When queerness appears in the mainstream, the stories often fit a certain silhouette. The teenage coming-out journey remains popular, while grittier renditions focus on the brutalities that can accompany LGBTQIA membership—the family rejection, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse. Primed with these narrative cliches, audiences begin to expect two types of endings for queer tales: uplifting stories of acceptance and utterly bleak finalities of loss. But this binary only speaks to the ends of the spectrum.
Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual (streaming in the U.S. on Hulu) responds to this problem by pushing back on the types of binaries embedded within queer media, including the limitations of story arcs and the types of queerness represented. As the title explicitly states, Akhavan isn’t interested in replicating either story. Instead, her series emerges as a counterargument to its genre. What if we upended the normative answers to the who, what, when, why, and where for a queer story? Could the audience still love the title character?
From the initial critical reception, when Akhavan threw this gauntlet down, few were able to accept this challenge—or grant that grace to the main character. The Guardian called the show “neither comic nor dramatic” and “a bleak, affectless and suffocatingly joyless affair.” The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t far behind, claiming the plot “is mired in gluey, gummy pathos.” While both critics admitted that the show possessed wit, its witticisms were largely leveraged against it, the charge being that the show took itself too seriously on poor grounds. The reviews echo with a scoff: “It’s 2018, bisexuality—get over yourself!”
Perhaps, in 2020, it’s time for a reconsideration. As Akhavan mentions in her own press, The Bisexual was created from the dramatic lack of existing representation, rather than a glut of it. In Akhavan’s own words: “I’ve just never seen any representation, outside of Tila Tequila, who had a reality show called A Shot at Love.” However, The Bisexual doesn’t deserve plaudits for checking a box of marginalized experience. The show seeks out in an uncomfortability similar way to how a tongue compulsively pokes at a mouth wound: ill-advisedly but uncontrollably. The way Akhavan luxurates in the awkward, unknown, and alienation within the screenplay makes The Bisexual worthy of kudos, even if your skin crawls.
Rather than dive into a more digestible coming-out narrative—say, a frame of adolescent discovery—her lead comes out in her thirties. She’s already “out” as lesbian, but Leila’s multifaceted identities pile up as the story unfolds. She’s an American in London. She’s in a biracial relationship—until she’s not. She’s a brown woman, juggling the expectations and condemnations of her Iranian family against an already hostile world. As her working class best friend Deniz (Saskia Chana) says, she’s “so middle class.” While the title underscores that Leila’s main struggle would be on the grounds of sexuality, the audience isn’t let off the hook: this series leaves multiple simmering issues on the stove. The richness of existential breakdown feels more realistic, instead of stylized hair pulling.
As the show unfolds and the perks of Leila’s binary sexual identity melt away into something more ambiguous—bisexuality—there’s no wholesome acceptance storyline waiting on the other side. For certain viewers and critics alike, I suspect Leila became an unsympathetic character. She’s too old to be this messy, too asinine to throw away a magazine profile-ready lesbian relationship for a hunch. But as a defender of Leila, the character, and the show overall, I embrace this mess. It’s no longer the exclusive domain of casts like Girls to skid into quarter life as a crisis. It’s women like Leila who deserve not only the chance to thrive on screen, but also implode into new beginnings.
Bisexuality has lurked so long as a phantom in zeitgeist—Apparently it’s everywhere! Apparently it’s nowhere to be found! But with Akhavan’s series, it’s a gentle tug, an untying of a blind fold: look there she is, the bisexual herself. Just let her be.
The Bisexual is currently streaming on Hulu.
Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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