clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The bisexual movie canon reaches beyond the obvious

Seeking representation onscreen, the bi community has come together to make it by sheer force of will

Cate Blanchett as Hella in Thor: Ragnarok with an overcast of blue/purple lighting Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon | Source image: Disney

Outside of experiencing attraction to two or more genders, there is no universal bisexual experience. But our shared sense of self-inflicted humor can sometimes feel pretty close to one — community in-jokes abound about how we sit, what we wear, and what movies we watch. The memes about what it means to be bi seem endless, but they serve a purpose: They’ve created an online community in a world that encourages queer loneliness. People who are closeted, in a rural area, or disabled — or for that matter, in a pandemic — may not have access to a physical community. But making, liking, or sharing memes about being bi lets us in on a joke that suggests a common experience, and makes us feel less alone.

Similarly, we’ve been building a cultural canon. Bisexual people online often claim specific films as “bisexual movies,” regardless of the presence of bisexual plotlines, characters, or actors onscreen. There isn’t a comprehensive definition of a bi movie, because there isn’t one reason for films to be designated as bi movies, other than that bisexuals have watched them and claimed them, at least semi-jokingly. This weird tongue-in-cheek social-media movie canon is both a mirror showing us how we collectively connect to film, and a magnifying glass, showing us how film continues to fail us.

Two films in social media’s bi movie canon outshine the rest: 1999’s The Mummy and 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. A multitude of headlines have lauded Thor: Ragnarok as a “bisexual anthem film,” “bisexual masterpiece,” and one of the “10 Most Bisexual Things You Can Watch on Netflix Right Now.” That puts it up against shows and movies with openly bi characters who kiss, have sex, and use the word “bisexual.” As one virally spread (but now deleted) tweet joked, “The gays have Love, Simon. The straights have To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. The bisexuals have Thor: Ragnarok.” Other memes soon followed. Similarly, a new bisexual Mummy meme rolls around every few months. The most famous is perhaps “No one is ‘born bi,’ you watch The Mummy at a formative age and the whole cast turns you bi.”

The community calls movies like The Mummy “bi awakening movies.” With mind-bogglingly beautiful people at every turn, every scene of a bi awakening movie raises the question: “Why do I have to be attracted to just one gender when everyone here is so hot?”

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, the Ambiguously Bi Duo, both wearing leather tunics in Thor: Ragnarok Photo: Marvel Studios

In an essay analyzing queer thirst for straight actors, Grace Perry explains some things that certainly apply to the concept of bi-awakening movies — particularly how straight actors like Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett often become gay icons and objects of queer desire after playing queer characters on screen. In their cases, queer audiences transfer the queer identity of an actor’s past characters not only onto the actors themselves, but to their other roles. Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela becomes gayer because of Cate Blanchett’s starring role in the sensuous sapphic period drama Carol, while Weisz’s roles in The Favourite and Disobedience may have contributed to The Mummy’s retroactive addition to bi film canon.

Perry proposes a number of reasons why this happens, and two stand out. First off, sapphic filmgoers posting Rachel Weisz thirst tweets (Perry’s example) and Mummy memes are on some level liberating themselves by performing their queerness for other queer people. Perry also points to an oversaturation of straight actors in queer roles: Queer audiences grant straight actors queer-icon status because there aren’t as many out queer actors setting themselves up as objects of desire in mainstream cinema. Once again forced to make space for ourselves in a medium that makes no space for us, looking for queer characters onscreen becomes like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: “Sure,” I can tell myself, “she isn’t gay here, or gay in reality, but I’ve seen Cate Blanchett have movie sex with Rooney Mara in another movie, which makes this movie gayer, too.”

Neither The Mummy nor Thor: Ragnarok feature openly bisexual characters or storylines, which is true of many of the movies viewers have embraced into the bi canon. That’s representative of a larger problem: the film industry’s lengthy history of censoring anything suggesting or positively portraying queerness. Even after the MPAA gave up its decades-long prohibition against portrayals of queer people and relationships, major studios like Disney and DreamWorks have continued to self-censor. This censorship is often attributed to studio fears of limited distribution in foreign markets. However, the domestic market is similarly unfriendly to queer characters and relationships, both due to conservative audiences and the MPAA’s habit of giving higher age ratings to movies with queer characters and relationships even when sex isn’t shown.

There’s a world in which Thor: Ragnarok could have been the “bisexual anthem film” critics claimed it to be. Three of the film’s characters are queer in the comics (Loki, Valkyrie, and Korg) and Hela’s backstory is ripped from Neil Gaiman’s un-adapted lesbian character Angela, first introduced in the pages of Spawn and incorporated into the Marvel Comics Universe in 2013. Onscreen, Hela doesn’t say anything about her sexuality, but she still “feels gay” because of Blanchett’s filmography.

As for Valkyrie, played by bi actress Tessa Thompson, Disney infamously erased a scene depicting her with another woman (and similarly deleted a sapphic scene for Dora Milaje second-in-command Ayo in Black Panther). While Eternals includes a prominent gay character, and the upcoming Taika Waititi movie Thor: Love and Thunder has promised substantial queer representation, Disney also has a lengthy history of queer-baiting audiences, promising queer representation and instead offering a throwaway line or unnamed character. In cases like Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker and Eternals, queer kisses have been censored for overseas releases.

