‘The Bisexual’ Breaks The Big TV-Cliché Of What A Bisexual Woman Should Be

Karishma Upadhyay - 56 weeks ago

We’re living in 2019, and we’ve had shows that have addressed every kind of stigma out there. Well almost. The Bisexual, a Channel 4 and Hulu coproduction, attempts to break down the last of those barriers.

(A still from The Bisexual)

What is it like for a queer brown woman to get out of a long-term gay relationship and suddenly begin to question her sexual orientation? Oh yes, it’s a very specific premise, but one that throws up questions on stereotypes and sexual fluidity, with the scything cynicism that only seems to come with British content. The stuff produced on the other side of the pond, after all, does spend significant amounts of time on dressing up and trying to look woke. This show absolutely doesn’t, and its cringe factor is what makes it so refreshing and real. 

Creator, director and star of the show, Desiree Akhavan plays Leila, an Iranian-American woman in her early thirties living in London for the past decade with her girlfriend and business partner Sadie (Maxine Peak). Sadie’s older, wants to have kids, and proposes marriage, a prospect that freaks Leila out. Leila suggests taking a break, and moves out, embarking on a journey of self-discovery, which would have been cute with a twenty-year-old, but would spark judgment by most for someone her age. She moves into a shared apartment with Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a part-time University lecturer and novelist who’s spent his last decade living off the royalties of his first book, Testicular. Gabe also represents white male privilege, says the cringiest of things and asks all the questions you’ve been dying to, but are too politically correct to. 

(Maxine Peake and Desiree Akhavan in a still from The Bisexual)

Without giving away too much, the show goes on to show Leila meeting new people, experimenting a little, and discovering a lot. It’s through this journey that Akhavan explores some of the prejudices that exist even amongst the LGBT community. There’s a scene where Leila is with a bunch of girls at a gay bar discussing all the straight girls there looking for a fling as ‘sex tourists’ and calling bisexuality a myth created by ad executives to sell flavoured vodka. Leila, in another scene says to Gabe, “When I hear ‘bisexual’ I think ‘lame slut’. It’s tacky, it’s gauche. It makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance.” All of this, mind you, is happening while Leila herself is questioning her newfound interest in what it would be like to sleep with a man. 

Leila’s defensive attitude you see points to the kind of deep guilt that can only come through societal conditioning and pressure. That roles are reversed here mean nothing—this is the same kind of guilt that stops people coming out of the closet, so why would it be any different if a person wants to step back in? These are stereotypes that many don’t know exist, unless you’re a part of that world. And, they’re really no different from the ones we’ve been busy busting over the past decade or so. When Leila talks about coming out to her conservative Iranian parents as being the most difficult thing she ever had to do, she wonders what life would have been like had the first person she ever slept with been a man rather than a woman. After watching her for six whole episodes, it’s fair to assume that her life might have been easier, but not by much. And that’s because of who she is.

( Desiree Akhavan in a still from The Bisexual)

People are expected to get an education, find a livelihood, find someone, settle down and have kids. Leila’s life is the complete antithesis of this—it’s what most people would call messy, and therein lies the heart of the show. It’s not articulated, and you could walk into this one expecting merely to see a woman who’s confused about her sexuality. You couldn’t be more wrong. There’s confusion about literally everything in her life, and there’s an underlying anxiety about each moving part. Peel away these layers, step into her shoes and that’s when you begin to really appreciate what Akhavan has done here, because what she’s done is huge.

Unlike other bisexual women we’ve seen on television, there’s absolutely nothing written into this script to make you want to like Leila, be in awe or simply just root for her. Scribes have always used bisexuality in conjunction with strength of character, and as a trope to show freedom and independence for women. Whether it’s Callie Torres (Gray’s Anatomy), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away With Murder), Kalinda Sharma (The Good Wife) or even Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the strong, independent bisexual woman has almost become a cliché. Akhavan’s protagonist has flaws and she’s ordinary—she could be anybody, she’s nobody. She is what she is, and she’s real.

The Bisexual is described as a dramedy, and this is where it falls short—that label creates expectations. There’s not enough drama to make this an intense watch, nor is it funny enough to bring you back purely for its comedic content. That doesn’t mean this series is a write-off; far from it. The six episode series has a lot to offer for a Saturday afternoon binge watch, most of all identifying what it’s like to be part of the most confused generation to have ever roamed this planet. If there’s one thing the show has inadvertently achieved, it’s that it can’t be labelled, just like it’s protagonist.

(The Bisexual is currently playing on myNK)


Desiree Akhavan / Rowan Riley / Maxine Peake / Brian Gleeson / Channel 4 / Hulu

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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