KATHY: Hey, Tobes.
TOBIN: Yes, Kath?
KATHY: We’ve been working on this show for, what, two years now?
KATHY: Honestly, it has been the best job of my life.
TOBIN: It’s been so meaningful.
KATHY: And, like, y’know, we all need, like, space to grow … and, y’know, gotta reach the next milestone in our lives, and, it’s important, y’know?
TOBIN: Totally, totally. Mhm.
KATHY: So, I need to tell the audience, our listeners — our dear listeners, that [LONG PAUSE] as of a month ago … I got a dog.
TOBIN [EXCITEDLY]: You got a dog! [KATHY LAUGHS]
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Pew! Pew! Pew! Dog! [KATHY LAUGHS]
VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, you’re listening to “Nancy.”
VOX 2: With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS, WHISTLE]
KATHY: Tobin, you know who’s really great?
TOBIN: Who, Kathy?
KATHY: Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan.
TOBIN: Yes, Desiree!
KATHY: She’s behind movies like Appropriate Behavior and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
[QUIET REPETITIVE MUSIC FADES IN]
TOBIN: She also wrote and produced Hulu’s “The Bisexual,” which is a show about a lesbian in her early 30s who breaks up with her long-time girlfriend and moves in with platonic roommate Gabe —
KATHY: Some might call him a hopelessly straight man.
TOBIN: — Yes. And, while all these changes are starting to happen for Desiree’s character, Leila, she starts to realize that she’s attracted women and men. Which, y’know, gets complicated.
KATHY: Roll that clip!
[CLIP] THE BISEXUAL
LEILA: When I hear bisexual I think “lame slut.” It’s tacky, it’s gauche. It makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance, like you have no criteria for people. It’s just an open door policy… It’s not a nice thing to be, it’s not a cool thing to be, and it makes my fucking skin crawl.
KATHY: The word “bisexual.”
DESIREE: [LAUGHS] Uh, yikes. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
KATHY: You've compared it to being called a bed-wetter. [KATHY AND DESIREE LAUGH] Why — why is the word sort of just distasteful to you?
DESIREE: Uhh … just for what it stood for. I mean, it's been synonymous with, like, Anne Heche and Tila Tequila is our only spokesmodels. [TOBIN AND KATHY HUM IN UNDERSTANDING] So, nobody wants that label.
KATHY: Is it something that you use for yourself?
DESIREE: I do use the term bisexual. I think it's important for me to reclaim it in some way.
TOBIN: Was there a moment for you that that label started feeling right or that you chose to take on…?
DESIREE: There was never a moment where I felt straight or gay. I always knew I was in between and that was the word I had.
I have fallen in love and been romantic with both men and women and I'm pretty straight down the middle. I mean, I've had more relationships with women than men but ... I mean, to me, gender is not the deciding outlier for romantic or sexual attraction.
KATHY: So then with with your show “The Bisexual,” and with how you feel about the word “bisexual,” was this, like, a way for you to reclaim the word for you?
DESIREE: For sure! I mean, I think what motivates a project is something you can't — that gets under your skin, and it was during press for Appropriate Behavior, which is my first film that I decided I wanted to make a TV show about a bisexual character. And during that time I was constantly being introduced as a bisexual filmmaker.
DESIREE: So it was a — it was a label that I was reading of myself all the time and felt really uncomfortable to see myself publicly identified as, even though it was 100% true, and I wanted to get underneath the surface of, like, “Where is that discomfort living? Where is it coming from?” And I think that would make for a really good comedy.
[CLIP] THE BISEXUAL
LEILA: So I thought sex with a man would be a complete departure from sex as I knew it, but it’s actually [PAUSE] very similar. Sex is sex. There are differences though. Like his B.O — he’s got good B.O! It reminds me of my dad’s, only it’s sexy. I’m sorry — am I making you uncomfortable?
GREG: No, no. It’s fine.
LEILA: Yeah, no, but he’s your friend! And it’s inappropriate to talk about it. Can I just say one thing and then I promise I’ll shut up?
LEILA: Do you know what’s really annoying?
LEILA: Semen. With women there’s no cleanup, but with guys you’re like, “I’ve gotta find a fucking home for this shit.”
GREG: Uhh, this — this is maybe something you should be sharing with a female friend.
LEILA [QUIETLY]: You’re the only who knows.
TOBIN: In your career as a filmmaker, as someone who makes TV shows, you explore a lot of themes around sexuality and romance. Um, was there a movie or a piece of media for you that sort of informed your understanding or your early ideas of sex and romance?
