is a phrase sometimes used to describe the public acknowledgement of bisexuality
among various segments of society. In some cases the phrase can be considered pejorative, when used to trivialize or dismiss genuine feelings of same-sex attraction, especially if those expressing these thoughts continue to exhibit otherwise heteronormative behaviors.
One usage of the phrase describes increased public interest in bisexuality, or increased social acceptance of bisexuality. This usage is usually associated with a celebrity coming out as bisexual or being labeled as bisexual, or with a high-profile reference to bisexuality in popular culture media, like a cover article of a magazine.
The other main usage describes a faddish attention towards bisexuality. This usage is also limited in scope, as it fails to provide relevant content of what it means to be bisexual, to give context to the legitimacy of bisexuality as an orientation, and even to convey a full understanding of bisexuality.
Origin of term
The phrase came into usage in the 1970s, on the tail end of the hippie
movement, which extolled free love
. This era ushered in the emergence of glam rock
, and British artists like Elton John
and David Bowie
. In 1980, TIME Magazine
referred to Bowie's persona Ziggy Stardust
as "the orange-haired founder of bisexual chic. A media-generated “wave” took place, focusing “on "bisexual chic" in the club scene
, and among celebrities such as Elton John, David Bowie and Patti Smith
.” At the same time, bisexual groups formed in several large US
cities, heralding the birth of the modern bisexual civil rights
and liberation movements
.Musical acts such as Elton John
, Mick Jagger
, Lou Reed
and the androgynous David Bowie
made public their experiences with the same sex, as did celebrities like Marlon Brando
and Gore Vidal
, Janis Joplin
and Joan Baez
The phrase can be used to imply someone is only pretending to be bisexual because it’s fashionable at the moment. Alternatively, it can be used to assert that someone is free of taboos, experimental, in touch with both masculine and feminine aspects of themselves, and therefore potentially a better lover or even a better person.
Emergence of bisexual chic
Though the terminology is attributed to the 1970s, a former bisexual chic came about as early as the 1920s. In Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life
, Marjorie Garber
argues "the twenties has been linked to the popularization of Freud
"), the advent of World War I, and a general predilection for the daring and unconventional: bobbed hair
, short skirts, the rejection of Prohibition
strictures." Examples of this include drag balls
, and the success of artists such as Ernest Hemingway
, D. H. Lawrence
, Virginia Woolf
, and Marlene Dietrich
In 1972, the highly popular musical film Cabaret featured a love triangle with a man and woman fighting for the same (male) lover. The author who inspired it, Christopher Isherwood, was among the first openly homosexual celebrities. Later in the decade, the androgyny of glam rock and softening of male fashion in the disco movement allowed new recognition for bisexuality as a perceived form of sexual liberation.
Fading of bisexual chic in the 1980s
Bisexual chic fell out of popularity with the increasingly conservative
culture that dominated the 1980s. As evidence of the AIDS
epidemic surfaced in the media about homosexual
men contracting a "strange new illness," promiscuous bisexuals were seen as likely carriers, and the fad waned. As a result, many people who had declared themselves bisexual in the 1970s now retracted their comments. Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie
renounced their bisexuality in the 1980s.
Reemergence of bisexual chic
In the early 1990s, another wave of bisexual chic
began , again beginning in the celebrity world. This time, however, women were at the forefront of the trend. In Madonna
's infamous music video
for "Justify My Love
," she passionately kisses former Roxy Music
model Amanda Cazalet (who is dressed as a man) and her male lover. Madonna also later released her provocative book Sex,
as well as revealing her controversial "Erotica
" music video that also featured same-sex contact. Openly bisexual comedian and rumored lover of Madonna, Sandra Bernhard
, was featured as a bisexual on the popular television sitcom Roseanne
amidst the trend. To illustrate the trend, Roseanne later found herself kissed by another woman and was "consoled" by Bernhard's character, bringing bisexuality to Middle America.
The willingness of heterosexual actors to engage in homosexual behavior for roles in film also fueled bisexual chic. The cult-classic My Own Private Idaho (which is often cited as providing River Phoenix's most potent film role) was released in 1991 and saw Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as gay hustlers. The controversial 1992 hit Basic Instinct featured a glamorous bisexual murderer played by Sharon Stone.
