Spark Notes is a recurring series about lightbulb moments in sexual development.
When I was in middle school, I watched Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe for the first time. It opens with Jude, played by Jim Sturgess, on the beach singing, “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?” Cue slow zoom out, Jude dramatically looking off into the distant horizon. Um, swoon. Of course I will listen to your story.
The film follows Jude, otherwise known as the hot, scruffy British working-class man of my dreams, a dockworker who leaves England to find his estranged father in America. He meets his real dad, is disappointed, befriends Max, played by Joe Anderson, and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. I swooned at Lucy, too.
Across the Universe is a visually stunning, psychedelic love story of vagabonds traveling America in the midst of the Vietnam War. It weds ’60s radicalism, drug culture, star-crossed lovers, and the Lennon-McCartney songbook. But to me, it is much more than that: It’s the movie that helped me solidify my bisexual identity. Love is not necessarily all you need, but for every two hours I spent rewatching Across the Universe, I believed it was. I wasn’t interested in the romance between Jude and Lucy—I was just interested in them.
I knew I liked women from an early age—even though I vehemently denied it whenever people asked. Strangely enough, I did, however, always admit to being “obsessed” with a girl rather than actually admitting to a crush on one. Did I tell people I was obsessed with Evan Rachel Wood in Across the Universe? You bet I did. I could trace my feelings back to the first time a girl kissed me on the cheek in kindergarten and I turned beet-red. Or when I experienced a bolt of energy traveling through my body as I squirmed in the corner of our L-shaped sectional while watching Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in the disastrous 1997 film Batman & Robin. I suppose I could also pinpoint why my favorite character in the early 2000s classic The O.C. was Olivia Wilde’s Alex, a bisexual who dated my favorite nerd and the girl next door. But even that didn’t offer the same surge of certainty that Across the Universe did.
In middle school, all the “bi” girls were just “experimenting,” and meanwhile, I hadn’t even had my first kiss yet. Coming out as bi became a thing at my middle school. Every stigma about bisexuality echoed through the halls: “It’s just a phase.” “They’re doing it for attention.” “They’re basically lesbians.” “They’re just confused straight girls.” Middle school was already uncomfortable enough, and now I had to deal with these thoughts: I like boys and girls? How is that possible? What does that mean? So I resorted to the word obsessed, because as a middle school girl, being obsessed was safe.
I was a major tomboy in middle school. It wasn’t rare for the people I hung out with to ask, “Are you lesbian?” followed by a pre-emptive “Ew.” Because obviously tomboy equals lesbian, right? So I did what any offended, closeted 13-year-old would do and replied, “Um, ew! Haha no way. I just like baggy clothes.” There were two reasons I didn’t want to come out. One, I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was wrong after telling so many people I wasn’t a lesbian. Two, I didn’t want to come out and then fall for a guy and invalidate myself as a lesbian. It wasn’t until Across the Universe, when I imagined myself as both Jude and Lucy for the first time, that it felt okay.
When Jude sings “I’ve Just Seen a Face” in the bowling alley—one of my favorite scenes in cinematic history—I felt something. I loved the expressions Jude makes every time he thinks about or looks at Lucy—that charming smirk. And I felt the same excitement of a new crush about Lucy. I also may or may not have imagined that Lucy’s teary-eyed rendition of “If I Fell” was for me. When the scene ended, I hit rewind on my DVD and watched it again. And again. Chills. Then I paused the movie entirely to go to the film’s “Trivia” section on IMDb to read more about Evan Rachel Wood—falling deep into a rabbit hole to learn anything and everything about her the same way I’d done years before with the Jonas Brothers.
I watched Thirteen, which was not a movie I should’ve watched at 13. I realized Evan Rachel Wood was the girl in the Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” video. It came as a surprise to find out she was, at the time, dating Marilyn Manson. I fell down the same research hole for Jim Sturgess. I remember watching nearly every movie he was in: The Other Boleyn Girl, 21, The Way Back, One Day, Cloud Atlas. Even if I wasn’t even remotely interested in the plot, I would watch for him. To this day, Jude and Lucy remain solid archetypes of my “type” in both men and women. My type in men: usually sad art boys, ideally on the more adventurous and scruffy side. And I will forever love femmes, à la Lucy. You can imagine how thrilled and vindicated I felt when I read that Evan Rachel Wood identifies as bisexual in real life.
But the more I rewatched Across the Universe, the more I found myself relating to a different character: T.V. Carpio’s Prudence. Prudence is a character obviously written in purely for the sake of having someone sing “Dear Prudence.” Aside from that, she is a lesbian cheerleader who hitchhikes to New York and joins the rest of the gang. We see her go from hopelessly crushing on a fellow cheerleader (who is straight, ugh) to crushing on Sadie, the sultry singer played by Dana Fuchs (also straight, ugh). She runs away, joins the circus, and we see her next (and finally) with a woman.
I was Prudence (see: Prudence appearing in the water while Lucy and Jude are holding each other naked in the water during “Because” for a visual representation of me in the film) falling in love with the straights. I longed for Jude and Lucy in the same way Prudence longed for her teammate and Sadie. With this realization, I watched Prudence singing “I Want You” from the outside looking in at Sadie, and I felt everything.
I first came out as bisexual to my best friend the summer going into freshman year. To him, a gay man, bisexual meant lesbian. And to most people I’ve told, it has ever since, even as I’ve dated men over the years. I’ve encountered the same reaction from many of the women I’ve been with too—either they think, when I say I’m bisexual, that I’m really an insecure lesbian, or they fear I’ll leave them for a man. So now every time I rewatch Across the Universe, I feel soothed by the way, in this fictional universe, biphobia seems not to exist. Prudence knows whom she likes, regardless of gender. The film shows how fluid Prudence’s sexuality is, but no one else judges her or cares.