My first female kiss was an alcohol-induced blur, at a backyard party when I was sixteen, on a freedom-high from a recent breakup. Bottle of cheap, pre-mixed alcohol in one hand, I was hit with an astounding moment of clarity: I kind of really liked girls. But the next morning, I was overcome with a familiar sense of guilt, the same kind I regularly felt when I experienced attraction to women. I wasn’t gay, right? I’d had boyfriends, and genuinely enjoyed my time with them. I was attracted to men. TV, the radio, and magazines had taught me bisexuality was promiscuous, indecisive, and most of all, not real.
Take, for example, the song that shot Katy Perry to stardom in 2008: “I kissed a girl and I liked it, the taste of her cherry chapstick. I kissed a girl just to try it, hope my boyfriend don’t mind it!”
The song, and its accompanying video clip, won the 2009 People’s Choice Award for Favourite Pop Song. Cue hazy, pink décor; slow pans of lingerie-clad cleavage and legs; close ups of long-haired Victoria’s Secret-esque girls; and of course, the classic, a pillow fight between barely clothed, conventionally attractive females.
In general, I have no problems with any of the former. I myself am partial to attractive women in underwear. But the underlying message of the video is clear in the tropes which translate teenage boy’s fantasies onto screen: female queerness is only acceptable when performed for the male gaze. What’s more, is the blatant homophobia which underlies the hyper-sexualisation of any bisexual or questioning women: “It felt so wrong, it felt so right!”
If only this were the exception. But time and again, the same old tired stereotypes are dragged out. In “I Luv Dem Strippers,” Nicki Minaj hangs out with 2 Chainz in a strip club, joining him in objectifying interchangeable, faceless strippers as she tucks dollar bills into their panties. In “Lil Freak”, she performs the seduction of a young, bewildered girl for the watching eye of Usher, alongside lyrics like “you go get some girls and bring em to me … let her put her hands in your pants, be my little freak.” Shakira and Rihanna roll around on a futon stroking each other’s bodies, to extremely irrelevant lyrics intercut with even more irrelevant shots of Shakira in black leather, playing guitar in a swimming pool in “Can’t Remember to Forget You.” In the hit “Cool for the Summer”, hinted by Demi Lovato to be about bisexuality, the ultimate bi-phobic downfall of all these experimental-themed trysts is exhibited as she writhes around in spandex and false eyelashes whispering “don’t tell your mother,” stipulating an expiration date for her wild-girl phase. Bisexuality, or girl-on-girl action, is therefore portrayed as temporary, kinky, and ‘naughty’. The thin line between experimentation and fetishisation blurs further in light of the fact that these artists restrict their queerness largely to their professional identities, rather than their personal.
Of course, women should be allowed to express themselves however they like. If posting a nude selfie is what you find empowering – looking at you, Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski – then go for it. Equally valid is wearing a meat dress, swan costume, or a head-to-toe sack. But existing in a society where sexuality is made for consumption, these faux-queer portrayals of women perpetuate a larger problem. It creates an image of bisexuality, or questioning women, as attention-seeking, only doing it for popularity. It renders my sexuality illegitimate. Further, heterosexual performances of bisexuality erase the unique culture and legitimate experiences of real women-loving-women, and replace it with an unfamiliar narrative.
This is not to argue that the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community isn’t sexualised; however, even the most anti-gay of conservatives are unlikely to argue against the existence of homosexuals. Unlike bisexuality, where a recent Buzzfeed video entitled “Questions Gay People Have For Bisexual People” featured a gay man declaring: “they’re not real!” Similarly, Rob Haskell dismissed Cara Delevingne’s bisexuality in the same way. Perhaps even more cutting is the appropriation and subsequent dismissal of bisexuality by pop stars, in order to capitalise on ‘queer’ culture. David Bowie, supposedly a queer icon, called himself a “closet heterosexual” who was just “experimenting” in a series of interviews in the 1980s and 1990s. Nicki Minaj, as previously mentioned, frequently uses her ‘ambiguous’ sexuality to incite speculation and attention. In an act of self-erasure, Jessie J, pop-singer and a coach on ‘The Voice’, recently labelled her relationships with women as “a phase.” The constant undermining of sexual identity faced and perpetuated by bisexual people ensures a continuous scepticism about whether or not we actually exist. In an era where enigmatic celebrities are idolised and influential, their actions reach further than their personal experiences of sexuality.
Fearing “the phase” was what prevented me from coming out in my earlier teenage years. I felt isolated from my straight friends, and unable to venture into the LGBT community. I wrote off my female crushes as drunken escapades – which resulted in me drinking heavily almost every chance I got as to have an excuse to feel that rush which I was sure was teenage experimentation.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2015, bisexuals experience higher rates of mental illness than any other sexuality. How could we not, when we are told we are not real? Community plays a huge part in an individual’s capacity to be resilient; societal acceptance is key in mental stability and equitable access to healthcare. When on the one hand you have those who fetishise your sexual identity, on the other you have those who persistently yells at you to ‘pick a side.’ Solidarity comes in numbers; and when media portrays you as either a sex object or as flighty and untrustworthy, no wonder bisexuality becomes a running joke.
Australian media commentator Peter Ford declared on ‘The Morning Show’ that “it’s not wise to marry a bisexual,” after discussing the recent scandal of Johnny Depp’s alleged abuse towards Amber Heard. But really, when considering how bisexuals are portrayed in the media, who can blame him for having this conception? MTV’s “Faking It” is centred around the two girls who ‘fake’ being a couple to gain popularity at school. “Game of Thrones” character Daenerys Targaryen’s female sexual relationships are largely plot devices used to titillate a male audience. Piper, in “Orange is the New Black” labels herself ‘shallow’ and ‘a former lesbian.’ The very word ‘bisexual’ seems to convey some kind of underlying falseness: suggesting that, ultimately, it’s a phase. Whether it be a passing experimentation aimed at arousing teenage boys or a transitioning period to becoming a “real gay”, LGBT representation largely misses out on the ‘B.’
And the effect of this is undeniable. My manager at my café job, a card-carrying member of the gay community, engaged to a man, who regularly converses with me over the best LGBT clubbing scenes, frequently reminds me that I’ll ‘pick a side eventually.’ An ex love interest of mine expressed his relief when I told him I was dating a girl, as ‘that’s why it didn’t work out!’ Most worryingly, a bisexual member of my university’s queer collective was drunkenly told by a queer officer that she wasn’t ‘queer enough.’
Whilst I may enjoy the aesthetic appeal of Katy Perry’s lipsticked and heel-adorned pillow fight, in reality, it doesn’t represent the majority of most queer women’s experiences. Finally accepting my queer identity means a constant struggle against the caricatures of bisexuality which the media, and some parts of the LGBTQIA+ community, roles out again and again. Bi erasure and hyper-sexualisation should not be the only way to portray bisexual identity, and I’ll keep trying to represent bisexual realities until I am queer enough for the rest of the world.