Bisexual characters are rarely represented in cinema, but among the scarce examples, one trope stands out as particularly insidious. There are a number of films — frequently defined as “erotic thrillers” — which feature bisexual women who are violent, manipulative, and even murderous. Femme fatales such as Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct are aggressive and sexually confident, and thus are considered to be dangerous. This trope assumes that if a woman’s sexuality is fluid, then she must be unstable; there must be something wrong with a woman whose sexuality does not fit into a neat little box.
Two of the most prominent examples of this trope come from the aforementioned Basic Instinct, as well as Brian De Palma’s 2012 film, Passion. Both films are directed by straight white men who filter the female experience through their own male perspective, and then through their camera lenses. Their female characters are shown to have some charming qualities, but in the end they are promiscuous and manipulative, never to be trusted.
In Passion, Rachel McAdams plays Christine, an extremely successful advertising executive, who works closely with Noomi Rapace’s character, Isabelle. The women at first appear to have a close friendship and solid work relationship, but this is not a movie about working women supporting one another. It soon becomes evident that Christine does not see Isabelle as her equal, but rather, as someone she has complete control over – in work and in personal life. Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s work to ensure she can move up within the advertising company. Shortly after, she tells Isabelle a sad tale of her twin sister being killed by a car, ending the speech by saying, “I love you,” to Isabelle. This is clearly manipulative behavior.
At various points in the film, Christine kisses and makes mild sexual advances towards Isabelle. Christine is also involved with a man named Dirk (Paul Anderson), whom she has theatrical sexual encounters with, frequently involving power play. The film casually enforces the idea that bisexual women do not abide by the codes of monogamy, but rather, have sexual/romantic relations with anyone they want at any time. Of course, Dirk also sleeps with Isabelle, so I guess straight men are not presented as being much more faithful. This is not to say that monogamy is “normal” or “right” — not at all. But De Palma has not made a film about the joy and beauty of polyamory. Christine goes behind Dirk’s back and makes sexual advances towards Isabelle, because according to De Palma, that is how bisexual women operate.
Isabelle returns Christine’s attraction, and also has sex with Dirk. She is another bisexual character portrayed as promiscuous. At various points in the film, Christine and Isabelle also exhibit dangerous, and even violent, tendencies. [SPOILER] Christine is murdered, and it is revealed that Isabelle killed her, and manipulated everyone around her in order to cover it up. In the world of Passion, bisexual women are criminal masterminds with lots of secrets. Even Isabelle’s assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth) joins in the fun, professing her love for Isabelle and then blackmailing her into having a sexual relationship with her. All three of these queer women fit into the trope of the femme fatale), which is not necessarily a bad thing. Christine, Isabelle, and Dani are all successful career women who are confident and highly intelligent. However, their fluid sexualities pose a threat in the mind of De Palma, so they are also portrayed as unstable and prone to violence.
Passion is not meant to be taken as a realistic film – De Palma clearly indicates that this slightly humorous and highly stylized film is meant to be over-the-top. The set and costume design are sleek and shiny. Christine wears big, ornate earrings and perfectly-fitting business suits. Everyone’s office is made completely of glass and polished metal. The score uses “stingers” to heighten moments of shock and fear. Characters often bolt upright in the middle of the night, revealing that the previous scenes were just a dream. The film is clearly flamboyant, which is one of its charms. The same can be said about Basic Instinct – the film is full of neon lights, noir-ish twists and turns in the narrative, and equally athletic dance and sex scenes. And of course, Paul Verhoeven is a master of satire – he is rarely serious. Verhoeven is always smirking at the audience through his movies. However, representation is important. These two films are fun and exciting (as B. Ruby Rich notes of Basic Instinct in her essay, “New Queer Cinema“), but for all their satirizing and stylizing, the insidious ideas about queer women are hurtful. Biphobia literally means “fear of bisexuality,” and that fear is amplified by movies such as these.
Neither Passion nor Basic Instinct ever utters the word “bisexual.” However, in Basic Instinct, Catherine clearly has an intimate romantic and sexual relationship with Roxy (Laelani Sarelle). Catherine is presented as a threat because she is a confident queer woman, who knows what she wants in all aspects of her life: professionally, personally, sexually. Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) remains suspicious of her for the entire film. A confident, sexual woman must secretly be a murderer. Yes, there are many other clues that point to Catherine being the murderer, but the one thing that is constantly foregrounded is her sexuality – especially in that famous scene. She uses her out-of-control sexuality to manipulate the men around her, because according to Verhoeven, that is what queer women do.
Carrie Nelson at Bitch Media outlines the many biphobic elements of Basic Instinct in her article, “A Look at Basic Instinct.” She notes that Catherine and Roxy’s relationship is framed so that it’s titillating for male viewers. When Catherine and Roxy kiss each other, Catherine has one eye on Nick, gauging his reaction, hoping he’s aroused. Bisexual encounters in cinema are often filtered through the “male gaze”: rather than representing two women enjoying each other for their own pleasure, sexual relations between women are objectified, with the purpose of arousing male viewers. With the release of films such as Basic Instinct and Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, comes the question from young male viewers — “Did you see that lesbian scene?” Whether or not the male directors of these films intend to objectify queer women, it inevitably ends up happening. The queer women in these films are often not given a voice to express their emotional and romantic attachment to their partners. Their experiences are seen as purely sexual, and more often than not, calculating and cold. Catherine, Christine, and Isabelle have sexual encounters in order to manipulate others.
The trope of the promiscuous, aggressive, violent, and unstable bisexual woman is one that truly needs to disappear. Even if directors do not intend any harm to queer people or communities, these inaccurate portrayals lead movie-goers to believe that bisexuality is something dangerous, to be feared. As is widely known, LGBTQ+ activists protested Basic Instinct during filming and then once it had been released. This trope has been criticized since at least the 1990s (and even before, with women’s groups protesting Brian De Palma’s earlier film, Dressed to Kill, for equating female sexuality with violence). But films such as Passion demonstrate that the trope is alive and well. Much work needs to be done to give bisexual characters a voice – bisexual characters should be portrayed as the complex, beautiful, and complicated human beings that they are. Not all of us are secretly hiding ice picks under our beds.
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