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Bisexual chic is a phrase used to describe the public acknowledgment of bisexuality among various segments of society. In some cases the phrase can be considered pejorative, when used to trivialize or dismiss genuine feelings of same-sex attraction, especially if those expressing these thoughts continue to exhibit otherwise heteronormative behaviors.
One usage of the phrase describes increased public interest in bisexuality, or increased social acceptance of bisexuality. This usage is usually associated with a celebrity coming out as bisexual or being labeled as bisexual, or with a high-profile reference to bisexuality in popular culture media, like a cover article of a magazine.
Origin of term
In the United States, the 1920s was a decade of social experimentation, particularly with sex. This was heavily influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, who theorized that people would behave in any manner to satisfy sexual desire. Freud's theories were much more pervasive in the U.S. than in Europe. With the well-publicized image that sexual acts were a part of lesbian women and relationships, sexual experimentation was widespread. Large cities that provided a nightlife were immensely popular, and women began to seek out sexual adventure. Bisexuality became chic, particularly in America's first gay neighborhoods.
The phrase itself came into wide usage in the 1970s, on the tail end of the hippie movement, which extolled free love. This era ushered in the emergence of glam rock, and British artists like Elton John and David Bowie. In 1980, Time magazine referred to Bowie's persona Ziggy Stardust as "the orange-haired founder of bisexual chic." A media-generated “wave” took place, focusing “on "bisexual chic" in the club scene, and among celebrities such as Bowie, Elton John and Patti Smith.” At the same time, bisexual groups formed in several large US cities, heralding the birth of the modern bisexual civil rights and liberation movements.
The phrase can be used to imply someone is only pretending to be bisexual because it’s fashionable at the moment. Alternatively, it can be used to assert that someone is free of taboos, experimental, in touch with both masculine and feminine aspects of themselves, and therefore potentially a better lover or even a better person.
Emergence of bisexual chic
Though the terminology is attributed to the 1970s, a former bisexual chic came about as early as the 1920s. In Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, Marjorie Garber argues "the twenties has been linked to the popularization of Freud (or "Freudianism"), the advent of World War I, and a general predilection for the daring and unconventional: bobbed hair, short skirts, the rejection of Prohibition and Victorian strictures." Examples of this include drag balls, and the success of artists such as Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Marlene Dietrich. Looking back from the 70s, writer Elaine Showalter accused Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of bisexual chic when she warned Woolf and her friends of indulging "the fashion of bisexuality."
In 1972, the highly popular musical film Cabaret featured a love triangle with a man and woman fighting for the same (male) lover. The author who inspired it, Christopher Isherwood, was among the first openly homosexual celebrities. Other prominent cultural representations of the 1970s include The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Sunday Bloody Sunday. David Bowie grew to fame and outed himself during this time period also. Later in the decade, the androgyny of glam rock and softening of male fashion in the disco movement allowed new recognition for bisexuality as a perceived form of sexual liberation.
Fading of bisexual chic in the 1980s
Bisexual chic fell out of popularity with the increasingly conservative culture that dominated the 1980s. As evidence of the AIDS epidemic surfaced in the media about homosexual men contracting a "strange new illness," promiscuous bisexuals were seen as likely carriers, and the fad waned. As a result, many people who had declared themselves bisexual in the 1970s now retracted their comments. David Bowie renounced his self-asserted bisexuality in the 1980s.
Reemergence of bisexual chic
In the early 1990s, another wave of bisexual chic began, again beginning in the celebrity world. This time, however, women were at the forefront of the trend. In Madonna's infamous music video for "Justify My Love," she passionately kisses former Roxy Music model Amanda Cazalet (who is dressed as a man) and her male lover. Madonna also later released her provocative book Sex, as well as revealing her controversial "Erotica" music video that also featured same-sex contact. Openly bisexual comedian and rumored lover of Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, was featured as a bisexual on the popular television sitcom Roseanne amidst the trend. To illustrate the trend, Roseanne later found herself kissed by another woman and was "consoled" by Bernhard's character, bringing bisexuality to Middle America. (See Also: Lesbian kiss episodes)
The controversial 1992 hit Basic Instinct featured a glamorous bisexual murderer played by Sharon Stone. The fashion industry was the next promoter of bisexual chic, when Calvin Klein and others began to generate homoerotic, lesbian chic, and otherwise sexually ambiguous images as advertisements for their consumers.
