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.