Hulu’s “The Bisexual” Is Here to Make Every Queer a Little Uncomfortable

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.

Tina and Bette.

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.

Alice and Shane.

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.”

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 734 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading such mixed reviews about this, but your take makes me far more interested to watch this than anything else I’ve encountered. Not with certainty that I’ll like all of it, but that it will at least be something Different and Worthwhile. 🙂

  2. I saw a screening of the first two eps last night, followed by a q and a with desi. She was asked about any pressure of representation she feels and was like “I mean where’s the bar, Anne Heche?” But then spoke to the reality of a story being relevant because it’s authentic and resonant even it is not politically “responsible.” And I feel like this conversation is happening in other parts of the LGTBQ community right now in a way that’s really exciting, finally, that we don’t need to abide The Discourse or defy stereotypes or the talking points of our enemies in order to have our identities be considered valid or our human rights fundamental. I’m glad there are ppl out there telling stories like Desiree Akhvan is.

    I think we demand a certain level of responsibility from ppl outside of our community who decide to tell our stories for us, which is fine. But there’s a difference between being irresponsible and just being honest, even when the truth isn’t always what we want it to be.

    Incredible review, very thought provoking!

  3. Man, I am up for whatever Desiree Akhavan is throwing down, and to be totally frank, I’m more interested in messy interesting characters that look like people I’ve met than like, a perfectly well adjusted queer person who has never thought a bad thought in their entire lives. We are not perfect, fictional characters on tv are not perfect, and it makes for better TV when they’re not like, Breaking Bad level sketchy but still like, oof, wish you were a little less messy too. LIKE OURSELVES AND OUR FRIENDS AND ALL QUEERS EVERYWHERE.

  4. I watched the first episode and didn’t like it because I found all characters unlikable and the writing and directing cliché. But you’ve made me rethink and I think I’ll go watch more episodes.

  5. I really enjoyed this show, especially the conversations referenced in the review. Also I have been to a Lesbians in Business networking event like the one in the show, and it was just as terrible in real life, although sadly with less Maxine Peake.

  6. My main problem with the show, as someone’s already said above, was that I just didn’t like any of the characters.

    But the 2 moments mentioned with Sadie talking about being a dyke in the 80s and Leila talking about the difference between people who grew up with the internet and people who didnt were really poignant and interesting, and I wanted more of that queer stuff and less of her boring straight guy housemate

  7. I was incredibly sceptical of this because the channel 4 advert was just like, a clip of someone saying something biphobic and then laughing, but I didn’t realise it was written by a bisexual person. Thanks for this informative review!

  8. I’m excited to see this! The possibility of losing my “queer identity” almost scared me away from a beautiful person whom I assumed was male but– surprise!– turned out to be very queer and not male, and is now my partner. I still struggle with being read as straight by pretty much everyone because I DON’T want to share my business constantly and make everything about my queerness. I date other people occasionally and recently made out with a girl on a street corner and felt a thrill of pride at being so visibly gay. Why don’t I get to be that proud with my wonderful partner, who the world throws toxic masculinity at all day? Am I a Bad Queer? I don’t have answers. But it’s messy. So I’m excited to see this show.

  9. This was amazing and beautiful. I wish I could express better how grateful I feel that you go and tackle some of the most difficult and sensitive issues regarding the state of art of The Discourse, and take responsibility for where it is going. We (and especially you at AS) have been watchdogs and continue to be, but as we get more (and more diverse) representation, we must find new angles and new roles too. The show sounds interesting, and the lines you quoted, especially the one about the consequences of having had to fight, really resonated. Thank you for continuing to be the best!

  10. This bisexual also really enjoyed it, I watched the first two episodes on Channel 4 then binged the rest. I tend to love anything that (love of my life) Maxine Peake is in, and she was phenomenal in this. I loved the messiness of the characters and the different spheres of experience that influenced how the characters interacted with the world and each other, especially Deniz. I’ve really enjoyed Desiree Akhavan’s output so far (and her amazing jumpsuits, omg) and look forward to even more messy, human queer stories.

