The Self Evident Truth Project, Lily Rose Depp, and the Never-Ending Media Fuckup of Discussing Women’s (Bi)sexuality

You know how they all like rainbows. All of them.

Bisexuals all like rainbows. All of them. Also pink. And the more esoteric varieties of macramé. That’s how you can spot them.

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:

“In recent months, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus have all spoken about their sexually fluid orientations, after beginning relationships with women.”

Have they really? I had a google. Stewart and Cyrus have both said things along those lines, but what about this?

“My sexuality is not a phase. I am who I am” – Cara Delevingne, Huffington Post, 17/7/15.

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’.

586

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.

Coda

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.

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About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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18 Responses to The Self Evident Truth Project, Lily Rose Depp, and the Never-Ending Media Fuckup of Discussing Women’s (Bi)sexuality

  1. The Millers Tale says:

    Profoundly irritated by the way women (especially) have to bloody inspire with everything we do. Even a still vulnerable and young sixteen year old child (for that is essentially what she is) has to inspire and be a role model.

    “Lily … is yet to speak”…. because, of course, her DUTY is to speak and spill all her secrets and have no private life because we cannot differentiate between people who do speak out and people who do not. If one does, that means all must do. “Lily has yet to clarify” because of course, she owes us all that clarification because until we know what binary box to place her in, we will have to endure a collective insomnia. The idea of rejecting a label simply means “doesn’t know her own mind” as far as the media is concerned. A bisexual woman is greedy, amoral or totally flaky according to the dominant male culture.

    I hope Lily and all other women stop clarifying and start saying “mind your own frigging business.”

    * I studied Antony and Cleopatra at A level and I agree that its ‘slippery’ psycho-sexual fluidity (with regards to Cleopatra) is aligned imagery wise with the slippery and hard to pin down asp that she placed upon her breast. *

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      Yes! I agree with all of this, so much. And I love your point about the asp, too. Poison (liquid) is a woman’s weapon, etc.

      And the thing is, even if she did fancy shouting from the rooftops that she is x or y, she’d likely still bear the brunt of all those patronising ‘Depp nervously admits she has considered x. Her tentative smile belies her statement …’ pieces.

  2. The Goldfish says:

    I’m very glad you wrote this. Coverage around the recent Yougov poll which found more than half of 16-24 year olds did not consider themselves a zero (exclusively heterosexual) on the Kinsey Scale was awash with this stuff, repeatedly compounding bisexual as a technical description, bisexual as an sexual identity and a sort of groovy open-mindedness about sexuality that these youngsters had allegedly embraced (I’m all for groovy open-mindedness, but as you say, that’s not what bisexuality is – that’s not what another-number-but-zero-on-the-Kinsey-Scale is).

    When I began to come out as bisexual in my early twenties, I was amazed to find that folk only wanted to talk about my relationships with men. I had vaguely expected people to be more interested in the homosexual part of my attraction – I was ready for female friends to nervously ask if this meant I fancied them (something that happened to gay boys and men in films). But instead, it was all about threesomes and porn, as well as whether I could be bisexual if I was in a monogamous relationship with a man. And of course, there was more than one suggestion that it was something I merely “liked the idea of”, which particularly stung, given the agony and angst I’d been through about it during my teenage years. Especially as me “liking the idea of” something seemed to ultimately translate to something I imagined made me more interesting and attractive to men.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      Yes – the Guardian piece I cited briefly was in response to the poll, I think. I am torn between being very glad it’s being discussed, and feeling strongly that it is unfair on teenagers (or anyone, really) to focus on individual identity rather than social structures. We should be focusing on acceptance for people in general, not making individuals feel they have to define themselves.

      I think there is a strong expectation that women who’re attracted to women are probably putting it on to get male attention – that’s where the threesomes/problems with monogamy questioners come from, I think – and it is infuriating. Yet, I can never understand why the same misogyny slates all feminists (including straight ones) as ‘man hating lesbians’.

      • The Goldfish says:

        I guess “man-hating lesbian” as an insult still hinges on that same idea that all women love and wish to please men, so to suggest otherwise is supposed to hurt. Men of all sexualities face homophobic slurs, but that’s almost always about a man’s supposed place on some kind of spectrum of masculinity rather than how he feels about or behaves around women.

  3. tabbyrenelle says:

    Well, I think there is such a thing gender fluidity and I embrace the term without the “liquid poison” inference although I love the inserted myth to contemplate and see why you’d mention it.

    I’m more into the “She-King” of Egypt or queen Hathespat than Cleopatra (as Cleopatra has become more unknown than known through myths and hollywood). Hathespat’s reign brought many more years of peace and art and progress and she ruled “like a man” by fastening a fake beard which can be seen on her statues… She was a king. She actually ruled well.

    The rest of your article I am down with.

    Mostly…Because It’s Johnny Depp’s daughter, she’s going to be media meat for any and every predator. No matter what she talks about or who she is in her own person. More than anything else, she’s experiencing sexism. It has almost nothing to do with LGBTQ (and OMG is there really an A to add now?) issues “specifically”. It’s all just heterosexual sexism in it’s many forms. Which I believe is what you’re saying bottom-line in your article, so…

    the only way to combat that is to just keep on being who we are, no matter what.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      I agree there’s such a thing as fluidity (gender or sexual).

      That’s why I said that conflating this with bisexuality (as with Delevingne, who is bisexual, and Cyrus and Stewart, who are not) is unhelpful to both groups. It implies that neither is a real sexuality for women – and that’s just a tiny distance from saying that female sexuality in general is not ‘real’. I’m not in the slightest implying that sexual fluidity is the equivalent of poison. What I *am* saying is that, when male authors assume that female sexuality is fluid in a negative sense, they are damaging all of us, not just those of us who genuinely identify as sexually fluid.

