- The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television by Maria San Filippo
Bisexuality is a topic that many people likely feel that they understand and that many movies and television shows have endeavored to represent over the years. This captivating new study by Maria San Filippo raises numerous persuasive questions about the perspectives that our culture has of bisexuality while it explores the ongoing and, typically, problematic efforts to portray it on screen. One of San Filippo’s primary concerns is the enduring “(in)visibility” of bisexuality, which “belies its ubiquity within our culture, and indeed constitutes a disavowal of the twinned fascination and anxiety bisexuality provokes.”1
The duality of bisexuality is key to its representation, for desiring both sexes often prompts so much tension in texts that the concept is nullified to the point of oblivion or overdetermined to the point of insignificance. Even the fluidity of “queerness” is nonetheless quite persistently realigned into monosexual and/or monogamous sexual identifications that are incompatible with bisexuality, as San Filippo goes on to thoroughly demonstrate with lucid and accessible analysis.
Given the now-lengthy tradition of gendered reconnaissance in film studies, one may assume that the study of cinematic bisexuality has generated ample attention. In fact, San Filippo subtly suggests, the same (in)visibility of bisexual status on-screen has resulted in its elision from the critical catalog, with so few films actually speaking the term bisexual in describing their characters and so many studies built upon traditional binary divisions of gendered identity and object choice, as either-or rather than both-and. As a result, San Filippo is denied the abundance of previous scholarship that supports other studies of sexuality in cinema, and yet she deftly utilizes foundational work such as that by Freud and Kinsey, as well as the “post-Mulvey accounts” of writers like Andrea Weiss and Alexander Doty, while employing the more precisely apposite work of scholars such as Robin Wood, Clare Hemmings, and Maria Pramaggiore. [End Page 179] (Consider that the Library of Congress lists a mere three other books on bisexuality in cinema, in any language.) In fact, the book’s research is notably eclectic and extensive, and San Filippo applies her references with refreshing agility.
One of the strongest features of the book is its structure, opening as it does with a prologue discussing Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997), a film both popular as a queer narrative and illustrative of San Filippo’s polemics. This prologue invites the reader to reassess a recognizable text as problematic; its depiction of a sexual triangle, one of many that will feature prominently in subsequent instances, “ends up re-inscribing the same cultural assumptions and restrictions around sexuality that it purports to dismantle.”2 Thus San Filippo signals from the start that she is offering far more than a survey of the highs and lows in bisexual screen history; rather, she is challenging the cinematic and social structures that operate to obfuscate bisexuality as a whole, primarily through its associations with inequity, promiscuity, insecurity, and duplicity. And from the humorous exemplar of Chasing Amy through many more citations in her introduction, San Filippo advances her concept of “bi-textuality,” the narrative device that essentially breaks the sexual binary code “by reading [bisexuality] through another discourse pertaining to economic class, cultural heritage, ethnicity, gender roles, mental health, or psychological states.”3 Indeed, the book seeks to disrupt binary and exclusionary sexual systems, and finds many opportunities for bitextual readings that do so.
The book’s four central case studies of “occasionally overlapping but aesthetically and industrially distinct modes of screen media” begin with the appropriately polysemic genre of art cinema, which provides San Filippo with a wealth of possibilities to tackle the tendencies she sees in monosexual privilege, such as the rejection of bisexual potential through reinforced sexual object choices, whether hetero or homo.4 As she points out, “Art cinema historically and cumulatively has mounted a substantial critique of compulsory monosexuality with its willingness to probe the...