Historically, queer people have found a lot of ways to find ourselves in film and to skirt media censorship. As gay film director Harvey Fierstein explains in the essential 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, “Readings in school were heterosexual. Every movie I saw was heterosexual. And I had to do this translation. I had to translate it to my life, rather than seeing my life.” For queer people, this process of media translation is a constant — we’re always finding ourselves in media or finding ways to relate to it by decoding it.

In the context of deciphering and translating, it’s easy to have films “feel” bisexual. Encoding and deciphering play an overwhelmingly important role in queer history and culture. For example, homosexuality was criminalized in Britain until 1967: Gay men adopted techniques like wearing green carnations in the 19th century, or speaking in Polari slang, which remained prominent through the mid-20th century, as methods of covert communication. In the same way visual cues and subtext have allowed queer people to survive, they’ve helped our stories to survive too.

In Ben-Hur, bi screenwriter Gore Vidal was forbidden from giving Ben-Hur a textual gay relationship with Messala, but he told actor Stephen Boyd about his intent. Boyd played Messala with that reading in mind, and every glance he throws at Ben-Hur (played obliviously by Charlton Heston) is filled with longing. In The Mummy, when Rick (Brendan Fraser) stares at Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) while striking a match on his jaw, what’s to stop that from feeling just as suggestive as Rick’s glances at Rachel Weisz’s character Evie?

Brendan Fraser and Oded Fehr, armed and alarmed together, in The Mummy Photo: Universal Pictures

In DreamWorks’ animated movie The Road to El Dorado, Tulio and Miguel might be enchanted by Chel, but they seem equally enchanted by each other. Kenneth Branagh (who played Tulio) was told to stop calling Miguel (Kevin Kline) “darling,” as then-head-of–DreamWorks-Animation Jeffrey Katzenberg noted the endearment was suited to a “different kind of audience.” When the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) gives Loki a suggestive glance (or the code for his “orgy ship”) in Thor: Ragnarok, the media bi people have grown up with has trained us to “read further into it.”

When even a carnation can be freighted with meaning, it’s unsurprising that queer audiences have found significance in aspects of film as subtle as lighting. While it seems to have originated as a term on twitter, “bisexual lighting” has been covered by the BBC and discussed in academia, with increased public awareness of both the trend and how bisexuals are represented on screen. “Bisexual lighting” or “bi lighting” refers to when a TV or film scene is lit with the colors of the bisexual flag (magenta, purple, and blue), which can be read as a wordless acknowledgement of an character’s bisexuality. When you’re primed to see it, it’s everywhere. It’s in the spy thriller Atomic Blonde, when the protagonist has sex with another woman (who is later violently killed off), the gay Black Mirror episode San Junipero, and the poster for Moonlight.

Bi lighting often feels ubiquitous, even when there isn’t a hint of bisexuality in sight. As explained by YouTuber Kyle Kallgren, the blue, purple, and magenta color palette has a cinematic purpose beyond representing bisexuality. The intense purples, pinks, and blues we’ve come to call bi lighting are colors that rarely occur in nature and thus often act as a cinematic shorthand for the unnatural. These are the colors of magic in fantasy, alien landscapes in sci-fi, and the neon lighting of cyberpunk settings and nightclubs. Thus, while Twitter users and media critics have noted bi lighting in John Wick 3, Blade Runner 2049, 2019’s Color Out of Space, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, there’s often a less gay logic for doing so.

That said, even if bi lighting first came to creators’ attention because of the memes, they’re now consciously embracing it onscreen. It’s used in a musical number when a character comes out as bi on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s in the third episode of Loki, in the scene where Loki comes out as bi. It’s in a scene in the Disney cartoon Owl House, when the bisexual protagonist is with her lesbian love interest. In the case of Loki, actress Sophia Di Martino (who plays Sylvie) told Variety that she was certain director Kate Heron used bi lighting on purpose. Similarly, Mari Alizor, a visual developer and color designer on Owl House, noted on Twitter that the creators intentionally referenced the bi and lesbian flags when lighting the series.

Most of us don’t truly equate bi lighting, suggestive glances, or memories of past roles as substantive representation. But claiming movies as bisexual allows us to make a space for ourselves in media that actively erases us and makes endless efforts to stop us from participating. On the upside, there are more real bi movies now to celebrate: DC’s Birds of Prey unabashedly queer-codes its villains, but it also stars multiple queer heroes — including Harley Quinn, portrayed as openly bi and victoriously escaping an abusive relationship while blowing stuff up and making friends along the way. Or there’s the chaotic indie comedy Shiva Baby, written and directed by bisexual filmmaker Emma Seligman, with a plot focusing on a young bisexual woman’s struggles to find herself as she navigates her past and present relationships.

While screen stories now feature far more substantive bisexual representation than in previous eras, bisexual audiences continue to use unorthodox methods to find ourselves in the media we interact with. Perhaps we’ll eventually reach a point when the Shiva Babys outweigh the Atomic Blondes, but for now, the online community’s shared canon and constant conversation about bi movies helps bridge the gap. When cinema erases queer narratives and refuses to hire queer actors, it creates an annihilating vacuum — it tells us we don’t exist. Jokes, memes, and the tongue-in-cheek identification of new additions to the bi movie canon all straddle the line between serious and sarcastic. Above all else, the building of that canon represents the collective desire to find community and fill that void by any means possible.