Five bi and queer writers discuss what Channel 4’s The Bisexual means to them
Tonight, October 10, Channel 4 will premiere the first episode of its new dramedy The Bisexual. The show is written by, directed by, and stars Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan – creator of Appropriate Behaviour and The Miseducation of Cameron Post – and is set in London. Akhavan explained to Dazed earlier this year, “(The series) has a lot to do with female desire. I made it after moving (to London). It’s about five characters who live and operate in Hackney, and their relationships. My character moves in with a straight white guy, and they become each other’s wingmen.”
The show is also a very rare screen-stealing moment for bisexuals, who, let’s be honest, don’t get the best deal when it comes to media representation. To celebrate this moment of visibility, five queer Dazed writers sat down to watch the first episode and write about what they took away from it.
Emma Hope Allwood: Years of compulsory heterosexuality and teenage repression aside, do you know how confusing it sometimes is being bisexual? Imagine watching a Christine and the Queens music video and feeling one million percent, “guess I need to find an IVF donor” levels of gay – and then YouTube auto-plays Father John Misty, giving rise to hetero desires so fast you get whiplash. It would probably help if there was some, gosh, I don’t know, mainstream media about the bisexual experience?
There were lots of things I liked about The Bisexual, besides how a) funny, b) clever, and c) hot Desiree Akhavan is, and the fact that I could smugly laugh at the L Word jokes because my ex-girlfriend forced me to watch it. Mostly, I loved the fact that Akhavan’s writing takes the idea that sexuality is non static and – yup – confusing, as its premise. As someone who put off dating women – largely out of fear that my bisexuality would be regarded as a non-committal phase to them – seeing a full-grown adult grapple with her attraction to men is validating to watch. Finally, something I can relate to!
Being bisexual, as Akhavan’s character Leila explains, just isn’t cool. According to the stereotype: you’re attention-seeking, you’re selfish, you’re duplicitous – and probably going to cheat on your partner. As the show addresses, saying you’re bi is definitely not as hip as saying you’re queer (which, in terms of how I personally identify, has always felt too vague, too trendy, and too academic – and yes, I have read Sedgwick, thanks).
Part of the problem is that we have a bad cultural habit of defining sexuality by the relationship someone is currently in, and ignoring anything that came before it. (Shout out to the people who asked if I was “still gay” after me and the aforementioned ex broke up!) This habit often means that people – even exceedingly tolerant gay people – are convinced that bisexuality doesn’t really exist. And you know what, fuck it – occasionally, even I’m convinced it doesn’t really exist! Trust me, sometimes it feels like it would be so much easier just ‘picking a side’, and not having to worry that my love of suit jackets and reluctance to depilate my entire body is going to put dudes off dating me. But then I think about how much I want Father John Misty to bundle me into the back of a van, and I’m back to being the sexual equivalent of Switzerland again. Hey, at least now I’ve got something to watch on TV.
Aimee Cliff: Just as Emma writes, lots of bi or pan people experience confusion around their sexuality – but, unlike many others, our confusion is exacerbated by members of both the straight community and the LGBTQ community pressuring us to ‘just figure it out’, and ‘pick a team’. The very stereotype that bi people are confused is something that in itself creates confusion. It also means that we don’t often talk about the fact we’re confused, because that would only be perpetuating the stereotype. Confused yet? I know I am.
For this reason, it was the nightclub scene that really resonated with me in the pilot episode of The Bisexual. Akhavan’s character Leila – who is the titular bisexual, but who, in the pilot, only declares publicly that she is gay – glances sideways self-consciously as she loudly proclaims to her lesbian friends that she’s pretty sure that bisexuality was “made up by advertisers.”
This scene felt uncomfortably familiar. The Williams Institute claims that a third of bi people don’t disclose their orientation to their healthcare providers, and Pew reports that only 28% of bi people are out to those closest to them. The temptation to simply be part of a tribe is super strong – for tons of bi people, this means suppressing part of yourself so that you can simply label yourself ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, or succumb to others labelling you that way. It means joining in when people trash-talk the concept of bisexuality, and keeping quiet about the confusions you experience daily. It might mean hiding your ‘gay’ desires from your family, or hiding your ‘straight’ desires from your gay friends. It might mean feeling like you’re not queer enough, or unwelcome in queer spaces. That entire clusterfuck of internal dilemmas is played out perfectly in Akhavan’s awkward expressions in the nightclub; it’s both something I have never seen on TV before, and a laugh-out-loud moment, too.
