Female Director Spotlight: Desiree Akhavan Tackles Sexuality with Refreshing Honesty

Often semi-autobiographical in nature, Desiree Akhavan’s work unabashedly celebrates what it means to be an Iranian-American bisexual woman. As an openly bisexual filmmaker who centers her experience of bisexuality in most of her works, Akhavan has had to frequently deal with critics expecting her to deliver a “taboo-breaking drama on bisexuality.” To this, Akhavan responded in an interview for the Independent that she is merely trying “to figure shit out for [her]self” rather than put forth a “taboo-breaking” narrative on the matters of gender and sexuality. Indeed, it is worth questioning why gay artists are expected to deliver ground-breaking work when the film industry persistently denies funding, access, and support for gay artists. When gay people are still fighting for their right to simply exist, ground-breaking becomes a luxury reserved for the most privileged. 

At the core of Akhavan’s filmography is the pervading sense that bisexuality is an incredibly isolating experience, particularly when you belong to several cultural identities that are at odds with each other. Brought up in America and by a Iranian family, Akhavan’s work understands that bisexuality — if accurately understood at all— is difficult to figure out when bisexuals do not have supportive families and the resources to access positive bisexual narratives. From characters whose bisexuality are mistakenly portrayed as the source of their confusion to characters who utilise their bisexuality to manipulate others, bisexuality in media is as Akhavan says, the last taboo. The media is saturated with harmful stereotypes of bisexuality, which leaves bisexuals feeling isolated as to who they are and can possibly be. It is for this reason that much of Akhavan’s work is semi-autobiographical. In Akhavan’s work, the personal is important, especially when bisexuals are rarely given the opportunity to speak for themselves.

Drawn from her own experiences, her films are about surviving in a homophobic society where bisexuality continues to be a forbidden topic by both the straight and gay community. There is no taboo-breaking drama to be found because the lives of LGBTQ individuals hardly ever are. Instead, Akhavan’s films are awash with tender empathy — and some light-hearted humour  — for gay people who are simply trying to exist as they are.

The Bisexual (2018)

While her television series The Bisexual and her film Appropriate Behaviour are strikingly similar in their semi-autobiographical nature — Akhavan casts herself as the central bisexual protagonist Leila — they navigate different experiences of bisexuality. The Bisexual details the life of Leila, an Iranian-American bisexual woman who is just coming to terms with being bisexual after identifying as a lesbian for many years. Biphobic statements like “your genitals have no allegiance” are thrown around off-handedly by both Leila and her friends alike, depicting a society which has little to no understanding of bisexuality. What is interesting, however, is that The Bisexual does not overtly condemn such statements.

Maxine Peake and Desiree Akhavan in ‘The Bisexual’

There is no refutation of such stereotypes or answers at all as to what is right or wrong, only an empathetic portrayal of a woman who can’t quite figure out who she is amidst such suffocating biphobic narratives. Leila was rejected by her parents when she came out as lesbian and has spent majority of her life in a committed relationship with her lesbian partner Sadie (Maxine Peake). When that falls apart because Sadie wants a child and Leila isn’t ready for that, Leila is left wandering aimlessly in heartbreak. She makes out with a man. She doesn’t know what that means, except that this might hurt Sadie, who sincerely believed that Leila understood what it was like to be a “dyke in the 80s.”

Desiree Akhavan in ‘The Bisexual’

Sadie’s hurt is very real — the series does not deny that. Nevertheless, Sadie is not a saint either for making out with their co-worker seconds after their break-up. Irrespective of sexuality, some relationships inevitably turn sour. Leila is struggling to come to terms with her bisexuality after years of solely navigating lesbian spaces, but this struggle happens to occur right in the middle of a devastating break-up. It happens to occur when Leila loses all sense of security in place, people, and love. It also happens to occur in a society that is biphobic and homophobic. In The Bisexual, our experience of sexuality is not the-anything — it is varied, rich, and affected by external events that is out of anybody’s control. 

Appropriate Behaviour (2014)

Similarly, Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour portrays an honest outlook towards sexuality. This time, Akhavan focuses on what it means to experience bisexuality with a family who expects you to marry a man one day. Based loosely on her personal experiences as an Iranian-American bisexual woman, Appropriate Behaviour highlights how difficult it is to navigate sexuality when matched with parents who can’t quite accept their daughter’s sexuality. Unlike Leila in The Bisexual who is still figuring out her identity, the film’s protagonist Shirin knows that she is bisexual, but is not out to family yet. Shirin self-deprecatingly jokes about failing to be a good Persian daughter — not that any one of her white partners or friends understands. She fumbles to introduce her lesbian partner Maxine to her parents, opting for calling her a mere friend or best friend who shares a bed, much to Maxine’s disdain.

Desiree Akhavan in ‘Appropriate Behaviour’

All around Shirin, people don’t understand what exactly is so hard about coming out. It makes for an uncomfortable watch when Shirin off-handedly speaks of homosexuals who are stoned to death in Iran. Yet, for Shirin, these are factors which impact her experience of bisexuality. These are factors she jokes about, because it is the only way she knows how to cope living in a predominantly white society that prides itself on progress, but ironically hasn’t caught up with cultural intricacies of sexuality and coming out.

Desiree Akhavan in ‘Appropriate Behaviour”

Here, white queer narratives that operate on a polarising dichotomy of acceptance or nothing at all are challenged. Many people meet halfway — somewhere in between acceptance and betrayal, somewhere in between progress and regression. In an interview with Iranian-Canadian journalist Tina Hassannia, Akhavan explained that Appropriate Behaviour is about “a woman who [is] incapable of being appropriate, and belonging to many subsets that required a certain way of being.” Just as The Bisexual refuses to limit itself to a monolithic definition of what bisexuality means, Appropriate Behaviour refuses to subscribe to an “appropriate” way of doing bisexuality. In fact, it shows us that any so-called appropriate way to experience sexuality implicitly centralises the norm as the standard, at the expense of excluding people like Shirin. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

While The Bisexual and Appropriate Behaviour are semi-autobiographical, Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a film adapted from a novel by Emily M. Danforth of the same title. If The Bisexual and Appropriate Behaviour are about gay loneliness, then The Miseducation of Cameron Post is about hope. The film follows Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a lesbian who is sent to a Christian conversion therapy camp. Such a premise could have easily led to an exploitative representation of gay trauma, but Akhavan chooses to focus on the joy that arise from the friendships shared between LGBTQ teenagers. More importantly, the film never questions Cameron’s sexuality — she knows that she is a lesbian, and no amount of hateful rhetoric can dispel her confidence in who she is. 

Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Bianca Lane, and Chloë Grace Moretz in ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

Rather, she finds joy in commiserating with two other LGBT teenagers, Jane (Sasha Bianca Lane) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), who are confident in who they are too. The film tells us that these kids have always known who they are, and any kind of self-hatred is programmed by an intolerant culture. Cameron, Jane, and Adam seek solace and hope in their friendships — it is them against homophobic cruelty, and it is them against a world that loves for gay people to hate themselves. The Miseducation of Cameron Post finds the joy in being gay, and clings onto it when all else falls apart. 

Desiree Akhavan’s works are refreshingly honest about our experiences of sexuality. Rather than designate a singular definition of how one should speak of sexuality, her films earnestly foregrounds that there are many ways of feeling at home with who you are. As the industry continues to place gay artists on a pedestal, Akhavan shows us that words like subversive, ground-breaking, and taboo-breaking are incongruent with our actual experiences. Most of us aren’t trying to be ground-breaking. Most of us are simply trying to survive, and Akhavan’s films let us know that survival is enough.

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