Review: Looking Awry: Presenting Bisexual* Desire on Screen

Reviewed by Aike Jansen

From 27th of September until October 1st, Glaswegians can again delight in the best of queer film during SQIFF. For the third year in a row, Scottish Queer International Film Festival is promoting LGBTIQ+ cinema – getting people to watch and talk about films they would otherwise not have the chance to see, whilst creating informative events alongside it. Perhaps symbolic for the neglect of bisexual experiences within LGBTQ+ politics, activism and communities, representation of bisexuality in film was completely lacking in the first two years of SQIFF. To make up for this “fuck-up”, there is now a bi-specific programme, kicking off with a ride through cinematic representations of bisexuality presented by Jacob Engelberg, the programmer of Brighton-based queer film strand Eyes Wide Open Cinema.

Mentioning and showing clips of an incredible variety of films, from vampire movie to queer cinema to more mainstream features, and referring to a range of theorists, Jacob Engelberg questions not how to improve bisexual representation on screen, but how it even becomes recognizable. “Because to address bisexuality is to affirm that bisexuality is real.”

Often when watching a film, we read desire through the image and attach sexuality as a result of what we see. Thus visual depictions can be read together as affirming the bisexuality of a character. In Inappropriate Behaviour, verbal authentication is also used, the main character explicitly saying that she is bisexual as well as having relationships with men and women. Yet, often, cinema isn’t so straightforward, and characters are usually being read against a ‘coming out’ or ‘going straight’ narrative. As such, Brokeback Mountain for example, is seen as “that gay film”, but since both men also have a relationship with a woman too, why not as a bi film, questions Engelberg. Seeing this portrayed often enough in visual media, it’s all too easy to internalize this narrative, whether you’re a bi, straight or gay person. Similarly, if the only way to represent bisexual characters is as non-monogamous or cheating, this sustains stereotypes and ignores all the many other experiences of being bisexual.  

It seems unsurprising that in a society where bisexuality is still seen as an experimental phase you grow out of, bisexuality on screen isn’t recognized either. Throughout the presentation, Engelberg clearly establishes the influence of cinema on life and vice versa.

Quoting bell hooks, who writes that “no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention, [most of us] are usually seduced […] by the images we see on the screen”, the pedagogical nature of cinema, and other visual media, is obvious. Education can start in film and TV, where, by the way, only 0.05% of characters were bisexual in 2010.  When authorities from the Home Office are rejecting asylum seekers because they do not believe or understand their bisexuality, the real-life consequences are too important not to start fighting for a difference. How? By taking bisexuality seriously in your everyday life, and by recognizing that characters in cinema don’t always conform to the strict gay/straight binary.

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