The Evolution of Bi Representation in Film (Part 1)

By Mike Crippen

February 27, 2020



Photo credit: Pexels/Pixabay

It’s probably fair to say that bi representation in cinema isn’t where it should be. Compared to some of the amazing gay and lesbian films and storylines, we’re still a little bit behind. However, the reality is that there are some great films out there today featuring bi characters and storylines. But what about before now? How did bi representation in cinema start, and how has it evolved with the times?

What if I were to tell you that one of the earliest documented moments of bi cinema is actually from the silent era? Surprised? Well, I guarantee you the film itself will be even more surprising. A Florida Enchantment was released in 1914 and features a storyline that might turn a few heads even today.

Lillian Travers, sick of her seeing her fiancé getting so much female attention at a party, swallows a magical seed that swaps the gender of whoever eats it. Under the effects of the seed, she loses all interest in her fiancé and starts dancing with and kissing the other woman at the party. Later, her understandably suspicious fiancé decides to take a magical seed himself — becoming effeminate and, of course, interested in men. I did warn you.

Image of a same sex kiss in "A Florida Enchantment" the image is in black and white, with the women wearing long dress suits.
Florida Enchantment - 1914

Of course, it’s unclear exactly what is meant to be happening here, or indeed even if there is a genuinely queer subtext to these events. But with both Lillian and her fiancé showing interest in each other as well as to the same sex during the film, I think we can loosely claim a starting point on our journey of bi representation.

Our next stop features someone worthy of a whole article to herself. Marlene Dietrich was a huge Hollywood star, and bisexual herself. Aside from a string of affairs with famous men, she also had what was called “Marlene’s Sewing Circle” — a secret network of bisexual and lesbian women working in cinema. Which is quite definitely one of my favorite facts from the classic age of Hollywood. But what of the films she made, and did her private sexuality influence their content?

Image of Marlene Dietrich in her signature suit, and a cigarette in her hand, smirking at the camera.
Image/Marlene Dietrich

Made in 1930 during the early days of sound, Morocco starred Dietrich as a cabaret singer. It features an infamous scene where she subverts gender by dressing in "top hat and tails" and seduces a female patron whom she eventually kisses on the lips. This was considered pretty risqué at the time, but the fuss didn’t stop Dietrich from earning herself an Oscar nomination for the role.

Unfortunately, around this same time, movie studios were starting to adopt something called the Motion Picture Production Code, which became more widely known as the Hays Code. The code was essentially a set of religiously inspired moral guidelines for filmmakers, outlawing "immoral acts" and ushering in a strictly conservative era in cinema. Predictably, homosexual behavior of any type was high on this list of immoral acts. However, whilst the code was still in its infancy, enforcement was not always robust, and our next star had enough creative control to unleash something quite special into the world.

Starring Greta Garbo, Queen Christina was released in 1933 and tells the story of the real seventeenth-century Queen of Sweden. Depending on the historian, due to affairs with both men and women, the real Christina has been variously described as a lesbian, a bisexual, or depressingly just as a "dabbler". What’s important here though is that her bisexuality has survived a lot of early Hays Code enforcement. The Queen dresses in masculine clothing, prefers the title "King" (how’s that for a preferred pronoun!), and has three on-screen romantic interests — including a Countess called Ebba.

Christina is shown kissing Ebba tenderly on the lips and discussing their upcoming weekend away together alone. There’s also a moment of complete romantic jealousy later in the film, when Christina overhears Ebba telling a man she has become involved with that the Queen is not allowed to know about their affair. History, it seems, has its first messy bis!

It’s possible that these obvious breaches of the Hays Code were permitted in part due to reasons of historical accuracy. More recently, however, it has been accepted that Greta Garbo herself was bisexual — which may explain how, given her considerable influence in the industry, Christina’s sexuality survived to the final cut. It’s an iconic film, and is quite rightly considered a queer classic.

Soon after this though, enforcement of the Hays Code became absolute and films like Queen Christina and Morocco disappeared. Well, I say disappeared. What actually happened was something far more damaging, and something that has had a lasting impact on our story.

Taking the Code literally meant that you could show queer characters in film, as long their sexuality was never explicit (e.g. no kissing, or mentioning of same-sex attraction) and that they were morally punished somehow. It took no time at all for "queer-coding" to become synonymous with untrustworthiness and unhappy endings. So many damaging stereotypes and tropes surrounding queer characters in film have their roots firmly fixed in the Hays Code.

By the mid-sixties though, the Hays Code had lost influence. Changing social values and the influence of foreign films and television meant its enforcement had essentially been watered-down to nothing and it was eventually shelved in 1968.

Check-in tomorrow for part 2 and the story of bi cinema after the Hays Code.