Visi(bi)lity: How Did I Get Here? (or: What Chasing Amy Taught Me About Media and Identity)

Carrie Nelson
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Carrie is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

Movie poster for When I was 11, I saw the trailer for Chasing Amy. I don’t remember why it caught my attention—I didn’t recognize the actors, and I don’t think I consciously knew what it was about. It certainly wasn’t targeted toward 11-year-olds, so I’m not even sure where I saw the ad. But something in my gut told me that this was a movie I needed to see. It was the first time I experienced such a strong, immediate response to a movie, let alone a trailer.

Of course, I’d have to wait awhile. My parents, always acting sensibly, didn’t let me see it in theatres. (In hindsight, I can’t blame them.) But a couple years later, once my parents let me walk to the video store and rent movies on my own, I watched Chasing Amy on VHS. I loved it. It was the funniest movie I’d ever seen, and I quickly decided that Kevin Smith had usurped Steven Spielberg’s place in my heart and become my favorite director. More than anything, though, the film made me think. I had known gay people throughout my life and I understood what homosexuality meant, but until I saw Chasing Amy, it hadn’t occurred to me that some people could be attracted to more than one gender. This realization suddenly made me start to understand certain feelings I had experienced since the sixth grade. Within a year of seeing the film, I became friends with a girl my age who identified as bisexual, I started high school, and I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance. The more involved I became in the LGBT community, the more I recognized my own attraction to women. In the summer of 2001, when I was 15, I came out to my friends and family as bisexual.

Here’s the big problem I have with Chasing Amy: the word “bisexual” is never used. For those who haven’t seen it, the basic plot is: boy meets girl, boy finds out girl is a lesbian, boy propositions girl anyway, girl surprises him by saying yes, girl loses her gay friends, boy starts acting like a jerk, girl dumps boy and starts exclusively dating women again. (Not the most romantic movie, is it?) What’s interesting about Alyssa (“girl”) is that she’s open to experiencing sexuality and finding love in any number of ways. She has a history with men, but because she primarily enjoys sex and relationships with women, she claims the term “gay.” When she decides to start a relationship with Holden (“boy”), she tells him it’s because she doesn’t want to “limit the likelihood of finding that one person who’d complement me so completely.” But at no point does she change her identification. From start to finish, Alyssa identifies as a lesbian, and because of this, the viewer expects her relationship with Holden to fail.

Alyssa’s self-identification and character arc perplexed me, but it also reinforced a reality I experienced constantly throughout high school. Most people around me weren’t as psyched as I was about my newfound bisexuality. It wasn’t that they were homophobic—they weren’t. They just didn’t understand how I was able to like more than one gender. I was told I was confused. I was told I had to pick a side. I was told it was a phase. And because these messages bombarded me in life and in the media, I let them sink in. So when I was 17, I picked a side. Knowing that I fall closer to the 6 than the 0 on the Kinsey Scale, I came out as a lesbian. It wasn’t an arbitrary or even a conscious decision. It just felt like the option available to me.

A man and a woman sit on a swing set on the beach. The sky is overcast and the coloring is grey and bleak. Both the man and the woman are wearing several layers of casual clothing. They face each other, in conversation.You already know the end of the story: I’m back to identifying as bisexual. Once I fell in love with Anders, the man who’s now my husband, I started giving serious thought to these labels we have and what they mean. In an attempt to better understand my feelings, I gave Chasing Amy another viewing. I thought again about Alyssa’s explanation for dating Holden, “to not limit the likelihood of finding that one person who’d complement me so completely.” It finally occurred to me that, while Chasing Amy doesn’t actually talk about bisexuality, it promotes the message that you won’t find what you want until you open yourself up to unexpected possibilities. And that’s been true for me.

Chasing Amy is a complicated text. Other than Alyssa, none of the characters are especially sympathetic. They compete with one another to make sure she chooses the “right” team. No one seems all that interested in her desires and intentions. Even Holden, who purports to be the person who loves Alyssa most, laments that they’ll never be “a normal couple.” This could be a commentary on biphobia, but because bisexuality isn’t named or addressed directly, I doubt that it is. I think the more likely explanation is that Kevin Smith doesn’t understand queer identity politics as well as he thinks he does. But in one scene, the scene when Alyssa is allowed a moment to speak and explain why she’s dating Holden—”to not limit the likelihood of finding that one person who’d complement me so completely”—we get a completely candid and refreshing take on non-monosexuality. That scene makes the rest of the film, problematic though it may be, worth watching.

