There are few songs I like less than Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl.” I dislike most of her music (that skit she did with Elmo, however, is adorable), but “I Kissed A Girl” bothers me most of all. You’d think such a song would be tailor-made for me—after all, I have, in fact, kissed girls and liked it! But it’s really not a song for me, or for any other queer woman (even though I know queer women who like the song). It’s a song for straight men who have “lesbian” fantasies in which femme women make out with each other but don’t present any actual threat to male sexuality and dominance. It’s a song for straight women who find the idea of kissing other women to be a “scandalous” and fun way of entertaining men, but who ultimately aren’t romantically or sexually attracted to other women. It’s a song about false, constructed, performed bisexuality, and it isn’t doing anything to help the acceptance of non-monosexual folks.
Of course, this isn’t only Perry’s fault, and I don’t mean to put the blame on her just because her song perpetuates a tradition of problematic performative bisexuality in pop music. Performative bisexuality has been around much longer than she’s been singing about teenage dreams and fireworks. Did it start when Britney and Madonna smooched at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, or was it earlier, when a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich kissed that woman in Morocco? I don’t know exactly but you get the point—this has been happening for a long time.
And it didn’t end with Perry, either. Toward the end of 2011, I read about a new pop song by Jessica Lowndes, literally titled “I Wish I Was Gay.” The song is bad enough, but the music video takes the notion of performing bisexuality to a whole new level. In the video for “I Kissed A Girl,” Perry leaves much to the imagination. Despite the title, there is a notable lack of women kissing each other, and though the presence of male spectators is felt through lyrics like “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it,” only one man shows up in the entire video, and when he does, he’s blissfully unaware of Perry’s shenanigans. By contrast, the video for “I Wish I Was Gay” is completely structured as a performance for a male spectator. In the video, Lowndes ties her philandering boyfriend to a chair, dances in front of him with other beautiful women, and emasculates him by shaving his legs and writing on his face with lipstick. For someone who wishes she was gay, Lowndes spends an awful lot of time focused on her boyfriend and simultaneously arousing and tormenting him. Any queerness visible in the video is a tool to entice the male gaze. The story has nothing to do with women Lowndes wishes she found attractive—it’s about punishing the man she does find attractive by turning him on and then leaving him high and dry. It’s a video about pleasing straight men, not queer women.
What gets to me about images of performed bisexuality is how they reinforce bisexuality as something that can be faked for the purpose of heterosexual seduction. I remember the ways in which the behavior of self-identified bisexual girls was scrutinized by the rest of the student body when I was in high school. There was always a question of which girls were “really” bisexual and which girls were doing it for the attention. Now, I’m not going to say that women never kiss each other for attention, but I find the speculation and accusation offensive. The assumption seems to be that women are only “really” queer if they behave in particular ways, or date particular people, or espouse particular politics. So when Perry sings about her “experimental game” and Lowndes expresses the desire to be gay, not because she finds anything interesting about women but because men treat her poorly, they suggest that women who genuinely do want to experiment sexually with other women are just trying to be “bad” girls or seeking male attention, either to arouse them, tease them, or both.
And here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter why women kiss each other. Women should have the agency to kiss anyone they feel like kissing, and it shouldn’t be seen as scandalous. The reason why songs like “I Kissed A Girl” and “I Wish I Was Gay” treat queerness so casually is because they view such behavior as something naughty. Authentic queer desire can’t exist in this space, because if it does, it means the women expressing that desire are doing something wrong.
Perry and Lowndes co-opt bisexuality as a way of firmly reasserting their actual heterosexuality. By doing so, they make bisexuality seem like something that is innately false, a method of performance for the purpose of seducing and/or punishing men. I know that Perry and Lowndes aren’t the first to engage in such a performance, but I really hope it ends with them.