In 2009, aged 16, I anxiously awaited the release of Whip It. It wasn’t that I was keen to see how director Drew Barrymore had turned her skills to the other side of the camera. It wasn’t even that I was a big fan of Ellen Page or Alia Shawkat (yet). It was because I was a mostly closeted bisexual and Whip It seemed to have the queer undertones I craved.
A photoshoot in Marie Claire featured Drew and Ellen inexplicably making out. The shoot was accompanied by a "curiously intimate chitchat" in which Drew lamented the fact that Ellen had "such a beautiful body", leading Psychology Today to controversially call the film a "lesbian fantasy, disguised". More recently, it was featured in a Buzzfeed list of "Movies With a Shit Ton of Lesbian Subtext". The marketing and conversation surrounding Whip It made it seem like it might just be gay. Add to that its premise – a girl who finds her home in a roller derby team – and Whip It felt wholly queer.
Naturally, the controversy and build-up to Whip It’s release made me want to see it more. I thought there was some possibility of a queer storyline but I came out of the cinema feeling at once thrilled and exploited. Some aspects of the film, like Bliss (Page) and Pash’s (Shawkat) very close friendship, or seeing women skate and laugh, covered in blood on the floor together, made me feel understood in a deep way. But I felt simultaneously betrayed. It would have been easy – understandable even – to make the central character queer and have her discover that through roller derby. Instead, she gets fucked around by a floppy-haired indie boy in a completely inessential side plot. Sure, being screwed over by a boy with floppy hair is a key part of growing up bi. But I felt cheated that it wasn’t part of a larger queer narrative.
At the time, I was a voracious consumer of anything remotely queer-adjacent. I watched The L Word, dedicated to its characters despite their blatant biphobia and mistreating (or relabelling) of bisexual characters Jenny and Alice. I started watching The O.C. solely for the storyline of Marissa and Alex dating, despite the word 'bisexual' not once being uttered. I ate up Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Willow and Tara narrative but was hurt that Willow 'turned gay' rather than 'remained bisexual'.
I watched any and all media that so much as hinted at the idea that girls might kiss. Sure, I felt completely invisible as a bisexual girl. But I took what I could get, understanding that more often than not, it meant being sidelined or featured as a fetishistic experiment or plot point. Additionally, queer women in TV and film, both lesbian and bi, tended to be given tragic storylines. To see any shred of myself on screen, I had to watch her die.
Queer women tended to be given tragic storylines. To see any shred of myself on screen, I had to watch her die.
I made do. 2009’s Jennifer’s Body fulfilled the same need as Whip It. It never explicitly said anyone was bi or queer but Jennifer and Needy’s codependence, their unlabelled make-out sessions, their jealousy – these all echoed my own experience in the closet and on the sidelines. I didn’t label myself until I was 17 but I knew I was something, and closeted (or curious) friends quietly used me to experiment with. I don’t blame Whip It for taking the easy way out and avoiding being the bisexual love story of my dreams. At that time, the word 'bisexual' was barely uttered unless it was the punchline to a joke about greed or indecisiveness. Even Wikipedia's list of media portrayals of bisexuality includes "non-identified bisexual behaviour". In 2009, the word was too dirty to be used.
Despite its shortcomings, 10 years on I understand Whip It as being ahead of its time. In 2019, we have more explicitly bisexual and gay women characters and media than ever before. As far as teen films go, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart, starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, featured a lesbian coming out love story. 2018’s Blockers, too, has a heartwarming, coming-of-age, non-tragic lesbian storyline. While I turned out to be a bi teen rather than a lesbian one, I wasn’t so sure in the '00s, and would have killed for such a positive storyline to identify with.
TV is leading the way in explicit bisexuality and we are a long way from the ignorance of The L Word or the fetishisation of The O.C. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend features not one but three canonically bisexual characters and a song explaining bisexuality to boot. Broad City’s representation of bisexuality, in both Abbi and Ilana, felt casual enough to be true to life. More and more, queer women characters are visible on screen. Even The L Word is rebooting and fixing its old mistakes – time will tell, but I hope they do at least one bisexual woman justice.
It made sense to seek understanding and solace in a film like Whip It where sexuality was coded rather than explicit.
On Valentine’s Day 2014, Ellen Page came out as a lesbian, gloriously and publicly. In a speech at HRCF’s Time to Thrive conference, she defiantly declared: "I am here today because I am gay." She added: "I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission." From then she started to live her life unapologetically, presenting Gaycation, a documentary series about gay people around the world, and disclosing her private life on Instagram. Her bravery only added to the feeling that Whip It came too early. I had always understood Ellen as kin, but if she had come out when I was a teenager, or if she’d been either lesbian or bi in Whip It, it would have made a difference to my understanding of myself.
As a bisexual teenager, I sought representation in any shape or form. Often that was characters who, in the case of The L Word, voiced their distaste of who I was. Other times it was in the unsaid, the unseen; it made sense to seek understanding and solace in a film like Whip It where sexuality was coded rather than explicit. In 2019, with a better understanding of bisexuality, we have more options for media that actually gets it. I still love Whip It, just like I love The O.C. and The L Word and everything else that 'got' me while still getting it so wrong. I strongly believe that in 2019, Whip It would be a queer film. The roller derby team would be made up of bisexual and lesbian women, coexisting and laughing together, and while my heart breaks that I didn’t get the film I deserved as a teenager, I am so glad that the queer teens of the present and future don’t have to live off scraps.