Update: this talk is now published as an article in The Central Dissent (FA18) and can be read here.
This post is a talk I gave on September 30, 2017 at the 2nd International Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference in OKC. You can find the accompanying Prezi with the relevant images from both the graphic novel and its film adaptation here. I particularly enjoyed this conference for the diversity of multidisciplinary presentations and for the supportive, engaged community that attended. I was thrilled that the talk below incited a lively room-wide discussion on bi representation in media. I will certainly be returning to the conference next year. I look forward to any feedback my readers wish to share in the comments below!
“Le genre hétéro trèèès curieuse” : Biphobia in Le Bleu est une couleur chaude
In today’s increasingly frequent discussions of the LGBTQ community, the third letter of the series is all too often ignored, excluded, or outright denied. As representation of queer characters in media and pop culture lead to greater acceptance of queer people in real life, this same media is often reinforcing harmful stereotypes about bisexuality that actively harm bisexual individuals’ acceptance in both queer and straight communities. This article addresses such negative representations of bisexuality in the French graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Marot and its film adaptation by celebrated Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche La Vie d’Adèle that won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the first comic book adaptation to earn an award of such prestige. The film, titled in English Blue is the Warmest Color, earned a reputation upon its US release as ‘that lesbian sex movie.’ While the film does include several graphic sex scenes between the two main characters, both female, this reputation demonstrates precisely the issue I explore in this article: despite the fact that the film’s main character has relationships with both men and women, any sexual act between two women is immediately labeled “lesbian” and contributes to the pervasive problem of devaluing or erasing bi identities.
In 2015, the Equality Network (a Scottish organization) released a report on the experience of bisexuals, finding that the majority of bisexuals (between 66 and 69%) feel unsupported or unrecognized in both LGBTQIA and non-LGBTQIA communities (HRC Biphobia). In 2010, the Center for Disease Control reported significantly higher instances of sexual and domestic violence against bisexuals, so much that “bisexual women were twice as likely to experience sexual violence as other groups in almost every category” (Rauch). It is disturbing statistics such as these that make it essential to reveal and discuss biphobia and bi-erasure in pop culture. In this article, my analysis focuses on two perspectives of biphobia in Le Bleu est une couleur chaude: the protagonist Clementine’s treatment by her girlfriend Emma, and the author’s biphobia as shown through the text’s themes and plot. My argument highlights these themes as representative of problems in the community at large. Since the film is more well-known than its source text, I will also use comparisons with the story’s cinematic interpretation, La Vie d’Adèle, where it highlights and exacerbates the biphobia.
A brief summary of the graphic novel will be helpful to situate the moments that are the focus of this analysis. Set in Lille, the story takes place between 1994 and 2008, following the life of a high school student, Clementine (whose name becomes Adèle in the film), as she struggles to come to terms with her sexual identity after meeting Emma, an art school student and out lesbian activist. After plenty of teenage melodrama [even Maroh now refers to the text as “une ridicule histoire” ‘a ridiculous story’ (my trans.; Cœurs-forêts, Maroh) that she wrote when she was only 19], the couple splits after 12 years together because of Clem’s infidelity with a fellow teacher at her school, a faceless male who appears in only three panels, cropped into anonymity by the panels’ design. The story passes through several unfortunate tropes of LGBTQIA representation: internalized homophobic and struggle to accept one’s own identity, rejection by homophobic parents, promiscuity and infidelity in the queer community, and an ultimately death due to addiction that tragically separates the couple. It is because of these clichés (rather than in spite of them) that the biphobia in the text demands examination: it represents a trope in itself, one dangerous to the acceptance of bisexual identities.
