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Invisibility of Bisexuals – The Film Blue is the Warmest Colour

Ronnie Lam Long Yi

 

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(Retrieve from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2278871/)

 

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) (French: La Vie d'Adèle), adapted from a novel written by Julie Maroh of the same name. It is a French romantic film co-written, co-produced, and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. The protagonist, Adele (starred by Adèle Exarchopoulos) who is a literature student in her teenage, engages in a romantic and sexual relationship with the deuteragonist, Emma, who is a college student painter Emma (starred by Léa Seydoux).

 

One might describe Blue is the Warmest Colour is a bisexual film. Although the lesbian relationship between Adele and Emma is the major plot of the film, the sexuality of Adele is in fact left ambiguous - she never stated her sexuality explicitly while denied a lesbian label for several times, despite that Adele engages in sexual relationships with both male and female, audience might recognize she is a bisexual from her performance.

 

The major argument of the article is that bisexuality is non-performative in the gender binary, and therefore invisible in daily lives. Through citing scenes from Blue is the Warmest Colour, this argument will be illustrated. Such invisibility of bisexuality is also seen in Judith Butler’s Performativity of Gender in theory.

 

Bisexuality is invisible because it cannot be performed

In Judith Butler’s theory of Performativity – Gender Trouble (1990), sex, gender and sexuality are seen separate. Biological male, masculinity and heterosexual desire are seen as coherence in the mainstream gender binary and heterosexual society; coherence is seen among biological female, femininity and sexual desire towards masculinity. Gender is performative, gender can only be constructed through one’s performance and behaviour repeatedly to be considered “real” (Callis, 2009, p.229). While such performance is involuntary, how it should be read is to depend on a regulative discourse (Foucault, 1978), a concept borrowed from Michel Foucault, which defines the characteristics of sex, gender and sexuality accepted by the society. Butler’s theory suggests there exists incoherence in sex, gender and sexual desire. It is subversive because it takes on a constructivist view on gender, while the mainstream heterosexual society views gender as an essential fact and binary gender differences are ontological.

 

There exists no category of “masculine and feminine simultaneously” that is not a displacement in the mainstream binary gender system, and therefore bisexuality is unable to perform itself. Bisexuality is invisible because it neither subverts nor reinforces the binary system, lacks a regulative discourse and thus cannot be performed / read. Not only that bisexual is invisible in theory, the film Blue is the Warmest Colour illustrated that, bisexual is also invisible both in heterosexual and homosexual community.

 

An example to illustrate the invisibility of bisexuals behaviourally - when a bisexual female has sex with another female, one can only tell it is a lesbian relationship, but one cannot tell she is a bisexual. Except if a person engages in a sexual relationship with a man and woman at the same time, one can perform bisexuality in this exceptional case. However, engaging in sexual relationships with man and woman simultaneously is morally not acceptable in a monogamy society. If we see bisexuality through the lens of Judith Butler’s Gender Performativity, the gender binary is not dissolved, bisexuals are either invisible or promiscuous. In the film, when Emma discovers Adele sleeps with a man in the film, Emma outrageously accuses Adele of being a liar, not only because of adultery, but also Adele’s dishonesty in her sexuality. Emma assumed Adele is a lesbian who is only interested in woman, but the fact is that Adele is a bisexual. Adele’s bisexual identity is invisible, even in the eyes of her same-sex partner.

 

In the following two food scenes from Blue is the Warmest Colour, illustrating the embarrassing performance of bisexuality. Eating and tasting are often metaphors to sex, both relate human desires and arises physical pleasure, one has own preference over both eating and sex. Through food, the film hints on Adele’s sexuality. There is also a pattern in the movie that each eating scene is often followed by romantic or sexual scene. The director’s intention to hint sexual desire through eating is evident.

 

Waffles with crepe or Gyro?

