Both Sides Now: Why Sex Rules in Hulu’s ‘The Bisexual’
“Sex is complicated,” Leila, the hero of Hulu’s The Bisexual, tells her best friend Deniz in the show’s premiere episode. “Like, you strategize how you’re gonna get it, and then you anticipate it, and then once it’s finally happening don’t you wish you could just flash-forward because all the pressure’s on you to come and you’d rather just give head than worry about your own orgasm?”
“Nope, not at all,” Deniz replies.
“Well, good for you.”
Played by creator/director/co-writer Desiree Akhavan, Leila is typical of the characters in Akhavan’s body of work: sardonic, adrift, clumsy, a little hapless, slightly neurotic, sexually curious. That’s not a bad description of The Bisexual, a heartfelt — if not exactly heartwarming — comedy that landed on Hulu November 16th. (A British production, the series premiered on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in October.) Akhavan, who most recently wrote and directed the Sundance Grand Jury Award-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a teenage girl who’s sent to a Christian gay-conversion camp in the 1990s, plays the thirtysomething Leila, an Iranian-American living in London with her older girlfriend and business partner, Sadie (Maxine Peake). When Sadie proposes marriage and children, Leila freezes up and decides she needs a few months’ break from the relationship. She moves in with a novelist, Gabe (Brian Gleeson), and ends up pursuing a long-repressed desire: sex with men.
The Bisexual is the latest in a string of recent series that view sex not as a voyeuristic thrill but a site of self-exploration. Typically half-hour programs that hide a sober, if not outright tragic, sensibility behind the mask of comedy, shows like Transparent, Fleabag, One Mississippi, Please Like Me, SMILF and, more recently, Wanderlust and Sally4Ever, treat sex as a place to escape trauma, or to collide with it; to jump-start a stalled life, or re-awaken dormant feelings; or simply as an opportunity to figure out who you are.
It’s not a coincidence that almost all these shows were created by and center on characters who are queer, or women, or both. Such characters often don’t have the luxury of defining themselves in terms outside their sexuality. Akhavan’s work is full of people who, though their identities are bound up in sex, are ambivalent about labeling themselves in such terms. In her shows and movies — most notably her 2014 feature debut, Appropriate Behavior, in which she plays a bisexual woman struggling to come out to her Iranian immigrant parents — Akhavan showcases queer characters who push back against the idea that their queerness defines them.
The Bisexual’s title, then, is a kind of ironic joke, a proud declaration of an identity that popular culture can’t seem to resist turning into a punchline. (See: the modern notion that all girls are bisexual — and that no men are.) Even Akhavan, who is herself bisexual, chafes at the term, comparing it to the sound of “nails on a chalkboard” and likening the press tour for her series to a kind of immersion therapy, forcing her to say the word over and over. The impetus for the series, she told the New York Times, was a desire to explore that feeling of queasiness, seemingly bound up in the idea that being bisexual means being unserious, wishy-washy or deficient in some way — “not gay enough,” as Akhavan told the Times. “I think it was about naming the worst fears about myself, in some moments,” she said. “There’s stuff that I was really ashamed of when we were first talking about the show that I feel less shame about now.”
As Leila tries to explain to Gabe, being bisexual makes her no different than any straight or gay person — except that gender is not a defining factor in choosing a partner. She even marvels, once she’s done the deed, that sex with a man isn’t all that different than sex with a woman. And yet everyone around her acts as if Leila’s coming out as bisexual is a betrayal, or “gauche,” or simply a panicked response to the idea of settling down — nothing more than a pressure valve.
But the sex scenes themselves betray this reductive interpretation of Leila’s urges. Whether they culminate in rapture or deflate in disappointment, Akhavan’s sex scenes are never just spectacle; rather, they illuminate character, often in surprising ways. What do our hang-ups say about us? What gets in our heads and takes us out of the moment? For Gabe’s much younger girlfriend (Michèlle Guillot), one of his writing students, it’s an embarrassing bodily noise; for Leila’s first male hookup, it’s the knowledge that she’s never had sex with a man before. For Jon-Criss (John Dagleish), the man Leila does eventually sleep with, it’s less the sex itself and more the pillow talk that pulls him in; when she breaks it off, he calls her an “emotional intimacy whore.”
Akhavan is sharply attuned to the ways identities overlap — and she understands sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Leila admits she might have never come out as a lesbian to her Iranian parents had she known as a teenager that she was also interested in boys. Gabe may come off as an entitled white guy banging his young student, but he has deep insecurities of his own, fed by a codependent relationship with his sister, with whom he’s been living since their parents died. In one standout episode, Deniz (the terrifically deadpan Saskia Chana) — a butch lesbian who lives with her immigrant parents and works behind the counter at the convenience store they own — explains that she can’t leave the shop and go back to school, because her family has been ripped off by everyone else who’s worked for them. She’s trapped in a way the well-to-do, educated Leila can’t possibly understand — which makes Leila’s quest for self-discovery seem like mere navel gazing.
Akhavan is willing to play the fool; the characters she plays are funny yet fallible. That, combined with her lack of squeamishness when it comes to taking off her clothes onscreen, has earned her inevitable comparisons to Lena Dunham. In truth, all the aforementioned shows that center on sex and (queer) identity owe a debt to Dunham’s Girls, a show with a similarly raw, almost anthropological treatment of sex. On these shows, sex isn’t just set-dressing; it’s the locus of desire and fear and trauma and, above all, shame. “The more I have frank conversations about sex,” Akhavan told the Times, “the more I learn that all of us feel like something is wrong with us sexually.” For queer artists, the process of creation itself can be just as important as the product.
It’s telling that most of these series found a home on a streaming platform, where the concept of ratings — which would normally sink the chances that a niche show like The Bisexual would ever get made — is largely irrelevant. Artists like Akhavan, Transparent creator Jill Soloway, Fleabag’s Pheobe Waller-Bridge, One Mississippi’s Tig Notaro, and Josh Thomas, the Australian creator and star of Please Like Me (which initially aired on the now-defunct Pivot network but has reached a new audience since landing on Hulu) have found a receptive platform for the stories they want to tell — stories where typically marginalized characters take center stage, where people with imperfect bodies experience pleasure and joy, and where sex matters because of how it shapes a person, not because it makes for titillating TV.
These series also illustrate the importance of having queer people tell their own stories. In one scene in the first episode of The Bisexual, Gabe asks a group of Leila’s lesbian friends what they think of Blue is the Warmest Color, the sexually explicit 2013 French film about a young lesbian couple that was, notoriously, directed by a 53-year-old straight man, Abdellatif Kechiche. The women roll their eyes, and the scene quickly moves on, but the reference sticks to mind as the show progresses — particularly with the knowledge that Kechiche’s film earned accolades at Cannes just a few years before The Miseducation of Cameron Post. How different the sex looks on The Bisexual compared to Kechiche’s highly eroticized fantasy of female-on-female pleasure; how vivid and true to life are Akhavan’s characters compared to his.
Girls, which centered on four straight, white women, opened the door to series in which women unabashedly explore what sex means to them. With The Bisexual, Akhavan has confidently strode through that door, giving straight viewers a glimpse into a world that may surprise them not because it’s such a radical and exotic departure from their own, but precisely because it isn’t. After all, sex is complicated — for all of us.
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