Art, Autobiography and Sexuality in Desiree Akhavan’s ‘The Bisexual’

Many critics of Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual have condemned it for not being explicitly subversive enough, somehow implying that because of Akhavan’s bisexuality, she necessarily has to write a neat arc which leads up to a climatic acceptance of main character Leila’s sexuality. I believe that form of criticism in itself is worth interrogating: Why do we expect LGBTQ-centered media (particularly, those by LGBTQ artists) to live up to a totalising and universalising narrative, when all of us have differing experiences on sexuality because of our varied socio-political circumstances? And why do we place the burden on LGBTQ people to figure out all there is to do with sex, gender and sexuality when the world is persistently denying and censoring our access to all these things? 

Conflation of Art with Autobiography

Once again, we encounter the politics between art and autobiography, where art is misread as and for sexuality. By conflating Akhavan’s series with autobiography, and by extension, reducing it to sexuality, critics have allowed her series to be measured against hegemonic assumptions of how sexuality should be represented. What is lost in the discussion here is what Akhavan’s series is about, with critics instead discussing what her series should be, which pretty much is a regressive recourse to stereotypes and crude classifications of sexuality. Such criticism also neglects Akhavan’s personal experience of bisexuality, and posits a universalising narrative of how bisexuality should be represented in media. This in turns dictates how Akhavan ought to write a series that fits this narrative—a narrative that is not her own. However, to caution against conflating art with autobiography is not to deny the presence of the artist and their experiences. Rather, it is a reminder to us to constantly interrogate the standards by which we measure art: Are these standards set by the dominant culture on what art made by LGBTQ artists should be?

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Desiree Akhavan and Maxine Peake in ‘The Bisexual’

The Politics of the Label The Bisexual

By naming her series The Bisexual, Akhavan cleverly situates her show within dominant stereotypes of what bisexuality is even before the series is allowed to speak for itself. This tactic highlights the citational nature of sexuality, where sexuality is historically defined more by what others have said about it rather than what it actually is. As a result, sexuality can never be something that an individual willfully owns. The criticism I have mentioned above in my review testifies to this, and also brings out Akhavan’s point — the label “bisexual” is immediately associated with age-old stereotypes. In the show, Leila, who’s dealing with internalised biphobia, describes what both the LGBTQ community and heterosexuals have said of bisexuality: “it’s like your genitals have no allegiance.” A definition like that grossly assumes that the lack of commitment to a relationship is inherent and exclusive only to bisexuals. However, while Leila is portrayed as floating aimlessly through relationships, no one else in the show is placed on a moral pedestal, either. Everyone, regardless of their sexuality, is shown struggling to maintain their romantic relationships because they are either too afraid, too selfish, too egoistical or just all of the above. No one is a complete saint when it comes to love in The Bisexual, and that nulls out the prevailing stereotype that only bisexuals are unable to commit to a relationship.

More than trying to transcend the politics of naming, the series is focused on the process of navigating the discursive muck that is sexuality. What can you do when your sexuality is anything but your own? How can you move on? Akhavan’s The Bisexual is not interested in transcending or fully opposing the politics of naming. Rather, it recognises that as LGBTQ individuals, our understanding of gender and sexuality will inevitably be tied up with hegemonic assumptions of them. All that is left for us to do now is figuring out how much we can reclaim, and how much of it is even worth reclaiming.

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Maxine Peake and Desiree Akhavan in ‘The Bisexual’

In the series, while Leila is shown recognising degrading stereotypes regarding bisexuality, there is no explicit refutation of these stereotypes. In the place of complete resistance is the alienating struggle of figuring out who she is, and can possibly be, while trapped within the impenetrable historicity of sexuality. It is a desolate portrayal of a woman who has only ever understood bisexuality on the terms set by the dominant culture, and thus has to unravel these stereotypes alone without anyone to tell her otherwise. In a similar vein, the dismal lack of positive narratives for bisexuals to look up to is still a visceral reality in this present. From characters whose bisexuality is swept under the reductive label of “simply confused”, to bisexual characters who are portrayed to use their sexuality as a means of manipulation, the current representation of bisexuality in media is still as Desiree Akhavan says, “the last taboo.” 

While critics have accused The Bisexual for not being revolutionary enough, maybe we ought to question what “enough” is, and who gets to set the standards of what “revolutionary” should be. Ironically, in reading Akhavan’s series solely for sexuality and reducing it to sexuality, critics have erased differing cultural experiences of sexuality. Instead, they have hastily used grand (i.e. white) narratives of coming-out and acceptance to read The Bisexual, thus resulting in their claims of it not being subversive, revolutionary or groundbreaking. The increasing pressure for art made by LGBTQ artists to be absolutely groundbreaking neglects the crude reality that many of us do not get to experience what “groundbreaking” feels like. We are told that the work we do can only either be revolutionary or regressive. What is in between is erased. And what is in between is that we are just trying living our lives, revolutionary or not, figuring out how to simply be in a world that persistently colludes in our systemic erasure.

 

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