      AFAIK, all pharaohs of Hatsheput’s time wore ceremonial beards – it was a sign of kingship. It always makes me think of Harnaam Kaur, who makes the point that this isn’t necessarily to do with gender, but to do with race and religion, as well.

      But YY, agree with you, I am furious this has been directed at someone who is a teenager and in the public eye so much.

      The ‘A’ bit of LGBTQA is for ‘asexual’ – it means people who don’t feel sexual attraction to either gender.

      Gosh, that was a rag-bag of a response … but hope it made sense!

      • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

        Oh, and I heard Hatshepsut isn’t the only female pharaoh other than Cleopatra – there’s a thought that Nefertiti, who ruled a little before Tutankhamen, was for a period the actual ruler, and not just a ruler’s wife. I wish I knew more about it all, but that’s what I read.

      • tabbyrenelle says:

        Made total sense and I loved it! Thanks for helping me understand the writing better. That was on me not you. Love your classroom as always! 🙂

        Hathespat was unusual for wearing the beard as noted by historians because she was a woman, however. But yes on your facts.

        The “A” is new to me… but I do know an “Asexual” actually… but we didn’t know there was this sudden acknowledgement to them… like, they didn’t even know… and didn’t know they needed the distinction. So in many ways the silence thing makes sense. So much of this is nobodies business and so the silence you refer to makes sense in the “good” way.

        You’re so dang awesome. Really, one of the most fabu teachers ever! I can’t say it enough. Thanks for writing your blog and sharing your wisdoms. We need you.

  4. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    Thanks for helping me out – I didn’t know that about Hatshepsut (and I don’t know if my spelling is outdated, too?). I must look more at this stuff.

    My understanding of the ‘A’ bit is that some people feel it needs to be in there. I am in two minds – I like there being a space for everyone to feel recognised, but I also feel that perhaps it’s better to do what Depp is doing, and just show that heterosexuality isn’t the norm without needing to label everything on the spectrum. I like the solidarity of that approach very much. Especially since it means people needn’t keep trying to pigeonhole themselves.

    But, anyway … your comment is making me blush, and you’re awesome too. And I am *not* your teacher, so hope I didn’t come across in teacher mode when I was worrying I’d said the wrong thing about fluidity.

    We all need each other, I think.

    • tabbyrenelle says:

      no, you’re never a teacher mode condescending type. I’m more condescending in my exchanges than you are, I’m sure… and I wish I knew how to do what you do. You’re just a natural. And I’m learning and it means a lot to me.

      Making you blush would be cake to me. I’m so crushing on my teacher. But not as a weirdo (hopefully). So sorry for putting it like that. I just immensely respect your brains and ability to write and expand on the conversations that matter to me. I’ve been able to heal because of some of your early work that I haven’t spoken about. I was just reading for a long time and not commenting. I felt intimidated. It was a life saving event finding your blog at the time. It put me on the right track about some things, but it’s personal and heavy for me so I’ll just leave it at that. I’m grateful you teach. That you cross lessons from medieval books into the contemporary woman. You are good at what you do. You are good at moderating. You are good at connecting things. You are good at allowing many voices. You make it feel safe and yet not full of censorship or trigger warnings. I just want to get better at all of that too.

      • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

        Oh, this is extremely kind of you.

        I so much appreciate your comments and I’m humbled to read this. I really don’t know what to say. Thank you!

      • tabbyrenelle says:

        Aw, don’t say anything. Don’t know what. Just do what YOU do. 🙂

      • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

        And you too! And, slowly, we’ll change the world. 🙂

  5. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. I gladly second the reference to your skills as a great and inspiring teacher!

  6. I always love to read what you have to say, because you seem to be able to distill the truth so clearly and thoughtfully from the drivel that suffuses our culture. I admire your brain and your heart greatly, so thank you for being here. I frequently feel alone in the world, and that I am talking to walls with no ability to change their thinking, so it is refreshing to be able to come to a place, and know that there are people, like yourself, and your readers, that are brilliant, accomplished and amazing women, fighting to change the way society perceives womankind.

    I write strongly in the voices of women who no longer breathe (albeit in poetical form)…giving life to them, because I think much of the time, we are forced to live with a history of such small quantities of of our own sex-and our historical perspectives, who are simply able to be human, while also being allowed to show their authentic selves…with meaning and purpose; and not being defined by men in any way, either directly or indirectly.

    I think the larger issue here is that people, and the media more specifically, has an insatiable need to label. Labeling is like some sickness or disease that is seldom discouraged. These labels are somehow “required” in order for those of us who stray “from the norm” to be understood, and put in our place. It is a way to cage people and imprison them within a definition, like laboratory rats who now carry traits that have been deduced by scientific methodology.

    The organism that is social media, is evolving, and though it seems that many voices that would normally have been unheard in their lifetime, now have platforms with which to be heard and interact with news organizations that integrate multitudes of mindless thinking into their stories…there is a lack of thoughtfulness and temperance within it; and a larger disregard for the sacredness to our sexual selves, which does more harm, by illuminating women, such as those mentioned in these articles…than any good, which might have bestowed to someone who is seeking the truth of herself; but instead needs to KNOW that being unique and undefined…is more important than any label could ever be.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      YY, I agree, often labels are harmful.

      I do think they have a value (it’s useful to be able to name yourself if that means you can recognise other people who might be in the same boat and able to help you figure things out, especially as a teenager). But imposing labels is unhelpful and sometimes incredibly patronising, too.

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