My friend just posted this piece, which ostensibly praises Johnny Depp’s daughter, all of sixteen years old, for the way she “just came out in a pretty inspiring way”. The tone of ‘pretty inspiring’ strikes me as remarkably patronising: ‘OMG, like, a teenage girl could be inspiring! It’s sooooo cute, and I’ve never heard of Malala Yousafzai!’ As my friend observed, this article is basically sleazy gossip dressed up as LGBT activism. Lily Rose Depp has, apparently, been part of an instagram project featuring photos of people who identify as anything other than completely straight. Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s lovely, and awesome, and the message is brilliant. It’s always a good thing to remind people not to assume heterosexuality. And this is a nice, celebratory way of doing that. I like it a lot. What I don’t particularly like is the way the article frames this particular ‘story’ (if you want to call it that). The journalist, Ashley Percival, writes:
“Lily … is yet to speak about her sexual orientation in her own words, or clarify where she considers herself on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Asexual spectrum.”
Now, first off, Lily isn’t actually required to speak ‘in her own words’, instagram being a visual medium. She’s not being coy. She’s participating in a project that’s visual. But, just by phrasing it this way, Percival makes it sound as if Depp is keeping something from us, or (hint, hint) perhaps as if she’s not quite sure of herself. In contrast, to say she’s “yet to … clarify where she considers herself” implies that the sixteen-year-old has a fixed idea of her sexual orientation (did you, at 16? Good for you). It implies it’s her human duty to explain to us where on that spectrum she is. Which, to me, rather misses the whole bloody point of talking about a spectrum and making an instagram project welcoming everyone on said spectrum without distinguishing, but what do I know? The point is, this combination of sly insinuations that a teenage girl’s sexuality is entirely our business, combined with the subtle hints that Depp might be unsure of herself, form a familiar pattern. And Percival’s conclusion follows that pattern, in case we miss what’s being implied here:
Have they really? I had a google. Stewart and Cyrus have both said things along those lines, but what about this?
Remarkably, this doesn’t look like ‘fluidity’ to me. Nor does it look particularly as if Delevingne decided this ‘after beginning relationships with women’.
Another Huffington Post article – they’re not coming out (snurk) of this well, are they? – lambasts Delevingne for, erm, seeming to like men and women and therefore not being a very good lesbian. Delevingne, who’s expressed her sexuality in the most concrete, ‘don’t tell me who I am’ terms, gets slapped down for it. Partly, this is purely economic, like the trash media’s treatment of Jennifer Aniston’s shockingly long period of being a happily unmarried woman. It’s good for magazines to sell endless cycles of speculation about heartbreak and marriage; it’s boring to suggest that she might just be enjoying life. So too here: if we can run non-stop ‘is she or isn’t she?’ stories, so much the better. But there’s something else going on. In the Guardian a few days ago, Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote a piece titled ‘Not Gay, Not Straight, Just Thinking Outside the Box’, which managed to use the term ‘bisexual’ just once. In the context of the phrase ‘bisexual or bicurious’.
Bisexuality is not inherently more ‘fluid’ that homo- or heterosexuality. I doubt your average bisexual person is attracted to more people than your average lesbian or straight woman; I’ve met plenty of lesbians and straight women who have much less of a narrow ‘type’ than some bisexuals.
Why am I wittering on about this? Well, it’s a nice outlet for my irritation. I do find these articles irritating, and I do think implying a teenage girl has a duty to ‘clarify’ her sexuality to anyone is repellent, and I do want to shake the next person who writes a puff piece subtly implying women who date women do it because they’re waaayyy confused in their tiny ladybrains.
But it’s more than that. Focusing on the individual – as the media does with young women celebs – tends to obscure the wider structural issues. If we make out that Depp’s sexuality is a nine days’ wonder she ought to ‘clarify’ to us, then her project illustrating the normality of that sexuality is undermined. If we insist on lumping together Delevingne, who represents herself as distinctly un-‘fluid’ in her sexuality, together with other women who comfortably uses that term, we’re doing a disservice to all of them. On this blog, I almost always end up talking about how women are silenced, how women’s voices should be heard more often and more clearly. But here, for once, I’m glad I’m talking about a silence. Depp doesn’t have to ‘clarify’ her sexuality – to herself, to anyone else, to the public or in private – because the project she actually chose to spend her time on is making the visual point that this sexuality doesn’t require any explanation. As the organisers of the project point out, it’s a Self Evident Truth.
Jem Bloomfield just commented on twitter (correctly) that in this sort of context, ‘fluid’ tends to mean ‘amenable to male desire/gaze’. This is a commonly acknowledged point about the way popular stereotypes of bisexuality are gendered (bisexual men are not usually seen as ‘fluid’ but as ‘closet gays’). But it also reminded me of the network of images I have in the back of my mind when people talk about ‘fluidity’ in the context of sexuality and gender, and why I have such a kneejerk reaction against the term. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – which I studied, and loved for A Level English – there’s a beautifully balanced architecture of binary oppositions associated with the eponymous lovers: Rome and Egypt, military and romantic, pragmatic and sensual … and, of course, land and water. Cleopatra’s whole being is fluid sexuality; her downfall is her watery failure to stick to her guns.
I love this play, and I love Cleopatra, who I’d strongly argue (pace Mrs Young, and thank you for putting up with me) is the hero of the play. I also love the reading, which I didn’t know of at the time, of her handmaidens Charmian and Iras as lesbian (or bisexual?) lovers. But Shakespeare, like other men before him, is associating female sexuality with fluidity in a distinctly negative way. Fluidity is both slippery and passive: it lacks firm presence and it washes away. Ultimately, like Egypt, it allows itself to be invaded by Roman masculinity; like water, it is defined by the solidity around it, not by its own presence. In this respect, then, when we stereotype bisexual women as ‘fluid’ in their sexuality, we’re buying into a wider stereotype of all female sexuality as defined by (male) heterosexuality and in need of masculinity to control it and give it boundaries. Thanks, but no thanks.