(Straight) Girls’ Night: Biphobia in Sex and the City

I wasn’t expecting to feel so vulnerable that night. The five of us were enjoying a “girls’ night”: on this occasion, a pajama-clad Sex and the City marathon. Though I find this show extremely problematic in terms of gender and racial representation–and especially in the equation of consumerism with feminist empowerment–I didn’t feel especially targeted until I watched the episode “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…” that evening. The representation of bisexual men and women was not only cruel and misleading, it was painful to watch knowing that I was the only one in the room being affected in such a negative way.

Carrie Bradshaw, sex-columnist and liberated woman, begins dating Sean–a man in his twenties–and is surprised to hear that he was once in a relationship with a man. She confides in her friends, telling them “he’s a bisexual.” Carrie’s choice of sentence structure turns her date’s sexual orientation from an adjective to a noun, rendering it into a dehumanizing slur and emphasizing the invisibility of straight orientation (no one would ever say Carrie was “a straight”). Samantha, the woman in the group who is the least sexually inhibited, cracks, “Well, I could’ve told you that, sweetie. He took you ice skating, for God’s sakes.” The humor in Samantha’s joke relies on script theory–the narratives impressed upon us by society that govern our sexual encounters and keep them in line with heteronormativity. Ice skating, according to this script, is not a proper activity for a straight man. It is too feminine, and is thus acceptable only for women and gay men (who are defined, in heteronormative culture, by their femininity.) The episode progresses with Carrie’s journey to understand and accept Sean’s sexual identity, and the dialogue continues to be replete with bisexual bashing.

While Samantha accepts Sean’s identity, it’s not without a trace of othering: “He’s open to all sexual experiences. He’s evolved. He’s hot.” Samantha’s giving support to the common myth that bisexuals are, as a group, open to new sexual experiences more so than heterosexuals. To say so is not only a gross generalization, it is exoticizing a group of people and rendering them deviant. Miranda disagrees, saying, “He’s not hot. It’s greedy. He’s double dipping.”  This statement expresses fear of a perceived predatory sexuality that supposedly defines all bisexual people and threatens the dominant values of partner objectification (i.e. he/she is my boyfriend/girlfriend). Charlotte agrees, saying, “I’m very into labels; gay, straight, pick a side and stay there.” This assumes that all people fall into either side of a binary and that those who identify as bisexual are greedy, refusing to choose (undermining the legitimacy of bisexuality as a sexual orientation), or simply confused. As Carrie puts it while attending a party with Sean’s bisexual friends, “I was Alice in Confused-Sexual-Orientation Land.” Perhaps the greatest offense of these many slurs is the moment where Carrie states, “You know, I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown.”

The complete erasure of bisexuality as a sexual orientation–an erasure, in this case, conducted by a member of the dominant group, but which can also result from dismissal by gay-identified people–has the potential to cause devastating psychological effects on bisexual people. In addition to dealing with everyday manifestations of heterosexism, bisexual individuals also face discrimination from the gay community, some of whom hold the opinion that bisexual people want the best of both worlds, and that they benefit from straight privilege. People from both the straight and the gay communities have denied the bisexual existence, and erasing or devaluing the personal lived experience of a minority has serious psychological consequences.

As I watched the episode with my friends, I began to feel the effects of an–unchallenged–erasure of my sexual identity. As with most instances of privilege, those who have it never have to think about it. My straight friends were laughing along with the jokes, not aware that the excessive bisexual bashing–not to mention the usage of a part of my identity as a plot device–was making me feel ill. The ignorance and privilege of Carrie and her friends was being reflected perfectly by my own friends. It is clear that bisexual visibility and biphobia are problems in contemporary American society. Until a solid community emerges that doesn’t ask bisexual individuals to choose between gay and straight culture, the erasure of bisexual identity is sure to continue unchallenged.

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Kat is a proud half-Jewish bisexual feminist kitten-loving lady who sleeps with her pants tucked into her socks. She spends far too much time writing fanfiction, and pretends to blog regularly at kaylefay.blogspot.com.