  11. Loved this show so much, I actually created an autostraddle account especially to comment about it. I was the lesbian woman, who fell in love with a man in my late 20’s. I’m still with him now five years on and it’s an odd situation to be in. I identify as bisexual because I feel it’s the label that most accurately represents my sexuality, in acknowledging my history and my current relationship. But I also find it odd, when people know I’m bisexual and try to talk to me about men. Because I’ve only really ever been attracted to one guy and the label bisexual still seems to imply an equal split of attraction which I’ve never felt. I’m lucky though, most of the people I’m friends with ID as queer/ pan/ bi so I never felt isolated from my community.

    Anyway enough about me. You can tell this show was written by two queer women, it feels a long way from the male gaze or having bisexuality as a titillating fantasy. Plenty of in jokes that make it feel so different from the usual approach to bisexuality from a ‘straight’ perspective, with a protagonist exploring same gender attraction as an outsider.

    At one point when Leila is having sex with a man for the first time she laughs and says something to the effect of “it’s just the same.” When I first started to date a guy, a lot of mainly straight people always seemed to fixate on how different sex must be… but it really isn’t. Sex is the same awkward, sweaty, intimacy basically regardless of what junk you have in your pants.

    I do hope that if they do a second series Leila will end up owning her bisexuality though. It’s so painfully real how much shame she feels about it.

    I really enjoyed the awkward realness of it. I loved how flawed the characters were and I didn’t dislike them for being flawed, if anything I related to them more because of it.

    Completely agree there was too much focus on the straight male flatmate though.

  12. Autostraddle, I am very grateful that you aren’t a website dedicated to endless “Here’s Why X is Problematic”, and I know it might be easier for you to go with the zeitgeist on this one, but I’m so glad you don’t. Your dedication to finding stuff to lift up instead of looking for things to tear down is why I subscribe.

  13. I loved the series (binged it last week) and have been eagerly awaiting Heather’s review – this did not disappoint. As a similar-aged bisexual to Leila, it was almost painfully relatable. The pre-internet queers line made me tear up when I watched it.

  14. Interesting, sounds like a continued dialogue with Chasing Amy. That movie similarly made a lot of people uncomfortable, and a lot of queer audience’s take away was it delegitimize lesbianism. I took it was more of a struggle of identity, and rounding up your sexuality to make other people comfortable. I can see this show being more successful because it’s not written and expressed through a straight males perspective. Alyssa ultimately was Holden’s magic pixie dream girl of wokeness, its refreshing to see that this will be the titular Bisexuals story.

  15. “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.”
    Just…thank you for this, Heather.

  16. I’m otherwise sick of the “lesbian-identified woman realizes she’s bi” thing but it is a thing real people go through that deserves to be represented, and if there’s anyone I absolutely trust to Get It Right it’s Desiree Akhavan. Ever since Appropriate Behavior, I’ll watch anything she makes tbh.

    • On being sick of the “lesbian realizes she’s bisexual” trope: This isn’t that. (Unless you watch it and it turns out to be exactly what you’re talking about, in which case, sorry.) The protagonist has known for a while that she was attracted to men as well, but found out during the course of a LTR with a woman spanning her entire post-college life, so she never acknowledged or acted on it. Now she’s exploring how it feels to ID as bi and how to “act bi” and what it all means for herself and the people around her. A lot of different perspectives, some cringeworthily stereotypical (and treated as such, but with compassion), and others very unusual to find represented in the media but probably true to life for a lot of us, queer and otherwise. I found it too uncomfortable to want to rewatch it, but I’m not at all sorry I watched it the first time and will go back for the second season if they make one.

  17. Heather, as always, I love every word you write. I really agree that the way queer content is critiqued does not leave much room for nuance, which is really sad because queer people are just people, and people come in all shades of grey. We need to be allowed to tell stories about our humanity, flawed as it may be.

    I get that when there is not a lot of representation for marginalized identities, there is the desire or pressure to show characters as perfect or ideal. But I feel like we’ve progressed as a society to the point where we have sufficient representation to be able to fill in the color and really flesh people out. We should be allowed to be problematic and fallible, to be human.

    I have been closely following Desiree Akhavan ever since Appropriate Behavior. I am still sad I have yet to see the Miseducation of Cameron Post but I am so glad I have been able to watch The Bisexual. So much in that show rang true to me and you can tell that all of it comes from a really honest place. The exchange near the end where Leila said “I gave you my twenties” and Sadie responded “And I gave you my thirties. So which one of us is worse off?” absolutely gutted me.

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