I rage about bisexuality (not) on Mistresses

As part of my greater campaign to watch all televisual material that involves  girls kissing, I watched all of the U.K. television show Mistresses’ plot involving, well, girls kissing.

Like, seriously, I just watched those parts on YouTube. See also Glee for shows that I’ve only watched the girl-kissing parts of. I realize this might lend my attempts at “nuanced television criticism” an air dubious authenticity, but it is what it is.

Then I watched the U.S. remake of Mistresses on ABC this summer — or, um, I watched all the parts that involved girl kissing.


“Jess” in the UK versus “Joss” in the US. Image via TV Republik

And there are some differences between the two plots that have me really steamin’ mad. After reading about it on After Ellen, I got inspired to ramble here.

First, the U.K. show. This involves Jessica, or Jess. She’s a commitment-phobic party-planner. She’s having a no-strings affair with her male boss. Well, no strings attached except that he’s married, about which Jess is totally untroubled.

When a lesbian couple hires her to help plan their wedding, Jess finds herself attracted to one of the pair, Alex. And, duh, because it’s Anna Torv, who went on to star as Olivia Dunham on Fringe, and she is transcendentally beautiful in a very transcendental kind of way.


Fringe - Anna Torv

(I watched Mistresses after watching Fringe and for anyone who’s ever thought that Agent Dunham seemed a little lesbionic in her suit or had the occasional daydream about her making out with Astrid…it was quite awesome!)

Then I watched the U.S. version of Mistresses, and I was initially very charmed by the U.S. version of Jess called “Joss” and the U.S. version of Alex, called “Alex.”  But the way the plot worked out really cheesed me off.

First, I’ll briefly recap each


Brief, ha!


In the U.K. version, Jess starts out laissez-faire to an almost extreme degree. She’s happy to sleep with a married dude, and happy to pursue an almost-married girl. She treats pursuing Alex as a challenge and experiment, both to get someone who is committed elsewhere and also to get a girl. She’s not exactly super-sympathetic in that regard, but then the show is called Mistresses after all.

Alex does sleep with Jess, eventually, and even offers at this point to call off the wedding. But Jess is still all into her “I don’t care about no one” thing and refuses. She blows off the whole thing as not being as good as sleeping with a dude, and says she’ll be fine about going to the wedding — even that it’ll be exciting to be the mistress at the wedding.

But something happens. Jess doesn’t have a great time at the wedding. She gets upset and drinks too much and even breaks it off with her married boss.

She tries to forget Alex by hooking up with another girl and even having a threesome with the girl and her married boss.

But she doesn’t really enjoy herself, and she wonders why. Having sex with Alex made her feel something weird. And it wasn’t about having sex with girls, because having sex with other girls doesn’t make her feel better — neither does having sex with men (or both). One of her friends points out that…well, maybe it isn’t men versus women…maybe it’s because she’s actually in love with Alex? So having more sex with men or women isn’t necessarily going to fill that void.

Jess realizes this is true, and pursues Alex. Despite initial reluctance, they start an affair. But this time round, Jess isn’t satisfied by her role as “mistress.”




In a nice touch, she stays friends with the married boss…he even shows up in Alex’s place when Alex can’t make a date. It’s like both Jess and the married boss get to see an affair from another point of view, and how much it can suck.

Jess ultimately concludes that she doesn’t want to be a “mistress.” It’s too hard to be a secret and not have Alex’s full time. So she breaks it off with Alex. In series two, she has an open marriage with a dude (though she ends up having trouble with its open nature). She stays dating dudes the rest of the series as far as I am aware.

I liked many things about this plotline. I don’t think it was perfect, but I liked it. For one, I appreciated that it Jess didn’t necessarily hand wring or agonize too much about whether she was or wasn’t gay/liked girls. That ended up not really being the important part. It was about having a connection with a particular person. She generally-speaking preferred men but happened to fall in love with a woman. And even though she finally fell in love and opened up, it didn’t work out.

So…the show seemed to be saying that you never really know who you fall in love with. And that falling in love doesn’t necessarily = happily ever after. For instance, the sweet movie Imagine Me and You is also about a girl who falls in love with another girl, despite having previously been (and generally) interested in men in another “it’s about the person” storyline. But there, everything works about perfectly and happily-ever-after just because they are in love. Which is fine — it’s a nice, sweet romantic comedy. But it was refreshing to see a storyline where just because you develop feelings isn’t this guarantee that the other person will give up everything for you and it will all work out. Girls can break your heart, too!

I also enjoyed that Jess, although she learned some lessons about, you know, “having feelings” and “respecting relationships,” didn’t necessarily want to jump into a monogamous relationship — hence the open relationship of the next season (even though it didn’t work out — at least it was an option for someone who didn’t want a traditional commitment).

The U.S. version works a little differently.