First it is important to understand Clementine’s perception of her sexuality as this clearly matters more than assumptions about her identity. Unfortunately, there’s little to go on to understand how Clementine self-identifies. Most of her early journey consists of coming to terms with her own sexuality, often in the form of clichéd self-rejection as she demands Emma if she is ashamed to be a lesbian. Only one time does Clementine claim the identity “lesbienne” for herself, and she does it only in a humorously stereotyping internal dialogue: “Mais c’est quoi ce cliché? La lesbienne qui joue au baby-foot avec ses potes mecs… et puis merde. Je m’amuse. Je suis bien” ‘What’s with this cliché? The lesbian playing foosball with her guy friends? Eh, screw it. I’m having fun’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 119). However, it is important to note the comic’s use of color as it offers clues to Clementine’s sexuality. The blue is a repeated motif throughout the mostly grey-tone story, putting the reader into Clementine’s point of view so that we are struck by the same images as she. This is especially true as the art is, without a doubt, the text’s best feature and makes it worth reading in spite of its flaws. While the reference to Emma’s hair in the title is evident, it is important to note that Thomas’ blue is equally striking to Clementine, even before blue becomes associated with Emma in her mind. While she never feels love for Thomas like she does with Emma, Clementine is clearly attracted to him and even dates him for six months, a long time from her sixteen-year-old perspective.
The film version Adèle never reveals how she self-identifies to the audience, but bisexuality is more emphasized here than in the comic, while still carefully avoiding the label. Adèle engages in sex with her high-school boyfriend Thomas though graphic novel Clementine changes her mind before completing the act. Adèle also develops a relationship with the male co-worker that ends her relationship with Emma, but the audience gets no insight into Clementine’s relationship with the faceless man in the comic. Finally, Adèle flirts with one of Emma’s male friends at a party, and the film concludes with him chasing her down the street, heavily implying a new romance. The film thus problematically represents Adèle’s relationship with Emma as an anomaly bookended by relationships with males.
In both formats, the biggest problem is that there is no acknowledgement whatsoever of the ‘b-word,’ as is so often the case with recognizably bisexual characters in media and pop culture. Any same-sex encounter leads to frantic internet debates about whether a character is gay or straight as the majority either forgets or denies that bisexuality is real. Prominent examples of this include Xena the Warrior Princess, Wonder Woman, Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek reboot, and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among many others. In both graphic novel and film versions of Maroh’s story, the audience primarily experiences Clementine’s identity through others’ eyes – eyes that, like the examples above, suggest repeatedly that one must be straight or lesbian, with nothing in between but experimentation or closeted behavior. This becomes even more problematic when we take Maroh’s own description of her work:
“…ce qui m’intéresse avant tout c’est que moi, celles/ceux que j’aime, et tous les autres, cessions d’être: insulté-e-s, rejeté-e-s, tabassé-e-s, violé-e-s, assassiné-e-s. Dans la rue, à l’école, au travail, en famille, en vacances, chez eux. En raison de nos différences. Chacun aura pu interprété [sic] et s’identifier au livre à sa convenance. (Maroh Cœurs-forêts)
What interests me above all is that me, those that I love, and all others cease to be: insulted, rejected, beat up, raped, murdered. In the street, at school, at work, among family, on vacation, in their own homes. Because of our differences. Each person can interpret and identify with the book how they please.” (my trans.)
Maroh speaks to the importance of representation in media as protection against harassment for herself and her queer peers. However, both Maroh’s character Emma (and by extension the story itself) perpetuates the queer community’s rejection of bi identities by reinforcing biphobic stereotypes, creating a space in which bi people are not welcome. Though she claims each reader can identify with the story in their own way, Maroh does not appear to have considered how a bisexual audience would react when confronted with the text’s biphobic rhetoric.
