‘Bisexual Iranian-American actress’ or ‘the bisexual Lena Dunham’ is often the description that is placed before Desiree Akhavan’s name.
Though devoid of alliteration, these descriptive titles have seemed to have had a domino effect on U.S. media outlets that release any press on the actress.
And though her work explores the experience of navigating relationships through the lens of a ‘clumsy’ or ‘messy’ woman protagonist, her brownness makes her set of experiences vastly different from that of Lena Dunham.
Yes, Akhavan identifies as bisexual and her latest work is titled, The Bisexual.
Yet, despite the seemingly static nature of how her identity is presented by the media, her latest Channel 4 — Hulu television series, The Bisexual, shows this identity as full of movement and oscillation.
This fluidity is rendered through the journey of the series’ lesbian-identified protagonist, Leila (played by Akhavan), who begins questioning her sexuality in the wake of ending a serious 10-year relationship with her partner Sadie, (played by Maxine Peake, a big-name stage and film actress in the UK).
Though she says to her friend, “You can still love and support each other even when you are on a break,” (indeed, something only queer women would say) the break ultimately prompts Leila to explore her sexuality and thus a personal project (re)self-definition.
Her confusion over her newfound attraction to men serves as the thesis of the series and Akhavan closely aligns audiences with Leila’s internal dilemma, leaving us wanting to leave her awkward encounters and squirmy conversations just as much as she does.
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While there have been bisexual characters in television series of late, they often serve as supporting roles, and the times in which when they do occupy a lead role, their narratives often serve as cautionary tales, reproduce gender roles and demonize their sexual behavior. But having bisexuality so explicitly at the fore of a shows thematic concern is something new.
Akhavan’s series not only challenges assumptions about bisexuality upheld by straight people but also probes into harbored judgments of bisexuality within the LGBTQIA community. A notable moment in the first episode of the series is when Leila is in a club with her lesbian-identified friends, having a conversation around one’s sexual preferences, to which one of her friends poses the weighted question, “is anyone really bisexual?”
The question encapsulates the discursive tension on bisexuality within the LGBTQIA community. The common critique of bisexuality is that it is a form of identification that implies a sexual preference exclusively between the sexes of male and female, thereby implying not being attracted to gender queer people and as a consequence, perpetuates the gender binaries of male and female as social norms.
As a woman who identifies as queer, I see a lot of important work being done by Akahavan. I do not read her newly discovered erotic desire for men as undercutting her queerness nor consolidating heterosexuality, or see Leila ultimately coming to “pick a side or team.” I mean, nothing annoys a self-identifying bisexual more than the statement, “You must prefer one or the other.”
The moments that Leila ruminates on her newly realized sexual attraction to men is important for viewers. Her confusion draws attention to the tension bisexual-identified people experience when vocalizing that they are questioning, or when they present themselves as uncertain to others, both within and outside the LGBTQIA community.
Presenting yourself as confused or uncertain runs the risk of affirming the stereotypes of bisexuality as being ‘a phase’ and duplicitous. In short, in the eyes of observers, exhibiting a level of confusion is proof of bisexuality’s’ supposed ‘illegitimacy.’
I understand the criticism of the show in regards to the lack of bisexual representation of male-identified characters. And Leila’s housemate Gabe may indeed simply be serving as the paradigm of the white straight cis male for the shows thematic purposes.
But I still see his inclusion in the narrative as important. Through the characterization of Gabe, it is clear that Akhavan is interested in exploring the insecurities and boundaries of white heterosexual masculinity that men relentlessly attempt to keep fortified, (for the risk of its unfolding).
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Did you watch the new comedy drama – The Bisexual last night? Its director and star is Desiree Akhavan and it also stars the amazing Maxine Peake. It explores sexuality and relationships and Akhavan asks what it means to be bisexual today (last night’s episode had some cringey straight sex that made us hide behind the sofa) it’s on Channel 4, Thursdays, 10pm and deffo worth a whirl #tvshows #thebisexual #sexandrelationships #thehotbedcollective
Plus, the back and forth between Leila and Gabe, in regards to Leila trying to ‘jerk off’ speaks to the way issues like female masturbation are still taboo for men. These interactions ultimately have a didactic purpose and help serve to break down such topical subjects around gender and sexuality.
For me, some of the most moving moments are watching the anxieties that play out between Leila and Sadie’s relationship as I see Leila’s anxieties as emblematic of a certain preoccupation typical of people in their 20’s and 30’s.
Put simply, the pressure to reach a certain set of life expectations that are socially assigned to each decade. We are told that our 20’s are a time where we are meant to live it up, see a lot of people and explore our sexuality before we enter into our 30’s and encounter the inevitability of settling down.
It raises questions on monogamy. But it also underlines how we have been socialized to live our lives in a specific way once we reach the temporal hallmarks of our 20’s and 30’s. But this dilemma is particularly resonant for people in the LGBTQIA community who are in serious commital relationships.
By this I mean, must the only marker of LGBTQIA love, be to follow the state-authorized narrative of getting married and having children? If we enter into this narrative, are we simply reproducing heteronormative expectations and compromising apart of ourselves?
I recognize that these questions on love do come with a level of privilege and I am not incognizant to the fact that these may not be the priorities of debate or dialogue for people in the LGBTQIA community. For the most part, many just want to live out their lives safely, without the fear of violence and to have a guaranteed future in a political climate that has exhibited rhetoric and policies that give much to fear about.
And sure, as of now, we can see that the representation in Akhavan’s show is orientated largely around cis-gendered and able-bodied individuals.
Nonetheless, there is still a lot of content to keep me intellectually engaged and watching the show. Plus, I am curious as to whether Akhavan will explore her sexuality with the intersection of her brownness in the context of the show being set in England; which comes with its own set of race relations.
In sum, y’all should check it out! Akhavan co-writes, directs and stars in the UK comedy-drama series. Akhavan is also running on the back of her recent directorial success for The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a film that follows the story of a queer teenager who is sent to a conversion therapy camp.
The film won this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize but Akhavan had also made a name for herself in the film festival circuit with her debut film, Appropriate Behavior.