 

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(Retrieved from: https://littlespoonfarm.com/sourdough-pancakes-waffles-recipe/)

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(Retrieved from: https://wp.foodbeast.com/news/tag/gyro/)

 

In the film, Adele encounters several romantic and sexual relationships, every first encounter with a new partner is usually presented in an eating scene. On the first date of Adele and her male classmate Thomas at a tourist spot, Thomas asks if Adele wants to eat waffles with crepe or Gyro. Adele chooses Gyro and has an enjoyable talk with Thomas in the fountain plaza. Waffle dessert is often served with fluffy white cream, strawberries in red and pink colours, an association with the character of gentle, sweet, sugar – adjectives and impression often used to describe a young and feminine teenage girl who attracts a heterosexual man. While in contrast, Gyro is a Greek dish, a rough wrap with meat which one must eat with hands. When Thomas and Adele enjoy their Gyro while chatting on literature, Adele eats with pleasure, big mouthful bites sometimes sucking her fingers, instead of performing an elegant lady, Adele happily displays her appetites on the first date with Thomas. Adele’s food choice is hinting she is not a mainstream feminine teenage girl who is commonly stereotyped as sweet and soft.

 

The scene followed is Thomas and Adele watching a film in cinema, a typical heterosexual dating scene, Thomas holds Adele’s hand and kisses her in the dark. However, Thomas is not sensitive enough to notice Adele is reluctant to kiss back, showing Adele is not interested in engaging a romantic relationship with Thomas. On the night after the first date with Thomas, Adele masturbates to Emma (whom she has met only at sight on the day), instead of to Thomas, reveals Adele has much stronger sexual desire toward Emma (a female) over Thomas (a male).

 

In putting the above three scenes together, Adele’s performance reveals that she has a sexual desire over male but is reluctant to engage in a romantic relationship with a male. Although the story further proceeds with Thomas and Adele’s a very brief romantic and sexual relationship, Adele is not fulfilled by Thomas. Thomas assumes Adele is a heterosexual, but an audience can read Adele is a lesbian character.

 

Strawberry milkshake or Bulldog beer?

 

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(Retrieved from: https://www.southernkitchen.com/recipes/dessert/strawberry-milkshakes)

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(Retrieved from: https://www.amstein.ch/en/E-Shop/Beers/Producers/Gotlands-Bryggeri-AB/Sleepy-Bulldog-Pale-Ale.html)

 

In a later scene, after Adele broke up with Thomas, she walks into a lesbian bar by coincidence. In her first experience in a lesbian bar, there are only women in the bar. She looks around and hardly finds someone who she is comfortable to talk to. Women in the bar are in different types of appearances, many are in short hair, some of them wear tomboy-style hair, some other lesbian women wear long hair and look feminine.

 

Adele is then spotted by Emma right away who is seated on the balcony. Emma decides to give Adele a “lesbian test”: strawberry milkshake or Bulldog beer. Without being aware of and talking to Adele, Emma orders a Bulldog Beer (Bull dyke beer, as described by Emma) for Adele. Emma approaches Adele and asks her to taste strawberry milk. Adele honestly replies that “it’s gross” and takes a sip of the beer. Emma takes the glass of strawberry milkshake over and says that she likes a lot. Emma then goes ahead commenting that Adele is a special type in the lesbian community – perhaps an underaged girl hanging out at (lesbian) bar or a curious straight girl walks into a lesbian bar, Emma is not sure if Adele is a lesbian or a straight. Adele smiles and is flattered by Emma’s flirts, but she denies herself is a lesbian and says walking into a lesbian is only a coincidence in her point of view. In contrast, Emma who has a denim cowboy vest with short and curly hair, evidently shows masculine quality. To Emma, her lesbian test to Adele is positive despite the fact that Adele’s appearance is not explicitly demonstrating a lesbian outlook.

 

Again, in this bar scene, through drinks, the director tries to give hints to the audience on Adele’s sexuality - to pick between sweet and adorable strawberry milk and a bitter beer. However, unlike Thomas, Emma is giving the test to Adele intentionally. In Emma explains Bulldog beer is “dyke beer” only lesbian drinks. Dyke, a synonym to butch or tomboy, as refers to lesbian woman who possesses masculine and androgynous woman, usually plays a masculine role in a lesbian relationship. In the context of lesbian bar, despite the fact that Adele denies being a lesbian, Emma still firmly believes Adele is a lesbian and wishes to figure out her label, whether she plays a masculine or feminine role in a lesbian relationship. While Adele does not understand Emma’s intention in labelling her sexuality, innocently she is labelled by Emma. Emma as a masculine lesbian, she is trying to search for a feminine lesbian as the partner, the same way how heterosexual desire works.

