In the third episode of The Bisexual, Desiree Akhavan’s comedy-drama for Channel 4 and Hulu, the titular bisexual, Leila (played by Akhavan) is having a familiar kind of crisis.
At a nitrous oxide–fueled impromptu party in the London apartment Leila shares with her new roommate, Gabe (Brian Gleeson), she dances giddily with the guy she’s just started seeing, Jon-Criss (John Dagleish). But after her high wears off, Leila faces the full reality of her situation: After breaking up with her longtime girlfriend and spending 10 years identifying as a lesbian, she’s now sleeping with a man for the first time — and hiding him from her lesbian friends.
Gabe’s student and sort-of girlfriend, the much younger Francisca (Michèlle Guillot), asks Leila why she’s making them lie to people about Jon-Criss.
Gabe cuts in: “Because Leila doesn’t want anyone to know she’s sleeping with a man.”
Lelia tells Francisca the situation is complicated, that she wouldn’t understand. “It’s a gay thing.”
“So?” Francisca says. “I’m queer.”
“Everyone under 25 thinks they’re queer,” Leila counters, moodily peeling an orange.
“And you think they’re wrong?”
“No,” Leila clarifies, quickly. “No.” She fiddles with the orange, mulling it over. “You know what I think? I think it’s different.” She tells Francisca that being gay — “when you have to fight for it” — can “become the biggest part of you.” And that means a totally different lifestyle than a straight person’s: different clothes, different friends. “And you can’t do both.”
She clarifies that she doesn’t mean to be condescending: “I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with the internet” (which is still amusingly condescending, but at least it’s sincere). “I just get the sense that it’s changing your relationships to gender and sexuality — in a really good way, but in a way that I can’t relate to.”
Francisca looks at her, half intrigued, half bored, joint in hand. “I think you’re making a problem where there isn’t one.”
Leila laughs. “Maybe you’re right.”
Francisca gets up on her knees and leans in close to blow smoke in Leila’s mouth, a moment that’s intimate and touching and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before on television. This conversation, my favorite in a series bursting with incredible and often cringey dialogue, manages to perfectly encapsulate an entire microgeneration’s worth of Queer Discourse.
Leila’s about a decade older than Francisca, enough of an age gap that these two characters would have grown up in completely different cultural contexts. Younger LGBT people tend to embrace fluidity and label-lessness, eschewing more traditional binary identify categories. Young women, if they do identify with a label, are much more likely to identify as queer or bisexual than they are as lesbians. Like Leila says, Gen Z and younger millennials who grew up with the internet have evolving relationships with gender and sexuality, and yes, that’s great! But those lightning-speed changes happened so fast that some slightly older lesbians and queer women — myself included — can’t always relate to them.
When I’m with a group of all lesbian-identified women, we might start grumbling about Kids These Days, about authentic queerness, about the denigration of lesbian identity and culture. But I’m also a self-identified lesbian in a long-term relationship with a nonbinary person. For the most part, I find the blurring lines between sexuality and gender to be a more than welcome change, something liberating and joyous; and yet there’s also a part of me — and of many of my friends, I think — that feels kinda sad and lost.
What’s so beautiful and refreshing about Leila and Francisca’s conversation, and The Bisexual in general, is that Akhavan doesn’t shy away from tough topics like the different ways queer people can hurt each other — the ways in which we can crap on others’ identities because we’re so used to being crapped on ourselves. Rather, The Bisexual leans into the messiness of it all, lightly skewering characters when they deserve it (and they do), but ultimately showing everyone, with their different priorities and experiences and senses of themselves, in a warm and empathetic light. I have been both Francisca and Leila; sometimes I’m both of them at once.
That kind of complexity and warmth was so often missing from The Bisexual’s most famous predecessor in the realm of TV about queer women: The L Word.
The Showtime drama, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, is officially coming back for an eight-episode revival later this year; creator Ilene Chaiken will return as an executive producer, but with a new showrunner, Marja-Lewis Ryan. Though there have been other shows with lesbian main characters in the intervening years — Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Vida, The Fosters — there hasn’t been another show quite like The L Word since it went off the air. It’s remarkable for being a show that centers not one, not two, but an entire cast of lesbians. It’s a show that doesn’t focus on lesbians being imprisoned or brutalized or dying, either, but just living their dyke drama–filled lives — in this case, in the swanky gayborhood of West Hollywood in Los Angeles.
For better or worse, The L Word has been a mainstay of queer girl culture. Watch parties and epic recap writeups when the show was on the air gave way to obsessive fan theories after that bonkers final season, and eventually to modern-day memes and nostalgic trivia nights. Even though the storylines went completely off the rails and bisexual and trans characters were treated like crap, basically all of us watched it anyway, because for a while there, it was all we really had. We’ve loved The L Word — which, for all its (many) faults, was still a groundbreaking LGBT show — just as we’ve loved to hate it. And now that the drama is coming back for a sequel (not a remake!) with fan favorites like Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig, and Leisha Hailey as Bette, Shane, and Alice, The L Word has the opportunity to atone for its sins. I’m hoping for a season that looks critically, though lovingly, at an older generation of lesbians as they try to navigate this brave new queer world.
