Adolescence, Bisexual Desire, and Gregg Araki

I perhaps came across the cinema of Gregg Araki a little too late. As a child and young adolescent, the worlds that teenagers inhabited fascinated me. In the ‘90s to 2000s era in popular culture, I looked to the reflections of teenagers on-screen aspirationally. These appeared to me like worlds of sex, drug-taking, and frivolity. In American teen cinema including the movies Thirteen, I Know What You Did Last Summer, the Scary Movie, and American Pie franchises, there lay something that captivated me. Teenagers seemed to be living on a plane of freedom and continual journeys of experimentation into the unknown. As a sheltered child who longed to already be experiencing this dangerous independence, these films appeared to me as a conduit to ephemerally live out such a life through fantasy.

Similarly, through popular music, and particularly the medium of the music video, I could try out a range of different teenage personas that I would maybe one day inhabit. I practised my 'Like I Love You' Justin Timberlake in front of the mirror, with his teasing eyes and grey hoodie. Or perhaps I would be more like Nelly and find myself in a dilemma with my very own Kelly Rowland, our mutual adoration taking us out dancing into the streets. Or perhaps I would find myself in Christina Aguilera’s dirrty club. Would I be a well-oiled man in the background? Would I burst through the hallways with the dominance of Redman? Or would I be Christina herself, writhing on the floor with my red thong at the forefront of everyone’s mind?

Unsurprisingly, my actual teenage years were much less exciting than any of these fantasies. Where I’d hoped to find a space of romance, sex and abandon, I instead found myself to be a closeted bisexual who was engrossed in school work, who maybe kissed a girl at a party but never got beneath anyone’s clothes, and whose only real engagement with drugs was smoking weed in my friend’s shed every Friday night while listening to Laura Marling songs.

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I discovered the cinema of Gregg Araki - a brand of predominantly “teen” cinema that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. His films featured aliens, the apocalypse, and Los Angeles. Soundtracks reverberating with the exclamatory brashness of postpunk and the sensual pulse of shoegaze. Brutal violence, cults, and surprise attacks. Valley girls and stoners. Made-up Californian teenage vernacular peppered with creative vulgarities. Boredom, apathy, and recklessness. Chain-smoking and drinking. Teen suicide. Young cinephiles who make films. And finally – importantly – characters who desire people of more than one gender.

As I began to explore Araki’s cinema further, I found that bisexuality emerged again and again, from his first 1987 low-budget feature Three Bewildered People In The Night to his high-budget and star-studded 2014 film White Bird In A Blizzard. What continued to interest me about Araki’s cinema was the way in which he repeatedly articulated bisexuality within a cultural context in which bisexuality is usually erased. Normally when characters are depicted as having relationships with people of more than one gender, this is presented as a journey towards their true identity. The teenage girl who kisses another girl but then later in a film has a relationship with a man is read as a “straight girl experimenting”. The married man whose affair with another man is discovered, is revealed to have been gay and closeted all along. In Araki’s cinema however, potentials beyond the heterosexual-homosexual binary are opened up, in ways that challenge the dominant assertion that individuals must be either straight or gay.

Araki himself has hinted towards this aspect of his cinema saying in 1999 ‘polymorphous sexuality is interesting to me’, in 2005 ‘my movies are always about outsiders and amorphous sexuality’ and in 2011, ‘my earlier movies are sort of about that idea of sexuality [being] flexible and not black and white.’ Araki also described his 1995 film The Doom Generation as having ‘a bisexual edge’ and his tagline for his 2010 feature Kaboom was ‘a bisexual Twin Peaks in college’.

Araki is someone who has described his sexuality in many different ways over the last twenty years, sometimes identifying as gay and sometimes eschewing labels of sexual identity altogether. Despite being one of the key figures of the New Queer Cinema movement, Araki’s relationship to queer communities has been a fraught one. In the early ‘90s the director faced accusations of presenting negative images of queerness and in the mid-’90s, Araki had his legitimacy questioned over his relationships with women. In reaction to Araki attending the Sundance Film Festival with then-girlfriend Kathleen Robertson, the actor who plays Lucifer in the film we’re about to watch, one journalist accused him of ‘straining the GLBT community’s acceptance of the auteur as a ‘serious filmmaker’ of gay-themed films.’ This journalist obviously doesn’t see the irony of using an acronym that contains the letter B to make his point.

However I would posit that rather than straining relationships with queer communities, Araki’s cinema does something quite different. Instead, I believe that his films open up possibilities of what queer can mean, who is considered queer, and what queer cinema can be. Too often is the term queer cinema synonymous with cinema about young, gay, white, cis men. In Araki’s foregrounding of bisexuality, an important representational shift is made that destabilises normative homosexuality’s dominance in queer culture.

Studies in the UK and US have found that bisexual people make up the largest sexual demographic group in queer communities, yet their lives, desires, and particularities of experience are so often elided in both queer and mainstream culture. In Stonewall’s 2010 report on television representation, they found that LGB characters accounted for only 4.5% of all programming, with bisexuals making up just 1% of that 4.5%. That's bisexual characters making up just 0.045% of all television programming.

This is important because the images we see on screen have a profound effect on real lives. In a world in which bisexuals are regularly told that their sexualities do not exist, that they are going through a phase, or cannot be part of queer communities, isolation is commonplace. In research conducted by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earlier this year, it was found that bisexual men experience the highest prevalence of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts in British LGB communities. Similarly, a 2010 study in the US found that bisexual women face the highest prevalence of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in LGB communities. A 2011 report by Stonewall found that bisexual asylum seekers are the sexual demographic least likely to obtain asylum on the grounds of sexual persecution in their home country. These are just a handful of data that pertain to the lived and structural realities that bisexual people face.

Here cinema may feel like a superficial area to return to, but I believe cinema’s immense cultural influence is something with considerate ramifications, especially for marginalised groups. Cultural theorist bell hooks reminds us that ‘whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people...no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention [might be], [viewers are] usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen.’ 

Araki’s feat in repeatedly bringing bisexual lives to film in ways that are cool, awkward, sexy, lonely, confused, assured, reckless, and cautious, is something to be marked. Nowhere is the film that I wish I had discovered as a teenager. While teeming with the same mythologised conceptions of adolescence that I never managed to personally realise, it is a loud, fast-paced, visceral, and, if you’re attentive to it, profoundly touching film. It’s the world of Dark, Mel, and Lucifer. Kriss, Kozy, Cowboy, and Egg. Shad, Lilith, Zero and Zoe. This world is pleasurable and violent, funny and upsetting, profound and superficial, but, importantly, it is a world in which bisexual desire is permitted to unfurl. 

 

by Jacob Engelberg