 

In the above two examples, Adele has been constantly put into test on whether she is a lesbian or straight, her performance is constantly being read in the perspective of sexuality. In the first scene, Thomas recognizes Adele as a heterosexual female, while later audiences and Emma recognized Adele as a lesbian. However, audience will read Adele’s desire towards man too in later scene. When Adele is presenting herself in front of others, how should she perform to display her bisexual identity? Bisexuality cannot be performed because it lacks definition but constantly and involuntarily being read from the heterosexual framework.

 

Lack of Bisexual Discourse - No “Truth” in Bisexuality

In illustrating the lack of definition of bisexuality, Callis (2009) cited Foucault’s theory in the construct of homosexuality in the west to explain the invisibility of bisexuality. Foucault explained the gay and lesbian identity is a constructed discourse and thus leads to the rise of homosexuality in the west. First, medicalization of sex and pleasure, sexuality is understood in terms of science - biology, psychology and medicine, instead of pleasure. Sex between persons of same biological sex is seen as perverts, a species created according to their sexual practice in terms of science. In Middle Ages, Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth (Foucault, 1978, p.58). Sexual perverts confess to professions - priests of the catholic church, sexologist, psychologists. It plays the function of a therapy, and thus created a labelling effect and a homosexual identity. Once a group of people have accepted their label as a homosexual, they began to seek each other out and form a homosexual community, to form self-identity and be able to speak for its own behalf. This is a “reverse discourse” as Foucault put it (Callia, 2009, p.222). Foucault’s theory explains the visibility of homosexuality in a heterosexual society - medical definitions constructed discourse and thus created labels, the solidarity of people who self-identity with a same label makes themselves visible in the mainstream society, such self-identity resonates with the concept of “gender” in Butler’s theory. The homosexual social rights movement was also the first group to gain substantial traction among LGBTQIs.

 

However, do bisexuals share the same fate? The term bisexuality existed during the early 1800s, used to describe organisms with male and female reproductive powers, rather than a type of human sexuality (Angelides, 2001). “Organically twisted” and “psychical hermaphrodites” are used to describe an anatomical condition. In the early 1990s, there were writings on a model of “sexual evolution”, describing human embryos are started intersexed (bisexual) and later evolved into either male or female. In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud (1940) believed that all individuals are born bisexual, but later will either become homosexual or heterosexual (Callis, 2009, p.224). Bisexuality, even if seen as a sexuality, is seen as a development phase, instead of a separate sexuality category of its own. In terms of anatomy psychology, the term bisexuality has been treated as an intermediate stage, or standing at an in-between position in the binary - the binary of heterosexual and homosexual. Bisexuality is seldom treated as an independent species, does not hold a stand-alone position, could only exist as a by-product of the binary, neither and either, or and nor heterosexual and homosexual. Such embarrassing position of bisexuality makes it possess definition of its own, characteristics of bisexuality is understood as borrowed from others - a bisexual is a mixture as well as an incomplete of heterosexual and homosexual. Having no explicit characteristics and definition, bisexual identity formation is destined to be a detour and full of frustration under the gender binary and heterosexual framework. In daily life, it makes bisexuals hard to identify with each other to form a community of its own. Discourse or even “reverse discourse” of bisexuality could hardly be constructed.

 

In the film, Adele for many times faces frustration and denial for her sexuality. When her classmates ask her “Are you a lesbian?”, she denied. When she is in a romantic relationship with Thomas, a male classmate, she says she feels incomplete. When Emma asks Adele why sleep with a man, Adele replies she does not know why. Interestingly, it resonates with the above argument, throughout the film, that there is no single character who performs as a bisexual, even Adele has been interacting with many different types of communities - school (heterosexual and rejects homosexual culture), original family (heterosexual), Emma’s family (heterosexual but embrace homosexual culture), Emma’s friends (homosexual). When Adele walks into a lesbian bar for the first time, she hardly finds somebody she feels comfortable to be connected to. In the final scene, when Adele visited Emma’s art exhibition, she barely spoke to others and realized even though her portraits drawn by Emma are hung all over the gallery, she exists only in the picture frames on walls but never assimilated in the group. The film ends with lonely Adele in a blue dress, walking out of the gallery, walking on an empty street. Bisexual is portrayed as a frustrated, lonely, and isolated person in this film.

