Defying Labels: A Brief History of Bisexuality in Film

Professor Marston Rebecca Hall, Luke Edwards & Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (Annapurna Pictures)

A look at how Hollywood has helped (and also hurt) the acceptance of bisexuality as an identity.

Just as real-world oppression of the entire LGBTQA+ community has been reflected in cinema for decades now, misconceptions about specifically the bisexuality community in the real world (for the record, it’s not a phase or a result of confusion or any of that nonsense) have also infiltrated cinematic attitudes toward bisexuality. In the rare instances that bisexuality is even acknowledged in a film, it’s typically to designate a character as either sex-crazed or, in the case of female bisexual characters, an object for the titillation of the male gaze. The humanity of members of this community is stripped away so they can be used as an object of “strangeness” or arousal for the audience to ogle at.

This is especially true of exploitation and B-movie cinema, where brief depictions of female bisexuality were frequently used to titillate audiences. In fact, this trend persisted so heavily that even the modern era has seen movies reflect how these two genres approached bisexuality. The Planet Terror half of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez‘s 2007 midnight movie homage Grindhouse featured Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), a bisexual woman who exists mostly to ensure that another skimpily-dressed lady is on screen, as well as a way to pay the barest amount of recognition to the fact that this stereotype exists without actually doing anything to subvert or improve on it.

Clearly, the mistreatment of bisexual characters in cinema is widespread. If we can’t turn to grimy Robert Rodriguez zombie movies for positive bi representation, where can we turn to? Alas, there aren’t a large number of counters to negative depictions of bisexuality. Misconceptions regarding bisexuality are widespread enough, even within the LGBTQA+ community, and that seems to have played a part (alongside a general difficulty in getting any kind of queer cinema produced) in ensuring that there’s a lack of prominent bisexual representation in the history of cinema.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some more thoughtful examples of bi representation in cinema, ones that tend to go against the dehumanizing nature of typical cinematic depictions of bisexuality. Such examples across world cinema stretch as far back as 1968 with The Fox, one of the earliest depictions of bisexuality in cinema that treated bisexual individuals with actual dramatic heft instead of just as fodder for exploitation fare.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cabaret, one of the most famous musicals in history, also featured a bisexual male lead character, Michael York’s protagonist Brian Roberts, all the way back in 1972. This kind of high-profile representation by itself is already splendid but the fact that it was a man shown as being bisexual was especially exceptional.

As part of how bisexuality has traditionally only appeared in pop culture by being filtered through a more dehumanizing lens meant to appeal exclusively to heterosexual male sensibilities, women engaging in fits of sudden passion with other women have been the go-to gender for bisexual representation. It’s a mode of representation that dehumanizes bisexual women as objects for male titillation while ensuring that male bisexuality is hardly referenced in the broader pop culture conversation simply because it doesn’t square with classical heterosexual male fantasies. This means Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and its protagonist were a gigantic departure from the standards of typical bi representation: a male lead character is explicitly shown to be bisexual, and it’s not a facet of his personality shown to mark him to the viewers lesser than or weak. It’s just another part of who he is.

Though Cabaret was a widely acclaimed and iconic feature, its handling of Brian’s sexuality was more of the exception than the rule when it comes to showing bi men in cinema. By and large, the exploitative nature of most bi characters remained the status quo, even as the 1980s and 1990s brought about greater visibility for the LGBTQA+ community in mainstream cinema.

Even with the disappointing scarcity of bi representation in cinema in the last two decades of the 20th century, that didn’t mean cinema was entirely devoid of their presence. Some of the most prominent queer filmmakers in cinema have also managed to feature bisexual characters or themes throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. This is most notable in the works of John Waters (Pink Flamingos) and Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), who provided a bisexual oasis in a heterosexual desert.

Title: KINSEY ¥ Pers: NEESON, LIAM ¥ Year: 2004 ¥ Dir: CONDON, BILL ¥ Ref: KIN106AJ ¥ Credit: [ 20TH CENTURY FOX/AMERICAN ZOETROPE / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Coming off the 1990s, which saw the likes of The Birdcage and Philadelphia among the first mainstream Hollywood films to star queer characters, the first decade of the 21st century brought a massive reduction in the presence of mainstream queer American cinema. Conversely, it did at least see a slight uptick in more thoughtful depictions of bisexuality in arthouse cinema. Films like Kinsey or the documentary Bi the Way weren’t numerous, but they at least managed to deliver depictions of bisexual individuals across different genres and tones. Members of any LGBTQA+ community, whether bisexual or otherwise, aren’t a hive mind with the exact same personalities. Cinematic stories about their lives should be conscious of these realities, and allow bi characters to exist outside of tragic romances and genred titillation.

