'The Bisexual' Shows There's Not Just One Way to Be Bisexual
Bi or pan people are often seen as having to "deviate" from straight-passing relationships – but what about the other way round?
Still from 'The Bisexual', courtesy of Channel 4
*Contains spoilers, obviously*
There's this one scene in Channel 4's new show, The Bisexual, that really sticks out for me. It's in the second episode, when main character Leila – played by Desiree Akhavan – is having a drunken conversation with her friend, Jon-Criss, on the edge of a bathtub. "Sometimes I think if a guy had swept me off my feet the way that girl did in my support group for cutters when I was 19," she's saying, "then maybe I'd have been straight."
Jon-Criss points out that she can't have dated women throughout her twenties and not have been somewhat gay. "Yeah, I know," she replies, "I'm definitely attracted to women... but, like, maybe I would have gone down the path of least resistance."
Then, all of a sudden, they're having sex on the tiled floor, and Leila is laughing. "What? What's so funny," Jon-Criss is asking her. "I just thought it would be so different," she's saying, still laughing. "I thought sex with a man would be so different – and it's not."
When I watched this scene for the very first time, I found myself occupying a sort of still, quiet concentration, like when you overhear people talking about you in another room and you have to lean in closer to get a better listen. Hearing Leila say those words out loud felt like somebody had taken some vague, gloopy shapes from inside my mind and woven them into sentences that made sense and could suddenly be presented matter-of-factly. There I am, I thought, watching these two random bodies awkwardly connecting, Leila is me.
When female bisexuality or pansexuality is presented on mainstream television, it's often through the lens of "deviating" from straightness. There's Samantha in Sex and the City, who has a brief tryst with a woman before dating men again. There's Piper in Orange Is the New Black, who is asked by an ex-lover if she's going to "go back to boys". Even Sarah in Transparent – which portrays a brilliant spectrum of sexualities and genders – dismisses her relationship with women in the first episode as "experimenting in college". This is not useful for anybody (bi/pan women often describe feeling not "gay enough" for queer spaces, and not recognised in straight ones). But for a queer woman for whom romantic relationships with women are the norm, it can leave you assuming you must be totally gay, because the rest of the world says you are.
Like Leila, my only serious relationships – the first of which lasted four years – have been with women. This has meant I have been read as "gay" for the majority of my adult life, and often find it uncomfortable trying to navigate straight culture, which can feel like playing a weird game for which I don't know any of the rules (Who is dom / sub / switch? Am I supposed to play "hard to get"? Can I trust cis men with my body? Will they understand the intricate appeal of Cate Blanchett?). As such, orientation – in my mind, at least – can sometimes feel like the web of systems for which you are most closely associated with, rather than a precise, black-and-white reflection of which genders you want to be intimate with (side note: "intimacy" doesn't always mean "sex").
Which begs the question: how do we dismantle those systems? Or, more accurately, begin to recognise them, so that we can better recognise ourselves and each other?
It makes sense there haven’t been many shows like The Bisexual, which portray a queer woman exploring her attraction to men. We are brought up with an assumed straightness, and then we must "discover" our queerness before "coming out" to the rest of the world, so that’s the way it has often unfurled within pop culture too. But each person's journey is more nuanced than that – especially right now, when the intricacies of identity are being recognised more than ever – so it comes as a relief to see this nuance presented on screen.
In The Bisexual, Leila’s sexuality isn't complicated (she likes sleeping with people she fancies: it's not that hard to get your head around), but the navigation of exploring it is. Whether it's her ex-girlfriend screaming at her for getting with a guy, or a guy asking if she's going to bleed during sex, The Bisexual takes the world's presumptions and holds them up to the light for questioning. In turn, the show asks why those presumptions exist at all.
Despite all this, The Bisexual has received mixed reviews so far. After its first episode aired earlier this month, The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan wrote that it was "a comedy-drama that is neither funny nor dramatic", and that it is a "bleak, affectless and suffocatingly joyless affair". Whereas, when Dazed asked a bunch of queer writers to reflect on the show, Aimee Cliff pointed out how an "entire clusterfuck of internal dilemmas is played out perfectly", adding that "it's both something I have never seen on TV before, and a laugh-out-loud moment, too".
It seems strange that there would be such differing viewpoints, but maybe that's what happens when the cultural net expands. I'm not saying you have to be a queer millennial to love or relate to The Bisexual – that would be absurd, and would not explain my obsession with furiously heterosexual period dramas – but it's valuable to see some uniquely queer (but far from niche!) conundrums pushed to forefront for once.
Obviously, these themes aren't the only reason The Bisexual bangs. It's the first show I've seen in ages that's set in east London, so if you’re from round here you'll recognise clubs like The Alibi (RIP) and Dalston Superstore, as well as the unkind neon yellow lighting of our various off licences and buses. It's also genuinely really funny (when I binged it on 4OD the other day, my flatmate knocked on my door to ask why I kept cackling out loud, because it seemed so out of character).
Mainly, though, it's just valuable to see parts of yourself reflected back at you on TV. It makes you feel less like you're carrying around this bizarre and unarticulated secret (omg, maybe queer women are allowed to fancy guys sometimes too, or idk, maybe gender has nothing to do with it), and more like you're probably one of hundreds, thousands, millions, whatever, who feel exactly the same way.