Despite the stereotype that the artistic elite is comprised of mostly queer tastemakers, our community's television shows have always been a mixed bag.
Looking and Queer as Folk were both bogged down by a lack of racial and economic representation, and while The L Word did a little better on the diversity front, the cult-classic often devolved into melodrama. Most of our stories that have made their way to the silver screen are usually mediocre or penned by straight people -- sadly, often both. Transparent was good, but portrayed the trans experience of an upper middle-class white family. Now, arguably the whole project has been sullied by Jeffrey Tambor’s sexual misconduct with actually trans castmate, Trace Lysette. So what’s left?
Enter The Bisexual, an at times sloppy but provocative and heartfelt reflection on modern queer life. Conceived by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, the same writing/directing duo of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the series follows Leila, a lesbian expat living in London, as she explores her newfound bisexuality. Confused? You should be, because so is Leila.
The series opens with Leila (played by Akhavan) splitting with her lover and flatmate, Sadie. She moves in with a struggling heterosexual writer and attempts to navigate the professional and personal aftermath of ending a ten year relationship. This is all compounded with the realization that she’s also sexually interested in men. What follows is six episodes of sexual and emotional mishaps, as Leila struggles with what it means to shed an identity for a new one.
The show has faced some criticism for its cynicism, which targets queer people as much as straight ones. Whether it’s Leila’s gay secretary and her obnoxiously cool sense of style or the cast’s hilarious trip to a hyper-trendy east London hangout which forgoes music for performance art -- personally, I found it exhilarating to see urban queer culture taken to task. While several critics took issue with The Bisexual’s lack of “likeable” characters, I saw quite a bit of myself and friends in this diverse cast of characters: the ex Sadie, a hardened butch lesbian whose conservative upbringing has permanently placed a chip on her shoulder, still-closeted Turkish best friend Deniz, a young Argentine student named Francessa who dates men and dubiously calls herself “queer,” and the emotionally damaged and clingy Tania. As evidenced, there is no singular queer experience, and the show comes alive, much like my personal queer family does, when its characters attempt to define what it means to be queer for themselves and each other.
One of the most inspired exchanges comes when Francessa, who is dating Leila’s straight roommate, attempts to relate to Leila by revealing that she identifies as queer. Leila retorts, “Everyone under 25 thinks they’re queer.”
“And you think they’re wrong?”
“No,” Leila shoots back, before more carefully adding, “I think it’s different. When you have to fight for it, I think being gay can become the biggest part of you… and I don’t mean to be condescending. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with the Internet. But I just get the sense that it’s changing your relationship to gender and to sexuality -- in a really good way, but in a way I can’t relate to.”
Francessa stares at her blankly and says, “I think you’re making a problem where there isn’t one.”
Naturally, the show tackles bisexual erasure, but does so with tact, acknowledging the deep seeded pain that fuels it. When Leila’s best friend demands, “Why did you pretend to be a lesbian?” her voice shakes with something different than anger. It’s later revealed through flashbacks that Leila was the first fellow queer Deniz met. The bond formed with the person who first gave you a taste of community is not lost on queer viewers. Nor is Deniz’s feeling of betrayal, irrational as it may be, when she finds out that the first person she ever met who was like her, isn’t actually like her.
Clunkily transitioning between cultural satire and emotional poignancy, the show hasn’t quite found its balance yet. But for all the tonal unevenness, you have to respect Arkhavan and her team’s ambition. Creating smart and intersectional queer content is difficult, and the mere fact The Bisexual centers non-white and non-Western queer narratives is reason enough to renew it for a second season. Because when all of the The Bisexual’s moving parts come together, it’s compelling television. In episode three, Leila storms out of a club and dumps the man she’s been seeing with little explanation. He tells her, “You can’t just open someone up and make them feel safe and then change your mind the next day. It makes your intimacy worth shit.”
Leila’s eyes flutter with shock. By the end of the season, she regrettably discovers that dating men is just as complicated as dating women. Seeing queer people portrayed honestly in the media reminds our community that our lives and love stories are worthy of dramatization. It also reminds us of our capacity to hurt one another. What a scary and exciting thing.
You can watch the first season of The Bisexual on Hulu.