Image Map

Visi(bi)lity: Performing Bisexuality

An extreme close-up of a young woman's smiling face, as she dances in a room with other women. Disembodied heads, arms, and torsos are visible. The dancing that's going on looks sexual in nature.There are few songs I like less than Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl." I dislike most of her music (that skit she did with Elmo, however, is adorable), but "I Kissed A Girl" bothers me most of all. You'd think such a song would be tailor-made for me—after all, I have, in fact, kissed girls and liked it! But it's really not a song for me, or for any other queer woman (even though I know queer women who like the song). It's a song for straight men who have "lesbian" fantasies in which femme women make out with each other but don't present any actual threat to male sexuality and dominance. It's a song for straight women who find the idea of kissing other women to be a "scandalous" and fun way of entertaining men, but who ultimately aren't romantically or sexually attracted to other women. It's a song about false, constructed, performed bisexuality, and it isn't doing anything to help the acceptance of non-monosexual folks.

Of course, this isn't only Perry's fault, and I don't mean to put the blame on her just because her song perpetuates a tradition of problematic performative bisexuality in pop music. Performative bisexuality has been around much longer than she's been singing about teenage dreams and fireworks. Did it start when Britney and Madonna smooched at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, or was it earlier, when a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich kissed that woman in Morocco? I don't know exactly but you get the point—this has been happening for a long time.

A woman with dark brown hair in a blue bustier is being kissed and touched by two women on either side of her. The woman in the middle looks down, averting eye contact with the camera. The background contains three curtains, two red and one silver, blowing in a breeze.And it didn't end with Perry, either. Toward the end of 2011, I read about a new pop song by Jessica Lowndes, literally titled "I Wish I Was Gay." The song is bad enough, but the music video takes the notion of performing bisexuality to a whole new level. In the video for "I Kissed A Girl," Perry leaves much to the imagination. Despite the title, there is a notable lack of women kissing each other, and though the presence of male spectators is felt through lyrics like "I hope my boyfriend don't mind it," only one man shows up in the entire video, and when he does, he's blissfully unaware of Perry's shenanigans. By contrast, the video for "I Wish I Was Gay" is completely structured as a performance for a male spectator. In the video, Lowndes ties her philandering boyfriend to a chair, dances in front of him with other beautiful women, and emasculates him by shaving his legs and writing on his face with lipstick. For someone who wishes she was gay, Lowndes spends an awful lot of time focused on her boyfriend and simultaneously arousing and tormenting him. Any queerness visible in the video is a tool to entice the male gaze. The story has nothing to do with women Lowndes wishes she found attractive—it's about punishing the man she does find attractive by turning him on and then leaving him high and dry. It's a video about pleasing straight men, not queer women.

What gets to me about images of performed bisexuality is how they reinforce bisexuality as something that can be faked for the purpose of heterosexual seduction. I remember the ways in which the behavior of self-identified bisexual girls was scrutinized by the rest of the student body when I was in high school. There was always a question of which girls were "really" bisexual and which girls were doing it for the attention. Now, I'm not going to say that women never kiss each other for attention, but I find the speculation and accusation offensive. The assumption seems to be that women are only "really" queer if they behave in particular ways, or date particular people, or espouse particular politics. So when Perry sings about her "experimental game" and Lowndes expresses the desire to be gay, not because she finds anything interesting about women but because men treat her poorly, they suggest that women who genuinely do want to experiment sexually with other women are just trying to be "bad" girls or seeking male attention, either to arouse them, tease them, or both.

And here's the thing: It doesn't matter why women kiss each other. Women should have the agency to kiss anyone they feel like kissing, and it shouldn't be seen as scandalous. The reason why songs like "I Kissed A Girl" and "I Wish I Was Gay" treat queerness so casually is because they view such behavior as something naughty. Authentic queer desire can't exist in this space, because if it does, it means the women expressing that desire are doing something wrong.

Perry and Lowndes co-opt bisexuality as a way of firmly reasserting their actual heterosexuality. By doing so, they make bisexuality seem like something that is innately false, a method of performance for the purpose of seducing and/or punishing men. I know that Perry and Lowndes aren't the first to engage in such a performance, but I really hope it ends with them.

Related: Katy Perry Plays Make Believe, Jessica Lowndes Wishes She Was Gay, OPEN THREAD: Jessica Lowndes Wishes She Was Gay in New Music Video

Previously: Post-Bi? What Skins Can Teach Us About Labels, A Tale of Two Alexes: Bi Coming-of-Age Narratives

Guess what? Subscriptions to Bitch—our award-winning, 80+ page print quarterly—are 20% off to help us reach our $25,000 funding goal by September 30. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

18 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Well said!

