Power to the Clueless 

The politics of bisexuality aren't as complicated as you'd think.


Jennifer Baumgardner

WHEN Wed 3/7, 12:30 PM

WHERE Barnes & Noble, DePaul Center, 1 E. Jackson

INFO 312-362-8795

When Wed 3/7, 7:30 PM

Where Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark

Info 773-769-9299

A largely bourgeois liberation struggle, feminism has always linked the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of self-actualization. Feminists have worked toward concrete, egalitarian goals--suffrage, access to education, abortion rights--but the movement has also offered the fuzzier prospect of personal transformation and utopian bliss. Thus early feminists hoped that when women gained the vote they'd cleanse political culture, creating a more peaceful, more honest world. Similarly, Betty Friedan wanted women to have more and better jobs outside the home not primarily because it would make them richer or more powerful, but because it would make them happier. Personal dissatisfaction is tied to institutional inequality--with the result that it's sometimes difficult to remember that the two aren't necessarily the same thing.

But at least when she connected her depression with her oppression, Friedan was actually depressed. In her new book, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, Jennifer Baumgardner tries to build a political identity out of what appears to be, at worst, mild irritation. Baumgardner, coauthor of Manifesta, a 2000 primer on third-wave feminism, is bisexual, and she insists that "at least in some ways, bisexuals are an unliberated, invisible, and disparaged social group." Bisexuals, in particular bisexual women--Baumgardner's main concern--are not taken seriously because they're seen as either gay women afraid to come all the way out or as straight women flirting with a hip, edgy lifestyle.

These stereotypes can be painful and unfair. And yet when Baumgardner turns to her own biography, it's hard to see any concrete damage--physical or mental--caused by her bisexuality. Baumgardner started dating women while working at Ms., and she reports, unsurprisingly, no problems with her work life nor any conflicts with her affluent, liberal parents. She notes that some bisexuals have to deal with social censure from lesbians. In Baumgardner's case, however, one of her first relationships was with lesbian rock star Amy Ray, of the Indigo Girls, who prefers bisexual lovers and whose fame insulated Baumgardner from judgment. In fact, the most she can muster, as far as personal pain goes, is that people tend to assume she's either gay or straight, and then she has to "crowd every conversation with sign posts" to explain herself. I can see how that might be annoying for everyone--but it's not quite a "you have nothing to lose but your chains!" moment, is it?

Luckily, though she flirts with the idea of bisexuals as an oppressed class, Baumgardner is smart enough to realize that she doesn't have much of a case. And that's where self-actualization comes in. Bisexuality, Baumgardner argues, isn't merely a lifestyle or sexual preference--instead it's a way for women to live more fulfilling lives. When women have relationships with other women, she says, they begin to have "gay expectations" of their relationships with men--expectations of better sex, more emotional openness, cleaner houses. In addition, when women sleep with women, they mess with the male privilege to objectify and lust after women. This, apparently, destabilizes the hierarchy.

On the face of it, this looks suspiciously like nonsense. If you pay even minimal attention to what lesbians themselves say, either in person or in print, you'll find plenty of evidence to contradict the suggestion that relationships between women are automatically nurturing or egalitarian (check out Ariel Schrag's comics for just one example).

Moreover, it's hard to see how bisexuality challenges male prerogatives when it's so thoroughly incorporated into mainstream male fantasies. If the amount of bi-girl imagery pervading pop culture is any indicator, guys love the idea of women sleeping with each other, especially if they're also willing to sleep with men. Baumgardner pays lip service to this phenomenon, but she never really comes to terms with it. Certainly, she never acknowledges that male bisexuality is a fundamentally different cultural phenomenon from female bisexuality. She recounts seeing a movie audience erupt with disgust after seeing a scene in which two men kiss. But it doesn't seem to occur to her that if the kiss were girl-on-girl the reaction would almost surely have been titillation rather than repugnance.

The fetishization of bisexual women by the media, and its relationship to patriarchal power, might make a good topic for a bracingly bitter second-wave feminist screed by, say, Kate Millett. As a third-waver, though, Baumgardner is relentlessly cheery about pop culture, gushing about Ani DiFranco, Ellen DeGeneres, and (inevitably) Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Buffy is "an important and accurate allegory of what it means to be a feminist today," she says. Meaning, I guess, that feminists are whiny, extremely thin, and subject to poorly plotted storylines.) She even has kind things to say about the almost universally reviled ex-lesbian Anne Heche. Yes, she admits, Heche is "privileged and clueless." But by gosh, those are qualities that can be useful in the feminist struggle.

This argument is easy to parody. Nonetheless, it's actually a good insight. The privileged and clueless have, in fact, always had an important place in social justice struggles. This is partly because, as Baumgardner notes, "cluelessness" can translate into fearlessness--Anne Heche just assumed that the world would embrace her relationship with Ellen, because, well, why shouldn't they? Even more important, though, is the fact that "privilege" almost always translates as "power." And if you want to change the world, power, in one form or another, is what you need.

Baumgardner is fuzzy on exactly how bisexual women's relative privilege can be translated into feminist gains. In part, she's hampered by her own cluelessness and class. When she says that in the last 30 years "singleness was transformed from a tragedy into an identity," for example, she's clearly thinking of people with disposable income, not of poor women with multiple kids for whom singleness can still look a lot like disaster.

Still, limited as her perspective is, she does point in some interesting directions. She notes, for example, that while young activists aren't very interested in feminism, they tend to be very excited about gay rights. She also points out that feminists are often seen as boring and sexless, and elsewhere notes that bisexuality can be perceived as romantic and sexy. She doesn't quite connect the dots on this last thought, but one of the implications of her book is that feminism could make itself hipper and more appealing by aggressively embracing bisexuality.

For both gay rights advocates and feminists, acknowledging bisexuality can be a step toward the mainstream--a way to leverage some support that might not otherwise be available. (There's an unremarked analogy here to the position of biracial blacks in some early abolitionist and civil rights narratives.) Baumgardner says some dumb things, and her tone is way too chipper. But her basic contention--that bisexuals deserve to be taken seriously, and that if they are both women and gays will benefit--is probably right.


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