 

Gender is being read Involuntarily - Discrepancy between the spectator and the performer

Gender is being read involuntarily. Choosing between two types of food is a metaphor in choosing in between the gender binary – male or female; heterosexual or homosexual? While these choices are inevitably attached to stereotypes under the discourse of gender binary. When interacting with others, Adele cannot escape the binary gender qualities categorization attached from her choices which she does not intend to convey. She is passively being categorized by others and by the binary gender system that she does not acknowledge. In the bar scene, despite that Adele genuinely speaks her feelings towards the two drinks offered by Emma, simply her taste, but Emma reads her preference on drinks as a reference for sexuality.

 

When gender is performed, there exists discrepancy between a performance and the spectator in how gender is interpreted. How bisexuals are being read and how a bisexual read oneself exists discrepancy. Adele as a bisexual individual, having no power to negotiate her behaviour is being read in front of the gender binary heterosexual hegemony.

 

Jacques Ranciere’s The Emancipated Spectator (2009) discussed the pedagogical relationship between the actor and spectators in a theatre performance. Spectators before held an appearance in a state of ignorance about the performance and the reality concealed, spectators passively received the knowledge performed (Ranciere, 2009, p.2). Ranciere attempted to abolish and recreate the gap of knowledge between these two positions which were coined by ‘equality of knowledge’ between the actor and spectators. To emancipate the spectators, is to reproach the power relationship between the actor and spectators in interpreting and producing knowledge (Rodda, 2009). The film has a slight touch upon this concept through discussing the relationship between author and readers. There are scenes set at Adele’s literature class, the teacher provides students with an absolute interpretation of the novel from line to line, leaving no alternative possibilities to students. Adele, as a literature lover, seldom can concentrate on these lectures.

 

Gender performance in everyday life is different from a drama performance in theatre. Spectators do not view a person performing gender in a state of ignorance. A spectator often reads an actor’s actions through the lens of gender binary and heterosexual framework in mainstream society, the actor’s action is inescapable from the preconception that there are only two categories of gender, regardless of the intention of the actor. Putting into the context of bisexuality, intention of a bisexual is passively interpreted within the framework of gender binary and heterosexuality, thus bisexual is non-binary in nature that could hardly perform itself. Borrowing Ranciere’s concept to the context of gender performance in everyday life, actors (bisexuals) should rather be emancipated, to freely express themselves without being interpreted by a set of hegemonic labels.

 

Attempts in assimilating into hetero / homosexual community

The previous discussion has explained the invisibility of bisexual in everyday life and difficulty in performing itself. Such invisibility of bisexuality has adversely affected the ability of individuals to feel comfortable identifying with the label bisexual, as they are often unsure of their bisexuality or if they are being bisexual in the “right way” (Callis, 2009, p. 218). It leads to a lack of connection among bisexuals and a fear of bisexuals by those individuals who do not identify as such. (Hemmings, 2002; Ochs, 1996). Without a strong community and connections, one may realize that bisexuality receives less attention in the public arena compared to homosexuality.

 

The film illustrated difficulties of bisexuals in assimilating in both heterosexual and homosexual society. Adele as a bisexual, is being portrayed as an introvert, having few friends, seldom talks to other in social occasions. In comparison to Emma, as a homosexual and an extrovert, she usually acts naturally, actively talks and connects with others, often playing the centre of attention in social gatherings. 

 

In the film, there are two family food scenes in illustrating the difficulty of Adele in assimilating in social groups, where Adele has dinner at Emma’s home, and the other one, Emma visits Adele’s home. Through comparing food offered in the two meals and the conversation with the two pairs of parents, the above argument will be explained.

 

At Emma’s home, Emma’s parents prepared an oyster for dinner, Adele does not like oysters but still is willing to try as a courtesy. Oyster has been known as a metaphor to female genitalia, the sucking and slurping sound, its mucus and moisture covering an oyster is often associated with oral sex to a woman. Emma’s love towards oyster fits the stereotype towards a lesbian. In front of her parents, Emma boldly reveals her lesbian relationship with Adele, kisses Adele in front of parents and through oyster implying a sexual relationship with Adele. Emma’s parents enjoy seeing the young lesbian couple having fun, their lesbian relationship is acknowledged in the family.

 

During the dinner, Emma’s parents reveals that they are arts and culture lover, just like Emma and Emma’s biological dad. In return, Adele shares that she aspires to be a teacher. Emma’s parents seem shocked and sceptical towards Adele’s career choice, and suggest there might be alternatives ahead, which implying being a teacher is not a preferable career from their point of view.