The graphic novel’s biphobia is most evident in the first interaction between Clementine and Emma. Clementine accompanies her friend Valentin to a gay bar for the first time; bored watching her friend’s drunken flirtations, Clementine wanders away from Valentin and into a lesbian bar she passes on the street. She immediately notices Emma’s blue hair from their brief crossing in the street months previously, but Clementine sits at the bar on her own. Emma approaches to buy Clementine a drink, intrigued by the fact that “C’est rare de rencontrer des gens dans ton genre ici…” ‘It’s rare to meet your type in here…’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 50). When asked what she means by “your type,” first Emma notes the fact that Clementine is alone and underage in a bar, but then she makes her real meaning clear: “Et ensuite, le genre hétéro trèèès curieuse apparemment” ‘also, the reeeaally curious straight type, apparently’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 51). Before even asking Clementine’s name, Emma has effectively shut down the possibility of Clementine defining her own sexual identity. Coming at a moment when the main character is just beginning to question this identity for herself (a questioning Emma clearly notices from her comment), Emma’s biphobic labeling is particularly damaging; in representing sexuality as a straight/gay dichotomy, Emma (a seeming authority to Clementine in this new queer space) closes the door to other possible identities outside this dichotomy, as so often happens in both queer and non-queer communities. Therefore, the space that should be helping Clementine discover her identity instead forces her into further confusion by insisting she must fit in one of these two boxes.
Now, some will notice that the “curiosity” Emma remarks in Clementine represents some space between the gay/straight dichotomy. I argue that rather than indicating acceptance of another sexuality, this comment reflects common criticisms that bisexual people often endure: it’s just a phase – you’re young and experimenting – pick a side already – you’re really gay but still half in the closet – and the like. As Pauline Plazas describes such reluctance to accept bisexuality as an identity in its own right, “Bisexuality is widely seen as an exploration, not an option” (Plazas IndieWire). This line of thinking, that bi people are simply undecided or somehow dishonest about their sexuality, develops into Emma’s refusal to get involved in a relationship with Clementine because of her confused sexual identity, a problem that again occurs all too often in real life.
Emma’s biphobia becomes the primary obstacle that Clementine has to overcome to begin their relationship. Despite having a serious girlfriend, Emma’s objections to Clementine’s interest consistently only reference the latter’s perceived sexuality, never Emma’s own relationship status. Emma, unquestionably attracted to Clementine, tells her “Quand tu tomberas amoureuse, ce mec sera le plus chanceux de toute la terre” ‘when you fall in love, that guy will be the luckiest in the whole world’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 91). Due to the gendered nature of the French language, the idea of a future male lover is unambiguous with usage of the word “mec” and the masculine version of the adjective “chanceux”. Because of her own assumptions about Clementine’s identity, Emma never allows her the chance to define her sexuality or express her feelings.
Once the couple becomes physically intimate, Emma refuses to receive oral sex from Clementine: “Non, attends, ne…tu n’as jamais fait ça” ‘No, wait, don’t… you’ve never done that before’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 96). Emma continues to treat her partner as if she were uncommitted to sex with a woman, in spite of Clementine’s insistence to the contrary. Even after sleeping together for the first time, Emma clings to her perception of Clementine as heterosexual as some sort of martyric reason to not act on her feelings for the younger girl: “Qu’est-ce que ça changerait? À un moment ou un autre… tu finiras bien par rencontrer un gars qui te plaît et tout te poussera à être avec lui, vous serez heureux et moi j’airai l’air d’une conne. Alors franchement… à quoi bon…?” ‘What would that change? Sooner or later, you’ll end up finding a guy you like and everything will push you to be with him. You’ll be happy and I’ll look like an idiot. So really… what’s the point…?’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 105). Indeed, Emma’s refusal to enter a relationship with Clementine despite her evident feelings perpetuates the “it’s just a phase” stereotype that is so harmful to bisexual individuals.
This is not an isolated incident, but rather a theme throughout much of the text; Emma repeatedly insists that any form of relationship just isn’t worth it because Clementine will, undoubtedly, leave her for a man: “Clem, tu n’es pas homo, tout ça te passera, tu ne veux pas…” ‘Clem, you’re not gay, all this will pass, you don’t want…’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 100). In one of the few moments Clementine stands up for her right to define her own sexuality, she cuts Emma off shouting, “Ça n’est pas à toi de me dire ce que je veux” ‘It’s not up to you to tell me what I want’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 100). So adamant is Clementine that her jagged-edged speech bubble covers Emma’s, underscoring her frustration at being constantly defined by others.
