Picking a title to introduce Nicole Kristal was probably the most challenging part of this interview. Screenwriter, sure—her short film, Do You Have a Cat?, has been screened at LGBT festivals internationally. (You can rent it for $2 at BuskFilms.com, and I suggest you do exactly that.) Author, yes—her (hilarious) book, The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe, cowritten with Mike Szymanski, won a Lambda Literary Award. Songstress, check—her rock-folk CD manages to be warm yet biting, melancholy yet upbeat. Blogger, mais oui—you may have come across her piece "Watching a Friend Die on Facebook," which went viral last year, from her grief blog. And as it happens, her skills extend to my arena too: She edited the first piece I ever wrote about beauty, published in our college magazine. But it’s her expertise in one of her work’s recurring themes—bisexuality—that made me want to interview her here. We talked about what hair length has to do with sexuality, navigating the line between showing interest in women and objectifying them, and why bisexuals are terrible dressers. In her own words:
You can't pass someone on the street, look at their clothes and say, "That person's bi.” You can do that sometimes with a gay man or a butch lesbian, though I like to avoid assuming someone's sexuality based on fashion and mannerisms—there are too many exceptions.In the 1920s didn’t men wear a red necktie or something like that to signal that they were gay? It would be great if bisexuals had something like that. But say bisexuals had a uniform and they could just walk around and people would know—that still might not help that much because I wouldn’t know what type of bisexual you were. You might be a disjunctive bisexual woman who sleeps with women but doesn’t fall in love with them. There’s just this extra element of sleuthing for bisexuals to figure out if what you have with someone is viable, and in what way.
But there seems to be a standard uniform for female bisexuals in the media: prominent boots—usually leather—tight skirts, also usually leather, and low-cut, revealing tops. Whether it's Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Haunting or Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife, they’re effeminate, sexually aggressive and often narcissistic or mysterious—keeping their hearts at a distance and never falling in love. And this seductivity and emotional distance comes across in their clothes. But in real life, we don't wear this uniform.
Many of us struggle to reconcile the male and female energies inside us, and it comes out in a sort of mish-mash androgynous look that is not quite effeminate and not quite masculine, which is why I joke that bisexuals can be terrible dressers. This probably doesn’t apply to bisexual women with a preference for men—their style tends to be more characteristically straight—but the bisexuals like me who lean more toward the queer side can sometimes resist fashion trends, to their detriment.
For my film, we had an incredibly hard time casting the lead character. None of the actresses seemed bisexual to me—not their style or their manner.We didn't want to fulfill the stereotype but we didn't want to ignore it entirely either. We finally just chose the best actress we could find as the lead and hoped we could style her into a believable bisexual. On her date with a man, we went more girly in a black top with a simple silver necklace; we chose a gold hoodie for when she meets a potential female love interest for the first time. We threw in a black and red checkered scarf for her second encounter with the woman—an item that can read straight or gay. I think some bisexuals do that in real-life—we dress more masculine when attending gay events or going on dates with women, and we femme it up when we go out with our straight friends and guys. Whatever we did worked because people left the film thinking the actress, Samantha Sloyan, was bisexual when in fact she's straight. Then again, most of that can probably be attributed to the fact that Sam’s an amazing actress rather than to her clothes.
On the Male Gaze
I feel like I have to wear just as much makeup going to a lesbian bar than I would going out on a date with a guy. In fact, I might get away with less makeup with the guy, because I’m usually so sure that a guy wants to have sex. I don’t have to work too hard. But with women you can say one wrong thing and they lose interest.
I really think women can look at your shoes and lose interest. I’m serious! I remember reading in Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him about a study that there are really only a handful of reasons a guy wouldn’t go on a second date with a woman, but there are hundreds of reasons why a woman wouldn’t go on a second date with a guy. That pickiness applies to women dating women too, so that factors into my appearance: I don’t want the way I look to be one of the reasons a woman wouldn’t want to go out with me. So yeah, when I go to a lesbian club I’ll wear my high-heel black leather boots or whatever.
I don’t think I cater to the male gaze. I almost rebel against doing that, because I don’t think it’s necessary. When you’re bisexual, it can be easier to have a detachment from straight men without doing it as a game. I’ve seen straight women play that game with guys, acting disinterested so he’ll be more interested—bisexual women might be more genuine about that. It’s like, “Yeah, we had sex, that was fun,” and then we’ll go hang out with our lesbian friends, if you’re the kind of bisexual woman who is more on the queer side. It changes the whole paradigm. I can be like, “I’m wearing makeup today, I might not be wearing makeup tomorrow. Deal with it.” You’re not asking permission.