Joss has a boss, but he’s not married. And they are not sleeping together — she’s think he’s a douche.

Which obviously means they are going to sleep together at some point.

Like the original, Joss meets a lesbian couple through work: real estate, in this case. Except instead of seducing one of the couple, Joss instead befriends one of them, Alex. She ends up not liking the way that Alex’s girlfriend treats her, and says as much, ultimately leading to their breakup.

So here Joss is a lot more sympathetic as a figure. She isn’t a seducer who is just fine with sleeping with married people on the sly. So far, so good; it does make her more relatable.  Though it does sanitize her character quite a bit… And was probably a warning that the storyline ends up being a lot more black-and-white-there-are-no-shades-of-grey.

Joss and Alex get close after the breakup; the now-ex-girlfriend even implies that there is something going on. And, indeed, Alex makes a move, and Joss is quite receptive to it, though they don’t start dating.

Still, they keep spending a lot of time together; we see Joss blow off sex with men to be there for Alex. She even “joke” hits on and kisses Alex, which Alex doesn’t appreciate. Finally, when Alex is feeling bummed out about the break-up, we see Joss make a move this time, and they have sex again.


jossalex-300x168Joss obviously hates kissing Alex. Image via tvfilmnews.

We never see Joss freak out about having sex with a girl, not for a second. The only trouble shown is that Joss is avowedly anti-relationship. It’s just not what she wants. And Alex is a long-term relationship kind of a gal. While acknowledging what happened between them was “important,” Joss doesn’t want to date.

But Alex can’t keep on being friends with someone and hoping it’ll turn into more. She has some serious feelings. So she breaks off the friendship. Joss is devastated by this, and asks for a chance for them to date. “Maybe I’ll be the best girlfriend ever!” she hopes, even though it seems unlikely.

Of course, Oliver Le Douche rears his French head (he’s French) and makes a move on Joss, and she sleeps with him. Alex is understandably upset and Joss reacts with puzzlement — it seems like she wanted some kind of open relationship, but never said so. Not a good move. Joss begs for Alex’s forgiveness, but Alex won’t give it. She breaks it off and Joss is devastated.

She sleeps with Oliver again, only to learn he is leaving for France. She gets furious with him, not because she was hoping for more, but — kind of bizarrely — because she feels like he ruined her relationship with Alex by hitting on her. She can’t believe “he” screwed things up for her with Alex and then is buggering off. Reasonably, he points out that she was the one in the relationship, not him. It seems like she’s really projecting her self-loathing at messing up things with Alex onto him.

Feeling sad, Joss goes to drown her sorrows in tequila shots. She ends up hooking up with a guy who won’t take “no” for answer, putting her in a scary situation. She is rescued from this by her handsome, Australian former brother-in-law, Harry.

Harry takes her home to recover, and the next morning asks her what was troubling her to the point where she needed to drink her body weight in tequila. And then comes the conversation that really cheeses me off. Joss says she’s bummed out because Alex broke up with her.


Joss: We all knew I wasn’t going to make a relationship work.

Harry: Well, not with a woman. Because you’re not a lesbian.

Joss: Shouldn’t matter.

Harry (smiling smugly): But it does.

Joss: I’m supposed to be this sexually liberated free spirit…what if I’m just a self-destructive mess?

Harry: [Says a lot of crap about trying things and making mistakes in your twenties]…The great thing about you is that you’ll try anything. The problem is you don’t know when to stop.



Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, hold the phone. Let’s break down the ways this bothered me:

Who’s afraid of the big bad “B” word? Or Q word, for that matter?

Why does no one use the word “bisexual” or, if you prefer, “queer”? You know, there’s this thing where you can be attracted to men AND women! Yes, being attracted to men means you’re “not a lesbian”. But it doesn’t mean that you’re straight, either. It doesn’t INVALIDATE your attraction to women.

Nothing in the storyline so far has supported this interpretation.

It WOULD be a perfect valid storyline to have a woman try to make a relationship with a lesbian friend she really liked work, only to decide that’s she not really queer and that the sexual/romantic part just isn’t there. People have that experience. But nothing shown in the storyline supports that.

From the start, Joss has always articulated her problems dating Alex as commitment-related. And she didn’t want a relationship prior to Alex. It wasn’t suddenly, “Oh, ick, I can’t have a relationship with a woman.” She had commitment issues in general, already.

They could have shown the sex as being unsuccessful, or shown Joss reluctant to have sex with Alex. That’s done in Kissing Jessica Stein, a really great movie about two women who find a connection as people and try dating. During this, one of them discovers she really does like women romantically and sexually. But it’s not quite so simple for the protagonist, Jessica. We see her avoiding sex with her partner and treating her more like a best friend, to the point where her girlfriend calls her on it and they amicably break up.