“The Bisexual gives voice to a uniquely queer conundrum. Having fought for decades to have our relationships recognised as legitimate, how do we now define those relationships?”
Ted Stansfield: Initially, I didn’t feel that I had too many deep and meaningful thoughts about The Bisexual. Overall, it was just nice to watch a TV show that reflected a world I recognise, and people I know and love. The lead, Leila, really reminded me of one of my best friends, so I texted her. Other than that, I just enjoyed it. I laughed at the lesbian jokes and thought it was funny when Gabe, Leila’s hetty flatmate, asked her if her best friend “was, err, your lover”. (If I had a penny for every time I've been asked if a male friend “was, err, my lover” I’d, well, potentially have enough pennies to buy a Freddo.)
But the normalcy of how bisexuality is presented in the show is, in itself, pretty deep and meaningful. I liked how, as a bisexual woman, Leila isn’t cast as a villain – like Lady Gaga’s character in American Horror Story, or Felicity in The Catch. (A 2015 GLAAD report said bisexual characters are “depicted as untrustworthy, prone to infidelity, and/or lacking a sense of morality.”) And, as a queer woman, she (and her friends) don’t conform to the male-centric “hot lesbian” or “man-hating dyke” stereotypes. They are complex people, with complex characters, and complex desires – just like the rest of us.
Thomas Curry: To my mind, one of the most compelling threads that runs through The Bisexual is Akhavan’s thoughtful dissection of Leila and Sadie’s relationship. Questions about age, about settling down, about monogamy – she digs into them all, always with a uniquely queer set of preoccupations lingering in the background.
Sadie, the older of the two, wants to get married, to start a family and begin a more domestic life with her partner. Leila, on the other hand, seems to want to the opposite. Her reasons for ending the relationship aren’t clear. (“Why did you leave her?” asks her flatmate Gabe; “There was something really terrifying, about her being so sure…” Leila responds.) But we get the sense that she’s worried about giving up the best years of her life, years she could have spent freely exploring her sexuality, her body and her desires.
In framing their relationship this way, with Sadie longing for greater commitment, and Leila instinctively pulling in the opposite direction, The Bisexual gives voice to a uniquely queer conundrum. Having fought for decades to have our relationships recognised as legitimate, how do we now define the shape and substance of those relationships? If we settle down, start a family, and conform to society’s expectations, do we lose a key part of our identity? Are we ‘heteronormalising’ ourselves simply to make our relationships more palatable to others? On the other hand, if we lean in to an understanding of queerness which rejects gender, sexuality and relationship norms, are we denying ourselves the opportunity for companionship? Are we hamstringing our freedom to love who and how we want by our dogmatic commitment to sexual freedom and openness? A story about a partner being afraid to commit is nothing new, but in Akhavan’s hands, The Bisexual elevates this well-worn trope into an elegant, funny and thoughtful discussion of queer love.
Zing Tsjeng: I had high expectations for The Bisexual, especially because the last notable bisexuals I watched in a predominantly female TV show were Alice and Jenny in The L Word – both of whom, I think we’ll all agree, were deeply annoying in their own ways. Thankfully, Desiree Akhavan’s late-blooming bisexual character Leila avoids the principal sin of being so irritating that it makes you want to stab yourself in the eyes. Although The Bisexual does a far better, less ham-fisted job at discussing sexuality than its LA-set predecessor, what the show gets absolutely spot-on has, for all intents and purposes, nothing to do with being bi.
For anybody above a certain age who works in the so-called ‘creative industries’, what will resonate most is the slow-burning horror that comes from realising that you are no longer young, cool, hip, or half as sexually liberated or desirable as you used to be. Leila’s housemate Gabe is a once-trendy novelist who sexually disappoints his younger and infinitely more attractive hook-up. Leila fawns over her younger and immaculately dressed coworker (“god, she’s so fucking cool – I love her hair,” she sighs). Everyone at Leila’s e-commerce fashion start-up looks like they were just freshly ejected out of university and into the Dazed 100, still covered in amniotic fluid.
Leila, on the other hand, is in her 30s and ends the first episode utterly bereft – having just spotted her ex-partner tangled naked in bed with a younger woman. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe The Bisexual as what happens when everyone in Nathan Barley grows up and starts wondering if they should put down the gak and settle down – Akhavan seems determined to explore the issue of Peter Pan millennials growing up in a far more nuanced way. But if you want your 35-year-old hypebeast boyfriend to put away his hoodie and start thinking about his pension, this show might be a good place to start.
The Bisexual premieres on Channel 4 on October 10 at 10pm