This month marks the 20th anniversary of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, a classic in the lesbian-falls-for-a-straight-guy oeuvre. The film garnered both praise and scorn when it was released, and continues to be polarizing today.
I was an incredibly sheltered seventh grader in rural Pennsylvania when Chasing Amy debuted in 1997. I was just starting to feel certain confused, fluttering feelings toward both my male and female classmates. But figuring out my own queerness was still more than a decade beyond my reach.
My born-again Christian parents barred me from seeing the film in theaters (and I was too young, anyway) but I vividly remember hearing people talk about it: It was one of the first times I’d ever heard “lesbian” said aloud. I had never met anyone gay (that I knew of), and hearing that word felt both thrilling and terrifying.
Women who loved other women actually existed! But then… what if I was one of them?
A few years later, when I secretly rented Chasing Amy (on VHS—from my local Blockbuster Video) I was a rebellious but still deeply-closeted bi teen. The movie was as confusing for me as it was revolutionary.
I had never seen a queer woman in a film before. Or on a TV show, or in real life, for that matter. So Joey Lauren Adams’ Alyssa was literally a revelation. She was beautiful and badass and she loved other women without shame. She had a bunch of friends who were not only chic New Yorkers, but also out lesbians. And there was out-and-proud Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), Holden’s douchey friend Banky (Jason Lee), who was clearly in love with him, and even Jay and Silent Bob as a kind of old gay married couple.
In many ways, Chasing Amy made being queer seem like a world of possibility, instead of a life sentence of social rejection and loneliness. Over the next few years, I watched Chasing Amy again and again, just to hang onto that feeling. There weren’t a lot of other mainstream movies with queer characters that delivered that.
Many (mostly straight) critics at the time praised the film for bringing that level of queer visibility to a major Hollywood movie.
“As Chasing Amy redefines the boy-meets-girl formula for a culture where anything goes, including perhaps another boy or girl, it thrives on Smith’s dry, deadpan direction,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times.
In a lot of ways, as Smith recently told BuzzFeed, “when you look at [Chasing Amy] now—to borrow a term from the present—it was very woke for 1997.”
But some LGBT people were justifiably outraged by the film: The whole “Oh, I’m not really a lesbian, I’m just one of those confused bisexuals” trope was just as stale 20 years ago as it is today.
And although the queer visibility in Chasing Amy was a lifeline for me, as a budding feminist, I was also uneasy for for reasons I couldn’t yet articulate. To the extent that my attention was obsessively turned toward Alyssa, I was painfully aware that the film wasn’t actually about her at all—something clearly laid out by the title. It was about Holden (Ben Affleck): His desires, his insecurities, his sexual and romantic pursuits, and his personal growth. Alyssa was just there to be the mirror that held and reflected Holden’s gaze, conflicts and evolution.
Yet, even as Holden angered me, I could also see what attracted Alyssa to him. I was attracted to him too, despite all of his plainly rendered flaws. It made the whole sexist dynamic feel inevitable. And that saddened me.
Ultimately, I yearned for a version of Chasing Amy told from Alyssa’s perspective—Being Amy, or maybe even, Escaping Holden.
Beyond its sexist implications, Chasing Amy also introduced me to biphobia.
The word “bisexual” is never said in the film, though Alyssa explains her love for Holden as the idea that gender shouldn’t “limit the likelihood of finding that one person who’d complement me so completely.” That line turned on a lightbulb for me.
But any epiphany I might have had about myself was quickly subsumed as the lesbians and straight men in the film battled to make Alyssa “pick a side.” When Alyssa reluctantly confesses to her lesbian friends that she’s fallen for a man, they turn “angry dyke” (another tired movie trope) and act like she’s dead to them. One alleged pal actually says, “Another one bites the dust.”
Alyssa desperately clings to her lesbian identity throughout the movie, swearing that she’s not straight but never once declaring she might be bi. (There were plenty of bisexuals around in 1997, so it’s not like Smith didn’t know any better.)
More ugly stereotypes get churned up in one pivotal scene, when Holden learns he isn’t the first man Alyssa’s slept with. That revelation, of course, sparks raging jealousy and accusations of promiscuity.
To the extent that being “allowed” to love women hadn’t occurred to me, it also hadn’t occurred to me that doing so might mean never being allowed to love men. But movies like Chasing Amy made me internalize the message that, regardless of what I felt, I’d have to choose a side or risk alienating both the super-cool, sexy lesbians and the hot, almost-woke Ben Afflecks I hoped to one day have in my own life.
Ultimately, that warning turned out to have a lot of merit: Since coming out, I’ve experienced almost as much biphobia from the queer community as much as I have from the straight world. Chasing Amy failed to present a shining example of bisexual visibility, but it did touch on the complexity of human sexuality, and on the challenges bisexuals faced at the time—and continue to face today. And for a closeted, confused bisexual girl living in the middle of nowhere, it was a beacon pointing the way toward a world of queer possibility.
For that alone, it always hold a special place in my heart. Even if I can’t bring myself to watch it all the way through anymore.