A review of Neither Fish Nor Fowl: Imagining Bisexuality in the Cinema by Beth Carol Roberts
Beth Roberts’ dissertation Neither Fish Nor Fowl investigates how the often neglected material notion of bisexuality – the lived practices and experiences of individuals with same- and other-sex attractions – is represented in cinema. Although bisexuality may be experienced in different ways – either simultaneously, concurrently, or serially – Roberts demonstrates that the cinematic coding of bisexuality “has less to do with what is true to life than with what is legible in culture” (p. 68). In other words, the spectator’s ability to recognize same- and other-sex attractions as bisexuality is dependent on the ordering, frequency, and duration of such attractions within the film. Roberts persuasively demonstrates how the cinematic representation of bisexuality is not simply an issue of content but of form as well, with the cinematic medium itself playing an important role in how bisexuality is made legible in films. At stake in Roberts’ discussion is a larger reflection on the relationship between seeing and knowing, and the presumed correlation between visibility and authenticity. Ultimately, the work reveals the limitations of representation as a theoretical framework, proposing in its place a semiotic approach to the study of bisexuality in cinema that offers promising ways forward.
Roberts begins her dissertation by tracing a genealogy of existing critical and theoretical discourse on bisexuality in cinema. She demonstrates that within both feminist film theory and queer film criticism “any material notion of bisexuality as a descriptor of sexual attractions, practices, or histories is dismissed or denied, displaced or appropriated, avoided or ignored, foreclosed or erased, depending on which (bi-conscious) critique you consult” (p. 23). Instead, bisexuality is invoked only as a concept for an innate psychological phenomenon or an issue of gender as in androgyny, transvestism, or transgenderism. Moreover, both feminist film theory and queer theory are shown to be unaccommodating to bisexuality due to their reliance on binaries (masculine/feminine; hetero/homo). Roberts quotes gender and sexuality studies scholar Steven Angelides who explains, “[a]nything that is both one and the other contradicts the logic of either/or and must be repressed, disavowed, or excluded” (Steven Angelides, A History of Bisexuality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 188, quoted on p. 31).
Bisexual film studies emerged in response to the neglect of material bisexuality and it is this field with which Roberts is most heavily in dialogue. In her dissertation she takes up the work of the Bi Academic Intervention, a collection of British scholars focused on issues of bisexuality, and in particular the work of Jo Eadie. Roberts critiques this body of work, which has largely focused on analyzing representations of bisexuality to reveal stereotypes, myths, and how bisexuality functions as metaphor for other cultural anxieties, saying, “for all the contextual research bi critics have produced to explain why bisexuality has been represented in certain ways in particular films, we have had comparatively little to say about how these coded images work” (p. 36). Roberts’ work makes an important intervention into bi film studies by taking a medium specific approach to analyzing how bisexuality is coded in cinema.
Having established her intervention into existing discourse on bisexuality in cinema, Roberts’ second chapter illustrates how bisexuality is made legible in cinema. Her corpus consists predominately of North American and European films which take up either male or female bisexuality. While Roberts admits her choice not to distinguish between male and female bisexuality may be controversial, it is not a shortcoming of the work. Through her careful analysis of a variety of films featuring both male and female bisexuality she persuasively demonstrates that although “[t]here are different ways that bodies can be sexed and genders can be performed… these factors do not come into play in the coding of bisexuality” (p. 65). This is not to say that different culture assumptions about male and female bisexuality do not exist, only that these issues do not affect the code that makes bisexuality legible in cinema.
Roberts examines contemporaneous film reviews to identify when critics recognized same- and other-sex attractions as bisexuality. She reveals that films depicting serial bisexuality were not recognized by critics as being about bisexuality; instead, serial bisexuality is continually erased as the same- and other-sex attractions of characters are subsumed within heterosexuality or homosexuality in linear narratives of “Coming Out” or “Going Straight.” The chapter culminates in a close reading of Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971), one of the earliest films recognized by contemporaneous film critics as being about bisexuality. Through her analysis, Roberts demonstrates how formal techniques, editing in particular, were crucial for making bisexuality legible.
In Roberts’ third and final chapter she discusses the limitation of representation as a theoretical framework, especially for the study of bisexuality. Building upon the work of bisexual studies scholar Ki Namaste, Roberts proposes a semiotic approach for bisexual film studies that would examine the interplay of codes of sexuality, narrative, and cinema in the imaging of bisexuality.
Roberts concludes her project with a powerful call for bisexual scholars to reject the either/or binary logic that would continue to trap bisexuality within a politics of proximity. As she says, “the kinds of questions we ask fit the framework of neither straight nor gay ideologies, and the types of practices we consider meet the ethical ‘standards’ of neither heterosexual nor homosexual communities” (p. 164). Inspired by Foucault, she proposes that what is needed is a genealogy of bisexual ethics focusing on technologies of the self. The study of bisexuality should not begin by focusing on how others recognize us as bisexual, but how we experience being bisexual: “What are the practices and techniques — discursive and material — through which we have come to see and know ourselves as bisexual? How do we locate ourselves as neither/nor, with respect to forms of knowledge that comprise other (imagined) sexual communities? In our everyday encounters, what kinds of choices, decisions, compromises, or consequences do we confront with, say, same- and/or other-sex lovers?” (p. 168). Neither Fish Nor Fowl not only makes an important intervention into the study of bisexuality on screen, but also offers critical and inspired reflection on the existing frameworks used to study bisexuality. By rejecting the logic of either/or which has constrained the study of bisexuality and proposing in its place neither/nor, Roberts offers exciting new ways to approach bisexuality.
Department of Radio/Television/Film
Cruising (William Friedkin, US/West Germany, 1980).
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, US, 1975).
Film reviews from Newsweek, New York Times, Time, The Village Voice and The New Yorker
Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, UK, 1971).
The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman, US, 1971).
New York University. 2013. 197 pp. Primary Advisor: Richard Allen.
Image: Publicity shot from Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).