Character Study: Bi Female Characters in TV and Film, Part II

Read Part I here.

One of the finer romances featuring a bi lady.
One of the finer romances featuring a bi lady.

Rasha: So there are two things on my mind as we return to the topic of Bisexual Secondary Lady Characters in TV and Film: one is obviously Delphine in Orphan Black, and the other is an urge to step back from the phenomenon of bisexuality on TV and film and ask how the appearance of these Bi Lady characters relates to a queer politic–mainly, to queer notions of community and relationship. Are there threads you’d like to tease out in this round?

Gemma: I had been thinking that there’s a queer perspective shift, of which Delphine is a part but so are Annalise, Ilana on Broad City, etc., in the last several years, in which the bi woman not only gains more story significance but also has a storyline related to her sexuality much more integrated with the story at large. Often driving it. And it involves getting beyond the point you named last week, where bi-ness has to be the story.

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Ilana’s queer identity is pretty peripheral.

R: Right, so among the characters we’ve discussed, the ones that feel more queer to me are Kalinda and Delphine/Cophine (is it strange to find their relationship to be almost its own kind of character in the Clone World story?). I want to be able to claim Annalise Keating as queer, but I’m not sure that she really is or that she sees herself that way. I have a troubled relationship with Broad City, in that I have both enjoyed it at times and also had my patience and credulity challenged by it at many others. I haven’t watched the most recent season.

G: Oddly, O’Hara feels queer to me also. Ilana goes back and forth for me. It’s almost like she’s trying to be post-queer when that isn’t actually a thing.

R: I was going to ask about that. O’Hara feels that way to me too. She takes care of Jackie more than is often shown in female friendships on TV, and though we’ll talk about female friendships separately in the new year, an extended network of care is a core function of queer relationality.

A network of care. Occasionally at her own expense.
A network of care. Occasionally at her own expense.

G: There’s also something specific in the way that she seems bound to and reaches out from her own loneliness, and the way she forms loyalties as a result. I find that very similar to some aspects of Kalinda. Outsider-insiders, the everywhere-and-nowhere phenomenon with which I remain so fascinated.

R: You’re making me want to go back and rewatch/finish Nurse Jackie. I think you’re right on Ilana trying to be too post-everything. I was glad when other characters started calling her out on trying to pass as Latina or Black. As much fun as the episode is where Ilana falls in love with a woman who looks just like her, I don’t usually enjoy her character’s choices on the show. In the context of Broad City, Ilana works for me most when she’s cheering on/causing problems for Abbi or other characters. I do enjoy her unrequited sexual admiration for her best friend and how excited she got by her boyfriend having sex with another woman, but ultimately, I think the humor angle of the show doesn’t give us a lot of room for Ilana to get past a performative queer passing. Does Abbie become more queer in the most recent season? (btdubs, there’ve been rumors of real-life Abbi dating Carrie Brownstein.)


G: I agree overall, but I did love the one where she and Alia Shawkat had that intense we-are-identical sexual experience, and I thought it showcased something about bi agency in comedy that I hadn’t seen before.

This was not undelightful.
This was not undelightful.

There’s not much about Abbi being queerer in the recent season, no. But I’m wholly in favor of a relationship between Abbi Jacobson and Carrie Brownstein. Not quite as cool as Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor, but getting there.

R: Sarah Paulson is definitely having a moment.

G: More power to her.

That's definitely a power color.
That’s definitely a power color.

R: Like, she has me contemplating cutting my hair short and slicking it back, which is not really my kind of look. She works it well. Anyhow.

G: I believe that qualifies as you having a moment. Anyway.

R: I’m curious to hear you talk more about bi agency, and how it does or doesn’t show up in the examples we’ve looked at.

G: The early Bi Ladies, like Thirteen and Angela, have their bisexuality exist in vacuums one way or another. On the periphery, both of their own self-perception and of the plot.

R: Yeah.

G: Kalinda represents a transition, in that her queerness starts to drive corners of the plot, and that she definitely makes her own choices and defines herself (for herself)/refuses to define herself (for others) in a way that allows her identity a certain sense of wholeness but still doesn’t allow her full access to the story. Something similar with O’Hara. While I think I ultimately agree with you that Annalise doesn’t fully inhabit a queerness, it is significant that she was already driving the world by the time we knew her as bi, and that her relationship was fully drawn for an entire season and over a long timeline.

R: To Kalinda, our lack of access to her story turns out to be because the writers didn’t know how to write her.

No matter how far we go, we always come back to Kalinda.
No matter how far we go, we always come back to Kalinda.

This is like my great grief with Michael Ondaatje, who is capable of writing tremendous female characters that he then can’t imagine past the point of their intersection with the main male characters, and so has to kill them or stop telling their stories. Annalise definitely has agency. And her relationships are not just plot novelties for the sake of a mid-season bump.

G: These are both true things. But her simultaneous inhabiting of and alienation from her attraction to women is actually not dissimilar to Ilana’s. There’s something so casual about it as to make it not fully believable/not fully inhabited.

