During the first two episodes of The Bisexual, I kept thinking, “There’s not a single queer person on the internet who isn’t going to be offended by this in some way” — and by the end of the season, I understood that was the point. Miseducation of Cameron Post director Desiree Akhavan‘s new series, a partnership between the UK’s Channel 4 and Hulu, tells a story you think you’ve heard before, but you haven’t. Akhavan, who’s bisexual in real life, plays Leila, a self-identified lesbian in her mid-30s who breaks up with Sadie (Maxine Peak), her partner of ten years, because Sadie wants to get married and have children and it makes Leila panic. Not long after their break, Leila decides to explore her attraction to men for the first time in her life. What follows is the fallout, for her, for Sadie, for their lesbian friends, for their co-workers, for their parents, for everyone whose lives touch hers in some way.
Akhavan has done something truly brilliant here. She’s created a show for an audience that understands the joke “Bette is a Shane trying to be a Dana” and then centers it on a character who’s meant to make everyone who gets that joke a little uncomfortable. Leila, for example, doesn’t decide to have sex with a man one night and wake up the next morning as a fully formed bisexual role model, confident in her identity as a person who’s attracted to more than one gender, ready to lead the charge to banish erasure and champion inclusion. She doesn’t even want to use the word “bisexual.” And anyway, the fact of her bisexuality isn’t what she’s interested in thinking about or dealing with. She wants to be sexually satisfied, and she misses the comfort and companionship of a relationship that just didn’t turn her on anymore, and she doesn’t know how to exist as her full self in the disparate physical spaces she now inhabits, and she’s grappling with the sudden realization that she’s well into the second act of her life, and yeah she still wants to have sex with women.
It’s everyone else who doesn’t know how to relate to Leila’s bisexuality, especially her lesbian friends. They shun it, or don’t accept it as real, or don’t understand what it really means in terms of the way she moves through the world, or what it means about who she was before she expressed it, or if it changes their relationship with her. Everyone’s clear on what it means to be a lesbian (but don’t you worry, there’s plenty of clowning to be done on it), and everyone has a completely different idea about what it means to be bisexual. Not gay. Well, not fully gay. She gets it from all sides.
We live in a time when The Discourse is at a fever pitch, where every pop culture portrayal of a queer identity is shaken down to the lowest common denominator of “good” or “bad,”; where every character on every show who is either queer or interacting with a queer must say or do The Right Thing; where any show that makes a misstep in portraying a minority is written off as this or that -phobic (and should be boycotted by queer viewers and writers); where the default angle queer critics are supposed to take is Here’s How This Thing Aggrieves Me. Most pitches I get from college students these days are about Why X Is Problematic, not only because that’s the thinking many young queer writers are surrounded by, but also because that’s what sells right now.
And, look, I have dedicated my life to holding storytellers accountable for their portrayals of queer people. Good pop culture representation is crucial for minorities — for reasons as micro as self-identification and as macro as accessing the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. It’s a big deal how we see ourselves and how other people see us on-screen. But there’s a kind of furious dogma that’s choking the nuance out of the conversation we’re having about our stories. In fact, it’s discouraging us from having a conversation entirely, and trading in that give-and-take of ideas for a checklist that authorizes our outrage.
What impresses me most about The Bisexual isn’t that it skewers The Discourse, but that it ignores it completely in favor of having an actual dialogue. Sadie, Leila’s ex-girlfriend, is ten years older her, and she understands Leila’s bisexuality to be an extra level of betrayal. Through gritted teeth and tears she explains growing up as a “dyke in the ’80s,” and the shame and humiliation she put herself through to try to be attracted to men, and the pain she caused herself and her mother when she just couldn’t do it. She thought Leila had that fundamental experience in common with her, and she was wrong, and it’s devastating.
A conversation with an undergrad who’s sleeping with Leila’s straight dude roommate is the opposite thing. She doesn’t understand what the big deal is, identifying as bisexual. She says she’s queer. Leila says everyone under 25 is queer. Then, “I think it’s different. I think when you have to fight for it, being gay can become the biggest part of you. And being gay or straight, it comes with an entirely different lifestyle, like different clothes and different friends and you can’t do both. I don’t mean to be condescending to you. I just don’t know what it’s like to grow up with the internet, but I sense that it’s changing your relationship to gender and sexuality in a really good way, but in a way that I can’t relate to.”
Everything you need to know about the show is really in the title: The Bisexual. The Bisexual. It’s mocking itself and the idea that any one person, any one TV character, can be The anything; as if people grouped by sexuality or gender identity or racial identity are a monolith, and the fullness of their humanity can be expressed and explored through the actions of a single individual. Akhavan seems completely uninterested in answering the FAQ on what it means to be A Bisexual. In fact, she doesn’t really seem intent on answering anything at all. Instead, she asks myriad questions that pierce the armor of our assuredness, questions about how one human being, and the people she loves, might experience this specific revelation at this specific moment in time. Akhavan’s characters absolutely do not always do or say The Right Thing, but her writing is overflowing with compassion.
Language is not precise, and it’s constantly evolving; the meaning of a label to one person might mean a completely different thing to someone else; we are, most of us, doing the best we can in our whisper of time on this earth, in these cursed bodies, plagued by the pain and insecurities of our past experiences, driven by our known and unexplored desires, buoyed by the hope of promises we’ve yet to hear spoken.
“What do you want?” the first man Leila sleeps with asks during their morning-after sex.
Her voice is gentle; not for him, but for herself. She almost laughs. She says, “I don’t know.”