The Evolution of Bi Representation in Film (Part 2)

By Mike Crippen

February 28, 2020



Photo credit: Pexels/Pixabay

Yesterday we talked about some bi representation in film before 1965. This includes the silent film A Florida Enchantment (1914) and Morocco (1930). Now we're going to look at bi representation after the Hays Code. 

In 1965, a few years before the Hays Code was completely abandoned, Robert Redford starred in a film called Inside Inside Daisy Clover. Based on a book with a homosexual central character, Redford insisted his version of "Wade" would also be interested in women. The studio making the film, still nervous about homosexual content in a major motion picture, then reduced his bisexuality to dialogue only. This could be viewed as disappointing — both actor and studio watering down Wade’s sexuality — but I think this deserves our attention because, unlike the Hays Code era films preceding it, Redford’s character is neither conflicted by his sexuality nor narratively punished for it.

With the collapse of the code, the floodgates opened. The Fox, released in 1967, is a story of two women living together as lovers on a farm in rural Canada, whose relationship is tested by the arrival of Paul — looking for his recently deceased grandfather, the previous owner of the farm. Featuring nudity and both opposite and same-sex love scenes, The Fox was definitely part of a new post-code era and a real step-up in bi representation. Here was a woman, Ellen, torn between a male and female lover, and she wasn’t just a lazy stereotype, she was a fully-fledged character. As far as bi representation goes, it’s pretty decent as long as we ignore the problematic subtext in the final scene (where Ellen’s partner Jill is crushed by Paul felling a tree, which lands between her legs).

Image of the two women of The Fox kissing each other in a living room.
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Claridge Pictures

Of course, we can’t really leave this era without mentioning Cabaret. Released in 1972 to almost universal acclaim, Cabaret was an extravaganza of music, gender subversion, sexual freedom and hedonism. There’s literally too much to unpack here without going on a lengthy detour. What is of interest to us, however, is the character of Brian — whose arrival in Berlin is the lens through which we view the story. Initially naive and overwhelmed by his new life, Brian eventually ends up sleeping with Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles and, not long after, her rich playboy Maximilian. Sally is momentarily shocked when he reveals that he slept with Maxmilian, but the film and the characters carry on uninterrupted by this update to Brian’s sexuality. And it’s this casualness which makes Cabaret so noteworthy.

This era of liberation, as far as showing queer characters and stories was concerned, essentially lasted until the early eighties. 1982 saw the release of Making Love; a thoughtful film about a married man coming to terms with same-sex attraction. It was also the year that Personal Best was released, which detailed the unexpected sexual and romantic relationship between two female athletes training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (and who never went, due to the U.S. boycott). Both films handle their characters with relative sensitivity as they explore their sexualities, as well as showcasing progressive narratives that would become increasingly rare as the eighties continued.

Blue Velvet, which came out in 1986, is rightly considered a classic of American Arthouse cinema. Integral to the film’s impact is antagonist Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper. Booth is a violent drug dealer, kidnapper and rapist, and Hopper’s performance is not easily forgotten. Of interest to us though, is that Frank Booth is bisexual. Not in the way that Brian in Cabaret is bi, but in a way that treats his sexual violence and sexuality as coming from the same dark place (the famous line “I’ll fuck anything that moves!” is clearly meant as a threat).

This link between bisexuality and violence does have a historical context though. The eighties was the decade of the AIDS crisis and a number of damaging myths had sprung up, including the idea that bi people (especially men) were transferring the disease from the gay community to heterosexual populations. Hysteria was rife at this time, so it’s not hard to see how this may have influenced bi representation so insidiously.

Which brings us to 1992 and Basic Instinct, widely accepted as one of the worst examples of stereotyped queer characters in mainstream U.S. cinema. I won’t spend long dissecting this film as it has been skewered perfectly in a Unicorn Scale. Needless to say though, a perpetual male gaze and the trope of female bisexuality as a lure for attracting men are only the tip of the problematic iceberg. 1998’s Wild Things pulls a similar trick, presenting female bisexuality through a borderline pornographic lens.

Luckily things were a little better beyond the mainstream. Before hitting the big time with The Matrix, the Wachowskis released Bound, a violent film noir homage featuring realistic queer main characters.

There was also Velvet Goldmine (1998), which came out the same year as Wild Things, and which was a well-rounded story of bisexuality during the heyday of glam rock. By the turn of the century though, healthy bi representation started to break into the mainstream and onto the awards circuit.

Brokeback Mountain, despite still being routinely mislabelled as a gay film, is a quintessential bi love story that won numerous awards back in 2005 (including an Oscar for best director for Ang Lee). The David Fincher version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from 2011 kept protagonist Lisbeth Salader’s bisexuality intact, with Rooney Mara receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance. We even have a very modern classic in the shape of Call Me by Your Name, where an intense same-sex affair carefully avoids the well-worn trope of "homosexual awakening" for its protagonists (both of whom keep, and act on, their opposite-sex attraction).

There are still be issues with bi representation in cinema, not least the reluctance of anyone to ever utter the word "bisexual" itself in a film, but I hope this whistle-stop tour of some of the more interesting moments in cinematic history have given you a sense of the zig-zagging progress we’ve made. From Lillian Travers taking gender-bending magic seeds in the silent era, through to Oscar-winning depictions of cowboys in love, bi people have always been part of the cinematic landscape — and I’m sure will continue to be so.