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Bisexual chic is a cultural trend in which it becomes permissible, even admired, to assert bisexuality as one's sexual orientation. It has been observed societally in the Western World at various points since the 1970s. It correlates generally to periods in which tolerance of gay men, lesbian women, transgendered and intersex people become more acceptable in mainstream culture.
The origin of bisexual chic
The term bisexual chic was first used for a cultural trend in the early 1970s as an outgrowth of the Sexual revolution. Musical acts such as Elton John, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and the androgynous David Bowie made public their experiences with other members of the same sex, as did celebrities like Marlon Brando and Gore Vidal, Janis Joplin and Joan Baez.
In 1972, the highly popular musical film Cabaret featured a love triangle with a man and woman fighting for the same (male) lover. The author who inspired it, Christopher Isherwood, was among the first openly homosexual celebrities. Later in the decade, the androgyny of glam rock and softening of male fashion in the disco movement allowed new recognition for bisexuality as a perceived form of sexual liberation.
Fading of bisexual chic in the 1980s
Bisexual chic has eluded males in recent decades. It fell out of popularity with the increasingly conservative culture that dominated the 1980s. As evidence of the AIDS epidemic surfaced in the media about homosexual men contracting a "strange new illness," promiscuous bisexuals were seen as likely carriers, and the fad waned. As a result, many people who had declared themselves bisexual in the 70s now retracted their comments. Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie renounced their bisexuality in the 1980s. Male counterparts to female celebrity figures flirting with bisexuality are extremely rare. By the 2000s it would represent an apparent double standard. It is unacceptable among males; it is seen as cute and even acceptable among females.
Reemergence of Bisexual chic
In the early 1990s, another wave of bisexual chic began, again beginning in the celebrity world. This time, however, women were at the forefront of the trend. In Madonna's infamous music video for "Justify My Love," she passionately kisses former Roxy Music model Amanda Cazalet (who is dressed as a man) and her male lover. Madonna also later released her provocative book Sex, as well as revealing her controversial "Erotica" music video that also featured same-sex contact. Openly bisexual comedian and rumored lover of Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, was featured as a bisexual on the popular television sitcom Roseanne amidst the trend. To illustrate the trend, Roseanne later found herself kissed by another woman and was "consoled" by Bernhard's character, bringing bisexuality to Middle America.
The willingness of heterosexual actors to engage in homosexual behavior for roles in film also fueled bisexual chic. The cult-classic My Own Private Idaho (which is often cited as providing River Phoenix's most potent film role) was released in 1991 and saw Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as gay hustlers. The controversial 1992 hit Basic Instinct featured a glamorous bisexual murderer played by Sharon Stone. In 1993, Tom Hanks, arguably the most popular actor at that time, won an Academy Award for portraying a gay man who had AIDS in Philadelphia. The fashion industry was the next promoter of bisexual chic, when Calvin Klein and others began to generate homoerotic, lesbian chic, and otherwise sexually ambiguous images as advertisements for their consumers.
Popular culture saw a leaning towards the acceptance of gay rights, fueled by celebrities, take effect during the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Elton John, Rupert Everett and others who identified as homosexuals, became enormously popular entertainers. Perhaps taking them as an example, bisexuals or bi-curious people began to be unafraid to announce their orientation. There was a sharp rise in coming out, both among homosexuals and bisexuals. Soon, gays, lesbians and bisexuals were almost ubiquitous in the media, and Hollywood officially had taken the closet door off. Even a star with a huge mainstream following, Janet Jackson, recorded a cover version of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)" in which she sings to a woman with whom she is about to engage in a ménage à trois, saying, "This is just between me... and you... and you...."
Question of male bisexual chic
In music, Michael Stipe of the wildly popular band R.E.M. alluded to his bisexual inclinations for the first time during this period. As well, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana said that he could possibly be bisexual in The Advocate during his brief but revolutionary career in the early nineties, as did his wife, Courtney Love of Hole. Popular front man Billie Joe Armstrong for the California-based band Green Day made a profound statement about bisexuality when he came out in The Advocate on January 24, 1995.
Nevertheless, far fewer men are open about committing to or flirting with bisexuality. The above examples of bisexual women far out-number the bisexual men.