Well said, BRAVO! I Kissed A Girl has long bothered me for the very same reason. But there is that mixed feeling of -- well, at least something queer-like is being presented in a mainstream forum. Look at Christina Aguillera's much-overplayed "Beautiful", a thinly disguised queer anthem that exploded and ultimately became the viral go-to song for female adolescents struggling with puberty. You never know what a hit will spawn. We can only hope that I Kissed A girl is a step in the right direction, that it may give rise to future catchy tunes focused on the true desire of an individual woman over her desire to perform for others becoming acceptable.
@TarynRose1

The truth is, the fictitious

The truth is, the fictitious woman in this Jessica Lowndes video would love her boyfriend even more for mistreating her because women LIKE being mistreated by men. Men who mistreat women show the confidence and masculinity that (straight) women crave and although they complain about it, they keep coming back, which I'm sure you've all seen play out again and again. They have no respect for "nice" guys who treat them well and don't talk down to them.

anon, I have to seriously

anon, I have to seriously disagree that women like being mistreated by men. I don't know any woman who likes being mistreated by anyone, men or otherwise. I agree that the media perpetuates images of women falling for "bad boys" and rejecting perfectly nice men, but I don't think such images reflect reality at all, just like how the images Katy Perry and Jessica Lowndes perpetuate don't reflect the reality of bi women.

You've assumed you can

You've assumed you can generalize about the masculinity that straight women 'crave', as if 'straight women' were a monolithic group. Women don't respect men who don't talk down to them? This comment itself essentially talks down to women. Google 'nice guy tm' and you'll find plenty of interesting critiques of these types of claims.

You're So Gay

As bad as I Kissed a Girl is, I think another song on that album, You're So Gay, is even worse. It directly perpetuates the idea that men who don't conform to beer commercial stereotypes should be derided for being homosexual. The chorus is "You're so gay and you don't even like boys/No you don't even like/No you don't even like/No you don't even like boys."

@Tom

I completely agree! When I first heard that song (like, sophomore year of high school) I thought it was a little funny. But then I really listened to it, and I was terriby offended. Not only does it make women think any "nice, skinny, sweet" guy is gay, it makes straight men who are this way doubt their sexuality. It's like the skinny boys who get bullied in elementary school for being "gay" - not because they like other boys (and even if they did, they obviously shouldn't be bullied), but just because they're skinny! ...What?? I actually prefer skinny, sweet, nerdy guys (unlike that anon above who insists women like being mistreated by men... I just want to lol at that. Lol. But seriously, what?)!! And trust me, I have dated plenty (and I'm currently dating the best one!) and they were/are DEFINITELY straight..

It's also like this time when I got a short haircut (which my hair usually is, long hair bothers me), and this guy friend of mine said that only 'lezbos' have short hair. So, even though I have a boyfriend, I cut my hair and my sexuality changes? People are just silly.

I disagree. It may not

I disagree. It may not correctly depict your sexuality but Katy Perry, or whomever, should be able to express their sexuality, even if it only extends as far as it being "scandalous" and exciting. Its not for you to judge. So if she wants to sing about being with men its ok, and about women only if she wants to have a full blown relationship with a woman? No. The song clearly places her someone who is bisexual with a preference for men. That's fine and its not your place to say she shouldn't be able to sing about that. Furthermore, even if it is a gimmick, Katy Perry and Christiana Aguilera still brought such topics to the limelight. Their fans who might have not been sympathetic before will take to heart the fact that they are supportive. This article was very judgemental. Whether you disagree with the version of sexuality portrayed in the song is not your business. If you don't like it, don't listen to it. But let Katy Perry and anyone else who is heterosexual and who finds the idea of kissing the sae gender exciting be. Its not your place to condemn that. And lastly, just because this may fit the male fantasy of female on female sexuality, it doesn't mean that's why she's doing it, or that she should stop. SHould we not have movies of lesbians with happily ever afters and sex scenes just because a male might get pleasure out of watching it? No.

I guess you're giving her a

I guess you're giving her a lot more credit. The way this song and video are presented does not come across as Katy Perry asserting her queerness, even in a small way. It really does come across as just being performative. You're right that we can't know for sure, and that she is allowed to asserted her sexuality however she would like, but I don't think anything that counts as a gimmick could really be seen as supportive. Frankly, as a bisexual woman, when I first heard this song I wasn't thankful that Perry was bringing this to the limelight. She's not addressing anything, she's not helping bisexual visibility except the kind that we see all the time anyway: women kissing other girls for male attention. That's fine, they're allowed to do that, obviously, but let's not pretend that's somehow helping bisexual visibility.

I disagree that the song clearly places her as someone who is bisexual with a preference for men. I think the important thing to remember about the performative aspect of this type of bisexuality is that it doesn't identify with the label. Most women I've seen engage in this type of behaviour identify very firmly as straight, and would actually have a problem with being seen as anything other than that. Basically, this song doesn't seem like its asserting any pride in a queer identity, so I don't find it to be supportive at all. Instead, it seems damaging, because the only thing that's getting visibility is the idea that two women making out, regardless of what they identify as, is meant for men.

A much better song an video

Jill Sobule's song a video of the same name but different everything else was so much better, the video dealing with the confusion, conflicting loyalties and emotions, and a rather sad ending but so much more interesting. I wish IT could have gotten the fame. http://www.videodetective.com/music/i-kissed-a-girl/308714

I LOVE THAT SONG

I don't listen to pop music and when my younger sister was like Cait have you heard this song called "I Kissed A Girl" by Katy Perry, I was like who is Katy Perry and I love that song! It's awesome that some new pop star covered it! Then I heard it...