The fashion industry was the next promoter of bisexual chic, when Calvin Klein and others began to generate homoerotic, lesbian chic, and otherwise sexually ambiguous images as advertisements for their consumers.
Popular culture saw a leaning towards the acceptance of gay rights, fueled by celebrities, take effect during the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Elton John, Rupert Everett and others who identified as homosexuals, became enormously popular entertainers. Perhaps taking them as an example, bisexuals or bi-curious people began to be unafraid to announce their orientation. There was a sharp rise in coming out, both among homosexuals and bisexuals . Soon, gays, lesbians and bisexuals were almost ubiquitous in the media, and Hollywood officially had taken the closet door off.
Even a star with a huge mainstream following, Janet Jackson, recorded a cover version of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)" in which she sings to a woman with whom she is about to engage in a ménage à trois, saying, "This is just between me... and you... and you...."
Question of male bisexual chic
In music, Michael Stipe
of the wildly popular band R.E.M.
alluded to his bisexual inclinations for the first time during this period. As well, Kurt Cobain
said that he could possibly be bisexual in The Advocate
during his brief but revolutionary career in the early nineties, as did his wife, Courtney Love
. Popular front man Billie Joe Armstrong
for the California-based band Green Day
made a profound statement about bisexuality when he came out in The Advocate
on January 24, 1995.
Bisexual chic in the 2000s
In the 21st century, films alluding to bisexuality (or manifestations thereof) such as Kissing Jessica Stein, Y tu mamá también, Mulholland Drive, Alexander, Kinsey, and Brokeback Mountain are being distributed and received well. In 2005, Alex Kelly featured on The O.C., was a high-visibility bisexual character on U.S. network television, forming relationships with two of the show's main characters.
In 2003, Britney Spears staged a kiss with Madonna (who also kissed Christina Aguilera in the same performance) on an MTV Video Music Awards performance that would continue to fuel bisexual chic, and at the time many news and tabloid outsources referred to it as "lesbian chic", since it was clear from her impending marriage to Kevin Federline that Spears was certainly not a monosexual lesbian. The kiss is seen as a publicity stunt but helped to fuel the ever-growing trend. In November 2006, Paris Hilton appeared in public with her hand on Spears' left breast.
In 2006, actress and model Carmen Electra (who appeared in glam rocker Joan Jett's music video, A.C.D.C.), revealed that she had a childhood crush on Jett.
In 2006, British sci-fi series Torchwood aired, which features amongst its cast at least three bisexual characters, with all of them described as bisexual by newspapers like The Sun. This has in turn led to more discussion of the nature of bisexuality across interview programs in Britain, notably Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and others.
The 2008 song "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry received Billboard Top 40 success, having overtly bicurious tones. Also in 2008, popular actress Lindsay Lohan confirmed rumors that she was dating DJ Samantha Ronson after years of seeing men.
According to surveys by the CDC, a larger number of female college and high school students are experimenting with other women than ever before and, in a surprising twist, actually report being encouraged to do so by pop culture for the first time. Whether or not this change in popular culture is longstanding or, indeed, a simple trend remains to be seen
Criticisms of term
Members of the bisexual community
, although usually in favor of bisexual visibility, see “bisexual chic” as an informal form of bisexual visibility that, while potentially helpful, glosses over issues of sexual health
, as well as self-determination
and identity politics
- Beemyn, Brett and Erich Steinman. Bisexual Men in Culture and Society (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2001).
- "The New Bisexuals." Time, May 13, 1974.
- Reichert, Tom, Kevin R. Maly & Susan C. Zavoina. “Designed for (Male) Pleasure: The Myth of Lesbian Chic in Mainstream Advertising." Meta Carstarphen and Susan C. Zavoina (eds.), Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999).
- Risman, Barbara and Pepper Schwartz. "After the Sexual Revolution: Gender Politics in Teen Dating," Contexts (Berkeley: U California Press, 2002).