 

A teacher is a symbol of rules and order, an occupation to reinforce the social norms agreed by the majority, including the mainstream heterosexual system. Although Adele says she does not totally agree with the current education system, a teacher still often stereotyped as a person punishing students who do not abide to the norms and awards those who excel in fulfilling the rules. When compared to Emma, she is painter, an artist is an occupation who often stereotyped as people who do not abide to rules, it is an occupation seen as minority. Being a teacher is not preferable in a family embracing queer culture, as if being “mainstream” violates the norm in Emma’s family.

 

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(Retrieved from: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/one-pot-spaghetti-bolognaise/9cc596c3-b12f-4167-baa9-33d5eb9c76e5)

 

In another family scene, Emma visited Adele’s home, spaghetti bolognaise is served, a dish that is commonly served in family gatherings. Usually a main dish, starchy and adequately fill up your stomach. Spaghetti bolognaise is often a must-have dish at family parties because it is suitable for people of all ages. Compared to fresh oysters, spaghetti bolognaise is much more a traditional family dish.

 

During the meal, Adele presented Emma as a “friend” or perhaps “an elder sister” who teaches her philosophy, instead of her girlfriend. Adele parents do not concern Emma’s art, rather they concern a lot on Adele’s academic study and persuade Emma to marry a rich man so she could do her work of art. Adele’s mother even says “Only dead painters get famous”, in seeing Emma as a painter is not accepted in the house. Emma then lies that she is also a graphic designer so to earn a living. Adele does not reveal her lesbian relationship with Emma to her family. Adele is not comfortable revealing her relationship in front of her parents.

 

Conclusion

Bisexuality is invisible because it lacks definition and thus cannot be performed. The mainstream gender binary does not apply to bisexuality, one would not be able to “see” bisexuality performing itself if gender binary does not dissolve. Bisexuality exists only as a by-product of the binary, neither and either, or and nor, heterosexual and homosexual. Such embarrassing position of bisexuality makes it possess definition of its own, characteristics of bisexuality is understood as borrowed from others - a bisexual is a mixture as well as an incomplete of heterosexual and homosexual.

 

The film Blue is the Warmest Colour depicts the frustration of a young bisexual in search for her own sexuality. The only bisexual character in the film is portrayed as a lovable but lonely and desperate lady. Though bisexual identity is ambiguous and difficult in its formation, I do not agree frustration and hard to assimilate is the only fate of bisexuality. How could a bisexual gains his/her sovereignty in defining herself instead being defined by others?

 

Queer theory offers a theoretical framework for us to understand gender identity in a more flexible way, as it is a big umbrella to include all non-heterosexual identities, gender binary does not hold a hegemony position. If a queer perspective is adopted in understanding gender performance, bisexuality could free itself from the status of in-between.

 

A queer identity implies “that not everybody is queer in the same way… a willingness is enable others to articulate their own particular queerness” (Daumer, 1992, p.100). The embarrassing and ambiguous position of bisexuality indeed is even more powerful than homosexuality in dissolving binary gender boundaries, as it constantly puts gender stereotypes in question and opens up gender possibilities. Bisexuality demonstrated possibilities outside of masculinity and femininity, possibilities outside of heterosexuality and homosexuality. 

 

References


Angelides, S. (2001). History of bisexuality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (Thinking gender). New York: Routledge.

Callis, A. S. (2009). Playing with Butler and Foucault: Bisexuality and Queer TheoryJournal of Bisexuality9(3-4), 213–233.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality: Volume one. New York: Vintage Books.

Hemmings, C. (2002). Bisexual spaces: A geography of sexuality and gender. NewYork:

Routledge.

Ochs, R. (1996). Biphobia: It goes more than two ways. In B. Firestein (Ed.), Bisexuality:

The psychology and politics of an invisible minority (pp. 217–239). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rancière Jacques. (2009). The emancipated spectator. London: Verso.

Sullivan, N. (2003). A critical introduction to queer theory. New York: New York

University Press.

Daumer, E. (1992). Queer ethics; or, the challenge of bisexuality to lesbian ethics.

Hypatia, 7(4), 90–105.

Oakes, G. (1995). Straight thinking about queer theory. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 8(3), 379–388.

Rodda, M. (2009). The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Ranciere, Book Review. ART & RESEARCH 3(1), 1. Retrieved from http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v3n1/pdfs/rodda.pdf