Envision a scene in which a beautiful A-list Hollywood actress is playing a captivating queen. One of her ladies in waiting enters the opulent throne room. With a passionate kiss on the lips, the queen greets her friend, and they plan a weekend in the country together. The same young lady is worried that her queen will be jealous if it’s discovered she’s in love with a man.
Meanwhile, the queen, who is fond of dressing in men’s clothing, falls in love with a man herself. When her new lover’s valet comes in to drawn bed curtains, he assumes due to the queen’s attire that his master is in bed with another man. He doesn’t care. Throughout the film, there is a surprising lack of angst or self-doubt. Surely, this must be some new indie film representing bisexuality and post-sexual revolution openness.
On the contrary, the movie described is considered one of Greta Garbo’s greatest roles, Queen Christina (1933). This was a hugely successful big budget studio film. In it, Garbo runs around clothed like a dashing young man, cuddles with her lady’s maid, and has all kinds of premarital sex. Perhaps this isn’t the black and white film to which you are accustomed. Many perceive old movies as bland, conservative, and sex negative. That is indeed often the case, but things weren’t always that way.
Why is this old film so different, you ask? The answer is the Hays Code, Hollywood’s attempt at self-censorship. Although there were many incarnations of the code, the most stringent patch went from 1934 to the late 50’s. The Hays code of that era forbade nudity, most sex, ridicule of the clergy, profanity, drugs, sympathy for criminals, and a whole laundry list of other things. During that period, even married straight couples could not be shown sharing a bed. This was the time during which many of the films we perceive as “conservative” were produced. The Hays code eventually gave way to the MPAA rating system with which we are now so familiar.
The nonchalant portrayal of bisexuality in Queen Christina (with regard to not just one but three principal roles) would be remarkable by today’s standards, yet may not have been perceived as particularly risqué by audiences in 1933. It is appealing to think that progress marches forward in a straight, constant line. What we sometimes forget is that progress can be a little more convoluted. Many pre-code films showed all kinds of sexual expression, played with gender, and featured complex, interesting female characters. A few short decades, and an oppressive code, spelled the end of all that. Post Hays Code films worked hard to reinforce restrictive heteronormative roles in US culture, helping to usher in a period of hyper social conservatism in mainstream American culture.
It’s only in the last few years that we’ve begun to see bisexual characters represented as calmly as Queen Christina was 80 years ago. Even now, so many films that feature a bisexual character revolve around the character “dealing” with their sexuality rather than simply existing. It’s easy to sit idly by and congratulate the world for its forward progress, but remember that this progress is not inevitable. We’ve regressed before, and it could easily happen again.
Portrayals of bisexuality in the media are just one example of how progress is something we must constantly safeguard. Recent victories for LGBT people, such as same sex marriage, are not part of an inevitable march toward progress. They, like all civil liberties, are in need of constant defense. Ideals like equality and free expression are only “progressive” because progress with regard to these goals is needed. In the end, they are simply a better way of being for society. We must stand by them, until they are so engrained in our culture and laws that defending them is no longer progressive but conservative. Even, then, we can never let our guard down. Equality and freedom are timeless values that cross ideological borders and demand constant defense.
Talia Squires is Editor-in-chief of bi.org. Talia has a degree in German Literature from Bryn Mawr College and a Master's in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She's obsessed with good food, fantastic wine, and trashy television. She lives in LA with her husband and fluffy Lhasa Apso.