Popular culture saw a leaning towards the acceptance of gay rights, fueled by celebrities, take effect during the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Elton John, Rupert Everett, and others who identified as homosexuals, became enormously popular entertainers. Perhaps taking them as an example, bisexuals or bi-curious people began to be unafraid to announce their orientation. There was a sharp rise in coming out, both among homosexuals and bisexuals. Soon, gays, lesbians and bisexuals were almost ubiquitous in the media, especially actors and musicians (Brian Molko, e.g.) and Hollywood officially had taken the closet door off. Even a star with a huge mainstream following, Janet Jackson, recorded a cover version of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)" in which she sings to a woman with whom she is about to engage in a ménage à trois, saying, "This is just between me... and you... and you...."
Bisexual chic in the 2000s and 2010s
In the 21st century, films alluding to bisexuality (or manifestations thereof) such as Kissing Jessica Stein, Y tu mamá también, Mulholland Drive, Alexander, Kinsey, and Brokeback Mountain are being distributed and received well. In 2005, Alex Kelly featured on The O.C., was a high-visibility bisexual character on U.S. network television, forming relationships with two of the show's main characters.
In 2003, Britney Spears staged a kiss with Madonna, who also kissed Christina Aguilera in the same performance, on a 2003 MTV Video Music Awards performance that would continue to fuel bisexual chic, and at the time many news and tabloid outsources referred to it as "lesbian chic", since it was clear from her impending marriage to Kevin Federline that Spears was certainly not a monosexual lesbian.
In 2006, British sci-fi series Torchwood aired, which features amongst its cast at least three bisexual characters, with all of them described as bisexual by newspapers like The Sun. This has in turn led to more discussion of the nature of bisexuality across interview programs in Britain, notably Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and others.
In 2009, pop stars Fergie, Lady Gaga, Mika (although not said directly: "I've never ever labeled myself. But having said that; I've never limited my life, I've never limited who I sleep with") and Duncan James came out as bisexual, as did actress Megan Fox. In 2011, actresses Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood came out as bisexual. In Lady Gaga's music video for "LoveGame", scenes of Gaga inside a booth with a police officer featured alternating shots in which the officer switches between a male and female actor. Released in 2010, the controversial music video for "Telephone" included scenes of Lady Gaga kissing a female prisoner.
According to surveys by the CDC in the USA, a larger number of female college and high school students in America are experimenting with other women than ever before and, in a surprising twist, actually report being encouraged to do so by pop culture for the first time. Whether or not this change in popular culture is longstanding or, indeed, a simple trend, remains to be seen.
- US girls embrace gay passion fashion, The Observer, by Richard Luscombe, January 4, 2004
- Faderman, Lillian (1991). Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America, Penguin Books. pg63-67; ISBN 0-14-017122-3.
- Time magazine, Monday, Aug. 04, 1980
- Bisexuality in the United States: A Social Science Reader by Paula Claire Rust, 2000, pg 538
- A Brief History of the Bisexual Movement
- San Francisco's Bisexual Center and the Emergence of a Bisexual Movement by Jay P. Paul
- Sex in Public: Australian Sexual Cultures by Jill Julius. Matthews; 1997, pg 75
- Garber, Marjorie B. (1995). Vice versa: bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-80308-9.
- Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 288.
- Christopher Isherwood on GLBTQ.com
- Buckley, David (2000). Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story. London: Virgin. p. 401. ISBN 0-7535-0457-X.
- Sarah Nathan (September 2006). "Dr Ooh gets four gay pals". The Sun. Retrieved 2006-10-06. "GAY Doctor Who star John Barrowman gets four BISEXUAL assistants in raunchy BBC3 spin-off Torchwood."
- It's kisses all round as Lady GaGa gets affectionate with men AND women in risqué new video
- More women experimenting with bisexuality from MSNBC.com
- Beemyn, Brett and Erich Steinman. Bisexual Men in Culture and Society (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2001).
- "The New Bisexuals." Time, May 13, 1974.
- Geoffrey K. Pullum, "Bixexual chic: the facts", September 6, 2004 (Language Log)
- Reichert, Tom, Kevin R. Maly & Susan C. Zavoina. “Designed for (Male) Pleasure: The Myth of Lesbian Chic in Mainstream Advertising." Meta Carstarphen and Susan C. Zavoina (eds.), Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).
- Risman, Barbara and Pepper Schwartz. "After the Sexual Revolution: Gender Politics in Teen Dating," Contexts (Berkeley: U California Press, 2002).