Though this defense of a person’s right to define their own sexuality may initially appear to be the author’s rebuttal to the biphobia in the story up to that point, Maroh instead proves Emma’s fears justified as Clementine engages in a sexual relationship with a male colleague. Even though her first girlfriend in the story, Sabine, was frequently unfaithful, with Emma’s knowledge the infidelity was not a seriously enough transgression for Emma to end the relationship. Even Sabine also knew about Emma’s six-month affair with Clementine and took no action to stop it. (Here, I will specify that Emma and Sabine did not define their relationship as open, and infidelity is clearly represented as such.) It is evidently not the infidelity that destroys Emma and Clementine’s relationship. Rather, infidelity with a man poses the real problem for Emma. She declares, “Il n’y avait rien de pire pour me briser le cœur!” ‘There was nothing worse for breaking my heart!’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 135). Emma’s biphobic fears were correct all along: Clementine ‘reverts’ to dating men. This representation is problematic because it reflects and even encourages a very real bias in both straight and queer communities: the idea that bisexual people cannot be satisfied in a relationship and will eventually cheat with or leave for someone of another gender.
Both film and comic reflect this bias as the main character cannot fit in with Emma’s community. In the film, Adèle is completely closeted outside of her home life with Emma, implying that Emma is once again correct, and Adèle is actually straight. More problematically, in the graphic novel, the couple’s problems stem from Clementine’s disinterest in activism. The election of conservative Nicholas Sarkozy to the French presidency in 2007, shown on the couple’s television screen, is superimposed by a text box containing Clementine’s admission that the couple is growing apart. This moment represents an important point in LGBTQ history in France as Sarkozy has long been a vocal opponent of both marriage equality and separation of church and state. This situation drives a further wedge between the women as Clementine refuses to involve herself in activism. She tells the reader that, “Pour Emma, sa sexualité est un bien vers les autres. Un bien social et politique. Pour moi, c’est la chose la plus intime qui soit. Elle appelle ça de la lâcheté, alors que je cherche juste à être heureuse…” ‘For Emma, her sexuality is a good towards others. A social and political good. For me, it’s the most private thing there is. She calls that cowardice, but I just care about being happy…’ (my trans.; Maroh, Bleu 131). Though this could represent a personal difference in any couple, the constant questioning of Clementine’s sexuality makes this scene particularly problematic.
Combined with the previous instances of biphobia, this ideological difference further removes Clementine not only from Emma, but also from the queer community. As a bisexual person, Maroh represents Clementine as fundamentally separate from this space; a bisexual neither cares for activism nor speaks for the community. The couple has a flight over the Pride flag as Clementine grabs hold of it to prevent Emma walking out the door. This is arguably the most problematic image of the entire text; it suggests that Clementine is actively disruptive to equality activism. Emma has to free herself from Clem’s grasp in order to engage with and fight for the community.
Published in 2010, the writing, publication, and textual focus on activism in the 2000s reflect an important period in the equality movement in France. From 1999, civil unions called PACS (Pacte Civile de Solidarité) have been open to same- and different-sex couples alike, but it was not until 2013 that marriage became legal in France for same-sex couples. With France’s neighbors the Netherlands and Belgium becoming the first two countries to legally recognize same-sex marriages in 2001 and 2003 respectively, Clementine and Emma’s relationship takes place at a crucial moment in French LGBTQ activism. The fact that Clementine, presented as “not a real lesbian”, threatens not only her relationship but the movement itself is deeply problematic in its historical context.
