Jessica Hoffmann

Bi the Way, Outfest: You've Got a Ways to Go in the "B" Department

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | July 19, 2008 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, The Movement
Tags: Bi the Way, bisexuality, documentary film, Mainstream media, media criticism, Outfest, queer, representation

"[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.


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I have still to see this one, but I do want to. After reading your post here I want to see it all the more.

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 haven't seen this film, but if the characterization is accurate, this will only serve to keep bisexuality held off to the margins in the G&L community, the way a lot of folks still believe that "bi really = straight." Thanks to the filmmakers for continuing to seed the legacy of distrust.

I don't get the logic of painting an entire community by the attitudes and behaviours of people who aren't even involved with it. There's a T comparison with therapists, but it wouldn't be right to derail the post with any more than the suggestion of that. Either way, it's an incredibly inaccurate approach from a journalistic point of view.

I don't really understand your critique though...

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.

What would you have changed? How would you have made it non-heteronormative. Bisexuality is, by definition a melding of heterosexuality and homosexuality. There has to be some segments of each.

Perhaps it'll help if I see the film, but I'm just not understanding what the complaint is. I think it'll help if you can give me examples of what you'd have changed and how/why.

I understand this just fine. In that paragraph, Jessica was saying that the film was made by straight people who, if they piss off the bi community, don't have any reason to care.

And it makes sense - from the way it's described here it just sounds like another "there really is no such thing as bisexuality" statement, like the idea was that they were in a fad, are confused (like Tiaj), are doing it because it'll seem edgy, etc.

It does bother me that, at an LGBT film festival, the bi film wasn't made by members of the bi community or allies, or that those people were even allowed to participate in interviews for the film. It's almost as if they made a documentary on gay men in 2008 based on interviewing Larry Craig, Alan Chambers, a clubbin' twink who's never heard of HRC, a gay hermit, and a 10-year-old. Sure, none of those people are bad or should be avoided, but they can't really give anyone an idea of what it's like to be openly gay in America in 2008.

That quotation makes little sense to me, too, Jessica. Most of the bi people I know who see their sexuality as fluid are very political! Usually it's the other way around - the less political ones, at least the bi people I know, see it as less fluid.

I myself find the idea that they did not include people involved in the bi community and who are aware of the bi community in their project. It sounds as if not only is the view from a heteronormative direction but from a mononormative direction. Too bad. I still want to see it but I think that it may end up bothering me. It would have been nice if they would have included some openly bi people who are involved in the community and queer politics and maybe even visited some meetings of organizations. I'm actually trying to see if I can interest anyone in doing some sort of documentary around two bi organizational events in NYC next year. One is specifically designed to address the press and bi invisibility in the press especially in the LGBT press, the other even is just a bi cultural extravaganza. That is the kind of documentary that I would like to see.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | July 21, 2008 5:44 PM

Well said, Alex!!

Bisexuality is, by definition a melding of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Not necessarily. For a queer-identified bi FtM, like me, heterosexuality has nothing to do with it. What, are you saying I’m het when I’m with a female? Even though what we do in bed would be seen as “same-sex”? Or het when I’m with a male? Despite the fact that he and I would risk assault in most places were we to be publicly affectionate and any marriage between us would undoubtedly not stand in any state other than California or Massachusetts?

“Queer” encompasses these contradictions and others without trying to stuff them into a little box by labeling them. As I read Jessica’s excellent post, she objects to the fact that so many other nuances and complexities associated with bisexuality are being overlooked and “whitewashed,” for lack of a better word, by this somewhat simplistic view of bi culture made by (and possibly for?) straight outsiders. She expected better of a conference that calls itself LGBTQ.

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts!

To clarify -- it's not that the film suggests bisexuality doesn't exist. It's more like, it suggests pretty loosely that we're in the midst of some new "sexual revolution" where all kinds of people are more fluid about their sexuality ... yet it's made by not-queer-identified filmmakers whose gaze is often heteronormative and who somehow feel that this "revolutionary" "fluidity" can best be explored by talking to people who *don't* feel connected to or identify with queer communities.

It's almost like a post-queer take -- somewhat like regressive "colorblind" or "gender-blind" policies that pretend we're in a post-race, post-feminist era -- and is almost completely lacking awareness of the vibrant spaces where fluid, transgressive, radical-queer, beyond-binary-gender sexualities actually exist.

Really, it's kind of bizarre -- binary-gender-dependent "bisexuality" is "revolutionary", especially if it's not connected to bi/queer communities?

It's a confused/confusing analysis--one of many reasons the film would have benefited from being made by, or with more input from, people who *are* connected to bi/queer communities ...

Kirk Job Sluder | July 22, 2008 4:11 PM

Bisexuality is, by definition a melding of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Well, the first question is defined by whom? If there is one thing that unites large chunks "bisexual" community it is a consistent discomfort with that word and how it is defined from Kinesy to Klein to other variations. Going back a dozen years, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction with "bisexuality" in a world that includes considerable fluidity of gender and sexuality. Unlike Jessica, I still use it in spite of its flaws because it gets in the ballpark of meaning without having to give an extended speech about my sexuality(ies).

I can't speak specifically about this movie, but bisexuality is something different from heterosexuality + homosexuality for me. And part of that is because my partner and I both get it because we are not masculine/feminine enough for the heterosexual ideal.

I would like to say that if you mean a melding of homosexuality and heterosexuality as feelings and behaviors only then I can agree. If by a melding of homosexuality and heterosexuality you mean identities such as part gay and part straight I would have to disagree very much. Many of the bisexuals that I know and have worked with through the years consider our sexuality to be a complete sexuality and not pieces of others blended together and we consider being bi as a complete sociosexual identity. As complete as gay and straight identities. I'm just not sure how you are using the terms, so I can't specifically agree or disagree.