8 thoughts on “(Straight) Girls’ Night: Biphobia in Sex and the City”

  1. Thank you for posting this! When people ask me why I don’t like Sex and the City, I direct them to this episode. It was the first episode I saw and I never really got over the feeling of being dismissed in such an absolute way. I’m bi (something only a few people know in real life) and I hear these same tropes everywhere. Hearing them was part of what kept me from embracing (not just ‘accepting’) my attraction to women earlier. I thought things like: “I must just be ‘experimenting,'”; “I don’t want anyone to think I’m doing it for attention,”; “I like men, too, so doesn’t that just mean I’m probably just straight?” It sounds a lot like what the Sex and the City women said at the table, except that no one who heard my inner debate would have found it amusing. Hearing them reinforce all the negative things I was already thinking about myself was strangely painful. It also gave me some clarity – my first reaction was, “Fuck you, ladies,” and I knew I was right to be angry. Glad to know other people find this episode problematic!

    1. Hearing them was part of what kept me from embracing (not just ‘accepting’) my attraction to women earlier. I thought things like: “I must just be ‘experimenting,’”; “I don’t want anyone to think I’m doing it for attention,”; “I like men, too, so doesn’t that just mean I’m probably just straight?”

      I’ve been struggling with this exactly thought war with myself.  It’s extra rough for me because, even though I’m pretty confident I’m attracted to women, I also can’t deny that I have a lot of anxiety about men, thanks to issues from childhood.  So add to all those, “I must just be trying to be into women because I’m afraid of men,” and I feel like I’ll never be able to come out to anyone, outside of the safety net of the internet and my therapist.

      I hate the prevailing view of sexuality, reflected oh so perfectly in this episode, that you must be on one “team” or the other, with regards to who you want to rub naughty bits with.  Why do we put so much stock into solidly picking one or the other and sticking with it FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER?  As a society, we all would be so much better off if we could accept a little ambiguity now and then.

  2. I think that the brunch “round-table” parts SATC often showed the characters saying what the writers thought women of whichever represented demographic or mindset would say for the sake of making it look like a debate.  It would ring false if they were all perfectly open-minded, you know?  What year is this episode from?  The noun/verb issue might actually reflect liberal semantics of that time.

    Did the episode discuss Carrie’s reasons for being uncomfortable dating someone who’s bisexual?  Or did it just turn into a whole bi joke fest?

    1. It’s Season 3, Episode 4, which aired in 2000. I totally get what you’re saying about it being unrealistic if they had all agreed that bisexuality was all fine and normal, but the problem was that it was NEVER presented as normal. Bisexuality is presented as either greedy (bad) or hot (good), and neither of those are acceptable options for me, and for, I suspect, other bisexual individuals. Either way, we’re hyper-sexualized as rabid consumers of men and women, or–rabid consumers of men and women. The only difference in the two opinions is how it makes the straight woman in question FEEL, not the “fact” that we’re all promiscuous to begin with.

      I don’t want this to sound like a rant against you–it’s not. I just don’t think the writers handled that episode very well, and yes, it did turn into a joke fest by the end.

  3. Great post! I love this series so much that a part of me wants to excuse this and say, “But the writers were just trying to be funny!” But no. I can’t make that excuse. You are right to point out that the writers have definitely taken sides here and the way they portrayed bisexuality in this episode is disgusting. Even when Samantha decides to date Maria in season 4, she calls herself a lesbian when really, she’s just bi. Though she has the courage to say it’s hot that other people are into both sexes, she can’t attach the label to herself. I never noticed the inconsistency or bias of the show until you posted this. Thanks for this well thought out post.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! And yeah, I think feminists and progressives have an ambivalent relationship with pop culture just as you’ve described; I know that even relatively progressive shows (i.e. Sex and the City, Buffy) can fail and fail hard by means of erasure, for humor and other reasons and I always want to justify it to myself. But part of interacting with pop culture is criticizing it, and sometimes that makes me appreciate it more.

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