Bisexual Women in Film From the Early 1990s to Today

A common scenario for bisexual characters in movies is simultaneous involvement with a man and a woman, bolstering the idea that bisexuals are by definition non-monogamous.

From Personal Best and Basic Instinct to Head in the Clouds and When Will I Be Loved, bisexual characters are often portrayed as needing to have it both ways, so to speak, a sign of their self-indulgence.

In one of the most egregious recent examples, Dodgeball’s Kate makes out with a woman and then cheers up her male love interest by assuring him she’s bisexual and promptly kissing him — reinforcing the idea that bisexual women always date members of both sexes, at the same time.

Bisexuality’s potential to generate laughs — with bisexuality itself as the punchline — is realized in movies like Dodgeball, which pulls out all the stops in its quest for unrelenting hilarity. And in the current release Broken Flowers, Bill Murray plays a washed-up Don Juan (named Don Johnston) searching for the teenaged son he just learned he may have. One of the ex-girlfriends he visits, Carmen (Jessica Lange), is standoffish and her aloof “assistant” (Chloe Sevigny) is oddly protective of her assistant. Don’s inability to charm the two women is soon “explained” when the pair are revealed to be lovers.

Several of the recent and upcoming depictions of bisexuality in major releases are in movies based on true stories, mostly about bisexual woman who are artists or musicians—women who is already considered to be outside the mainstream.

Salma Hayek produces as well as stars in Frida (2002) as the free spirit artist Frida Kahlo, who is married to the equally bohemian ladykiller Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). The pair enjoy an open marriage, one filled with jealousies as passionate as the sex. Kahlo escapes the shortcomings of her marriage in affairs with both men and women, including Leon Trotsky as well as Josephine Baker. She is also tantalized by a tangoing American photographer, Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd).

In the upcoming Running with Scissors, based on Augusten Burroughs’s memoir of the same name, the minister’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth) appears to be bisexual. A biopic of Dusty Springfield is also in development (although she was more generally believed to be a lesbian than bisexual), and various versions of a big-screen portrayal of bisexual singer Janis Joplin have been in the works for years.

Finally, we have those films that make a female character’s bisexuality the focus of the film. Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) is one of the most well-known recent releases to take this subject on, with two women (Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen) finding love on the other side of the fence after a long series of disastrous dates with men. One places a personal ad for a girlfriend because she has given up on men—that mythical onramp to the lesbian highway. The women (played by the film’s two writers) navigate this foreign terrain with more awkwardness than passion.

Same-sex love, particularly between two man-loving women experiencing it for the first time, sets up most of the humor in this romantic comedy.

Rent, which opens on November 23rd, features a bisexual woman, Maureen (Idina Menzel) who has left her boyfriend to move in with her girlfriend (Tracie Thoms). Maureen’s struggle to manage both her girlfriend’s jealousy and her ex-boyfriend’s ongoing feelings for her comprise a good deal of the film’s narrative, with a raw honesty that is compelling (even if the lesbian does come off as a bit of a jerk).

The new British film Imagine Me and You, which will be released in theaters in the U.S. in February 2006, stars Piper Perabo as a woman who marries a man and then falls in love with the female florist for her wedding. Although the film never mentions bisexuality explicitly, the evolution of Perabo’s character as she comes to terms with her attraction to another woman is poignant and thoroughly explored, without being heavy-handed.

Kissing Jessica Stein, Rent, and Imagine Me and You are some of the better new theatrical releases about bisexual women, since, like Personal Best, they approach the topic with sensitivity. But films like these are still few and far between.

Bisexual women may be getting more screen time in recent years, but overall, they are still largely portrayed as disloyal, incapable of monogamy, and forever victim to their own insatiability. They are less frequently destined to meet a violent death, but they still find easy relief from underappreciation and disappointment with men in the arms of a woman.

And women’s bisexuality is still presented primarily as Hollywood shorthand for sexual adventurousness, rather than a valid and complex sexual identity.

It’s also worth noting that except for Frida Kahlo, every one of the bisexual characters I’ve mentioned here are white. Lesbians in U.S. theatrical releases are sometimes played by women of color (as in Rent, Head in the Clouds, Under the Tuscan Sun etc.), but bisexual women almost never are. This is largely attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of prominent female characters in American theatrical releases are white, with women of color mostly relegated to supporting roles, but is also a product of the prevailing notion that bisexuality is an luxury primarily indulged in by bored white women.

But the rising prevalence of bisexual women characters does at least improve the chance that they will more often be portrayed more diversely and realistically.

And as films like Kissing Jessica Stein, Imagine Me and You, and Rent become more common, films that only exploit bisexuality for cheap thrills will hopefully become just another shrugged-off relic of the last century.

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