When she was 9 years old, Desiree Akhavan, dressed up in a mini-backpack and short skirt to do her "best impression of a normal teenage girl." It was all part of an audition to join an elementary school role-playing game modeled after the popular movie Clueless. Soon after the performance, classmates from the New York City elite private school she attended with her older brother sent her a form rejection letter that read simply, "Unfortunately, we will not be able to admit you into the Clueless recess game." Uncomfortable memories like these inspired some of the most cringeworthy moments in Akhavan's debut feature-length film Appropriate Behavior, which she wrote, directed, and stars in. There is a scene that is both funny and eyes-closed embarrassing where her character, Shirin, attempts to get back into her ex-girlfriend's food co-op by seducing the female shift manager. Both writer and character share the same philosophy on making bold moves: "You really have to own it. Whatever you do." So, when she decided to write a movie about how the bisexual youngest child of Iranian immigrants deals with the dissolution of her half-secret relationship, her main goal was to do just that: Own it.
It was important for Akhavan to create a character who could show the litany of transgressions one makes against oneself and others in the process of being human. Shirin is both depressed over splitting up with Maxine [Rebecca Henderson], her sardonic ex, and emboldened to explore how far she can take this self-destructive thing. She manages to be in both places at once, falling in and out of bisexual stereotypes (threesomes, indecisiveness, etc.), and yet never seems put upon. This is, of course, a credit to Akhavan, who identifies as bisexual, as a writer and director, who said this wasn't strategic. "I never think, How complex is this person going to be? Maybe moving forward, if I get to continue this work, I should be thinking that way, but not with this project. We knew what her struggle was and how we wanted to depict her falling down the rabbit hole of it."
It was also never Akhavan's intention to avoid stereotypes, and she doesn't shy away from them. In one scene, in the midst of an argument, Maxine coldly tells Shirin, "I know you and the more I think about this, it was probably just a phase. What a waste." Later, after the couple breaks up, both women end up at the same bar with new love interests; Shirin is with a man, and Maxine is with another woman. Even though both attempt to use their dates to make the other jealous, in the wake of Maxine's acidic comment, Shirin being with a man seems especially satisfying for Maxine. For Shirin, her new lover is just another bad decision in a string of the ones she's made in the midst of heartbreak. Still, for Akhavan it was important that we see the character struggle with that moment. "In life you make choices, and you follow your instincts, and it's you, but it's not you. You have this almost out-of-body experience knowing I am making all the wrong choices in this moment, and yet, I feel compelled to do so. It's absurd to to look at that and think, there are so few depictions of bisexuals, so I don't want to make her look bad."
Another moment that plays with bisexual stereotypes comes when Shirin is invited into a threesome. You can't tell whether or not she thinks it's a bad idea, and despite some awkward moments and stunted conversation, it starts off well enough. Then, there is a silent but obviously uncomfortable shift in the dynamic between all three lovers. During the writing and editing process, at least one of Akhavan's collaborators consistently thought the scene should be cut. Akhavan refused. "There are lots of moments in the film where I think, I should have done this or that, or maybe that wasn't necessary, but when I see that sequence, it's just exactly what I wanted it to be. It's a clear picture of where this character is in real life. It's the perfect combination of comedy and drama." Even though the scene can get uncomfortable, it is a huge turning point for the character and the film. Shirin emerges determined to have a different kind of control over her sex life. From now on, she wants to do it like a "grown woman." Akhavan said, "That's the thing about sex. It can be the funniest thing in the world, and slightly tragic, and totally hot."
It took two years for Appropriate Behavior to make it the screen, from the first day of writing to the Sundance Film Festival premiere, Akhavan is looking forward to new writing and directing experiences. She said she believes the winds of the film industry are changing for women, but only because of other women. "It's happening because people are doing it on their own and showing the major players why these stories matter," said Akhavan who is also starring in the fourth season of HBO comedy Girls. "Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, the ladies of Broad City, they are all really funny."
The optimism Akhavan expressed and the enthusiasm inspired by the increase of racial and gender diversity amid the Golden Globe winners this year was swiftly followed by the disappointment of the continued unbearable male whiteness of the Academy Awards nominees, particularly in the directors and screenwriters categories. But while the film industry falls further behind, television is increasingly become a medium in which women — as writers, directors, showrunners, and actors — are seeing a breakthrough. "The indie movie industry is really small and there are very few avenues to make a living doing this. You have to supplement it in different ways or go he very narrow Hollywood route. I want to make television and film," says Akhavan. "That's the direction I'm headed in."
As her film opens this week, Akhavan is already well on her way to reaching the next steps she's set out for herself. She has an not-yet-named half-hour television show about a lesbian-identified woman in her thirties who comes out as bisexual and starts dating men for the first time in her life. "It's strange the way people react to bisexuality and I'm really fascinated by exploring that territory. Making a show like this is my dream. I'm trying to make it happen."
And she remains optimistic about her prospects. By Akhavan's observation, film and television will change because Hollywood executives will get smarter about the potential gains of supporting diverse voices. "Distributors are going to have to take chances on us. There's been a shift toward funny women in a weird great area between comedy and drama, and female-driven projects are getting attention critically. I'm interested to see how it goes financially and who in Hollywood will be smart enough to put their money behind these stories."