet the right woman. While this type of experience does happen in real life, it’s always the go-to narrative for films about women realizing they’re not one-hundred-percent straight. In these instances, the same-sex love affair acts as the conflict within the narrative – this can create good drama when done right, but it gets boring and bisexual characters deserve better than constantly being portrayed as cheaters. People are not more promiscuous or likely to cheat on their partners because of their sexuality, but these tropes are constantly telling people otherwise.
We deserve to see bisexual characters whose sexuality isn’t the main narrative focus or who at least explore their sexuality outside of a relationship. Appropriate Behaviour (2014) is a good example of this as Shirin (Desiree Akhavan, who is also the film’s writer and director) is a bisexual Persian American woman who is keeping her sexuality a secret from her judgemental family, while also attempting to rebuild her life after breaking up with her girlfriend. Seeing bisexuality portrayed on-screen is another place where people pick up more stigma or acceptance, and with bisexuality it, unfortunately, seems to be the former. This is why bisexual filmmakers like Akhavan are better suited to portraying the experiences of bisexual men and women than others.
Picking A Side
When the protagonist is in conflict with her sexuality, the people around her usually wonder if she’s a lesbian now – despite them being engaged or married to a man. This can be seen in Below Her Mouth (2010) where Jasmine (Natalie Krill) begins having an affair with Dallas (Erika Linder). When her husband finds out, he tells her “You’re a lesbian” but she tells him that she loves him and nothing has changed between them. It seems impossible to grasp that a person could be attracted to both men and women. Bisexuality is erased.
Some films insinuate that the protagonist isn’t necessarily bisexual or even a lesbian, it’s just that they’re attracted to this one woman only and no others – they’re an exception! This is the kind of impression you get from Below Her Mouth, but also from other films such as Imagine Me & You and Elena Undone (2010), which isn’t particularly helpful for lesbian representation either. In Imagine Me & You, Rachel tells Hector “You are my best friend. That was enough before, and it will be enough again.” This implies that Rachel was never truly attracted to him in a romantic sense, thus implying that she’s a lesbian. While this could be a case of compulsory heteronormativity, it seems problematic as it’s never discussed or explained. Avoiding discussions about sexuality – as most of these films do – are what contribute to this trope massively and result in misinterpretation and erasure.
Films as new as Netflix’s Alex Strangelove (2018) also feed into the idea that bisexuality is a stepping stone to picking a side. Alex (Daniel Doheny) prepares to lose his virginity to his girlfriend but finds his plans derailed when he’s attracted to another boy. He spends most of the film questioning his sexuality and at one point thinks he’s bisexual. The film does highlight biphobia which brings attention to this problem, so it’s disheartening at the end when Alex realizes he is gay and not bisexual after all. The set up for Alex Strangelove was perfect for a bisexual love story and, while it’s still positive LGBT representation, it’s a shame it didn’t stick with that. It’s even rarer to see bisexual men portrayed on-screen, so it would’ve been really rewarding.
It’s important to acknowledge that bisexuality is a comfortable place for some people to be while they’re trying to accept that they are gay – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, there still seems to be some widespread discomfort when it comes to sexuality being fluid. For bisexual people, there isn’t any side to pick – they’re not torn between polar opposites, nor are they confused. They aren’t on the fence, they’re on both sides of the fence. Nevertheless, films continue to portray bisexuality as a personal conflict that needs resolving, and it does this by putting bisexual characters in a situation where they’re having affairs. This makes their sexuality the narrative conflict, which is wholly problematic in itself.
The Horrible Husband
The protagonist’s fiancé or husband is usually abusive or passive in the relationship, and thus portrayed as the antagonist. She is then drawn to a lesbian woman who treats her so much better and gives her the attention she deserves. Sometimes it’s as though these films are saying that lesbianism is the cure for a dissatisfying heterosexual relationship. This contributes to bisexual erasure by suggesting that bisexual women can only be happy with women and never with a man because they’re horrible or not good enough. It also perpetuates the idea of picking a side – almost telling bisexuals that they should just be lesbians instead.
This trope is found in films like Elena Undone, where Elena (Necar Zadegan) meets Peyton (Traci Dinwiddie) who is a famous lesbian writer. Elena’s husband Barry (Gary Weeks), however, is a homophobic pastor. Elena Undone is actually loosely based on director Nicole Conn’s real-life romance with Marina Rice Bader, but the film itself isn’t great. It’s also shown in The World Unseen (2007) as Miriam (Lisa Ray) quietly follows the customs of 1950s South Africa, alongside dealing with her abusive husband Omar (Parvin Dabas). Miriam becomes empowered to change her circumstances when she meets and falls in love with free-spirited cafe owner Amina (Sheetal Sheth).
A much better film that deals with this trope is Bound (1996). Lesbian ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon) arrives at an apartment building to start work as a painter and plumber. She soon finds herself being seduced by Violet (Jennifer Tilly) who lives next door with her boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet explains that they’ve been together for five years and he’s a money launderer for the mafia. She wants to escape and make a new life for herself, so she and Corky plan to steal $2 million of Mafia money and blame it on Caesar. The horrible husband trope actually works well in this film because the women plan to screw Caesar over and it doesn’t use Violet’s infidelity as the main narrative conflict – it’s a lot more original, which isn’t surprising as the first directorial feature film from the Wachowski Sisters. Bound would’ve been much less effective if Caesar was just a regular guy who Violet hated, but she has a better motive with the drama surrounding his violent mafia connections.
