3 of 5: We Are Everywhere: A Fiveway Review of A History of Bisexuality, Bisexual Spaces, Look Both Ways, Open, and Becoming Visible

Cont’d, Book Three: Jennifer Baumgardner’s Look Both Ways. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2007.)
By Jonathan Alexander and Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio

Has appeared in Bisexuality and Queer Theory, a special-topics issue of The Journal of Bisexuality. Re-published with permission of Routledge, New York. 

Both Baumgardner’s and Block’s books come in the feminist tradition of theorizing from the personal, namely of using personal experience to extrapolate theoretical propositions that are not exactly macro-political but nonetheless provide insights applicable well beyond mere identity politics.  While Baumgardner’s book uses the personal as a springboard to offer comments on the media and cultural politics, Block’s book is organized as a personal narrative, which, complemented by the author’s reflections about her own story, has the ambition to offer itself as an encouragement for any reader’s personal and political transformation.  In both their methods and intents, these books are a refreshing statement about what it means to have had several decades of women’s and gender studies as an official part of higher education.  One can see these disciplines in action as one reads how these authors take pride in their gender and acknowledge the importance of female genealogies in their lives, intellectual, political, and biological.  Block and Baumgardner come to bisexuality from different perspectives:  Block defines the space of her bisexual expression within the open marriage she and her spouse gradually create together, an amicable space where their daughter is raised with abundant parenting; more faithful to the feminist communities with whom she works, Baumgardner defines her profile as that of an independent professional whose choice to be a single parent is supported by her communities with abundant affection and help.  For both authors, embracing bisexuality is related to their sense of interconnectedness between women, and between generations of women.  Via different forms of self-affirmation and feminist practice, these interconnections ground Block and Baumgardner’s determination to own their sexuality, to proclaim their sovereignty over their own bodies and selves, and to honor their multiple desires.

If Angelides and Hemmings offer us robust histories and theories of bisexuality, then Jennifer Baumgardner’s delightfully accessible and narratively-driven call to Look Both Ways, in her exploration of, as her subtitle puts it, Bisexual Politics, serves to show us how much academic theorizing about bisexuality has, as it were, hit the streets.  The answer, surprisingly, is quite a bit.  We are not certain that Baumgardner has read either Angelides’ or Hemmings’ books (though she does cite Fritz Klein), but Look Both Ways is nonetheless an often astute and clever look at bisexuality that is aware, as is Hemmings, of both its seeming liberatory potential and its lived nuisances.
Baumgardner focuses primarily on women’s experience of bisexuality, which is not surprising given her previous publications and strong interest in feminism (Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism).  But she’s also savvy about the influence of popular culture in shaping our understanding of sexuality and in suggesting alternative trajectories for desire and affiliation.  She writes several times about the impact of Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche’s former relationship on her own thinking about plural sexualities, and she recounts with glee a tension-filled movie theater in which young women expressed discomfort with hunky Matt Damon’s portrayal of the quite queer Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley; scenes of nearly missed kisses between Damon and co-star Jude Law elicited youthful squeals of discomfort.  For Baumgardner, such scenes show us how bisexuality and bi-eroticism permeate pop culture, offering many models for different trajectories of desire while still eliciting, among many others, unfortunate reactions of biphobia.  But that’s reality, as either an Angelides or a Hemmings might point out; as Baumgarnder puts it, “[t]hese subconscious and conscious images of bisexuality in ads, on TV, and in erotica reflect the lives of real women and girls” (9).  And she’s quite good at tracing such images and accounting for their personal impact on her life, all the while rooting them in their historical contexts—from considering bisexuality and second-wave feminism, to writing humorously about what she calls the “Ani [DiFranco] Phenomenon,” to musing about communal tensions among bisexual women and lesbians.

Admittedly, though, this is a “popular” text, and in comparison to A History of Bisexuality and Bisexual Spaces, Baumgardner’s analyses can seem at times too optimistic.  She seems at many points to grind the familiar axes of visibility: “Visibility is crucial to making bisexuality a political force, because it could take straight people from being the majority to being a minority” (222).  We’re not exactly sure what is meant by taking straight people out of the majority, per se, especially since, desirable as it might be, a wave of massive bisexual self-outing seems so unlikely at this time.  Also perplexingly, she writes that “…what is still usually invisible, within all of the rampant visibility that gay rights has achieved, is the insurgent role of bisexual people.  Because we are part of the mainstream, the alternative margin, and the gaystream (the mainstreaming of queer life), we have empathy for an insight into the straight and queer worlds.  Bisexual people are the primary conduits for the cultural conversation that America is having about gay rights” (35).  Yes, we agree in part: bisexuals are often invisible within both straight and gay communities; but we are still left wondering exactly how bisexuals are at the center of cultural conversations between straights and gays about gay rights. Indeed, the subtitle is misleading: there’s not much politics here, unless it’s the politics of the personal, which is an important politics, granted.  We’d hoped, though, for more macro politics, more consideration of how larger conversations, beyond pop culture, are taking shape around bisexuality in particular and around sexuality in general.  In accordance with prevalent styles in the trade book industry, the promise of such analysis is never quite fulfilled.

But there is meaty stuff here, nonetheless.  One nearly throwaway passage in the book’s final chapter gave us much pause for thought:

What Anne [Heche] symbolizes to me is the great what-if—what if it were okay for gay people to have straight expectations?  Not to “pass,” or become palatable, or go back in the closet, but simply to expect what Heche took for granted: to not have to be careful and quiet about her love life.  Heche’s cluelessness and her sense of entitlement were annoying, but they were also her weapons against fear—fear of being gay in a homophobic society and in a very homophobic (though very gay) industry. (217)

The insight here seems smart and dead on: perhaps what is necessary at times—not just to increase bi-visibility, but to help create a world of greater sexual freedom—is a bit of cluelessness, a willingness to claim a sexual empowerment even when such may not be willingly offered by those around you.  This is dangerous territory, but Baumgardner’s willingness to provoke discussion about a “bisexual politics” is dangerous, to gays, straights, and even some bisexuals too.  And while one may not be as theoretically provoked, as is the case with Angelides’ and Hemming’s books, a reader of Look Both Ways may find him-, her-, or ze-self personally provoked—and that might be the most effective kind of provocation of all.

Also appeared in SexGenderBody.  Reprinted here with thanks to Arvan Reese.

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serenagaia • February 26, 2010


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