The classic Hollywood take on bisexuality has always mirrored popular stereotypes about bisexuals.
Bisexuals are indecisive, and incapable of commitment. They are promiscuous, omnivorous sexual predators quick to hump anything that moves. They are confused, or psychologically damaged, or both.
Bisexual women in particular have been further patronized as sexual toys for straight men — women who are willing to bring to life the male fantasy of girl-on-girl action that welcomes male participation. And they have been further demonized as twisted, evil, duplicitous double-crossers whose punishment is perpetual insatiability and an ultimately gruesome end.
Personal Best, which hit theaters in 1982, is often hailed as the first film to prominently feature female bisexuality. It was also one of the few to present a relatively positive portrayal. Two pentathletes (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly) competing for one spot on an Olympic team fall for each other, and their love, as well as their sex scenes, are dealt with sensitively and matter-of-factly, even though one winds up leaving the other for a man.
Since then, there have been many more theatrical releases prominently depicting bi women, particularly in the last five years. But are bisexual women still subject to the same stereotypes on film?
Yes and no.
A character’s bisexuality is still used all too often as shorthand for criminal insanity, capital-C complexity, or “have your cake and eat it too” self-indulgence. Or it’s played for laughs, cheap thrills or both.
Of course, none of these categories are mutually exclusive.
The first major release to feature a bisexual woman after Personal Best came ten years later, and it typifies the way many movies still use bisexuality as a convenient way to signal psychopathy when criminal and pathological behavior simply isn’t enough.
Basic Instinct (1992) brought bisexuality to the forefront of public debate, quickly drawing the wrath of activists who objected to the hackneyed portrayal of the murderous bisexual woman. Their protests drew nearly as much attention as the sneak peek of Sharon Stone’s naughty bits that one legendary scene affords viewers. A police detective (Michael Douglas) is drawn to a Stone’s character’s air of danger and mystery, which is partly communicated by her turning out to be bisexual.
The sequel to Basic Instinct due out next year (with the working title Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction) will also mix bisexuality and criminality.
The bisexual character Vera (Neve Campbell) in When Will I Be Loved (2004) is marked by scheming vengefulness and spite. Femme Fatale (2002), a twisting, sex-filled thriller about jewel thievery, opens with Laure (Rebecca-Romijn-Stamos) seducing a diamond-adorned supermodel in a restroom in order to steal the goods. Laure then double-crosses her fellow criminals.
Her more serious relationships involve characters played by Antonio Banderas and Peter Coyote, and her bisexuality is more opportunistic and conniving than it is natural. She plays the proverbial sexy, manipulative, cold-hearted blond, and being bisexual simply bolsters that stereotype.
The early 2000s saw a spate of teen thrillers that mixed drugs, murder, and bisexuality, including 1999’s Cruel Intentions (although bisexuality was only hinted), 2000’s The In Crowd, 2001’s Soul Survivors, and 2002’s New Best Friend, starring The L Word‘s Mia Kirshner.
Most recently, the opportunistically bisexual Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) in Pretty Persuasion (2005) is manipulative, duplicitous and downright malicious. The cruel and scheming high school sophomore leads her friends (Elisabeth Harnois and Adi Schnall) to falsely accuse their English/drama teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual assault. Kimberly hopes the attention will help further her acting career, and to that end, she seduces the female reporter covering the case.
She reveals true malice, thinking nothing of exploiting the seriousness of harassment/molestation charges to ruin an innocent man’s reputation and destroy his life. She uses sex to manipulate men and women alike, seducing them to get what she wants, which isn’t necessarily (or usually) the sex itself.