Visi(bi)lity: Bisexuality as Rebellion: Sexualizing Women’s Friendships
In the comments of my bromance post last week, a couple of people mentioned that bisexuality tends to be a more accepted trait in women than in men. I agree with this perception. I don’t agree with a theory I’ve heard elsewhere—that women are more inherently sexually fluid than men—but because bisexuality in women is often seen as more attractive and less threatening to the hegemonic male gaze than bisexuality in men, I do believe that women are more likely than men to openly express sexual and/or romantic feelings about other women. Even among straight-identified women I know, it’s socially acceptable and downright commonplace for women to articulate feelings of attraction toward other women. Perhaps due to the titillating nature of sexually fluid women, stories about intimate friendships between women are regularly found in media.
I have noticed that often such stories use sexual fluidity among young women to signify rebellion against hegemonic institutions. In stories ostensibly about conflict between women and their families and women and male lovers, hints of bisexuality are present as indications of the larger ways in which the women in question are opposing oppression.
The example that immediately comes to mind for me is Heavenly Creatures, based on the true story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme. Pauline and Juliet are social outcasts who become extremely close friends and decide to create their own artistic fantasy world, where they make all the rules. I’ve heard it suggested that they are supposed to be lesbians (as depicted in the film; the real life Juliet has denied that she and Pauline were lovers), but they are also depicted as having relations with and attractions to men, so I think “bisexual” is a more apt description. Their intimate friendship and the world they create are intended to be tools to escape from (and rebel against) their oppressive school system, chronic illnesses that afflict them, and families who control their behavior and identities. Pauline and Juliet may genuinely feel romantic love toward each other, but the way it comes across on screen makes it seem as though this love develops as a defense mechanism when their friendship and fantasy world are threatened by external sources. (I won’t spoil the end of the movie, because if you haven’t seen it, you really should. It’s definitely Peter Jackson’s best. Sorry, Lord of the Rings fans, but it’s true.)
Moving on, from a movie I love to one I, frankly, don’t particularly like: let’s talk about Jennifer’s Body. To be fair, the film has some interesting elements. It’s basically a hipster satire of the 1980s rape-revenge genre, a decent concept that suffered from poor execution. The film tells the story of Jennifer (played by openly bisexual Megan Fox), a beautiful, popular teenage girl who is murdered and then returns to life as a succubus, seeking revenge on men who have wronged her. But Jennifer’s demonic transformation isn’t the core of the film—her relationship with her best friend Needy is. And even though Jennifer and Needy both date and sleep with men throughout the course of the film, the sexual tension between the two of them is palpable. Whether Needy identifies as queer is ambiguous, but Jennifer admits to “go[ing] both ways,” implying a degree of bisexuality. Jennifer’s bisexuality, which appears to make Needy simultaneously anxious and aroused, may in fact be a side-effect of her supernatural possession. It’s presented as one of the ways in which she’s able to counter the hegemonic straight masculinity she is intent on dismantling at school, and incorporating her best friend into this rebellion, while perhaps based on innate attraction, seems to be one strategy in a larger battle.
These are just two examples, but it’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed often, and one that significantly differs from the way in which bromances are depicted. While the intimacy between men presented in Superbad and Humpday is incredibly personal, only discussed behind closed doors, the intimacy between women presented in Heavenly Creatures and Jennifer’s Body is much more overt and conscious of its greater significance. Since sexual fluidity is typically seen as more acceptable in women than in men, it makes sense that the intimacy in women’s friendships is able to be so much more direct than the sort of intimacy between men in bromances.
What other differences have you noticed between the ways in which intimate friendships between women and intimate friendships between men are depicted in media?
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