Bi wife energy is subverting straight relationships

Heteropessimism is dead, let me tell you why: Because they love their wife and their wife is bi.

by Jenna Mahale
20 April 2021, 7:00am

Heterosexuality is a prison, amirite ladies? Men are the worst and they ruin everything, yes? Well, maybe not all of them, according to a new TikTok meme. Whether you’re straight or otherwise, it’s likely that ‘bi wife energy’ has crossed your FYP at least once. That is, if you didn’t catch it on Soundcloud first. Told from the perspective of a straight man, the minute-long ditty is the tale of a guy who, mistaken for a queer person for whatever reason, just really loves his wife, who just so happens to be bi.

Now at over 44 million views, the #biwifeenergy tag is full of content about people’s relationships – both real and fictional (I regret to inform you that both Simon, the blue hoodie-wearing chipmunk from Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Johnny -- Andy Samberg’s character from Hotel Transylvania -- have received bi wife energy tributes). 

For the most part, though, the trend seems to have gained significant traction with queer women on the platform, who seemingly use the track to express their appreciation for one special “hetero guy” trying to be a “good ally” in their lives. The song, created by TikTok user @cringelizard, is reportedly part of “a bit” according to their bio, as they are not, in fact, “a hetero guy”, but instead identify as a queer transmasc. While the meme has attracted a few negative responses from TikTok users, in general, the platform seems to have embraced bi wife energy wholeheartedly.

The videos are obviously playful, unserious notes of appreciation for people’s boyfriends, but they feel like something of a milestone for one reason in particular, namely, heteropessimism. The term was coined in a 2019 New Inquiry essay by the writer Asa Seresin to refer to the phenomenon of those in straight relationships performatively complaining about the tyranny of their own heterosexuality. “That these disaffiliations are ‘performative’ does not mean that they are insincere,” wrote Asa, “but rather that they are rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality.” 

I mean, tell me you’ve never heard a straight woman wish her own sexuality away in favour of hypothetical lesbianism, or simply define herself as “tragically heterosexual”. Let us not forget, either, the inexplicable popularity of this image on women’s T-shirts in the 00s.

In the queer community, heteropessimism often takes the shape of disavowals from bisexual people, who lament their continual attraction to men even though they have the “option” of choosing to be in a relationship with a woman. But this tired trope ignores the reality that, while men are statistically more likely to be the perpetrators of domestic abuse, women are equally capable of being abusive and cruel in their relationships -- no one’s gender can ever dictate what sort of romantic partner they will be. And this is beside the fact that binary gender is, frankly, a scam

Both people and relationships are becoming increasingly queer, making rote statements about what’s perceived to be “cis-het” sound more and more like identity policing. “Some ‘straight’ relationships -- even ones where both partners are cis and heterosexual -- can be pretty queer,” Asa says in an email. “At the same time, I don't agree that just being a queer person automatically makes all your relationships queer.” For Asa, and for many who claim the label, “queerness is not an essential identity, it is a kind of attachment, practice, and orientation to the world.” 

In this sense, the bi wife energy trend can be read as a rejection of heteropessimism, as well as a recognition of queer emotional labour (sorry). Specifically, the idea that queer people are likely to teach their partners new things about themselves, the people around them, and their own sexuality.

A queer person in a “straight” relationship is often actively changing the dynamic of that relationship, helping their partners engage with queerness themselves as better allies or even participants. This isn’t to say that non-queer people are unable to sympathise with the LGBT+ community otherwise, or that they cannot come to these conclusions on their own, but that these reassessments do often occur as a result of the “queering” of a straight relationship. 

In a 2016 essay for the New York Times, Jenna Wortham asks ‘When Everyone Can Be ‘Queer,’ Is Anyone?’ in response to a VICE piece about young celebrities’ usage of the term. The writer warns against the “dilution” of queerness, particularly as it relates to aspects of life that can be easily commodified, such as “clothes, haircuts, piercings, even diets”. 

But it’s fallacious to act as if these things aren’t a huge part of gender presentation, which in turn is a vital aspect of queerness for many people. More than that, at a time when lots of people are beginning to push against prescribed ideas of gender, it feels counterproductive to gatekeep the use of a broad label that is supposed to refer to an “open mesh of possibilities” and almost resistant to the idea that people (yes, even straight ones) can change their minds about things. 

"Society needs to be deprogrammed, subverted, or queered, and that involves a process of unlearning and de-conditioning white supremacist, cisnormative, and heteronormative behaviour and values,” said Hollis Robin, a bisexual feminist quoted in the VICE article. It’s undeniable that a lot of this unlearning takes place as a result of community and personal relationships: it looks like the adrienne maree brown book you borrowed from a friend, a freshly added set of pronouns in your Instagram bio. So, why are we pretending otherwise? Can’t bi wife energy just be a fun way we refer to the amorphous manifestation of the work queer people do in their relationships?

However, Asa does not believe that the trend is exactly indicative of any kind of wider discursive revolution: “Queer Tiktok is a world unto itself; the trends that take place on there sometimes correspond with broader patterns in queer online/IRL communities, but often do not. [The trend] seems to be giving people a lot of joy, which is great, but I don't know if it will have much impact beyond this specific online sphere.”

They continue, “I think we're in a paradoxical moment because on the one hand, people are increasingly understanding that gender is much less stable than is commonly presumed, but at the same time, blanket negative statements about heterosexuality and men are as prevalent as ever.”  

The backlash, though from a minority, indicates that Asa may be right. In the comments of one TikTok, a user writes: “In the first half he looks homophobic sorry”. “Guys she made this”, says another trying to explain that the video’s creator is the ‘bi wife’ herself, not a straight man trying to gas himself up about participating in his own relationship with a queer partner. 

Of course, the trend does take on a very different tone when it reads as a straight person patting themselves on the back for their supposed progressiveness. Some commenters have noted the overlap between bi wife energy and the figure of the ‘softboi’, defined as “anyone who has any unique or alternative interests that make them feel superior to other people”.

Jane Ward, the author of The Tragedy of Heterosexuality and a professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California Riverside, thinks the reality is more complicated than it seems: “I think what people are doing with the song on TikTok probably can't be reduced to one phenomena. Some are satirising this dude, some are celebrating him, and some are doing both.”

For Jane, bi wife energy is “a queer feminist satire of the woke bro, or the men we used to call SNAGs -- sensitive new age guys”. She explains that these are men who “have some good politics on the outside, but still cause sexist or racist harm in their relationships and communities.”  

“What we know about this guy from the song itself is that he is hardly a radical. He lets us know that he is ‘trying’ to be a good ally, who isn't cruel, but he doesn't want us to get confused and think he is queer, so he lets us know that whenever anyone makes this mistake, he corrects them and tells them ‘no, I'm heterosexual. It's just that my wife is bi.’ So we don't have much to work with here.” 

So perhaps there is no one true meaning of bi wife energy. The bi is in the eye of the beholder, as it were. “To be honest,” Asa says, “there are probably very few relationships where both parties are 100% heterosexual -- and yet heterosexuality nonetheless exists!” 

“It's important not to ascribe sinister ulterior motives to people just because they happen to be straight and/or men. This TikTok meme seems to be about men loving their wives and respecting their queerness, which is very cute -- it doesn't have to get any deeper than that.” Too bad, this piece exists now.

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