I’m telling you this story because it summarizes the reason I wanted to write about this topic for Bitch in the first place. The media—and our relationship to it—is complicated. A work can simultaneously validate our lived experiences and force us to conform to specific norms. This complexity is particularly apparent in depictions of bisexual and other non-monosexual people, but because media watchdog organizations like GLAAD don’t prioritize bi issues the way they prioritize other queer issues, these flawed depictions often go unchecked. All we can do is recognize the positive elements and document the flaws, so that we can move toward better, more honest, and more affirming portrayals of bisexuality. If there’s anything I’ve conveyed throughout this series, I hope that’s it.

Related: The B Word: Chasing Amy and the Bisexual (In)Visibility in Cinema and Media, Chasing Amy

Previously: Toward a Visible Movement, Is Social Media the Final Visi(bi)lity Frontier?

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

As a bisexual, I have the

As a bisexual, I have the same ambivalent feelings about this movie, and I was already a self-identified "out" bisexual adult when it was in theaters. I definitely relate to the pressure to choose a team. I also relate to the invisibility factor, especially because, like you, I'm married to a man. And I'm monogamous. Interestingly enough, in my own personal history, I have felt less accepted by the gay community than the straight one. Girlfriends would sabotage relationships, convinced I would eventually leave them for a man. Male and female gay friends would tell me it's just a phase, and that eventually I'd come out as a lesbian, when I found the courage. Now that I'm married I get, "Oh, you mean you *were* bi." Or even, "you made the easier choice and married a man." (Ummmm, I thought sexual orientation wasn't a choice? Or does that just apply to bisexuals?) I'm way closer to a 6, as well, but I met the right person for me. He just happens to have excess body hair. Oh, and a penis. :)
Thanks for your writing. I love feeling visible.

Thanks for writing this

Thanks for writing this series! More to say, crappy phone keyboard not cooperating.

From a bi grammar-nerd...

Ooh. I never gave Kevin Smith much of a chance, but now I'll Netflix that shit!

One side note...think you mean "complement" instead of "compliment" ;)

Right you are! Thanks for

Right you are! Thanks for catching the typo.

Thank you

Thank you for this piece. I've been a closeted bisexual most my life. At some point I felt like it would be okay to be gay, okay to be straight (at least in my culture and family), but bi? Viewed as a weirdo, a poseur, or, my favorite adjective, "greedy". Been monogomous for 14 years to my current partner so I get a laugh at the "greedy" label.

It's still difficult for me to be out about being bisexual. Most times I stay pretty quiet about it.

thanks for writing about

thanks for writing about this. as a bisexual woman in a monogamous relationship with a man, I still very much identify as bisexual. some friends and family members said things like "well, you're with him now, so you're not bi anymore." it's so hard to explain the nuances when our society pressures us all to fit into certain boxes with labels. but i usually say something like, "well, did you know you were heterosexual before you ever had any relationships before?" the relationship doesn't define our sexualities. we do. and it's all a personal choice that varies from person to person. i wish more people identified as bi.

Thank you. This series has

Thank you. This series has been fantastic. I especially like this piece because I have history with Chasing Amy. Suffice it to say I was a big fan of the movie at the time but not everyone in my then-universe agreed, and I got some serious grief over it. We really are too often invisible on both ends of the spectrum (I'm married to a woman, and have had to correct people labeling me as a lesbian for a long time).

That's the only thing you had problems with?

You didn't have problems with Kevin Smith's "women who have sex are to be denigrated" theme that runs through every damned one of his movies? The whole you're-a-whore commentary about her having sex with two guys didn't bother you? Smith's hang-ups come out loud and clear in every one of his movies, and Chasing Amy is no exception. You couldn't pay me to see another crap piece of "film" by this guy.

That's the point. Holden

That's the point. Holden reacts in such a disgusting manner that the relationship is forever ruined. The relationship fails because of that, not sexual preference. Smith criticizes this character by leaving him alone, and gives Alyssa the opportunity to say exactly what should be said. The scene where he proposes the threesome allows Alyssa something rarely seen in movies, the moment when a woman says exactly what she is thinking. She does not fold to the disrespect of the proposal due to feelings of obligation, but stands up for herself against Holden.

