Movies

Making Room for Messy Bisexuals on Screen

Why Shiva Baby’s chaotic protagonist is a step forward for bi representation on screen.

A young woman in a blazer and white button-down holds an appetizer in one hand.
Shiva Baby. Neon Heart Productions

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Shiva Baby, the debut feature from screenwriter-director Emma Seligman, begins with a warning. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is attending a shiva for someone she doesn’t really know—and so is her ex-girlfriend, Maya. Danielle’s mother doesn’t mince words: There had better not be any “funny business” between the women. But how much drama could this unfocused, almost-graduated college student actually stir up, and at a shiva? Quite a lot, it turns out— especially after the arrival of Danielle’s sugar daddy and his “shiksa princess” wife and small child.

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The anxiety-inducing setup unfolds across the film’s tight 77 minutes, delivering hilarious cringe comedy, tension that rivals a David Fincher drama, and a biting, but heartfelt, look at liberal arts college ennui. Off the heels of New York’s LGBTQ film festival NewFest, the Toronto International Film Festival, and its Best Narrative Feature win at Indie Memphis, Shiva Baby is sure to set the bi internet ablaze when it becomes widely available next year.

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As a bisexual, relatively recent liberal arts college grad myself, I knew I had to talk to Seligman. In this conversation, we discuss messy bi women on screen, the inherent awkwardness of being on the precipice of the adult world, and what other queer people have gotten wrong about films like Call Me by Your Name. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Madeline Ducharme: Did you always know that Danielle was going to be a bit chaotic in the film?

Emma Seligman: Yeah! I made the short film first and with that, I feel like I got to establish that she clearly had different versions of herself that were coming up throughout this day at the shiva. But it was only seven minutes. I think in order to sustain the plot for a feature film that takes place in one day and in one location, she had to be pretty messy in her choices.

I just didn’t know how much I could get away with. After we cast the whole movie, I did one last draft and I added the scene in the bathroom where she does some questionable things with her sugar daddy at the shiva, and I was surprised that no one questioned it!

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It’s interesting that the phrase you used was “what you could get away with.” I feel like there’s this pressure from the general bisexual community on the internet to do things “responsibly” in terms of representation and to avoid the bisexual stereotypes: that we’re flighty, we can’t make up our minds, we’re slutty. But Danielle gets to be all those things in Shiva Baby, just totally unapologetically bi.

While I was developing and creating the film, the audience I kept thinking of were bisexual women, and young bi women in particular. I wanted to portray the way your family just doesn’t really get bisexuality: They think you’re experimenting or actually gay or whatever. But I’m also really tired of seeing that be the main conflict of a character’s journey.

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I was just so excited ultimately more than anything to create a bisexual protagonist because I never got to see that in film when I was growing up. So many of my friends are bi and pan and you just don’t see us reflected on screen. I mean, granted, it’s kind of hard because you’ve got to work in multiple love interests unless it comes up in dialogue. But I just kept saying to my producers (who are both gay) that, like, if no one watches this movie except for some young bisexual women who feel seen, then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job.

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I love the conversation in the film where Danielle’s mother ties her daughter’s bisexuality pretty directly with her chaotic and messy choices. The stereotypes about bi people are so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that when her mom thinks of her queerness, she also thinks of her daughter making a scene and causing drama at the funeral.

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Yes! I don’t even know if I noticed that until you just said it.

One of my biggest heroes is Desiree Akhavan, and I love that scene in The Bisexual where she’s talking about sluttiness and drama with her roommate after she’s hooked up with so many people, and she defends herself by saying, “That’s a stereotype!” and he’s like, “But you’ve shagged half of London!”

I love it because I think when you’re figuring out your sexuality, for some people, you figure it out through lots of sex! And I think that with parents who just genuinely don’t understand sexual fluidity, they try to pass it off as one thing that they do understand, so if promiscuity fits the bill then they think, “Oh, that must be what it is!”

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It’s just, like, the crudest explainer for why someone might be queer in this way. You know, people are gay because they’re born that way, but people are bi because they just love sleeping around!

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Yeah! They just have to have it all. They’re just soooo horny. Can’t go without it. [Laughs.]

So I’m so curious, what’s in your personal bisexual canon?

Probably the biggest one by far is Joey Soloway’s Transparent. I think that was the first time I ever saw so many bi and pan characters on screen. It starts off with Amy Landecker’s character and it’s just so not a thing. You’re like, “Oh, of course she used to be with this woman.” Seeing that show was probably my biggest influence on Shiva Baby.

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In my bi canon, I also think about the shows I watched as a kid, like seeing Mischa Barton and Olivia Wilde on The O.C. It was the first time I ever saw bi characters, and I look back and think, Thank God for the two of them.

There’s also Sara Ramirez’s character in Grey’s Anatomy, Dan Levy’s on Schitt’s Creek, and Brigette Lundy-Paine’s on Atypical. I think there’s just a lot more that’s been done with TV.

I think it’s so interesting that we as bi viewers also have to carve out our canon from places where they might not explicitly use the word bisexual, but it’s still present in the show.

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You’re like, I’m taking this as a bi win! I was really annoyed when Call Me by Your Name came out and everyone was like, it’s the gayest love affair of all time. It’s obviously a gay love story, but he’s bi! I think Chalamet’s relationship with the young woman at the beginning of the film is super real and he only ditched her for Armie Hammer because he fell in love. I just hated the way they brushed over his sexual fluidity.

Like you said, I’m trying to carve it out. Like, no! This is a bi movie, and he is a bicon!

I love that you situate the film in this really intense moment, right before you graduate from college and enter the “adult world.” I know you made the short film version of Shiva Baby when you were actually living through that moment as a senior at New York University, but what was it like to get back to that place for the feature?

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When I was making the short, I was, very typically, anxious for my future, and the film just sort of vomited out of me. I hadn’t accepted myself, and I was definitely searching for validation back then. So by the time I was making the feature, I was psychoanalyzing that specific moment when I was at the end of college. I mean, Trump was elected in my last year and I remember at graduation all of the speeches at the ceremony were like, “This is why we need artists the most!” And clearly no one had checked in with each other about who was doing that version of the speech, but every single speaker did it. And it was like, “Oh … OK. No pressure!” [Laughs.]

While working on the feature after graduation, I think I sort of morphed into having a different kind of pressure-filled “needing to enter the world” moment.

I saw the film through NewFest and in the introduction to Shiva Baby, they basically immediately inducted it into the bisexual canon. What did that feel like for you?

I felt so excited! Like I said earlier, I don’t think there’s enough bisexual protagonists, so I’m just so thrilled to have Danielle be among them.

I think about how a lot of my references aren’t about bi people; like, Kissing Jessica Stein is one of my favorite films, but at the end of the day, it’s still about a straight girl experimenting and realizing she’s … straight. And that’s fine! But it’s not the same as really feeling seen. So, I’m so excited that young bi people, and bi women, are appreciating it.

Shiva Baby is playing at film festivals throughout the United States and will be widely released in 2021. Follow @shivababymovie on Instagram for updates.

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