The fluidity of sexuality is something that film has long since been fascinated with, films even more so than television, revel in the world of sex and eroticism. Film also is very slow to change its ideals, it’s a medium that works on shorthands after all. Famously, villains need to be the anti-thesis of the hero, a young hero means an old villain and so on.
Every Pride month there are long discussions about the way in which the media promotes ideals about certain members of the rainbow, but what is often not fully addressed is the long standing belief both film and people at large have about bisexuality. Bisexuality is not always shown in the most positive light. Bisexual characters in film – especially awards courting films – fall into two categories they are either one-off exceptions, straight characters who engage in a same-sex relationship or affair only because of that one specific person or they are emotionally callous / unable to be truly commit to another a person.
The confusion of sexuality and labels, and the emotionally callous is exemplified in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. The case could be made that protagonist Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) is discovering his sexuality and as such a label could be impossible to put on him, after all he is only seventeen. However, he is shown engaging in sexual relationships with both a woman and a man. Taking the questionable politics of only showing nudity from Esther Garrel’s Marzia, a potential girlfriend for Elio, he is shown engaging in sex with her as well as his ongoing romantic situation with Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Elio is shown discovering his sexuality, which while complicated and difficult turns him into an unlikeable person at times. While coming to terms with what might happen with Oliver he continues to string Marzia along, including the consumption of their relationship. When she rightfully confronts him Elio’s response is at best cold, and at worst a shocking display of his callous attitude towards others. Which, also comes into play with Oliver.
Oliver is on the island for research purposes, he’s there for an educational job, and yet he appears to do very little of that. He, being twenty-four and therefore more emotionally mature than Elio should be fully aware of what his actions could cause in young Elio’s life. Oliver is shown as predatory at times, playing on Elio’s emotions, and having little regard for how they might affect things. Moreover, in engaging in sexual intercourse with Elio, Oliver crosses a boundary. It might not mean anything to Oliver who at this point can distinguish lust and love but to Elio it’s much more significant – and Oliver knows that.
Both Elio in his passionate feelings for Oliver, and Oliver in his arrogance are shown to be oblivious to the wants and the needs of other people and only look to satisfy their own desires which at opposite ends of the spectrum. Worst of all is the ending, knowing how emotionally fragile Elio has become from everything Oliver still decides not only to call on Christmas but to tell him he is engaged to a woman back in the US. Both are consumed by their emotions, shunning the existence of anyone else from their minds.
The recurrent theme in many dramas is that there is an obliviousness or callousness to the emotional state of mind of a bisexual character. They are shown often to be unable to control themselves or are incredibly controlling. The volatility in Adrian Brody’s Ritchie, one of the leads of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam is another example of this. He spends the film feeding only on his desires and emotions to the point where by the end of the film he is left with only one friend he can trust. Though he is shown to be concerned with who Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is as a person, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Ritchie is shown to be obnoxious throughout the film, as well as being a sex worker to supplement his lifestyle.
Guadagnino’s film echos elements of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain which could easily be called the prototype for what Guadagnino’s film did. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is shown to be in love with Heath Ledger’s Ennis del Mar and vice versa, Twist is also shown engaging in sex with his wife, as well as other men when Ennis rebuffs the chance of an affair. The conversation around the film is where on the spectrum of sexuality do either men sit. Jack sits more towards the gay end of the sexuality spectrum, shown engaging in more man-on-man relations than women – Laureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway) appear to be the only woman he has sexual relations with. While Ennis does fall in love and have sex with Jack, he is shown to be sexually attracted to his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) and later has an affair with Cassie (Linda Cardellini), thus implying that Ennis sits towards the straight end of the sexuality spectrum.
In reality, what this shows is the one-off bisexual. Jack’s one off is with Laureen, while Jack is Ennis’ one-off. Moreover, the “bury your gays” trope is reprised in this film in that it is Jack who dies towards the end of the film, being the more homosexual of the two, and that both have their one-off. The idea of the bisexual one-off is used to illustrate a forbidden desire between men or women and used at times to contrast the exotic nature of the affair against the mundane trappings of heterosexual life. It’s easier to label a film like Brokeback Mountain as a “gay” movie because it explores two one-off scenarios and therefore undermines the legitimacy of bisexuality as a sexuality or sexual identity.
There is a similar issue at the heart of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, in the film same-sex couple Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are shocked when their kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) both of whom are blood related by the use of the same sperm, look for their “father” Paul (Mark Ruffalo). While the film shows a loving same-sex marriage between Nic and Jules, a subplot involves Jules becoming a landscaper for Paul and engaging in a sexual affair. Once again, this falls into the one-off trope, as Jules is at pains to stress that she is in fact a lesbian despite initiating the affair. Later when the affair is made public Nic is concerned that Jules has “turned straight”, and Jules herself becomes angry at Paul for not understanding her sexuality.
But, it could be argued it’s Jules herself who does not understand her own sexuality, and is in fact, bisexual. It’s not impossible for someone in their middle aged years to discover their sexuality despite believing themselves to be one sexuality. That Jules herself initiated the affair blaming it on wanting to feel appreciated, implies that there was something beneath this. Both Nic and Jules are shown watching gay male porn – the reason given is that gay porn often features actual homosexual actors vs women being paid to have sex with women – though this is disputed by many female adult actors. Even so, there is an element in this choice that could feed into Jules’ curiosity towards men, that she is aroused by the sight of naked men could mean that she is in fact bisexual and her desire for Paul is based on that. The fact that Jules loves her wife doesn’t negate her attraction to Paul and doesn’t negate her being a bisexual woman.
Interestingly though, the one-off trope also plays into another common belief that the world at large hold against bisexual people – that they are unable to hold meaningful relationships and are drawn to cheating or affairs. Both Ennis and Jack are married, and so is Jules, and all three are shown to have affairs with the opposite sex that break the hearts of their spouses. It occurs in film that are either positive or negative, bisexual characters are often portrayed as being drawn to cheating regardless of their story.
Whatever controversy that Blue is the Warmest Colour holds for it’s long extended sexual scenes between it’s two stars, it also portrays the passionate love story between Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux). Emma is portrayed as a lesbian, while Adele is portrayed as bisexual when she resorts to sleeping with Antoine (Bejamin Siksou), her male colleague. Despite the tension in their relationship, and the loneliness that Adele feels she doesn’t confront Emma about it, and while Emma remains faithful, it is Adele who falls into sex with someone else. Again this is an example of the belief that bisexual people are unable to remain faithful to their partner, this isn’t true, there is no more chance of a bisexual person cheating that a straight or gay person and it is a matter of the individual. Yet time and time again, we see this narrative played out.
This is not to call into question the quality of those films, but how sexuality is represented in media is often comparable to how people perceive it in their day-to-day life. As with any form of mass consumed media, film has an affect on people that cannot be understated and needs to be fully addressed. Still, the fact that these discussions can even be had means film is at least trying to represent, and that’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not the only thing. These stories can exist, and do in real life, but as with anything it does not represent the entire experience of a bisexual person. It may be time for more bisexual writers to tell their stories, and broaden the scope of our understanding.