But in Mistresses, we just see the sex as “fun sexy times!” We see Joss go out on a limb to be with Alex, even though they want different things. We see her crushed by the break-up. None of that suggests that Joss just isn’t “really” queer. It suggests she really liked Alex, but didn’t want commitment. And, yes, she wanted to have sex with men. Which isn’t mutually exclusive with wanting to be with a woman.

But after all that, a dude sweeps in, literally rescues Joss from her self-destructive behavior and tells her, despite her protests, what her orientation is and how she feels about it. Despite Joss telling him that she was upset about the relationship and commitment issues, he’s just like “shaw, you could never make it with a woman ’cause you ain’t gay.”



And apparently, she “doesn’t know when to stop,” thus equating Joss’s drinking issues with her trying to date a woman. Trying something and taking it “too far”, doncha know! Dating a girl is like taking too many tequila shots! Seems like a good idea at first, but then you’re puking and she wants a commitment!

I wouldn’t necessarily be bugged by this if it wasn’t coming near the end of the season, suggesting that this will be a “close” to the storyline. The show has framed it so that this is going to be, or close to, our “last word” on the situation. Plus, it’s hinted that Joss and Harry might develop a thing, so we’ve also got her potential future love interest telling “Eh, it didn’t work cause you’re not gay,” implying that this will a close to the “lesbian” storyline forevermore.

It feels as if the show actually created an interesting situation between two characters but now is sweeping it under the rug as Joss “not being a lesbian.” Oh! Problem solved then! Phew! Moving on! I guess cause she’s not a lesbian, she couldn’t have feelings for a woman or be hurt that it didn’t work because they wanted different things! She must have been imagining all of that!

It’s like rather than treating the two characters as…well, characters who broke up over commitment issues (like any other kind of characters), the show is just wrapping it up with a “not a lesbian” bow so that Joss being queer not ever need to come into play again.

I hate the implication that things didn’t work because Joss couldn’t “really” love a woman.

Joss bemoans the fact that she couldn’t make a relationship work due to wanting to bone other people, and Harry offers the explanation that obviously it wouldn’t work with a woman. The implication is the Joss wanted to sleep with other people because she wasn’t “really” happy with Alex. So…that implies, one day she’s going to find the “right man” and she’s not going to want to sleep with anyone else or have self-destructive impulses to screw it up.

Oh, right! Love is magical. Find the right person and you’ll never want to sleep with anyone else ever again! You’ll never do anything stupid or selfish or screw up your relationship!

Hey, are you in a relationship? Have you wanted to sleep with other people? Check the sex and gender of the person you’re with. It’s probably because you couldn’t “really” love someone with those parts and gender expression! Are you with a man? Did you ever want to sleep with any one else? Ooops, you probably “don’t really like” men! That’s the problem! It’s not the case that some people still want to sleep with others while in a relationship! That’s doesn’t happen when you’re in love with someone with the right parts!

My take-away from U.K. version was: you never know who you’re going to fall in love with, and sometimes one particular person trumps your general preferences. But, even if you fall in love, it might not work out. Sometimes you’re the heartbreaker and sometimes you unexpectedly get your heart broken. Also, married people–both straight and queer–want to sleep with other people.  Sometimes, it’s a terrible, awful idea, and sometimes it works out okay. Sometimes you can have consequence-free sex where you end up good friends, but a lot of the time sex has major emotional consequences. Thinking you’re always going to be able to escape those consequences because you try not to get too involved is naive.

That’s a reasonable world view that I can get behind. The characters depicted are often flawed or make short-sighted or selfish decisions, but they have understandable motivations. Some characters are 100% straight or 100% gay, and some are somewhere in the middle. It’s acknowedged that commitment is hard, and attraction is complicated. People have different kinds of relationships. Sometimes you think you want one thing, but it turns out you want something else.

Fair enough!

The U.S. version (according to this latest episode): If you’re a commitment-phobe or want to sleep with multiple people, it’s because you haven’t found “the person” that you want to work it out with. If you “really” loved that person, you’d never have an urge to cheat. You can only be gay or straight. If you have the urge to sleep with both, your argument is invalid — you’re not “really gay.” If you don’t want to commit to the first woman you ever sleep with, you can’t be queer. If you don’t want to get married and never sleep with men again, you might as well just not try, ever. That’s just self-destructive!

What you really need is a handsome Australian man to rescue you and tell you that you’re capable of traditional relationships, just only with men!




Maybe the show will go in another direction, or wrap up the Alex and Joss storyline in a different way, or do stuff with the Joss character that makes me less full of rage. But I’m probably not going to stick around to find out.

Ironically, in terms of this post, Anna Torv is slated to star in a new drama by Glee’s Ryan Murphy as a lesbian in an open relationship. Obviously, I will watch that.

Mistresses (U.S.) image via ABC. New episodes can be viewed on Hulu. Mistresses U.K. aired on BBC One.