Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997) follows the lives of Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee), who are lifelong friends and comic book artists. They meet fellow comic book artist Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), who Holden becomes infatuated with, but there’s just one problem: she’s a lesbian. Or is she? It’s best to say that Alyssa is a bisexual woman who identifies as a lesbian because it makes things easier for a number of reasons—one of which is biphobia. Alyssa is also one of the most important characters in the film, but her character is explored through the eyes of its male protagonists. In portraying Holden and Banky’s fragile masculinity, especially when it comes to female sexuality, Smith was able to make some thought-provoking insights through an unlikely focus for a male filmmaker, especially in the late 90s.
Smith, however, seems to have stumbled upon Chasing Amy’s unique look into bisexuality by accident, as the story was inspired by a mixture of things, none of which pertain to this: creating gay content for his gay older brother; his then relationship with Adams; and his producing partner Scott Mosier’s crush on Guinevere Turner—a lesbian writer and actress who had a cameo in Chasing Amy. The threesome met at Sundance in 1994 during the premieres of Smith’s Clerks and Turner’s Go Fish (which she co-wrote and starred in). Mosier developed a huge crush on her and would make crude jokes like “I’ve got an asshole, it’s kind of like a pussy” once he found out about her sexuality. On Chasing Amy, Turner said “I thought it was funny outside of the lesbian content. I loved the friendship between the two guys. […] That kind of bromance hadn’t really been invented yet.” But she also warned Smith that “lesbians are gonna haaate this movie. This is a woman who’s been a lesbian her whole life, and stops being a lesbian to be with a man. They’re going to crucify it.” There are plenty who did, but as lesbians are not a monolith, there were also plenty who didn’t. Turner said “I was so wrong! A lot of lesbians I know really loved the movie. I remember being embarrassed, like I didn’t know my own community.”
Chasing Amy is socially problematic if you view Alyssa as a lesbian only. From this perspective, the film suggests that Alyssa can be cured of her lesbianism if she ditches Mrs. Wrong and sleeps with Mr. Right. However, it’s totally different when you realise that Alyssa is a bisexual woman who expereinces both les- and biphobia throughout the film. Holden and Banky question the validity of lesbianism entirely, asking how sex works and saying that virginity is only lost through penetration. All the while, Alyssa challenges their beliefs and calls them “naive and infantile” for believing in one set standard. When she tells her lesbian friends that she’s seeing Holden, they’re judgemental and say things like “another one bites the dust.” Moreover, Holden and Banky have no problem with how many women Alyssa has sex with, but when they find out she slept with a lot of guys back in high school—including participating in a threesome—it creates conflict. Banky even asks Holden, “What if she’s carrying a disease?” This highlights how they see heterosexual relationships as more serious than lesbian relationships, which Alyssa calls Holden out on: “Do you mean to tell me that while you have zero problem with me sleeping with half of the women in New York City, you have some sort of half-arsed objection to pubescent antics that took place almost ten years ago?”
After this, Holden says that he wants them to be a “normal couple,” but he doesn’t think they can be. Are bisexuals really that undateable? This isn’t a problem with the writing as Smith is actually—even if unintentionally—highlighting both sides of the coin in his exploration of Holden’s male fragility. What’s good about this depiction is that he doesn’t make Holden, the protagonist, out to be right—instead he shows how ridiculous his opinions are when it comes to tackling lesbianism and bisexuality. The film is littered with characters using derogatory words, too, which were popular back in the 90s. There’s an instance where Holden calls a Black man a “faggot,” which the guy himself accepts because he has his own internalised problems with the LGBT community, alongside racial issues. Smith provides quite a complex portrayal of people within his cast of characters who are all coming to terms with how LGBT people are viewed and treated.
Silent Bob (portrayed by Smith across his cinematic universe) finally breaks his silence to tell the audience, and Holden, that Holden is being a dick. Bob recalls the time he messed up a relationship with a girl called Amy because he found out she had a threesome before they even met. He said he called her a slut and ended it, which he now believes was a mistake. He explains that he wasn’t disgusted with her, but was afraid because he felt small and inexperienced in comparison. He realised that she wasn’t interested in things like that anymore, and was happy with him, but he ruined it with his own fragile masculinity. Holden is having the same experience in that he can’t deal with Alyssa’s past because it makes him feel inadequate. He’s never had a threesome before and men usually feel pressured to be more sexually experienced than women—he is threatened by her sexuality. Plus, he’s realised that he’s no longer the only man who Alyssa has had sex with, like he previously thought.
Alas, Holden doesn’t learn much from Bob’s insightful speech as he goes on to suggest a threesome between Alyssa and Banky (who we learn is gay and has feelings for Holden), as it would solve all of their problems: he would be as experienced as Alyssa and Banky would get his share. Obviously it’s a stupid solution and so they decline. Alyssa wants a relationship: “I’m not your fucking whore” she tells him, which is something that bisexual women can relate to—as though sex is the only thing we’re worth because of our sexual history and/or preference. There are certainly homoerotic undertones between men in Smith’s previous films, such as Clerks, but Chasing Amy takes it a step further in making a character like Banky gay. Concerning the tine the film was made, Smith said “A lot of dudes were very much like, ‘Ew, gay dudes!’—shit like that—and I had the benefit of being brighter than that.”
Lots of bisexual people aren’t attracted to both sexes equally—we’re just attracted to people and sometimes we have a preference. Alyssa said she experimented with men when she was at school, but she’s mostly attracted to women. She called herself a lesbian because that’s what made most sense to her at the time, and she knows that “lesbian” means something to people. Lesbian is a strong word, but she also really did believe herself to be one. Thankfully, it’s not implied that he “cured” her lesbianism because she does explain her choices: “I remember why I opened the door to women in the first place—to not limit the likelihood of finding that one person who’d complement me so completely.” Alyssa is satisfied that there was nowhere she didn’t look to find her soulmate. She was ultimately open to everyone, which is what bisexuality is, and she didn’t renounce her attraction to women.
Some could argue that Smith’s delve into the male psyche is actually just a self-indulgent bro movie that doesn’t really serve any purpose—but it’s actually so much more than that. Chasing Amy is a reflection of the time the film was made, but was simultaneously ahead of its time. It highlights how women like Alsysa can feel more comfortable identifying as a lesbain, especially to avoid biphobic comments, but ultimately accept that her sexuality is fluid. It also explores how men need to work on their own feelings of inadequcacy when it comes to dating bisexual women (or just sexually confident women in general). Chasing Amy isn’t devoid of issues when it comes to representation, but it’s a really profound film when you break it down.
by Toni Stanger