Channel 4's ‘The Bisexual’ is breaking new ground when it comes to representation of queer sex and relationships
If stereotype is anything to go by, bisexuals will cheat on you, steal your partner, or they’re just sex tourists, sluttily figuring things out until they realise they’re either gay or straight – this TV show is changing that
“I’m pretty sure bisexuality is a myth. That it was created by ad executives to sell flavoured vodka,” says Leila (played by Desiree Akhavan) in the first episode of The Bisexual, the Channel 4 comedy written and directed by Akhavan. If the comment came from a straight woman it would raise an eyebrow but Leila is a lesbian and she’s speaking to a group of her lesbian pals in a nightclub. “Has anyone ever actually met a bisexual?” asks a friend with scorn.
The LGBTQ+ community can often find itself lumped together under one umbrella by straight media, but The Bisexual is brilliant in that it takes the B away from that acronym and examines the myths, stereotypes, and realities of being bi with fresh eyes. Going “on a break” from Sadie (Maxine Peake), her girlfriend of 10 years, Leila discovers that she is in fact not a lesbian but a bisexual, to the horror of her friends, her ex, and herself.
Being bisexual isn’t cool. If stereotype is anything to go by, bisexuals will cheat on you, steal your partner, or they’re just sex tourists, sluttily figuring things out until they realise they’re either gay or straight. Queer is cool – in a later episode Leila remarks that everyone under the age of 25 is queer because of the internet – but there’s something fussy about being bi. And being bi is confusing. As The Bisexual shows, you occupy two worlds – the gay world and the straight world – with two lifestyles and two sets of friends. People also like to take it upon themselves to declare your sexuality: if you’re dating a man you’re straight or if you’re dating a woman you’re a lesbian.
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The Bisexual picks up on these microaggressions from both sides. Leila’s flatmate Gabe (Brian Gleeson), the dictionary definition of Straight White Man, declares that Leila’s friends hate him. “You’re just saying that because we don’t live up to your fantasy. Suddenly we’re man-hating dykes,” snaps back Leila. Later, when she comes out as bi, he tells her she’s lucky that she doesn’t have to settle down. “It’s not expected of bisexuals because there’s too many people you’re attracted to – monogamy isn’t possible.” Again, that myth of cheating sluts.
Meanwhile, to her lesbian friends, Leila is a traitor. She’s seen as less queer and her sexuality less valid because she’s attracted to men. Being ostracised or unwelcome in the gay community is a very real reality of being bi, pan, asexual, or queer.
The Bisexual’s messiness is welcome representation of what being queer is like. To the straight eye, if you’re LGBTQ+ you’ve come out and defined your sexuality so things are easier for you. What The Bisexual shows is that sexuality is a constantly moving thing – right now you could be straight, in five years you could be bisexual, in eight you could be a lesbian.
It’s also a welcome representation of what having sex is really like. On film, queer female sexuality doesn’t go beyond porny male fantasies. Whether it’s porn itself or Blue is the Warmest Colour or Carol or, more recently, Disobedience, men are at the helm of representing queer female sexuality on screen. With The Bisexual, as well as their films The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan and writing partner Cecilia Frugiuele are taking queer femme experience back.
In The Bisexual, sex is a mess – whether it’s between men and women or women and women. There are queefs and fluids, and the result is equally awkward and sexy. Perhaps most groundbreaking of all, gay sex between women who are in their thirties and older is shown on screen. While sexy scenes between young queers are more common, it’s rare to see women who are older than 30, straight or queer, experiencing authentic and enjoyable sex lives.
The show’s messiness is undoubtedly its appeal. While Leila wrestles with her sexuality, other characters are just as confused with facets of their lives. Gabe is in a relationship with a much younger woman who doesn’t return his adoration, while Sadie is contemplating having a child alone.
The Bisexual feels like it’s truly breaking new ground for mainstream television and the LGBTQ+ community. What a welcome sight it is to see someone who is bisexual and just as confused as you trying to figure it out on screen. With The Bisexual and The Bi Life, E! Entertainment’s new reality show, bisexuality seems to be having a moment on our small screens. Long may it continue.
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