So while the whore comments come from the character, you see that it is wrong based on how everyone ends up.

His movies do tend to revolve around female sexuality, but most of the time the character will be a sexist prick about it. Then will be enlightened by either the woman herself or one of the men around who "gets it". I think the films are true to life considering the response are ones that occur to women, but I don't know that the enlightenment happens as often in real life.

The slut-shaming theme

The slut-shaming theme resonated way more than even sexual identity politics. I very much understood Holden's sense of confused anger and inadequacy towards Alyssa's past and reputation.

I've done plenty of mental slut-shaming myself, and find the double standard the only terrible part, which is something the movie addresses brilliantly. (There's lots of reasons why having sex with very many partners Should be up for judgement, as an indicator of attitudes towards commitment and risk-taking, but that aspect is not relevant here.)

I think sometimes we feel things we feel we shouldn't or wished otherwise, and that seems to be the main conflict in each character (Alyssa has to deal with falling for a dude, Holden has to deal with his insecurity, Banky has to deal with why he feels so threatened...)

The 'conservative' element in the film is what I found most liberating--Alyssa was a slut, learned a lot about herself and others from sleeping around, and when she fell in love she happened to decide she didn't want to sleep around anymore. She made her decisions on her terms, and wasn't budged by the bullying of her lover, her lesbian pals, her larger society)

She's a mature adult because she dealt with the heavy and unfortunate consequences of both choices--the reputation and gossip for her past wild-child, and the loss of her relationship with Holden for refusing this threesome he thinks he needs.

She's not a pushover and she's won't be "used" by others--be it high school losers or the guy she loves. The most subversive and refreshing aspect of the film was how firmly it rejected the pernicious slippery-slope bullying logic of both the males (slut once, slut always! right? Not even for me Babe? etc that couch conversation..) and the doom and gloom of the lesbians ("another one bites the dust...")

The bi-phobia of the lesbian community regarding failed relationships with bi-woman who ultimately end up in long term relationships or marriages to men seems just a variation on the same core fear of all people- finding a great person and losing them. Of fucking up something wonderful and spending your days Chasing Amy.

This seems a consequence of how easy it is to let ones identity politics spin the hurt of such loss afterwards--- "not only did she leave me, she left me for a man! I'll never trust a Bi-bitch again!"

The reason this understandably painful anecdote is so common can NOT because bi-folks are more prone to deceit about our sexuality or loyalty. (If you date someone who lies, cheats, or steals it's a matter of their character--and your character-judgement- not their sexuality. And who comes along after a breakup is not fair fuel for your bi-bashing!)

Bi women will be way more likely to date men than women because the number of women who like women is really small. Even the lgbt dating pool of immense NYC can sometimes feel socially claustrophobic. Other things equal, for bi women there are percentage wise, way way more available men, regardless of how equally or more so we'd rather be with a lady partner.

The fact that so many lesbians and gay friends in my life don't check their math on this seems about as silly as happy straight pals who think I "have double the dating pool!" Ummm No, theoretically, as a bi-lady I have the population of men plus the very small bonus percentage of the female population that likes ladies.

Bitterness at bi-folks from the lesbian and gay crowd maybe an extension over the tough realities of marginalization, and the venn diagram of identity intersection that means really being screwed (is Hooper, the black and gay comic writer, anyone else's fave character? So awesome.)

Re: making Alyssa's Bi-ness in the film more obvious and clear. Nope, the film is much stronger for letting it be. As a struggling film writer type myself trying make feminism and my other politics less overt / annoying, I want to really defend Smith-- which category fits Alyssa best is not the point of a film pondering personal confusion and the trouble with labels. It wouldn't have worked narratively or character-wise to give shift this attention.

I've mixed feelings about bi-invisibility, media wise or personally, and in general I don't know yet if loud & proud is the what I'd advocate, politically or artistically. There's a real privilege in being able to pass as straight that is important Bi folks acknowledge as we partake in the politics of the closet. (that discussion is all about context, esp if one is not in an america or western european democracy. ...the internet and movie audience is increasingly international)

I really think it's a great romantic dramedy film with strong feminist character, and fascinating look at the sexual identity map-making. I found basically zero fault in its politics -- on the contrary, it's smart and subtle and funny in covering way more thematic ground than it gets credit for.

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