DESIREE: I believe “Saved by the Bell” was a big one [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH], “Family Matters,” “The Brady Bunch” — it was [DESIREE AND KATHY LAUGH] archaic and heteronormative. It was mine.
DESIREE: I learned everything I knew about sex and love and relationships and what it was to be American. And my parents are immigrants from Iran, so I watched television constantly. And they both worked, so I had like a good five-hour chunk of time every day to fill —
KATHY: Oh my god, same.
DESIREE: — and avoid work with television.
TOBIN: Yup, yup.
DESIREE: So that's what I did. I watched a lot of television, and it raised me in a lot of ways. I learned about sex — we didn't talk about those things at home.
DESIREE: So, I piece-mealed together this idea of what romance was and what a relationship was from the movies and from television.
And then when I was old enough for — and by the way, not even old, I was a late bloomer — so once I was well into my twenties [CHUCKLES] and fell in love for the first time, I realized that I had been lied to.
TOBIN: In what way?
DESIREE: [PAUSE] I definitely thought that if you fell in love with someone and you were, you know, pure of heart, like, not an asshole, and they loved you for — genuinely and were pure of heart, then you would be together forever … ?
TOBIN: It's very Disney.
KATHY: Yeah, yeah.
DESIREE: Yeah, it was very this idea of, like, “happily ever after.” I definitely thought with sex, too — didn't realize the communication and the ebbs and flows of sex. I just thought, “Yeah,” you know, “You just have that, like, simultaneous orgasm and it's done!” [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH]
KATHY: Yeah, forever, too!
KATHY: Just, every day for the rest of your life.
DESIREE: Exactly. Uhh … There’s just, there's the messiness of life that film and television didn't reflect growing up.
KATHY: Do you think that when you were coming out to your parents about being bi, was that understood? Did they understand what you were talking about?
DESIREE: No. [LAUGHS] No. I remember, it was like if you could choose, why would you choose to be gay? Like, if you have the choice — if there's men and women on the plate —
KATHY: Oh my god. That’s so similar to mine.
DESIREE: — why would you make that choice?
TOBIN: That sounds familiar, Kathy! [LAUGHS]
DESIREE: And I understand theoretically — I really get the mentality.
DESIREE: Where it's like, “You're going to choose the harder life. [TOBIN LAUGHS] What kind of an idiot chooses being to be a second-class citizen?” That's the mentality. And I think it logically makes sense. But it's also not imagining a world where you can be the change you want to see.
KATHY: Huh, yeah.
DESIREE: And that is the world I want to live in. Where I am the change I want to see around me.
KATHY: Yeah, my mom just clung onto the hope. [LAUGHS] She was like, “Well, it could be this, so maybe choose that.”
DESIREE: Cross your fingers. She started introducing you to some really great guys.
KATHY: She really likes the idea of, if you can just hide it, then you should.
DESIREE: Oh, yeah. My mother's yearbook quote is [ALMOST LAUGHING], “One should live life like a duck — calm and serene on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath.”
TOBIN: Oh my god.
TOBIN: Umm, if that isn’t, like, a little capsule of the immigrant experience right there — that quote! Oh my god!
DESIREE: Isn't it?
KATHY: I love it. [ALL LAUGH]
DESIREE: Yeah, that’s — that's immigrant life.
KATHY: Oh, man. Okay. [PAUSE] So, within your family — like, in my family, I feel like my role is I'm the one that has to fix things. [LAUGHS] What do you think your role is in your — in your family?
DESIREE: I have to be [PAUSE] brutally honest and face the fact that I am the princess [KATHY LAUGHS, TOBINS HUMS IN AGREEMENT] and that I get my way. Or I'm the rock-and-roll badass [KATHY LAUGHS], like, I think I was the rule-breaker. My brother did everything by the book. He got really good grades. He's a surgeon. Umm, he did everything my parents told him to and he — he's a really good son. I got tattoos. I remember when I got my first tattoo my brother said [IMITATING A DEEPER, SERIOUS VOICE], “That’s, like, basically a ‘Fuck you!’ to the whole family, Desiree.” [ALL LAUGH] I was like, “Really?” He was so upset. My brother was really disappointed in me. And then, umm, you know, I came out. And when I came out my brother was like, “Why did you have to tell Mom and Dad? [LAUGHS] Like, you could have just, like, had your private life be private.” There are certain things you don't do. [KATHY AND DESIREE LAUGH] Just read the script and follow accordingly! [TOBIN LAUGHS] But he's super supportive and, like, you know, everyone's come full circle, but he's always been really good and I've always been — in my, like, y’know, people-pleaser, immigrant daughter way — the rebel. So it, like, it really is a sign of, like, where we come from that I am the rebel. [LAUGHS] Like, late-into-life virgin who is completely, like … also went to grad school [ALL LAUGH] and spends all her time working and planning for a future where she lives with her parents [KATHY CRACKS UP] and she can, like, afford a second home where they can stay, you know? I'm the rebel. [TOBIN CHUCKLES] But, yeah, within the context of this Iranian family, I'm the asshole and the fuck-up.
