"[We sought subjects] who were thinking about their sexuality in a fluid way ... who were less political."
That's, in part, how Josephine Decker, codirector of the documentary Bi the Way, responded during a Q&A last night at Outfest when I asked whether she or her codirector are connected to bi communities in any way. First she said no, then she explained that they sought subjects who identified as bisexual but weren't part of those communities, and then she tried to explain that curious remark by offering the fascinating comment that she and her codirector set out to explore the state of bisexuality in America by deliberately seeking subjects "who were thinking about their sexuality in a fluid way ... who were less political."
I guess I'm gonna have to work on the apparently bizarre fact of perceiving my own sexuality as both fluid and political.
Still, I find myself almost forgiving of Decker--her comment in the Q&A seems like an off-the-cuff, not-so-thought-out remark by someone who, well, clearly is not politicized about these issues. It's frustrating, but my expectations for anthropology-style documentarians with no apparent politics around accountability to the communities they're representing are low, so eh. That Bi the Way has received big-time coverage as somehow representing a new trend of bisexuality among women in the NY Times, New York, and even Huffington Post is also not particularly surprising, or bothersome, to me. It's exactly how I would expect straight-centered outlets to address the issue, and I don't have much investment in mainstream media or the culture it documents. What bothers me is that Bi the Way is the film that Outfest, a major LGBTQ film festival, is promoting as the big bi movie of this year's festival. Much more after the jump.
Bi the Way "puts the 'B' in LGBT in the spotlight," reads the Outfest program. And it was used as the starting point for an Outfest panel on bisexuality that featured the (not-bi-identified) directors and unnamed-in-the-program "experts." (I wasn't able to attend the panel last weekend, so I don't know who else turned up to speak or how the conversation went.) It's a reminder, again, of how far increasingly corporate, mainstream LGBT-and-sometimes-Q institutions have to go if they really intend to be inclusive of identities beyond the "L" and the "G." (See last year's controversy over The Gendercator at Outfest and Frameline for some insightful critiques about the "T" piece, including a strong essay by Jessica Lawless--whose short, Dick!, is playing at Outfest this weekend--in make/shift.)
Bi the Way is a fairly traditional (i.e., normative) documentary. It is a film about a marginalized group made by people who are not part of that group and who seem not to have any politics around allyhood or accountability to the community they're representing. It claims to be representing "new" challenges to normalized straightness while being rooted in a heteronormative worldview--for instance, images of "bisexuality" are mostly images of same-sex acts by straight-looking "women."* [Yes, I'm using a footnote in a blog post! See below.] The vast majority of the subjects are white. When the experts speak about beyond-one-gender attraction throughout history, they go directly to the Greeks. And to top it off, unpack all o' this: the filmmakers are traipsing about the United States to uncover the current state of "bisexuality" via a road trip in an SUV! (Whoopee!)
That's not to say the film is not well-made (it is, by technical and liberal standards) or entirely uncompelling. Several different parent/child relationships are presented with rare transparency and complexity. The bi-identified subjects are individually compelling and touch on issues that are ever-relevant to those of us existing outside hetero- or homonormativity. David, a young Jewish man who identifies as bi, speaks to the pain of not being taken seriously as gay or straight. Pam, a young white bi-identified woman, struggles with her (straight?) boyfriend over his feelings about her attractions to and involvement with other women. Taij, a young black bi-questioning-identified man, expresses a lot of confusion and pain as he attempts to reckon with his many and various emotional and sexual desires and how those intersect with his religious beliefs and his place in his family and community. A bi-identified woman named Taryn (her ethnic identity is unclear) talks about simply not perceiving "sex with men" and "sex with women" as two different things. And a precocious 10-year-old named Josh (Jonathan Caouette's son, as it happens), who says he hasn't decided yet whether he's "going to be bi," provides some of the film's most nuanced, flexible ideas about gender and sexual desire.
Bi the Way also asks some thought-provoking (if not new) questions about what we mean when we talk about sexual orientation: Does "bi" describe someone who is attracted to people of two genders but only acts on attractions to one gender? Or someone who is sexually active with people of two genders but really (whatever that means) only desires people of a single gender? Both? Neither? Does the attraction to people of any given gender have to be sexual, emotional, and acted on to count in defining one's sexual orientation? There's even one mention each of the word "pansexual" and the existence of people who identify as "queer" to represent a huge spectrum of "not heterosexual" identities.
Yet I found myself consistently wanting the film to go deeper, get more complex. I mean, I'm always wanting that with "bi" media. I've written here about why I don't identify as bi, so I won't repeat all that now. But, even given my strong feelings that "bi" identity relies on an investment in binary gender that I cannot support or identify with, I am a person who is read as "bi" by most people in a binary-gender-invested dominant culture that doesn't know how else to read me. And, outside of radical-queer/gender-nonconforming spaces, the best chance I often have of hearing lives and identities like mine discussed is in "bi" spaces. So I keep returning there, not overly hopeful but still.
I don't expect a movie about "bisexuality" to reflect a radical-queer or beyond-binary-gender view. But I do wish that the big "bi" movie at an LGBTQ festival might be made from a non-heteronormative gaze. And that it might be made by--or at least made in a way that's accountable to--bi-identified people. That is, I'd like to think the "B" content at an LGBTQ institution might be a teensy-weensy bit more B-centered than, I dunno, the way they do "B" in straight-centered mainstream media.
(PS -- All this said, there's a whole bunch of stuff I'm excited by at this year's Outfest, including last weekend's screening of shorts by queer youth from LA and tomorrow's Platinum Shorts screening.)
*Fully aware of the problems with my language here. It's almost impossible for me to write about this within the terms of the film, simultaneously using and critiquing its visual and verbal vocabularies, not believing in binary gender and its notions of "same" or "opposite" genders, not believing in straightness, realizing the absurdity of the notion of "straight-looking," etc. But: I think the film works from a straight gaze by offering voice over narration about a new trend of bisexuality as it shows pop-culture images such as TV kisses between Madonna and Britney Spears and two otherwise-straight-girl characters on The OC, followed by images of nightclub kisses between conventionally feminine people the viewer is presumably expected to read as "women"--i.e., this new "trend" or "fad" of "bisexuality" is visually represented by people we might otherwise read as straight engaged in same-sex activity, so "straight" remains the norm and (occasional) same-sex activity represents the norm-challenging "fad," and those of us who can't make sense in our bodies or minds or lives of hetero *or* homo framing--i.e., presumably the people this film seeks to represent--remain almost unfathomable/unrepresentable.