The Unicorn Scale: Velvet Goldmine
If you have yet to see Todd Haynes’ 1998 film, Velvet Goldmine, I highly recommend that you go do so. It has its flaws, but remains one of my all-time favorite movies. The following is full of spoilers. If you love glitter, pretty men, The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie, go watch this movie now. If you’ve already seen it or don’t mind all of the spoilers, read on. Also, if you are unfamiliar with “The Unicorn Scale”, this has a quick summary of how it all works.
Velvet Goldmine tells the story of bisexual mega glam rock star Brian Slade, modeled on David Bowie. In a very nonlinear fashion, it tracks his rapid rise, faked assassination, and eventual transformation into 80s pop star Tommy Stone. On the way, he loves men and women, becomes obsessed with fame and image, and loses himself.
Brian Slade in all his shimmering glory
What I like:
They say the word bisexual, and not just once. It is very trendy right now to have characters who are bi, but never talk about the fact. On the one hand, it seems nice to believe that nobody needs to define their orientation; it sounds so freeing. On the other hand, a lot of bi folks spend a lot of time thinking that they are “broken” gay or straight people, because they don’t realize that bisexuality is a real orientation. So, in that context, it is always welcome when a film explicitly acknowledges bisexuality. And Velvet Goldmine‘s treatment of the subject is particularly in-depth.
At one point, a young Arthur Stuart is shown watching the news with his parents in suburban England. There is an interview with Brian Slade on the TV and the reporter asks if Slade is worried that all the makeup and glitter will lead people to “get the wrong impression.” Slade basically responds that if that’s what they thought, they wouldn’t be wrong. At this Stuart jumps up, pointing at the TV, and starts yelling “That’s me!” It is easy to say that we should just be who are and that identities don’t matter. However, when we don’t talk about sexualities other than heterosexuality, people aren’t free to express themselves; it is simply assumed that everyone is heterosexual.
Slade goes on to say, “I am married, quite happily in fact. I just happen to like boys as much as I like girls, and since my wife feels pretty much the same about such things, I should think we’ve been able to make a fairly decent go of it so far.”
This always makes me want to jump up and down like Arthur Stuart and yell “That’s Me!” It’s so rare to have someone just say that they are bi, that they are attracted to men and women, and it’s no big deal. The fact that Slade’s wife is also bi, and that the two accept one another makes Slade’s statement extra meaningful to some bi people who can fully relate.
Even though society at large isn’t portrayed as understanding, and some clearly think it is a fad, the film works hard to establish that Slade is indeed bi. Even before his meteoric rise to stardom, he is shown being attracted to men and women and very uninhibited about those attractions.
What I don’t like:
I have gone around and around on this one. I’m distressed that the main character, Brian Slade, is utterly unknowable. Throughout the film we learn that he is all style and surface. Slade will become whatever or whomever he needs to be in order to achieve more fame. He is the perfect chameleon; he can be attracted/attractive to anyone. He will happily sleep with people or betray them as long as his star continues to rise.
I don’t think that a good bi character needs to be a good person, but there is a long history of associating bisexuality with being an unknowable evil chameleon. There is a lot of nuance to this representation, but it does sometimes feel like Velvet Goldmine falls into this old and highly problematic trope.
It can seem like Slade’s ability to be attracted to men and women just means that Brian Slade can’t truly love anyone. He uses sex to advance his career multiple times, and then hurts those who love him. He is not only promiscuous, but it frequently seems like he is incapable of true love.
Brian Slade and Curt Wild
Slade’s relationship with Curt Wild almost breaks the trend. For a moment, it seems like they might be able to run off into the sunset together and live happily ever after, that Brian Slade has finally discovered true love. It doesn’t work, there are too many egos, too much pride, and Slade once again chooses fame over love.
Despite the fact that the main character is a flawed, and at times an unsympathetic character, there is one big thing that redeems the film for me. Brian Slade is not the token bi. He is the main character and the most visible bi character, but Velvet Goldmine demonstrates that bi people are diverse through other important people. Mandy (Slade’s wife), Jack Fairy, and many of the background characters are also bi. And they are portrayed as their own flawed, but much more sympathetic figures, just like the many straight and gay characters.
The film portrays a large non-heteronormative group of people actively challenging the mores of time. Watching Velvet Goldmine, one can get the sense that bisexuality is almost the norm. Although Brian Slade is in many ways the classic duplicitous bi, he is surrounded by a rich, loving community of bi folks who show that there are many ways to be bi. The magical plot line of the film even implies that glam rock stars inherited a power from bisexual playwright Oscar Wilde.
I went around and around on this one. Sometimes, it feels like Brian Slade represents all of the worst stereotypes about bisexuality. Not only does he represent them, but his terrible flaws seem bound up in his bisexuality. However, he is more nuanced than most bi characters and he is not alone. The film represents bisexuality as much more diverse and complex than one character.
Ultimately, I give Velvet Goldmine 4 unicorns, just by a hair. I wish that Slade’s untrustworthiness didn’t seem to be so bound up in his sexuality, but I love how very bi the film is.