Writer and academic Kristen Cochrane discusses the myth of the slutty, crazy bisexual, from Basic Instinct to Jennifer’s Body.
Earlier this May, the media went insane after another celebrity had come out as bisexual.
This news—pertaining to one of the most publicly eroticized, vilified, and confusing sexual identities—happened when Cate Blanchett told Variety that she had enjoyed many relationships with women. However, the frenzy ostensibly caused Blanchett to publicly retract her statement. Now, according to Blanchett, her words were taken out of context, and she’s not actually bisexual. Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened. In Blanchett’s defense, it’s stressful to publicly identify as bi, not only in light of the tired stereotypes and tropes, but because it can effectively relegate you to persona non grata in both spaces for straight and gay people. This goes for men, women, and genderqueer individuals.
I got in touch with activist and author of Bi: Notes on a Bisexual Revolution, Shiri Eisner, to ask about being bisexual in the 21st century, and specifically, what she thought about Blanchettgate. Eisner was less interested in what Blanchett said, but rather the media response to her coming out and her subsequent retraction. “In particular, I was troubled by the fact that ‘lesbian’ seemed to be the default word to describe her orientation, even though she very clearly came out, before her retraction, as liking people of more than one gender,” Eisner said. “The only media outlets that seemed to apply the word ‘bisexual’ to her comments were tabloids, insinuating that the word ‘bisexual’ is perhaps used to indicate lewdness or sensationality.”
I often feel uneasy when I tell people that I’m bisexual, not only because of the stereotyping and rhetoric associated with it, but because the description itself signifies an overdetermined notion of only two genders. Rather than being called bisexual, many wish to be referred to as pansexual or polysexual to acknowledge that gender identity is not static; instead, our gender identity and presentation can be whatever we want it to be. However, cultural narratives seem to insist on telling us that bisexuality is, among many other things, a liminal, in-between stage of sexual confusion. Feeling that you are not entirely straight ends up plaguing your thoughts, and the thought of admitting it to your friends is anxiety-inducing, especially when your friends could be closet homophobes.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s heartbreaking 2013 film Blue is the Warmest Color aptly illustrated this tension in a scene where the friends of Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) discover she’s seeing an older university student. After interrogating Adèle in an unequivocally homophobic and aggressive way, they begin accusing her of somehow abusing her heterosexual privilege.
“So you eat pussy?” one of Adèle’s so-called friends ask. “I don’t care if you’re a lesbian—you do what you want with your life. But the thing is that you’ve come to my house and slept naked in my bed.”
This scene is one of the most visceral representations of the invasiveness and hostility that manifests when you decide to do what you want in the intimate moments of your life. In other words, this is an example of what it’s like to be queer, and what it’s like to be scared that you’re about to be ostracized, or at worst, to become another victim of violence.
But beyond dealing with contempt and revulsion, bisexuals are often characterized as the villain. A quick Google search one day led me to find a TV Tropes page that discussed the recurrence of the “Depraved Bisexual” in moving-image media. It’s a simultaneously funny yet tragic encyclopedic web page which outlines how the “Depraved Bisexual” is different from the “Psycho Lesbian” trope. Instead of being an angry, crazy lesbian, the “Depraved Bisexual” is always down for sex, and will take whatever they can, whenever they can. These assumptions lead to many people feeling entitled to ask the “Depraved Bisexual” about their sex life (e.g. if you are female, how you have sex with other women, “Does this mean you will have a threesome with me and my girlfriend,” asks the straight guy, usually, etc.). I wish I was making this up, and I wish it didn’t bother me so much that I had to include it in this article, but it does happen, and it is evidentiary of the objectification of queer people.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two important thinkers in the spirit of poststructuralism began to ask why we had such structured demarcations of gender and sexuality. Judith Butler, drawing upon phenomenology and Michel Foucault, argued that gender is performative—how we speak, how we dress, and what we say are theatrical reiterations that exclude those who deviate from whatever the norms are of a particular era. And, of course, geographical locations and spaces will affect what constitutes “the norm.” Around the same time, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote the seminal Epistemology of the Closet, which I highly recommend if you are confused about your sexuality (it helped me). My favourite lines are from the early pages where Sedgwick lists a set of statements on the variances and nuances of being queer.
“Sexuality makes up a large share of the self-perceived identity of some people, a small share of others’.”
“Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little.”
“Some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none.”
“Some people, homo-, hetero-, and bisexual, experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meanings and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not.”
I recently re-watched Paul Verhoven’s 1992 film Basic Instinct, the neo-noir crime thriller starring Michael Douglas as Nick Curran, who becomes emasculated and morally debased by a femme fatale (read: dangerous because she is sexual) Catherine Tremell (Sharon Stone). The plot of the film is driven by the imminence of murder, where Tremell’s female lover is seemingly in on the murderous hijinks. Basic Instinct is special because it not only has one “Depraved Bisexual,” but two, who are in cahoots to take down the virtuous male detective. It’s also flagrantly unnecessary in terms of narrative development for her character to be bisexual. So what gives?
You would think that since 1992, progress would have been an obvious outcome on the bisexual and pansexual front. In independently produced and lower-budget films, filmmakers have rejected the heterosexual/homosexual binary, like seminal queer filmmaker Gregg Araki’s filmic repertoire. Araki’s queer, pansexual utopias has not yet impacted dominant film industries, such as Hollywood, where the bisexual character is generally an unsympathetic character that is difficult to identify with. My favourite recent example is Diablo Cody’s 2009 film Jennifer’s Body because the bisexual vilification is so obvious. Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) becomes a bisexual demon, which almost seems parodic of modern stereotypes of bisexuality. However, Cody’s intent is almost irrelevant when the images are conveying negative, harmful stereotypes devoid of context. Besides intent, this film had a domestic gross of 16.2 million and a worldwide gross of 32.5 million. This matters because it means that a lot of people saw this movie, where sex and demonic rituals transformed a woman into a bisexual, supernatural terrorist.
The notion of stereotypes brings us to the idea of something being inherently “positive” or “negative,” which Eisner pointed out when I asked about positive and negative representations of bisexual people. “Judging representations according to those standards end up reinforcing hegemonic definitions of good and evil—good often being equated with normativity and dominant values, and evil often being equated with transgression. Instead of judging representations according to these values, I prefer examining them for how they work and what they represent,” Eisner said. I asked Eisner about Megan Fox’s character in Jennifer’s Body and Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, to which Eisner suggested that we look at characters based on what we consider “normal” or normative.
“Think about what it means when a bisexual female character is presented as the ultimate threat to normative order and to humanity’s very existence,” Eisner said. “These representations show us just how much subversive and transgressive power bisexuality is imbued with by society,” Eisner said.
If being bisexual is still a radical act, maybe it’s time that we radically re-think our understanding of bisexuality.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, “The Kournikova Effect,” HERE.