Look Both Ways
“Looking both ways,” one might say, is a nice philosophy for a well-rounded life. In Jennifer Baumgardner’s frustrating new book, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, it’s more than that; it's a relentless metaphor for a sexual orientation that the author swears can liberate each of us and go on to save the world. From the outset, she smartly links her subject to what feminists like to call “the political.”
Baumgardner clearly wants her books to be read and applied to real life; she wants to translate misunderstood subjects into a cool girl vernacular. Tackling activism and feminism in general (Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism (2005) and Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000), both co-written with Amy Richards), her efforts can be admired even when the results are less than satisfying. Like those two earlier books, Look Both Ways is carried along by a not always comfortable mix of basic explanation and breezy in-jokes.
The author had her first relationship with a woman when she was in her early twenties, and has been involved with both men and women since then. Through her experiences navigating the particular comforts and insanities of both genders, Baumgardner has come to see bisexuality as the holy grail of sexual freedom. Now she wants to let the rest of us in on the secret. She argues that bisexuality can help us understand ourselves and our desires more fully. It can help us see the power structure that dictates so much about our sex lives, and show how we’re complicit in it. It can help us develop more meaningful, honest relationships. Any takers?
“A blossoming ideology… was forming in my brain in which bisexuality was the practice of feminism,” Baumgardner writes early in the book. “I could take what I learned from what I felt was my more liberated relationship with Anastasia and apply it to relations with men. Presto! Instant egalitarianism.” Presto, indeed. I’m all for complicating gender and sexuality, but Baumgardner’s attempt to do so is oddly reductive. While she generally rejects the labels that get slapped on peoples’ sexuality, she’s eager to apply her preferred “bisexual” stamp to anyone she can.
More than once, Baumgardner triumphantly lists women who fit her definition of having looked both ways, from her own friends and casual acquaintances to Hollywood actresses. She outs Jodie Foster, twice. She devotes several pages to the enigma that is Anne Heche. And, seemingly oblivious to the stereotype she’s embracing, she makes Ani DiFranco the reigning goddess of her book. “No one,” she writes, “has the ability to sum up feminist bisexuality in the way Ani DiFranco does, both as a feminist and in her private life.” Separate chapters explore how bisexuality has played out differently in the second and third waves of feminism. A later chapter examines tensions between lesbian and bi women around the “legitimacy” of bisexuality and the relative degree of privilege that comes along with it.
It wouldn’t make any sense for Baumgardner to write about such a personal subject without addressing her own experiences. But at some point the whole “personal is political” thing starts to seem like an excuse. Two thirds of the way through the book, describing losing her virginity, Baumgardner writes, “I remember worrying for a second that I was having anal sex, the pressure in that area was so intense... (Giving birth to [her son] Skuli fourteen years later elicited a similar sensation. My father, a doctor, pointed out to me that when something that large is in your vagina, it puts quite a bit of pressure on your rectum.)” When I read this, I winced. And not because I’m squeamish: it was out of embarrassment for the author. To be fair, much of Baumgardner’s pretty great activist work centers around this wholly personal approach to politics: she’s the one behind those “I Had an Abortion” t-shirts and the related documentary film. And if dropping the occasional reference about giving birth will keep her from writing a full-on motherhood book, okay. In that case it looks like restraint.
Baumgardner has some important things to say about sexual politics, but they’re often mired in the kind of stereotype you would expect her to stay far, far away from. She argues that many women born after the second wave bring “gay expectations” to their heterosexual relationships -- namely, equality and good communication -- and that queer people should bring “straight expectations” to their relationships, too -- privileges like not being afraid to show affection in public. At the same time, she relies on clichés about men’s emotional immaturity and inability to clean a toilet to explain why she looks to women for satisfaction. “I remember very clearly the day I knew, just knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I would never live with the father of my child,” she writes.
I was staying at his Brooklyn apartment for a week because a friend had relatives in town who were staying at my place. After a few days of calmly living among the ruins, I snapped… He walked in as I was trying to free the assorted bottle caps that had already jammed the vacuum… and demanded to know what I was doing. I froze, caught in the act. As I put away the vacuum, my socks crunched over a fine scattering of debris. “As God is my witness,” I hissed to myself, “I will not stand in cat litter again!”
She shrugs, “I argue that living with men is often a constant battle to keep the litter box contained.” So… she sleeps with women because men don’t take out the garbage? Self-indulgent tirades against messy or moody ex-boyfriends don’t help make her case. Especially when she describes her relationships with women with such breathless amazement.
The bigger problem is this: using personal experience to fuel your politics is all fine and well, until you decide that those experiences contain lessons about what’s best for everyone else. This isn’t about enlightening your friends with a revelation about relationships or sex or your insight into the male psyche. It’s about taking your experiences so seriously that they become a kind of religion. From her memory of making out with her first girlfriend in a crowded bar, to her shock at seeing the penis of her first male partner in several years, Baumgardner’s conclusions all grow out of the things she knows most intimately. This makes things awfully simple.
Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics by Jennifer Baumgardner
Farrar, Straus & Giroux