KATHY: Tobin, what role did you play?
TOBIN: I'm also the youngest [DESIREE HUMS IN AGREEMENT] in my family. Um, oh gosh. Am I the princess? Maybe I am.
KATHY: I think you may be.
TOBIN: I'm probably the princess. I think if you have to ask the question, you probably are. [ALL LAUGH]
DESIREE: Yes. I know! It's true. If you're not the fixer, you're a princess.
[BOUNCY MIDROLL MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: Coming up, we talk to Desiree about how her family is her creative inspiration.
TOBIN: And why queefing is the ultimate queer plot point.
VOX: “Nancy” will be back in a minute.
[BOUNCY POST-MIDROLL MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: So, when you think about family now, like, you — seems like your family's close, and as a queer person you probably have, like, a chosen family as well. Like, what is your perception of family?
DESIREE: When I think of family I think of love. And, like, where do you get your love? And as much — as much conflict you can have, and a difference of lifestyle, [PAUSE] umm, that I have with my family, I get so much unconditional love and I feel like having come out really taught me the definition of unconditional love. Like, when you do something that you specifically know hurts the people around you, and they love you anyway. That you take actions they don't necessarily agree with, where you grow together and you know their love through hate. [LAUGHING] Like, where they're like, “You're pissing me off, I do not like you, but I love you.” That is something I feel from my family.
TOBIN: So, uh, in “The Bisexual,” there's this character, Gabe and he describes himself as an ally. And yet there's also certain aspects —
DESIREE: I don't think he's smart enough to know the word “ally,” by the way. [ALL LAUGH]
TOBIN: — or just, like, somebody who's cool, you know, you know? Yeah, he likes to say, like, he's down, but there's also things about your character that make him uncomfortable.
DESIREE: Oh, for sure. Armpit hair. That was entire — entirely based on my brother. Yeah.
TOBIN: Right. So you've said before, like, that Gabe is sort of a proxy —
TOBIN: — a little bit for your relationship with your brother. And I'm curious, like, in what ways? So, there's the armpit hair.
DESIREE: Oh god. My brother was so funny. He was so much more upset about that hair than my nudity. [TOBIN LAUGHS]
He was like [MOCKINGLY], “Fine, you have to be naked for your stupid artistic reasons, I’ll accept that, but why the armpit hair? That was disgusting!” [ALL LAUGH] And I was like, “I literally did that to upset you,” because I knew It was something that would horrify him. I don't even — I mean, I find it very attractive when women do have armpit hair.
I don’t [have armpit hair]. I find it irritating. But I grew it out just to bother my brother.
KATHY: Wow, that is a long game. [ALL LAUGH]
DESIREE: I know.
TOBIN: That is a long troll!
DESIREE: It's a long troll. Well, I thought it was — it led to a sequence or, like, scenes, y’know, where it was like, “What would really alienate him and what would be something that wouldn't fly in the straight world?” And armpit hair was one of those things. [BEAT] What was your question? Like, what other things would my brother — what did my brother inspire?
Well, I think the discomfort in queer spaces. But, like, that, juxtaposed to the genuine desire to be a good friend. Like, we're incredibly close, but we also are quite hard on each other and, umm, droll and that — that’s what it was, that kind of intimacy you share with somebody who is uncomfortable with intimacy.
KATHY: How does it how does he like the show? How does he like “The Bisexual”?
DESIREE: I think he really likes it. Despite the armpit hair! [ALL LAUGH] I think he would say, if I lost the armpit hair, he thinks it would be perfect. I think of the things I've made, the show probably speaks to him really well. And he has said that he finds Gabe to be an incredibly agreeable character. [ALL LAUGH A LOT]
He called me up and he was like, “That Gabe! So funny! I really see where he's coming from.”
KATHY: And you're like, “I designed it that way!”
DESIREE: It's funny because on the internet everyone is like, “Who is this straight guy? He sucks. I hate Gabe.” [KATHY AND TOBIN LAUGH] And my brother calls me up and he's like, “You know, who's the real star of the show is this Gabe character!”
TOBIN: More of that Gabe!
TOBIN: Spinoff. [ALL CHUCKLE]
DESIREE: But I will say, Gabe was also inspired by a few other men in my life, and in my writing partner's life. My brother definitely does not sleep with younger women or have like the same Achilles heel for a pretty girl. [TOBIN HUMS IN AGREEMENT] There's another man in our life who does.
