Jessie J, Piper Chapman and bisexuality

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Breaking news! Jessie J wants us all to know that she’s a (hetero?) sexual woman! In an interview with OK! Magazine, Jessie J was quoted as saying:

“I’m enjoying being a 26-year-old, sexual woman. It’s not a secret that I’m confident with my body and I like to have fun.”

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Fair enough, girl. But you’ve been sending your audience A LOT of mixed messages over the past several years, and we’re just trying to keep it all straight (no pun intended).

Jessie J has been hitting up all media outlets to promote her third studio album, Sweet Talker. Along the way, she has been dodging questions about her sexuality; especially the much discussed rescinding of her bisexual identity.

In her latest interviews, Ms. J has expressed some regret over the fallout from her “coming out” as straight. She makes the case that it was not an attack on bisexuality, but an effort to be more honest with herself and her fans. In addition, like so many women in her industry, she was tired of being branded/sold on her sexuality, which is more than understandable. In the realm of pop music, a female performer’s sexuality and appearance is weighed just as heavily as her talent.

“I was getting increasingly frustrated with still feeling like sexuality was defining me as an artist. Behind closed doors I am evolving into the woman I want to be forever, wanting a husband and kids one day and dreaming up my future just like everyone else.”

These are all valid points. I believe that sexuality is fluid and that one’s sexual identity can change, adapt and evolve. In fact, there is no aspect of our personality and self definition that remains unchanged. It’s human nature. If that were the case, then my favorite food would still be SpaghettiOs and I’d still have a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The bottom line is Jessie J no longer identifies as bisexual, but has made it quite clear that she still supports equal rights and the LGBT community. And while it’s disappointing to lose our LGBT role models, it is still her life and her choice to make.

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But Jessie J’s identity about-face is a symptom of a much larger issue: the basic lack of understanding of what bisexuality is. The definitive definition of bisexuality comes from famed bisexual writer and activist Robyn Ochs:

“I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted–romantically and/or sexually–to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”

Simple enough, right? But even self-described bisexuals seem unable to internalize this definition. Jessie J lists her desire for a husband and children as a reason for her taking back her bi identity, yet the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. There are plenty of bi women with husbands and children (or wives and children or multiple partners/cats).

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But where are these women in popular culture? Why do we have so many (technically) bi characters whose sexual nuances are dismissed as a phase or an aberration? This experience may be the case for Jessie J (as she defines hers as a phase) but for the vast majority of bisexuals (myself included) this is not our shared experience. I’ve never been able to flick my sexual preferences on and off like a light switch, and I know I’m not alone.

Let’s consider one of the most well developed and popular bi characters on television right now: Piper Chapman of Orange is the New Black. The character gets a lot of flack (deservedly so) but for my money there is no more realistic and three-dimensional portrayal of bisexuality. Piper’s relationships/fights/desires for men are weighted just as heavily as those for women. And in today’s pop culture landscape, that is shockingly rare.

But despite the nuanced depiction of bisexuality, the “b” word is never spoken on the show. Piper is referred to as a “former lesbian” and makes reference to the Kinsey scale, but both her and the showrunners actively avoid using “bisexual” as a means of describing this bisexual character.

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Why has this word been so misinterpreted and maligned? It’s as frustrating as watching people reject the label of “feminist,” despite agreeing with/reaping the benefits of what that word/movement has given us. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hung up on the language and semantics, but I’m a writer. Being hung up on words is kind of my thing.

I understand the desire to eschew labels and ever-changing nature of identity, but when a public figure like Jessie J wrongly defines bisexuality (or any other label) it makes it that much harder for the rest of the world to embrace and understand it. Honesty matters, but not nearly as much as understanding and acceptance.

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