These three tropes are collectively the entire plot of Imagine Me & You, Elena Undone, The World Unseen, I Can’t Think Straight (2008), Kiss Me (2011) and more. It’s a shame that there isn’t always a huge focus on the actual relationship between the two women in these films. It’s more about them hiding their relationship and because they officially get together at the end, we never get to see much of what their life is like as a couple. They all feature very similar themes, meaning that when it comes to telling the stories of bisexual characters, the narrative is rarely diverse. Romantic comedies in general always follow the same beats which is fine, but these tropes for bisexual characters either erase their sexuality and/or display it as a problem.
These tropes can still work well (like with Bound) depending on certain aspects of the narrative. Infidelity works well in Carol (2015) due to the 1950s setting. Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is in the process of divorcing her horrible husband, and Therese (Rooney Mara) have to hide their relationship due to homosexuality not being accepted during this time. This adds an extra layer to the narrative, giving actual depth to why things are happening the way that they are. There’s also Disobedience (2017) where it works well due to the Orthodox Jewish culture. Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who is considered bisexual, returns to the community for her father’s funeral to find her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) married to a man. Esti describes herself as a lesbian woman in a relationship with a man, which is disheartening but works in the film’s world. Disobedience also plays through the infidelity trope very differently to other films, allowing it to be more effective.
In films with bisexual characters, it’s rare that the word “bisexual” actually comes up. It’s mostly ambiguous, implied or erased completely by the protagonist seemingly picking a side. It’s constantly reinforced by narrative tropes that are set up for dramatic entertainment, with no real intention of representing sexuality with genuine care. Erasure also happens due to words like “gay” being used as an umbrella term when referring back to certain films. Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), for example, are often referred to as gay films on social media due to the gay relationships portrayed, However, the characters are portrayed to be sexually fluid/bisexual due to the nature of their relationships with women. It also happens with films like Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2014) which is always painted as a lesbian love story when Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is clearly bisexual. It’s not necessarily bad to use gay and lesbian as umbrella terms, but it, unfortunately, does contribute to bisexual erasure. We should be bringing more attention to bisexuality on-screen and pointing it out specifically when we see it.
One of the biggest erasures is the portrayal of bisexual men. They appear much less frequently than bisexual women. The most recent example that comes to mind is Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), but the word bisexual was never used and he was portrayed as being promiscuous, which fits into the negative stereotype (although the film is satire so perhaps it can be excused). Some better, or at least more interesting, depictions of bisexual men are still out there and can be found in films such as Velvet Goldmine (1998), Kaboom (2010), The Comedian (2012), The Lobster (2015) and Moonlight (2016).
If anything, bisexual characters are usually left out of the bury your gays/dead lesbian syndrome trope. It’s very common both in film and television for gay men and lesbian women to be killed off in some dramatic way, such as in Brokeback Mountain, The Fox (1967), Les Biches (1968), Lost and Delirious (2001) and A Single Man (2009). Bisexual women have been killed off quite a bit in television – like Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) in The O.C. – but they’re relatively safe in film and hopefully, it’ll stay that way.
It is disheartening that bisexual representation on-screen isn’t as good or as frequent as gay and lesbian representation. We’re also at a time where it could be massively improved, but now we face the barrier of “queer” as another umbrella term. It’s wholly unhelpful when not everyone identifies with it and when we want bisexual characters to say the word bisexual on-screen. We want to be acknowledged. Bisexual actress Stephanie Beatriz made sure her bisexual character in Brooklyn Nine-Nine got to say it earlier this year, because that word means something to certain people and the impact is great. Hopefully this will start to happen more in film going forward.
There are definitely films out there where the word bisexual is actually said, like in Appropriate Behaviour, Kiss Me, Velvet Goldmine and Margarita with a Straw (2014). It’s rare that we hear it so when we do it’s pretty exciting. In addition to these, other films that feature positive and/or complex portrayals of bisexual characters in general (and not the previously discussed tropes) are: Cabaret (1972), Chasing Amy (1997), Black Swan (2010), Atomic Blonde (2017) and Tully (2018).
There have been many positive and negative depictions of bisexuality, but the majority of them aren’t great or feed into the biphobia and the erasure of the identity. Filmmakers need to do better when it comes to portraying bisexual characters and their stories. It’s always helpful when bisexual people themselves get a voice, whether as writers, directors or actors. For some reason, although there are exceptions, most straight male and lesbian filmmakers have trouble portraying bisexuality both positively and accurately. They essentially give the message that bisexuality doesn’t exist or is an inner conflict that needs to be resolved. We must do better because one day someone will be watching a film where a character says “bisexual” and their life will suddenly fall into place.
Great post! I think it’s important to highlight bisexual erasure, as it’s a great way to effect change.
Thank you very much!