Such a truth has been reflected in a further increase in bisexual-oriented cinema in the 2010s, which has seen a rise in queer filmmaker telling specifically bisexual stories that span across a variety of different types of storytelling. Mel (Madeleine Sami), the bi lead in this year’s delightful New Zealand comedy The Breaker Upperers, exists as her own fully-defined person, who gets to deliver some of the funniest lines of the whole movie through Sami’s excellent sense of comic timing. Bi representation is still far from ideal in the modern world, but modern movies like The Breaker Upperers offer hope for the kind of diverse bisexual representation that one would have thought impossible even twenty years ago.

Interestingly, one specific year in this important decade delivered a number of major American wide releases with noteworthy bisexual characters. It was 2017: The Year of Bi-nema. Some of this representation occurred during the Summer of 2017, a season more known for delivering superheroes than bisexual representation managed to deliver the latter element in a pair of features occupying vastly different genres.

The first of those summer 2017 bisexual releases was Rough Night, a raunchy studio comedy which saw characters played by Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer being depicted as longtime friends who also share some romantic chemistry. Though the specific sexuality of Glazer’s character isn’t explicitly stated, Kravitz is playing an individual whose bisexuality is repeatedly reaffirmed throughout the film: in one of her earliest scenes, we see her saying goodbye to her child alongside her ex-husband.

None of the other characters in Rough Night challenge her status as someone who can be romantically interested in women even after marrying a man; it’s rightfully treated as obvious that her bisexuality is valid, no matter who she’s interested in. In Rough Night, Kravitz and Glazer play people who don’t fit neatly into any bi stereotypes, which is refreshing, as American comedies usually feature bisexuality as either a source of mean-spirited comedic mockery or objectification (sometimes both at the same time).

That same summer saw Charlize Theron’s lead character in Atomic Blonde, an action lead as capable of serious romantic relationships with men and women as she is using fridge doors to beat the ever-living stuffing out of bad guys. Much like Rough Night, David Leitch’s ball-breaking action romp does some solid work upending typical portrayals of bi folks in mainstream cinema by portraying her affection for a character played by Sofia Boutella as genuine rather than her being “confused” about her sexuality.

In both films, their bi characters are used for more than just labored jokes about promiscuity; they’re fully-fledged characters who are allowed to have their own problems outside of their bisexuality. Glazer’s character in Rough Night is just struggling to get her life together; in Atomic Blonde, Theron’s mission to take down enemy forces responsible for killing a former lover.

Atomic Blonde wasn’t the only 2017 action film to exude bisexual energy. Though not containing any openly bi characters, Thor: Ragnarok carries some Big Bi Energy — its dazzling color palette, production & costume design, and the overall tone and performances from Tessa Thompson and Jeff Goldblum — so much so that the movie has been claimed by large portions of the bisexual community as a piece of bisexual cinema.

Clearly, bisexuality took on many forms in 2017 cinema, from R-rated comedies to hammer-wielding superheroes. But perhaps the best piece of bisexual cinema released in 2017 was a little film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Loosely based on true events, Angela Robinson‘s feature centered around a trio of individuals, William Marston (Luke Evans), his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), responsible for creating Wonder Woman.

The film is beautifully tender-hearted, humanizing all three of its lead characters and their sexuality, as well as their polyamorous relationship, without exoticizing it. Whether they’re all three engaging in their first sexual encounter with one another in a beautifully executed sequence set to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” or just engaging in pleasant domestic life together, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women never loses sight of the humanity of the characters present in these sequences. To boot, it also carries a sense of palpable joy in the interactions between these characters that’s so thrilling to watch.

So many queer films, whether bi-oriented or not, are tragic tales and many of them are quite good at crafting well-executed melancholy tone. But tonal variety is key to any kind of storytelling, which means it’s also lovely to see a more upbeat movie like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women focused on the delight bisexual individuals find in their infatuation with one another (the greater level of scarcity in more joyful queer storytelling is probably why the rambunctiously goofy Thor: Ragnarok has also been embraced so thoroughly as a bisexual piece of cinema) .

Bisexuality is a discernible part of who these characters are, but neither film reduces them to a stereotype, nor renders them as just as exploitative fodder.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women isn’t just a well-made film in its own right (though it’s certainly that) — it’s also a rejoinder to traditionally dehumanizing portraits of bisexuality. Watching Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman deftly explore bisexual individuals as complex people capable of great artistic achievements, one sees a shocking reversal of the default depiction of bi folks in cinema.

The fact that so much of modern pop culture still tends to fall back on the old routine of reducing bisexual individuals to cheap stereotypes is a clear indicator that we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of general bi representation in cinema. But one can turn to modern films like Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman or The Breaker Upperers, as well as classic pieces of cinema like Cabaret, for stories that manage to upend typical cinematic approaches to bisexuality for something far more interesting and thoughtful. In the real world, we have an endless amount of wonderful and unique stories to tell — in the best pieces of bisexual cinema, both past and present, we see a guide for how to tell those stories right.

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