Then the sadness and my family's inability to understand my explanations about how this song offended me.

may be damaging to some, may help others

Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" was playing on the radio roughly around the time I consciously realized, "I WOULD like to kiss a girl and I WOULD like it!" That song, along with Lady GaGa and "Glee," don't offer realistic portrayals of non-straight or non-monosexual identities and relationships, but they helped make them seem normal. But at the same time, the song does play into this notion of bisexuality as something people dip their toes into to make them seem exotic--rather than as a valid sexual identity. It is true that there are people out there who see themselves as "mostly straight" or bi-curious, and that there are people who are willing to kiss or make out with someone of the same gender as a form of titillation. Interestingly, though a recent study found that only roughly 5% of the population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans, a great number of hetero-identified folk say that they would be open to pursuing a same-sex relationship: http://flexuality.wordpress.com/
However, there are many problems with these portrayals. For example, why are there so few mainstream male singers (are there even any?) vocalizing their same-sex fantasies in music videos and albums? Similarly, mainstream porn features a great deal of "lesbian" sex done purely for male enjoyment--it is in actuality so homophobic that the male actor in a heterosexual act is frequently cut out of the frame.
I'll mention Ani DiFranco--is that cliche? Oh well, so what if it is. She's an amazing role model. I'll also mention Polish singer Agnieszka Chylinska, whose song and music video "Niczyja" are about the darkness of depression and feeling lost amidst shallow experimentation and one-night stands, ultimately concluding that she's "no one's." It offers a potentially problematic vision of bisexuality, but it is one that is much more introspective and honest than the myriad of songs produced recently in the US. Also, a music video featuring an andro Chylinska shown affection by a man and a woman? Not bad for Poland fifteen years after Communism!

Performing bisexuality on TV

This article reminds me of an old Current TV essay on how bisexuality is used to market TV shows. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tHppucxMrM

I Kissed A Girl was sort of

I Kissed A Girl was sort of my coming out song. The song's release coincided with my realization (and self acceptance) that I was bi-sexual. The "I hope my boyfriend doesn't mind it" line has always bothered me though for all the reasons stated above. But, for me, during that sensitive time in my life it was important for me to hear someone on the radio (several times a day as the song was over-played) singing about kissing another girl. I had to reject the heterosexual overtones of the rest of the song to own it for myself, but it overall it was helpful to me.

I think you should reconsider

I think you should reconsider your use of "performative" as that is usually used as a concept that has a much wider meaning than implied in your text. Either way, thanks for writing and publishing this article!

Seperate the songs from the videos...

While I find both of these songs annoying, I do feel I need to say that you should separate the songs from their videos. The problem with music videos is that they rarely keep up with the actual lyrics of the song.

The video for "I Wish I Was Gay" is offensive on more levels than I want to get into right now, but the song is something I'm sure any woman who has been hurt by a man can relate to. We tend to get it into our heads that a woman would never treat another woman the way a man has (although I can say from experience that that's not true). It's not really an anthem for bisexuality or queerness, it's just a woman expressing her pain.

With "I Kissed a Girl" (I hate this song, I prefer Jill Sobule's song of the same name), the song itself is about a girl trying out kissing another girl. It sounds more to me like the feeling any girl who is testing the waters of her sexuality might feel. Just because the lyrics say "I hope my boyfriend don't mnid it," it doesn't mean she's performing for him. It doesn't even suggest he's around at the time. She's just saying she hopes he doesn't have a problem with it.

The problem is that when we watch a video, we equate the context of the video to the meaning of the song and a lot of the time it's not the case.

That being said, I do wish there were more songs out there that accurately expressed bisexuality. But maybe songs like this will pave the way for a more accurate depiction later on.

I guess I don't see why

I guess I don't see why someone would want to fake being bisexual just to get attention; there are plenty of other ways to get attention that are less controversial. I guess I can see where people get the impression that "I Kissed A Girl" glamorized bisexuality and used it for attention as well.

I guess you'll have to revoke my queer card

Because I am bi and I LOVE the Katy Perry song.

It just reminds me of that young, semi-virginal time in your life when you try something and find, surprise, omg you LIKED it. You may not be terribly evolved or complex about it, because it is such a shock, such a revelation, that you don't have the appropriate, politically correct reaction. Teen bi girls do find themselves thinking weird things like "I hope my boyfriend don't mind it." Right? Or was I the only one and all the rest of you emerged from the womb properly evolved?

What makes this song problematic to a lot of people IMHO is that there are so few positive pop culture expressions that represent bisexuality at all, that we want to put all the freight of our hopes and expectations on the one or two examples available. Its too bad. I wish queer-themed art didn't have all this pressure on it to reflect The Good Queer Experience (tm). Real life isn't like that.

Gay Sexuality

Men gets turn on with lesbian sexuality when two women are kissing or making out and there is nothing wrong with that. Gay sexuality is not so different from couple in heterosexual relationship because they have the same desire for love and commitment in a long term relationship.