It is important to consider the impact of these observations about Le Bleu est une couleur chaude. Though a well-known graphic novel in French-speaking communities, the book remains obscure elsewhere. However, the high-profile awards of the film brought the biphobia into the spotlight, though it was overshadowed by the explicitly male gaze through which the story was filmed. All complexities of the story were reduced to ‘that lesbian sex film,’ a moniker particularly problematic for those attuned to biphobia and bi-erasure in the media. Autostraddle’s critique of the film represents the larger problem with misrepresentation of sexualities in pop culture:
“Queerness as portrayed by straight people, as envisioned by straight people and directed by straight people, is Oscar bait. Brokeback Mountain isn’t an example of gay cinema anymore than Blue is the Warmest Color is an example of lesbian cinema, and I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to you…. A narrative about queer people as directed and portrayed and produced by straight people cannot be considered a work of queer cinema in the same sense that a film written, directed, and portrayed by queer people is.” (Kate Audostraddle)
I will take this observation a step further and point out that erasure of a sexual identity within the queer space of the graphic novel is even more damaging because it comes from a place that should (in theory) be better at accepting non-hetero identities. Especially when we return to Maroh’s comments on her own work, that she intended Bleu est une couleur chaude to represent a space for all, yet here, a queer author repeatedly excludes bisexuality from the queer spaces and queer communities of her text.
Yet as many (if not all…) bi people have experienced, biphobia exists in both queer and non-queer spaces, making it harder to live when the very existence of your identity is erased. As Plazas writes in response to the ubiquitous labeling of Blue is the Warmest Color as a ‘lesbian’ film:
“Perhaps… it is public judgement about bisexuality which stops Adele from saying anything. This raises another important point: How does a bisexual come out of a ‘Narnia’ sized closet? It isn’t enough to declare who you are; you must then justify your own existence to the world. Adele [sic] chooses not to explain herself but in the process remains an outsider to both gay and straight cultures.” (Plazas IndieWire)
What is telling to me is this article’s own discomfort with terminology to describe queer culture. How can we discuss bi-erasure in the LGBTQ community when all but the L and G have been erased from this particular narrative, and many like it? To my mind, Le Bleu est une couleur chaude is an example of problematic representation in media that reflects the larger-scale issue of bisexual people struggling to find spaces that validate or accept their identities. This is precisely why biphobia and bi-erasure need to be called out when and where we see them. It is only through discussion of the issue and increasing bi-visibility that progress can be continued in fighting bi-erasure and biphobia.
HRC Staff. “New Report from the UK Highlights Biphobia Within and Outside of the LGBT Community.” Human Rights Campaign. The Human Rights Campaign, 29 May 2015, http://www.hrc.org/blog/new-report-from-the-uk-highlights-biphobia-within-and-outside-of-the-lgbt-c.
Kate. “Blue is the Warmest Color: The Male Gaze Reigns Supreme.” Audostraddle. 6 Nov. 2013, The Excitant Group LLC, http://www.autostraddle.com/blue-is-the-warmest-color-the-male-gaze-reigns-supreme-203158/.
Kechiche, Abdellatif. La Vie d’Adèle. – Chapitre 1 Et 2. New York, Criterion Collection, 2014. Film.
Maroh, Julie. Le Bleu est une couleur chaude. Glenat, 2013.
-“Le Bleu d’Adèle.” Cœurs-forêts: le site de Julie Maroh, WordPress, 23 May 2013, http://www.juliemaroh.com/2013/05/.
Plazas, Paulina. “/vent: ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ is Not a Lesbian Film.” IndieWire, Penske Business Media, 2 May 2014, http://www.indiewire.com/2014/05/vent-blue-is-the-warmest-color-is-not-a-lesbian-film-214292/.
Rauch, Joseph. “Why So Many Bisexuals Are Victimized: People attracted to both genders report staggering rates of abuse and violence.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers LLC, 25 Oct. 2016, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-truth-about-exercise-addiction/201610/why-so-many-bisexuals-are-victimized.
 It is important to note here that Julie Maroh identifies as lesbian, not bisexual, and the text’s erasure of bisexuality must be read with this in mind.