The thing with the queer community here in L.A. is that you have to choose a look. You have to be like, I’m butch, or I’m soft butch but am masculine-identified or whatever. And then if you’re femme you really rock the femme look and wear heels or some other sort of really girly shit. I wasn’t really enough of either of those—I wasn’t great at being super-effeminate, and I wasn’t amazing at being a tomboy or butch, so I sort of fell through the cracks. Until I figured that out I wasn’t really having much success meeting women. I remember a bisexual friend telling me that she wasn’t getting women when her hair was long. So she cut off her hair, and it started happening. She said, “If you want to get pussy, cut your hair off.” Because then you don’t just get all the gay women who are comfortable dating someone who looks gay, you also get straight women wanting to experiment, because they want to choose someone who’s “really” gay to do that with. But then, women I know who have gone for the androgynous look have a fuck of a time dating guys, getting guys to not see them as lesbians.
I’m dating this woman who’s got short hair and looks kind of butch, so for the first time I’m sort of like, “Okay, we look gay, and I have to deal with this.” I took her to the same restaurant where I’d been on dates with men and everyone was looking at us—she eventually took her glasses off because she got tired of people looking at her to figure out if she was a girl or a boy. It’s funny, actually: I’d dated this same woman before, years ago, and she had long hair then. And I don’t know if I would have dated her then if she’d had short hair. I was less comfortable with being queer, so I didn’t want to go out in public and be like, “Hi, we’re the gay couple.” I wanted people to think we were best friends. Now I don’t really care. And in a way I like that her hair is short now—she looks so different than she did with long hair. It was the woman with long hair who broke my heart, so it’s almost like she’s someone else now.
On The City of Angels
I think each region has their own thing as far as a queer look. The scene is very effeminate here in L.A.; there are very few women with short hair. There’s such a pressure to be femme that sometimes you’ll even have these butch women who have long hair but are otherwise so masculine. Honestly, I think what happened is that The L Word came out and it influenced the scene. There was this impact of, This is how you should be as a queer woman. Being a lesbian was seen as this hot thing where two effeminate women are together and everyone wants to fuck them. It kind of left butch women in the lurch. I mean, it’s Hollywood, you can be gay, but there’s this pressure to appear fuckable to men even if you’re a lesbian. And if you’re bisexual, you’re supposed to be double fuckable. You’re supposed to be this hypersexualized persona. At the same time, people in San Francisco, where things aren’t as shallow, aren’t necessarily groomed to the level of L.A. people, so L.A. can kind of ruin you for that. Like, pluck those hairs in your ears or whatever! Get your eyebrows done. I found myself getting kind of turned off by stuff like that in a shallow way after I’d lived here for a while.
These two butch women from San Francisco went with me to a gay night at a club here, and there was this game where you’d throw these sandbags trying to knock over Barbies. If you knocked over a certain number of Barbies you’d win a shot. And these two women were like, “This shit would notfly in San Francisco—literally knocking over women? It’s so offensive.” And then they were like, “Let’s do it!” They were excited that they could do this silly game and not be persecuted for it like they would be in San Francisco. Down here in L.A. people aren’t as offended by stuff that actually is offensive, as far as the objectification of women, because there’s such a high premium on being fuckable. I mean,
I’m coming from the ’90s so I’m politically aware of objectification—and it can be hard for me, looking at other women sexually. I’m aware of how it feels to be objectified so I don’t want to do that, but I want to show that I’m still interested in women sexually. But when there’s this group behavior around objectification it’s like that becomes what’s expected.
On Women’s Bodies
My sister always gives me shit for this, but I always end up with big-breasted women. It’s not intentional! I just think there’s something when you have smaller boobs like I do, you like to date women with the opposite of what you have. I’m not really interested in women with the same body type as me—I’m disinterested in skinny women, so I always end up dating women that are kind of voluptuous. They hold you in their arms and they’re soft, and I just prefer that to some skinny chick like me. But my body tends to make that kind of woman insecure. They say stuff like, “Oh, I’m going to start going to the gym more.” I’m like, “Why? I don’t give a shit about that, just be healthy.” I like the way women put on weight. There are some shallow lesbians who would never date a fat woman, and they’re missing out, because there’s so much more to do. There’s so much more to explore.
I watched this friend of mine pick up woman after woman, and I was jealous because I couldn’t. I finally said, “How do you get so many women?” She was like, “I just figure out what they’re most insecure about, and I tell them I love that the most.” I feel like that’s dishonest—but this woman I’m dating now, she’s like, “I’m going to lose some weight,” and I’ve started doing that a little, telling her how much I love her body. And yeah, I think her body’s amazing, but when I tell her, “Your body is amazing, I think about it all the time,” that’s a bullshit line. Sometimes that’s what girls need to hear to feel comfortable, so I finally started saying these things to build a comfort level. I do love her body, I’m not lying, but do I sit around thinking about it every second? No. But it was funny because I said that to her—“I think about your body all the time”—and she goes, “Even when you’re pooping?” We cracked up. I mean, the main thing we have in common is our sense of humor. But that was her kind of calling bullshit on my line too.