Well, it has its moments.
Well, it has its moments.

R: When AK and Eve were together in college, do you think they hung out with the lesbian coops and the queer students union, or at the local dyke bar? Or were they just going to French restaurants together and giggling adorably?

G: Did they do it together? AK absolutely didn’t go unless Eve dragged her. Eve had already been. (Though she didn’t feel fully at home there, either.)

R: Yeah, that’s my sense. Like I think AK would say that she didn’t fall in love with a woman, she fell in love with Eve specifically. And while that is probably true and sweet and romantic, it also avoids most of the larger questions of how love and relationships change our understandings of ourselves and how we fit into/out of the world.

G: Eggzacklecats. And I think Ilana would just keep saying that about every individual attraction to a woman she feels, and that’s the generational divide, but it’s basically the same principle.

R: You know what I love about Viola Davis and Famke Janssen and the HTGAWM crew? We can be so sure of these characters and who they are even for things we haven’t seen.

G: That’s always my favorite thing about good writing and/or good acting. Often how fanfic is made.

R: Yeah to what you said, except that Ilana would also be bragging about all the vag she was getting and how it was pussy explosions everywhere like a champagne supernova in the sky, and yet it might not change anything else about how she relates to anything in the world that wasn’t about sex.

G: Yeah, eggzacklecats.

R: Ok, just in case I need to say it: being queer isn’t about sex. It includes it, but it doesn’t stop there.

G: It’s not just not just about sex; it’s also not just about desire.

R: Kalinda’s sense of responsibility to the people she was in relationships with, how she never lost sight of friendships and colleagues in the midst of any of that, how she managed to both take care of business and people and also still draw boundaries, all feel very familiar to me as a queer relational field. As in, relationships that are not unilateral narcissistic ego (Ilana) or even bilateral mutual support (Annalise and Eve), but are a field of interconnecting relationships. This makes me want to come back to Delphine and Cophine.

Get ready, ladies … we want to talk about you!
Get ready, ladies … we want to talk about you!

G: Good, we need to get to them. (Is non-unilateral narcissism a thing, incidentally? Can there be bilateral narcissism?)

R: Delphine isn’t just in a relationship with Cosima. Like, there’s a substantial story on the level of a young woman falling in love with another young woman for the first time and she’s unsure of what she’s doing or whether it’s a good idea–and that story is handled with such acute perception in Orphan Black. There’s also another lesbian nationalist level of the story where a brilliant young woman leaves a patriarchal mentor/lover figure to be with another brilliant young woman and they make sexy amazing science together the likes of which the world has never seen.

G: Well, you’ve named that relationship as the protagonist relationship on OB, which I think is important. The relationship between love and discovery is one of the most important themes on OB, to me. And they choose to tell the main thrust of that thematic story as a story of queerness.

R: But what I’ve been thinking about in terms of queerness and Cophine: There’s another level of the story where a young woman is falling in love with one young woman and she has to care for and protect not just the woman she loves, but all the other women who are like the woman she loves (in this case, her lover’s cloned twin sisters).


G: Oooh.

R: And that makes it not just gay but deeply queer and really broad in its implications for a network of care and responsibility and inter-relation. (And yes, Cophine is the OTP supreme in all of Orphan Black, and anyone who says differently can step outside with me for a little dance.)

G: (No one would dare.) The notion of familial intimacy among clones is inherently queer, is what you’re saying? Or part of what you’re saying? It’s sort of the ultimate community of outsiders denied agency and retaking it.

R: Yeah. I mean, the clones are simultaneously the same person and also such different people and yet their fates and their survival are intimately bound together. And also they are freaks to the rest of the world, so yeah, they can’t help but be queer no matter whether they’re het or not. So I am very excited to see what kind of envelope Delphine/Cophine pushes in the final season. It’s love versus the Man, the Machine, oppressive Matriarchies and the lot!

G: So, Delphine, to have the love that is deepest and most honest with her, has no choice but to be part of this, and comes to understand herself as such. I’m thinking about the queer notion of “chosen family” in relation to OB, which is the ultimate combination of chosen and incredibly unchosen family.

R: Yeah, she has to fight for a whole community. Like specifically: Cosima is going to die without the genes and experiments that her sistras are part of. Delphine can’t just have Cosima, even if that’s what she wants most. She has to fight a world war and save whole communities to even have a chance with the woman she loves, and that sh*t is queer as hell.

G: This is true.

R: Next season is in April?

G: I think so, but I don’t know that they’ve announced a date. A sestra’s journey is ultimately to choose what she didn’t choose, and Cosima, being queer already, comes to that a lot faster than many of the others.

R: You must be a poet or something.

G: And Delphine has to find a way to that choice in the highest-stakes scenario ever.

R: Now I’m all excited about a show I can’t watch for three months.

G: Sigh.

R: To the next queer frontier!

G: I’m maybe going to go back and watch that last Cophine sequence of S4 again before I return to schoolwork. Don’t tell anyone.

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R: Your secret is safe with me.