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Buzz About Kristen Stewart's Sexuality Tells Us a Lot About Society's Discomfort with Bisexuality

02/02/2015 03:04 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Invasive photos of Kristen Stewart canoodling on a beach with visual effects producer Alicia Cargile recently surfaced in the tabloids, just as Stewart announced she's quitting Hollywood over privacy issues. The images have left media outlets perplexed as they struggle with how to describe images of a woman--a woman who had a public relationship with a man--with another woman. Fans, on the other hand, have taken to Twitter to assert an emboldened lack of confusion: According to many, Stewart is now, undoubtedly, a lesbian. In usual form, nearly all the responses, from the media and public alike, ignore the possibility that anyone could be bisexual (or queer). And nearly all the responses attempt to either confidently or subtly assert an identity upon an actress who has never provided any public defining label about her sexuality.

Tabloid efforts have been awkward at best, with headlines like "Kristen Stewart and Her Gal Pal Show Sweet PDA in Hawaii" and "Kristen Stewart and Live-In Gal Pal Seal Relationship With Matching Tattoos." Jezebel writer Madeleine Davies describes the clunky journalism as an attempt "to call Kristen Stewart a lesbian without outright calling her a lesbian."

But the issue here isn't about the media's inability to name lesbianism--they're happy to talk about unambiguously gay women with unambiguous descriptors all the time. While a fear of being sued for libel is likely discouraging some publications from using any sexual identity labels in their writing, there's something else going on, too: The media is unable to acknowledge any form of sexuality that falls outside the neat boxes of straight, lesbian, and gay. This is a phenomenon often described as "bisexual invisibility," one that might as well extend to "queer invisibility."

In addition, and more importantly, media and fans are refusing to grant Stewart the right to define her own sexuality. The debate over the Stewart/Cargile photos illuminates bisexual/queer invisibility, and it also reminds us how problematically entitled we all think we are to know with whom famous people are loving and bedding.

The tabloid coverage of and public response to the photos reflects our culture's stubborn adherence to fixed and stable identities; Stewart dated a man, therefore she must be straight, and now she's been seen with a woman, the media doesn't know what to do and her fans conclude that she must have turned lesbian. Any other identities--including identities that she might claim for herself--are irrelevant. The Frisky's Shannon Keating writes, "We have absolutely no idea [if Stewart has 'switched teams'], and we won't until whenever and if ever Stewart decides to pull an Ellen Page and let us know about her interest in dating ladies for herself. Even then, she may not be coming out as a lesbian at all, because queerness is an extraordinarily vibrant, beautiful mess of diverse experiences which cannot always be relegated into the easily-ingestible binaries of straight and gay."

But mainstream media (and society more generally) is the business of "easily-ingestible binaries." Even The New York Times published an article last year that questioned whether bisexuality even existed. So it's not surprising that we almost never hear the words "bisexual" or "queer" uttered in mainstream press (or mass public reception) when describing orientation.

Instead, we see tweets like this:

We all knew Kristen Stewart was a lesbian since Panic Room
-- Brooke (@WheaBrooklynAt) January 14, 2015

And it's why pop culture bloggers Tom & Lorenzo recently proclaimed Stewart's "soft butch chic" style as being "lesbian Jackie O." In fact, most of the buzz since the photos were released have been described as "lesbian rumors."

When society is confronted with an identity that intentionally challenges us by refusing to adhere to frameworks we understand, we don't know what to do with it. Instead, we either try to make it into something we are familiar with or sweep it back into the closet. Writer and lecturer Meg Barker notes, "People often assume that bisexuality is rare because few people they know are out as bisexual, but statistics suggest that bisexuality is more common than being lesbian or gay. It is just that people are far less comfortable being out about it due to the stigma they face if they are (often from straight and gay/lesbian people). So there is a vicious cycle of invisibility."

Shiri Eisner, author of Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, thinks that there is something more complicated happening with popular perceptions of bisexuality. Eisner suggests that although the word bisexual is still often left out, the media is eager to discuss (at least the idea of) bisexuality after the queer/bisexual/lesbian relationship(s) is over. Eisner uses an article from The Sun about Gillian Anderson's announced bisexuality to explain a common trend: "[the article] reassures us that she couldn't really be bisexual by writing that she 'started experimenting with girls after moving to the United States from London as a teenager,' and that 'despite [her] enjoying many lesbian flings they were 'the exception, not the rule.''"

If actresses talk about dating women in the past, it seems the media knows how to make sense of it. Bisexuality/queerness becomes a "phase" that has an endpoint--think Angelina and Lindsay. We can see evidence of this in Larry King's utter bewilderment when actress Anna Paquin says that she is still bisexual, despite being currently married to a cisgender man. After asking, "But you were bisexual?," Paquin responds, "Well, I don't think it's a past-tense thing...Are you still straight if you are with somebody--if you were to break up with them or if they were to die, it doesn't prevent your sexuality from existing. It doesn't really work like that."

With Stewart, her past is easier to make sense of than her alleged lady-loving present, and so we are left with cringe-worthy "gal pal" or likely inaccurate "lesbian," both of which are speculative.

But although this recent uproar becomes an interesting case study for bisexual and queer invisibility, this isn't the real issue. Rather, these labels are insufficient for a more important reason--they aren't coming from Stewart herself. When media and their audiences attempt to label celebrities' identities like this, they are denying individuals the important right to self-determination, and to privacy. In an interview with Truthout, transgender writer and activist Janet Mock states, "[Self-determination] is the only way in which we will all be free; we must all have the freedom to define and declare who we are and we must fight for that freedom on behalf and with others."

The real reason we don't know the status of Stewart's relationship or how she describes her sexual identity is because she hasn't told us. Her silence is not particularly surprising, considering that the media attention Stewart receives is often filled with slut-shaming and name-calling. Stewart, for example, routinely faces sexist commentary about her supposedly cold facial expression from critics who think that she should smile whenever she's out in public. Understandably, when Stewart was asked at a press conference for Still Alice what she thinks of media coverage of her dating life, she "avoided addressing the claims directly, saying: 'There's a whole other form of entertainment that's just voraciously consumed in itself.'"

I don't have a horse in the race when it comes to Stewart's sexuality; she's not my type. But I do have an investment in the right for all people to define their own identities--even if it will never fit into 140 characters.