Bisexual chic in the 2000s
Some have pointed to the first decade of 2000s as another flashpoint for the bisexual chic trend, with sexually fluid musical acts like The Killers, Peaches, and Franz Ferdinand all receiving considerable success. Films alluding to bisexuality (or manifestations thereof) such as Kissing Jessica Stein, Y tu mamá también, Mulholland Drive, Alexander, Kinsey, and Brokeback Mountain are being distributed and received well. In 2005, Alex Kelly (The O.C.) featured on The O.C., was a high-visibility bisexual character on U.S. network television, forming relationships with two of the show's main characters.
Britney Spears staged a kiss with Madonna (who also kissed Christina Aguilera in the same performance) on an MTV Video Music Awards performance that would continue to fuel bisexual chic, since it was clear from her impending marriage to Kevin Federline that Spears was certainly not a monosexual lesbian. The kiss is seen as a publicity stunt but helped to fuel the ever-growing trend. In November 2006, Paris Hilton appeared in public with her hand on Spears' left breast.
2004's Drawn Together introduced bisexual cartoon parodies Foxxy Love and Captain Hero. Foxxy Love's bisexuality is prevalent but not a source of comic effect, whereas Captain Hero's pansexuality is frequently a source of humor regarding his varied sexual inclinations.
In 2006, actress and model Carmen Electra (who appeared in glam rocker Joan Jett's music video, A.C.D.C.), revealed that she had a childhood crush on Jett. The same year, American actresses Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3) and Michelle Rodriguez (Lost) conceded to their lesbian relationship, as did former Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Iyari Limon who placed her lesbian character on Buffy as being responsible for helping her realize her bisexuality.
In 2006, British sci-fi series Torchwood aired, which features amongst its cast at least three bisexual characters (Jack, Owen, Tosh and Ianto), with all of them described as bisexual by newspapers like The Sun. This has in turn led to more discussion of the nature of bisexuality across interview programs in Britain, notably Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and others.
In 2007, American FX drama Dirt features Leo Spiller, the main character's brother. He identifies as bisexual but his sister simply believes he is gay. The main character herself, played by Courtney Cox will apparently share a same-sex kiss with Jennifer Aniston's character in the season finale. The same year, British drama Skins features the possibly sociopathic Tony Stonem, who is willing to aggressively pursue both male and (mostly) female interests. This characterization echoes that of Desperate Housewives' Andrew Van De Kamp, who whilst primarily identifies as gay has once said he is actually bisexual whilst displaying a sociopathic character.
In 2007 on "South Park", the character Butters was caught in what seemed to be a homosexual act but was not. He was told he was "Bi-Curious", the comedy stemming from various adults shouting 'Is it true then? Are you confused?', to which his reply was 'Sure I'm confused!'
According to surveys by the CDC, a larger number of female college and high school students are experimenting with other women than ever before and, in a surprising twist, actually report being encouraged to do so by pop culture for the first time. Whether or not this change in popular culture is longstanding or, indeed, a simple trend remains to be seen.
Bisexual chic is criticized by some sexual researchers and religious affiliations, as evidence for bisexuality as an "abnormal" sexual orientation.
- Bisexual Chic, Nostalgiacentral.com. Retrieved February 2, 2007.
- Christopher Isherwood on GLBTQ.com
- Extra - Britney and Madonna
- Playfuls.com "Britney Spears Groped By Paris Hilton"
- Post Chronicle "Tittle Tattle": "Carmen Electra's Latest Girls Crush: Joan Jett"
- The Advocate Kristianna and Michelle in Love!
- Interview with Iyari Limon - AfterEllen.com
- Sarah Nathan (September 2006). Dr Ooh gets four gay pals. The Sun. Retrieved on 2006-10-06. “GAY Doctor Who star John Barrowman gets four BISEXUAL assistants in raunchy BBC3 spin-off Torchwood.”
- MSNBC.com More Women Experimenting With Bisexuality
- Sheldon, Rev. Louis B, Tradtional Values Coaltion, Teen Girls Experimenting with "Bisexual Chic"
- Beemyn, Brett and Erich Steinman. Bisexual Men in Culture and Society (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2001).
- "The New Bisexuals." Time, May 13, 1974.
- Reichert, Tom, Kevin R. Maly & Susan C. Zavoina. “Designed for (Male) Pleasure: The Myth of Lesbian Chic in Mainstream Advertising." Meta Carstarphen and Susan C. Zavoina (eds.), Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).
- Risman, Barbara and Pepper Schwartz. "After the Sexual Revolution: Gender Politics in Teen Dating," Contexts (Berkeley: U California Press, 2002).
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