DESIREE: We thought that, like, exploring a woman trying to find her pleasure, sexually, alongside a straight man who's trying to — who’s kind of trapped by the framework of modern masculinity was interesting to us. That I think he's a victim of what he thinks he’s supposed to be attracted to, and what he thinks he's supposed to be as a man.
TOBIN: Yeah, what you're describing, it makes me think of the scene where there are sort of like side-by-side sex scenes —
DESIREE: Yeah. [CHUCKLES]
TOBIN: — where what happens to him —
DESIREE: The queefing sequence!
TOBIN: — the queefing sequence, exactly! [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH]
DESIREE: Can we name it for what it is right now? Because I'm so proud that I brought queefing to the screen, and I wish there was more dialogue about that. [LAUGHS, TOBIN LAUGHS TOO]
TOBIN: Well, and it's interesting because you have it happen where, the straight guy with his partner, a queef happens [KATHY AND DESIREE LAUGH] and it immediately kills the mood. Like, they don't know how to deal with it. But with the queer couple, it happens and there's a lightness —
DESIREE: Yeah, yeah.
TOBIN: — and there's an ability to, y’know, sort of roll with the punches and be like, “Bodies happen.” Was there a conversation around that, of, like, we're sort of also trying to make a point about queer people and sex and intimacy —
DESIREE: Yeah, definitely.
TOBIN: — and maybe, like, what we're allowed to explore?
DESIREE: Well, I think that's, as you guys know, the beauty of queerness and making up the rules as you go. I love the, uh, build-your-own-adventure style [KATHY LAUGHS] of gay sex and I think we all know that really intimately and that's a decidedly queer experience.
TOBIN: Mmm. Mhm.
DESIREE: Or, I mean, I think the kink community has this as well, which I find really fascinating. But I do think that there's a one-size-fits-all style to some straight sex — and specifically, the kind of straight sex that Gabe would have — and that was interesting to me to juxtapose in the show. What is the lifestyle that he's having with the woman versus, uh, what the queer character is doing?
TOBIN: [LAUGHS LIGHTLY] Do you feel this is — I'm going to preface it by saying this is a little bit of a basic question — but do you feel limited by being a queer person, making queer stories, in terms of, like, what opportunities you get and people backing your work?
DESIREE: Uh, yes and no.
DESIREE: I feel like, I don't exclusively plan to tell queer stories. I have happened to tell them because when you find something original and fresh and urgent, lately, it's been queer.
DESIREE: I don't think that's going to be that way forever for me. So, in some ways, no, because I'm like, “These are the coolest stories that are choose-your-own-adventure, and go anywhere, and I'm excited by telling untold stories!” And on the other, I think what I'm limited by is the way, uhh … that the public consumes these stories. I think people want comfort.
DESIREE: People want mac and cheese. And that's okay, but that's where the mainstream is right now. And I think when you tell stories that challenge that, I think when you try to change the narrative — be it queer, be it whatever — then people get uncomfortable and don't want to learn a new narrative. And I think those Hallmark Christmas films are probably also, like, the best-selling products right now in terms of the movie industry.
KATHY: I would love to watch a Hallmark movie starring a bisexual person. Two bisexual people interacting with each other!
DESIREE: There’s a male and a female suitor.
TOBIN [AFFIRMINGLY]: Ugh!
KATHY: Oh my god!
DESIREE: I mean, I can't imagine a bisexual mainstream film, just because I think bisexual characters are painted as [PAUSE] untrustworthy in so many other narratives, and … We're starting to wrap our brain around what it is to be gay. And then it's like, “Oh, it's just like me, but opposite!” But I think it'd be really hard for people to … I mean, they will eventually, but it requires people publicly being bisexual and destigmatizing it in the mainstream.
[UPBEAT, ENERGETIC MUSIC STARTS]
TOBIN: That’s bisexual filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, leading by example.
[CREDITS MUSIC STARTS]
KATHY: All right. Credits.
TOBIN: Producer —
KATHY: Zakiya Gibbons.
TOBIN: Production fellow —
KATHY: Temi Fagbenle.
TOBIN: Editor —
KATHY: Stephanie Joyce.
TOBIN: Sound designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom.
TOBIN: Executive producer —
KATHY: Paula Szuchman.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu!
TOBIN: And “Nancy” is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: Say these three words — rise up lights.
DESIREE: Rise up lights.
TOBIN: You just said razor blades with an Australian accent.
DESIREE: Rise up lights. Oh my god! [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH]