Labels can be a tricky thing to accept, even the ones we claim for ourselves.
Who am I? I’m Irish, I’m a woman, I’m in a relationship, I’m bisexual. Those are a few things I can use to introduce myself, to give a quick snapshot of my standout points, the greatest hits. But sometimes — a lot of the time, even — those descriptions don’t sit right with me, even if they’re all true. When I say them out loud they seem to pin me in one place and to make me speak with a particular voice. They don’t seem to shoulder enough weight. They don’t seem able to account for the way that I change, from year to year, hour to hour. And so they can feel a little, well, icky.
Desiree Akhavan knows all about this ickiness. Akhavan, an Iranian-American writer, director and actor, made her name with Appropriate Behavior and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, films which both concern queerness, albeit in very different ways. Now, she and her writing partner Cecilia Frugiuele have turned to television, with a new Channel 4/Hulu comedy series named The Bisexual. Akhavan has spoken about her discomfort with the titular word, despite it being the one which most accurately sums up her sexuality. "I came out as [bisexual] from the get-go, but that word always felt uncomfortable. Bisexual sounds gauche and tacky… Disingenuous," she told The Guardian earlier this year. "Whereas there’s only pride when I say lesbian, there’s only coolness to say queer. Bisexual didn’t feel like it represented me and I wanted to know why, when technically it very much represents who I am."
The six-part show follows New Yorker Leila (Akhavan) dealing with the aftermath of a split from her business partner and long-term girlfriend Sadie (Maxine Peake). Having to leave their shared home, Leila moves to Hackney to live with Gabe (Domhnall Gleeson), a neurotic novelist and teacher trying to make sense of his own life and lovers and who is, notably, a straight man. Their friendship grows alongside Leila’s messy attempts to begin dating men for the first time in her life, having identified exclusively as a lesbian until her break-up.
The Bisexual is properly funny and properly real, a raw and intimate look at the ragged mess of being recently heartbroken and at what it’s like to be a confused and single queer woman in London. One of the most cringe-inducingly relatable moments of the first episode shows Leila take Gabe to a gay club to hang out with her gay friend group.
"So, what do you all think of the film Blue Is The Warmest Color?" he asks cheerfully to resounding silence, averted eyes, and a rapid change of topic. (It's almost universally accepted among queer women that Blue Is The Warmest Color is not good). While I don’t have any straight male friends quite as clueless as that, the tension of bringing an outsider into a group of exclusively queer people is completely convincing, and completely hilarious. There’s always just a little edge of caution at first in these encounters, holding your breath and waiting for the infiltrator to ask a weird question or misgender someone; always a little preemptive grimace of apology to the others.
What I love about The Bisexual too is how attractive the women are. By that I don’t just mean that they’re hot (which of course they are), but that they are written to be rounded, accomplished, desirable human beings, for all their relationship messiness. It’s still vanishingly rare to see a gay relationship portrayed with any real seriousness, with any nuance to show you the intricacies of the attraction involved. Often it’s seen as enough for two people to be gay — they’re both gay, so of course they must end up together, right?
Here, you totally get it, both the attraction and what breaks them apart, which means it’s all far more involving and sad and visceral than most comedies of its kind. Maxine Peake’s Sadie is almost excruciatingly sexy and together-seeming; you don’t question for a moment why Leila fell head over heels in love with her. You feel yourself doing so too. But you can see, also, how Leila’s comparative youth, her lack of equivalent togetherness, means that settling down wouldn’t have worked.
When Leila is asked if she was looking for something better by breaking up with Sadie, she responds: "Not better necessarily, but different."
I love this answer. I love that this answer is on a mainstream TV program. It seems quite radical to me, the idea that we should be allowed to leave a relationship even if it isn’t awful, in order to try something new. Sometimes we want to leave even though the person is perfect, and the relationship is good, and there’s no "real" reason to. Sometimes we leave even if we’re still in love with them. Sometimes we leave just because we want to see what happens more than we want things to stay the same, and that’s just as valid a reason as any other.
It’s still vanishingly rare to see a gay relationship portrayed with any real seriousness, with any nuance to show you the intricacies of the attraction involved. Here, you totally get it.
For both Leila and me, it was a big life change that pre-empted the shift into experimenting with people of different genders. For Leila, the break-up with Sadie, and for me, a break-up and a sudden move to London. I think there’s something to this. A shock to your system helps you see everything differently. A life-changing event can crack everything wide open and lets you reconfigure yourself and how you see other people.
When I moved here, I was so fragile and so in shock from my break-up. I missed my ex so much that I couldn’t imagine going to bed with anyone who reminded me of him at all. So when a woman asked me out I said yes, just for the hell of it, and was shocked to discover that there was no barrier at all between me finding her attractive and actually sleeping with her.
I had always assumed, growing up, that the fact I found women attractive was purely aesthetic, that I admired them as one would a pretty picture in a magazine. It had literally never crossed my mind that I wanted to go to bed with them, these same girls I stared at across cafés and bars. It makes me laugh now, to think of how disconnected I was from my feelings, how thoroughly I had conditioned my mind to imagine only heterosexuality.
When I first started sleeping with women, I thought they would know right away that I had no experience. I regarded their drawers full of intimidating sex toys with caution. "Am I supposed to just know what to do with all that?" I wondered. But it turned out I didn’t need to know anything. There was no crash course needed in having sex with a new kind of body. It was as sweet and natural and fumbling and silly as getting to know someone’s body ever is, whatever gender they may be.
In The Bisexual, when Leila has sex with a man for the first time, she starts to laugh; big, beautiful, full-throated laughter. "I thought it would be so different," she keeps repeating, and laughing and laughing.
I’m so glad I had my moment like that one, that moment of absurdity and discovery, the giddiness of finding out something that seems so blindingly obvious, but had never crossed my mind. For me, that laugh is the heart of the show: a warm burst of curiosity and amusement, a reaction to the feeling that the world is so much bigger, sex and love so much more varied, than I had known before.