Film

It’s Not Just A Phase: Why We Need More Bisexuality In Television And Film

Bisexual stories have rarely made it to the cinema: it’s considered simpler to just make a character gay, and ignore any confusion. Thankfully, with films like 'Cut Snake' and 'Tig', that seems to be changing.

“Bisexuals are greedy.”

Some may say it as a joke, but talk to anybody who identifies as the ‘B’ in the LGBTIQ banner, and you can guarantee they’ve had that particular complaint levelled at them, among many others: they’re more sexually promiscuous, “going through a phase”, more likely to cheat, or simply non-existent.

People have more or less come to understand homosexuality, and even trans issues are making remarkable forays into the public consciousness — but 15 years after Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw broke up with a man because she couldn’t wrap her head around his sexual identity (for a sex columnist, she sure was short-sighted), bisexuality is still somehow a mystifying taboo for many.

Bisexuality isn’t a new concoction; in fact, it’s widely considered an ancient one. Thankfully, however, filmmakers have recently begun wrestling with the subject in ways that put it not only front and centre, but in refreshingly layman terms. And certainly more eloquently than the famous “snails and oysters” scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960).

As Mad As A Cut Snake

One of the great things about the new Australian film Cut Snake (2015) is the way it queers the de facto Australian genre of choice: the crime drama. It has the gritty look of Animal Kingdom (2010) or Underbelly, and attempts the class critique of The Boys (1998), but has an altogether original mission amid its violent head-stomping and gun-toting: to highlight how newfound sexual horizons can be difficult for anyone to navigate.

The film begins as a typical Australian movie about a violent ex-con named Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton in the best work of his career), who gets out of prison and enlists his former cellmate, Sparra (Alex Russell), to help plot a heist. Things takes a swerve when it is revealed the two had a sexual connection inside prison. And not the predatory kind that’s built upon rape like one expects from other prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or Son of a Gun (2014); it’s a deeply felt romantic relationship, that brings out hidden desires in each men.

Not that you’d get that from the trailer.

The two men at the centre of Tony Ayres’ stylish and compelling film admit love for each other, but the younger Sparra — from what evidence we’re given on screen — is also shown to be quite capable of expressing love for a woman. It would be easy to label these two men as gay, with Sparra now hiding back in the closet with a fiancé and a new, sad life on the (pun unintended) straight and narrow — but reading the film like that does bisexual men and women a terrible disservice, essentially erasing them from the conversation. Sparra’s actions are a far cry from Brokeback Mountain, for instance, in which it becomes painfully clear that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters resent being married to women.

That Pommie doesn’t understand this concept of evolving sexuality is hardly surprising: he represents an old-school, hyper-masculine and emotionally wound-up vision of the Australian male that befits the 1970s setting, and that is demonstrated in a brutal, hard-to-watch rape sequence. But to assume Sparra is lying to himself about his ability to love both a man and a woman would be simplistic: he has no reason to lie and, in fact, it proves potentially fatal to do so. He may not want to be bisexual, but by the end he can no longer deny it.

Just For Laughs

More down to Earth is Tig (2015), the recent exclusive-to-Netflix documentary about openly gay comedian Tig Notaro. Following the recording and aftermath of a now-famous live show in which she revealed she had cancer, Tig saves some of its more interesting and complex passages not for Notaro’s personal battles, but for her blossoming relationship with actress and colleague Stephanie Allynne. Given she appears as one of the only talking heads, it’s not surprising that there’s more to their friendship than the film initially lets on.

Without the shock and awe that accompanies most celebrity-coming-out stories, Stephanie’s growing revelation — that her assumed straight sexuality is closing her off to a wonderful, passionate partnership — is deftly handled.

Documentaries on queer subject matter are hardly rare these days, but it’s uncommon to see one which retells the evolution of a woman’s bisexuality with such nonchalance and openness.

More Than Just Sexuality

As Casey Quinlan observed in The Atlantic on the topic of bisexuality on television: “In the last decade, American TV shows and movies have begun to showcase more LGBT characters than ever before. Bisexual viewers, though, may still find representations of their life experiences onscreen rare”. Quinlan cited GLAAD’s annual “Where Are We On TV” report, that forecast a scant 24 bisexual characters to appear on the small screen for the 2013-2014 season — 18 of which were women.

While television can claim bisexual characters on shows such as Broad City, Bones, and Grey’s Anatomy, until now bisexuals have rarely made it to the cinema. Bisexuality is hardly acknowledged in films outside of biopics like Alexander (2004), which all but swept its famous subject’s sexuality under the carpet. And unless you’re after an on-screen threesome – preferably with two or more women, for male-dominated Hollywood – it’s simpler to just make a character gay, and ignore any confusion.

Thankfully, that seems to be changing. Albeit still in limited numbers (especially when compared to films about gay, lesbian and even transgender people), films with bisexuality at the core are slowly finding their way out. While Cut Snake and Tig are ultimately concerned with much more than just sexuality – likewise other classic depictions of bisexuality, including Theorem (1968), Cabaret (1972), and even Basic Instinct (1992) – two wonderful recent Chilean films, Young and Wild (2012) and In the Grayscale (2015), have navigated the muddy waters of bisexual love triangles to degrees that feel rare and insightful.

What ultimately makes these movies so interesting is that the person at the centre of each film isn’t the one conflicted about their sexuality. Rather it’s their lovers, who can’t seem to make heads or tails of it. A similar dynamic was seen in Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010), which saw Michael Cera’s Scott confounded by his love-interest’s bisexual past.

Elsewhere, openly bisexual director Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour (2014) is a hilariously smart take on what being bi can mean in a modern Brooklyn, where the lines between sexuality are becoming increasingly frayed. It’s a far cry from Black Swan (2010) in which bisexuality is treated as potentially menacing and cloaked in fear.

Loathed as I am quote Robin Thicke, but blurred lines: you know you want it. More explorations of bisexuality in bigger, more mainstream films will help normalise a sidelined identity to people like Carrie and Pommie; people who see things in black and white. It’s not being greedy to ask for that.

Cut Snake is in limited cinemas now. Tig is available on Netflix now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne.  He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks.