Every single review for Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller ‘Side Effects’ has praised the film for three things: Soderbergh’s knack for building suspense, great performances by the four lead actors (Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum), and the pulse-pounding impact of the final twenty minutes that reveal a surprise twist in the plot. Every single review has also been tight-lipped about this ‘surprise’ because they don’t want to “spoil the movie” for those who haven’t seen it yet.
While I agree with the first two assessments in these reviews, I am going to reveal the surprise as a public service favor and call for action to LGBT audiences, particularly bisexuals.
The plot: A young woman’s world unravels when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.
The ‘surprise’ plot twist in the final act is that Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is bisexual. By this point in the film we have also learned that Siebert is self-serving, a corporate sellout, and a hypocrite. But she has also done something completely unethical. To get her to confess to this crime, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) seduces her. We learn that Taylor had previously seduced Siebert when she was Siebert’s client in therapy. Siebert had allowed herself to be seduced and had sex with Taylor. Well, this time, Taylor has come to seduce Siebert with a hidden recording device strapped to her waist. “Do you want to do that thing you did with your tongue the last time? Remember how good that felt?” Taylor goads Siebert. Siebert falls for it, the door opens, police walk in, handcuff her, and there she goes.
I am not saying that every LGBT character in every film should be a sympathetic character. I am objecting to four things:
The way in which ‘Side Effects’ reveals the sexuality of this character, as some sort of a shameful secret, adds to the negative stereotypes in which most LGBT characters are portrayed in films. Furthermore, Siebert is a one-dimensional character with no redeeming qualities. Showing her falling for a much younger woman – a client of hers, no less – adds to the misconception that LGBT people are pedophiles and cannot be trusted in certain professions like teaching or counseling Taylor’s seduction of Siebert is peculiar and confusing. Is Taylor bisexual – she’s married to a man (Channing Tatum) – or is she pretending to like women so that she can use Siebert for her own ignoble goals? This kind of deviousness reduces sexuality to a character weakness, a person’s Achilles’ Heel and further stereotypes bisexuals as sexually amoral people.
The film gives no reason or explanation for why the character of Siebert had to be a bisexual woman. I can imagine the studio pitch where some exec suggests changing Victor Siebert (maybe Clive Owen was considered for that part) to Victoria Siebert. “Wouldn’t it be more interesting if it was a female therapist being seduced by another woman?” One reviewer even used the word “titillating”. Our sexual orientation – one that we have reconciled with after agonizing inner turmoil and at the risk of societal rejection – is a source of titillation for Hollywood.
Most egregious is the way in which mainstream reviewers have been praising this final act of the film as masterful and refusing to “spoil it” for the audience. Is the fact that the film uses sexuality for shock value and to ante up the suspense praiseworthy? By insisting on secrecy, these reviewers seem to be endorsing the ickiness quotient of this film: another sick pervert gets what they deserve.
When I was a young activist, I remember activists with placards and leaflets to protest movie theaters screening ‘Basic Instinct’. Twenty years later, we have ‘Side Effects’, an equally, if not more, disturbing mainstream movie selling biphobia as intrigue and suspense. Are we going to remain silent? Are we going to support this movie with our queer dollars? Online social media has taken the place of placards and leaflets. Activism is much easier these days, and much more powerful. I implore you to do your part. Spread the word.