But in the meantime, everybody should just be watching The Bisexual. The show received a flurry of press when it premiered on Hulu last fall, but I’m surprised how quickly the conversation around such a rich, funny, delightful series died down. I even have some queer friends who haven’t watched it yet (get it together, you guys!!!).
Akhavan told Harper’s Bazaar that when she originally pitched the script in 2015 in the US, it was “rejected everywhere” by studios who thought they already had their one “gay” show or their one show with a woman-of-color lead. It took Channel 4 in the UK to finally get the series off the ground. Akhavan had a similarly hard time selling and distributing her most recent film about a gay teenager, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Even though it won the Grand Jury Prize after its premiere at Sundance, Post sold later than many other Sundance titles and received a limited theatrical release in the US, which Akhavan attributes to Americans being “terrified of female sexuality.”
Akhavan certainly isn’t. The Bisexual has been compared to HBO’s Girls, and Akhavan to Girls creator Lena Dunham (she wants you to stop doing that, by the way). But all I could think about while watching it the first time through was that The Bisexual is everything I needed — and didn’t get — from The L Word. Or maybe it just fulfills a different need.
Though there was (and still is) something completely thrilling about seeing an entire universe of lesbians on The L Word, I think watching it with one wary eye on my dorm room door in college gave me somewhat unrealistic expectations of Lesbian Life in the Big City. Like Friends, The L Word’s heterosexual half hour counterpart, all of these adult humans with jobs seemingly had time to hang out at the same coffee shop every day. Plus, in The L Word there’s no shortage of girls to date or lesbian parties to go to. Meanwhile, on The Bisexual, Leila and her friends, including the extremely funny Deniz (Saskia Chana), skip a venue because it’s “full of gay guys,” complaining that there aren’t enough gay spaces exclusively for women. That sounds like the gay world I’m familiar with.
The Bisexual pays homage to both of those imperfect predecessors; there are L Word one-liners (“Beth is a Shane trying to be a Dana”) and a deliciously perfect lesbian twist on a classic Friends gag (“I can’t believe you got inseminated when we were on a fucking break”). Akhavan also makes a reference to her excellent debut feature film, Appropriate Behavior, in which she also stars as a bisexual character. Shirin, in that movie, is accused by her girlfriend of ruining her birthday, to which she retorts, “You’re ruining my twenties.” Akhavan as Leila in The Bisexual also tells her older ex-girlfriend, Sadie, that she gave up her twenties for her, only this time it’s less of a joke and something sadder: “I didn’t know myself outside of being yours.”
Leila’s intergenerational relationship, and then breakup, with Sadie (a pitch-perfect Maxine Peake) drives the show’s intersecting plotlines in heartbreaking and lovely ways. There’s queer discourse messiness here, too: Sadie, once she finds out that Leila is now dating men as well as women, feels betrayed, yelling at her in their shared office (they’re launching a startup together) that Leila can’t possibly have any idea “what it’s like to grow up as a dyke in Burnley in the ’80s.” Sadie endured trauma and shame when she was younger, trying to force herself to like men the way society expected her to, and when she no longer feels she has lesbianism in common with Leila, she feels more alienated from her than ever.
Akhavan, who identifies as bisexual in real life, has often expressed in press for the show that the very idea of bisexuality can make both gay and straight people uncomfortable. That widespread discomfort is what makes the title of the show, another wink at The L Word, so clever — there may as well be scare quotes around it.
Intracommunity queer lady drama has been around since forever, but these days it seems like the internet has dumped a bunch of lighter fuel on our age-old tensions. As Autostraddle critic Heather Hogan put it in her review of The Bisexual, “We live in a time when The Discourse is at a fever pitch, where every pop culture portrayal of a queer identity is shaken down to the lowest common denominator of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ … where the default angle queer critics are supposed to take is Here’s How This Thing Aggrieves Me.”
Hogan clarifies that it’s important to hold storytellers accountable for their representations of queer people, “but there’s a kind of furious dogma that’s choking the nuance out of the conversation we’re having about our stories” — the kind of dogma that boils critique down to a “checklist that authorizes our outrage.”
Sadie’s anger at Leila for newly exploring her bisexuality certainly doesn’t fit neatly into the box of “good” representation, but it’s a fully authentic one. The women’s different desires when it comes to marriage and children, too, reflect very contemporary (and, at the same time, ageless) queer discourse about patriarchal institutions, homonormativity, and family. In the first episode, Sadie asks Leila to marry her; when Leila bristles, Sadie nudges her, saying they’ve always talked about marriage, haven’t they? “We talk about it abstractly,” Leila says. “We also talk about euthanasia.”
Their consequential breakup feels real: real, and hard, and sad, but maybe right, but who actually knows? I’m hoping for a second season so that we can find out. At this point, I'd be more excited about a second season of The Bisexual than I currently am about the L Word reboot. But honestly, I’ll still take what I can get. ●