The Unicorn Scale: Appropriate Behavior

7/20/2017

This week I had planned on writing a completely different Unicorn Scale, and I’m sure I will write the one I was planning sometime soon. But as I sat down at my computer my heart sank, I am just so frustrated by writing about movies and shows where there are clearly bi characters, but no one ever says THE WORD. There are lots of reasons that the word bi is never mentioned, historical context in Black Sails and Frida for instance, but in other shows they prefer to say “I don’t do labels” or “I don’t see gender” or “I don’t want to define myself.”

I get it, we are all unique and our attraction patterns are unique as well. Yet I don’t see straight (or gay people for that matter) saying I don’t do labels. I can’t tell anyone to label themselves in a way that they feel is inauthentic. Though, I feel like many people avoid the label because of the negative stereotypes around it. I understand you don’t want to be perceived as evil, untrustworthy, or promiscuous. The solution isn’t to be coy about your orientation, the solution is to stand up for it. The solution is to build a proud, diverse, and visible community where a person can proclaim “I am bi” and not feel like they have to defend or apologize.

Maybe I’m suffering from some kind of invisibility fatigue, but I just couldn’t do another week writing about no labels, so I went in hunt of a movie that, at the very least, would use the word Bi.

So, I read this list, I scoured streaming services, and finally I discovered Appropriate Behavior (2014) for free on Amazon Prime.

And, boy, am I happy that I took that detour from my planned Unicorn Scale route!

In Appropriate Behavior, Desiree Akhavan (who also writes and directs) plays Shirin, a 1st generation bi Brooklynite trying to get over a break up with her girlfriend and still hiding her sexuality from her Iranian parents. Also, it’s hilarious. If you don’t want any spoilers stop here, otherwise read on!

If you’re unfamiliar with the scale, check out how the ratings work here.

What I Liked:

This was exactly the movie that I had been craving. Shirin, is not conflicted, not going through a phase, not struggling with her sexuality. As she puts it when her brother asked if she was a lesbian, “I was pretty into all the guys I was with, so I think I’m bisexual.” Her bisexuality obviously colors her life, in that she dates both men and women, but at the same time she struggles to figure out where she fits in the greater queer community, which is something I think a lot of folks can sympathize with.

Shirin is in her 20s, a little lost, broke, and brokenhearted. These are all things that are familiar to us. She’s also bi. That’s a separate thing. It’s part of her, but it isn’t the reason she’s lost, broke, or brokenhearted. This might sound obvious. We don’t say this is a story about a straight character who doesn’t know where their life is going, it’s probably because they’re so darn straight. Yet it frequently feels like queer characters burdens must always relate back to their queerness and it’s refreshing to see a movie where a person can be not straight and still have the same relatable problems we all do.

Nor is it all sunshine. Shirin is comfortable with her bisexuality, but she isn’t out to her Iranian parents, she’s pretty sure that they know. They know that she lives in a one bed, one bedroom apartment with her “roommate.” However, she also knows that they don’t want her to say it aloud. When she finally tells her mother “I’m a little bit gay.” Her mother simply smiles and soothingly says “shhh.”

Although this response is not encouraging, she ends the film determined to continue talking to her parents until they are willing to hear the fact that she is bi. This “shhh” doesn’t lead her into a plummeting cycle of depression or drugs or prostitution, she’s sad, but resolved that her parents are going to have to eventually admit her bisexuality.

What I Didn’t Like:

This is a struggle for me, because I love this movie. Yes, she is confronted by occasional negativity around her bisexuality, but it’s all realistic and it doesn’t feel over the top. It’s very telling that the final straw when Shirin and her girlfriend Maxine break up is when, during a fight, Maxine yells, “I know you and the more that I think about it, this is probably just a phase. God, this was such a waste.” Shirin doesn’t even respond. She grabs her bag and leaves.

It was hard to see such a clear representation of the fact that a lot of bi people feel like they must constantly prove their non-heterosexuality and that they we will always be doubted. I really appreciate that this was also unacceptable to Shirin, they fought about coming out, money, cheating, but the thing that ended the relationship was when her female lover attempts to erase Shirin’s bisexuality.

Shirin also goes through a promiscuous phase after her breakup, and I know promiscuity is a frequent negative bi stereotype. Yet this portrayal wasn’t cringe worthy to me. I think the movie did an excellent job drawing a line between her bisexuality and her promiscuity. It is more a commentary on contemporary dating culture than anything. Shirin even seems surprised at the end when her friend suggests that a woman sometimes, even after a good date, people don’t always have sex. Shirin’s incredulity seems to have less to do with her bisexuality and more to do with being a 20 something in a major city with a dating app.

The Rating:

If you like indie comedies, dark comedies, gorgeous bi women, and great film in general, I would definitely check this one out. It turns out that having a movie written, directed, and starring an actual bi person telling the story of a bi person is amazing and something the world definitely needs more of.

Talia Squires
Talia Squires is the editor in chief for 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.