Man Neon Bisexual Lights
Trigger warning: discussing subjects of
warning: Adult content
Article by:
Michelle Olguin
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October 7, 2021
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The Rise (and fall) of bisexual lighting

Were you to open TikTok nowadays, got past the dances, went left at the frogs, and stopped just short of the berries and cream lad, you would be forgiven for assuming modern teenagers were having a one-person rave in the privacy of their bedrooms. Has an entire generation decided to live their lives in a two-toned neon atmosphere? Where do the omnipresent blue, purple and pink hues come from?

Were you to open TikTok nowadays, got past the dances, went left at the frogs, and stopped just short of the berries and cream lad, you would be forgiven for assuming modern teenagers were having a one-person rave in the privacy of their bedrooms. Has an entire generation decided to live their lives in a two toned neon atmosphere? Where do the omnipresent blue, purple and pink hues come from?

LED light strips have come to adorn the backgrounds of countless hot takes and ramblings from Gen Z. Most often settling on a pinkish blueish hue, these teens are not just making an aesthetic choice but carving their name on the annals of history. Yes, the setting on those LEDs is historical I tell you. It's inscribed in the relatively short history of bisexual lighting.

As we move on from September, the month of bi-visibility, we are putting bisexuals center stage, and examining the spotlight.

What is Bisexual lighting?

In case you have been forcibly restrained and kept from consuming any kind of media in the last few years perhaps you’ve been able to avoid this trend. In any other case you have more than likely been bathed in the admittedly very aesthetic colors of the bi flag.  Whether you are a part of the lgbt community or not is, at this point irrelevant to the experience of queer tinted lighting. Bisexual lighting has become both unavoidable, gay or straight, cis or trans, we have all seen the light. But it wasn't always that way.

In fact, not so long ago, the neon hues were examined to death as some sort of authorial intent on character orientations. They came to represent the future, bright and gender-bending, if a bit bleak, and dystopic. 

This is probably because bisexual lighting is a pretty broad concept. A simple one, at that, since it only requires any picture or video to be bathed in pink, purple and blue lighting. The specific settings are irrelevant as long as the fluorescent lighting is creating ethereal contrast. That simplicity is exactly what allowed bi lights to enter every space, from the silver screen to the dingiest of teenage basement rooms. 

Stills from Contrapoints, The neon demon, Atomic Blonde and TikTok

Bisexuality or sexual orientation is, quite honestly, an afterthought in these scenarios. They may play on the stereotype of the bisexual who is constantly hanging out under the neon lights of a night club. In that sense it may be problematic and portray a community according to some big-shot director’s best-guesses and fantasies for the sake of a film festival. But with these lights taking over everything on screen, it is hard to argue that the use of two specific wavelengths is automatically tied to the myth of bi women’s promiscuity, the absurd notion of bi men’s denial or anything quite as convoluted. 

Where does Bisexual lighting come from?

As with any internet age term, Bisexual lighting's origins are hard to trace. Memes are made, shared, and declined in a never-ending self-referential loop so often the original idea is anyone's guess. So as with any attempt at historical research of the internet, we have to head to the cesspool that became the default repository for the internet's every thought, Tumblr.

In 2014, user alabella creation made what is thought to be the very first reference to Bisexual Lighting.

Supernatural and Sherlock, the undisputed rulers of early 2010's tumblr culture

Featuring bi lighting in both Sherlock and Supernatural, it’s a wonder this trend wasn’t picked up by teenagers earlier

As with anything on Tumblr at the time, this had to do with the show Sherlock. Although the lighting in the show was barely visible and lasted a handful of seconds, users held on to the idea that this proved the characters' sexual orientation. Not that the lighting was special in that regard, literally anything could prove Sherlock and Watson's desperate longing for each other in Tumblr's eyes. But for them this specific instance where two drunk men stumbled around a multicolored bar was as good as coming out of the closet for them a black and white, or in this case pink and blue, declaration of queerness. “I could picture them kissing guuuuuys, right under the blinding lights” they said. For those who may be wondering if the lights were indeed some sort of hidden message it was not. The multicolored lights came and went, the heterosexuality and heteronormative vibe prevailed. Much to the chagrin of gay teens everywhere. 

As with anything on the internet, we eventually circle back to Sherlock and Watson

So are we saying that one scene in a show from 2014 sparked one of the biggest visual trends in recent years? Well, probably not. What it did was spark discussion and awareness that yes, you could light your scene in radically contrasting colors. When was the last time that LGBT community, the very LGBT youths that would dictate the future, got so worked up over some lights?

Now, film majors and established industry people have presumably settled in their ways. It's doubtful anyone would jump on a trend based entirely on internet discourse when a big production is on the line.

Enter YouTube.

The aesthetic of the internet

Lighting a scene is hard. Grip lights, key lights, fill lights, placement, shadows, natural sources. This production process that's been refined over decades of filmmaking is an entire career path, it requires some serious thought and an even more serious budget.

But the basic idea of lighting is pretty simple:

  1. Have your subject be visible (that's kind of the point)
  2. Have them stand out from the background (a.k.a. don't give them the mugshot look)
  3. Make them look good (this one is pretty simple but unflattering lighting can change a whole look. Think back to the flashlight under the chin making someone look spooky)

You would think there is little space in these rules for advocacy, prejudice, or any of the letters of the LGBTQIA +community. But there was space for aesthetics. 

In the 2010’s, as the internet was in the midst of developing an aesthetic it had codified its own rules. Curiosity, fluidity, and activism were all thrown in the melting pot of early vlogs. The truth is, as YouTubers gained their footing and stumbled from set-up to set-up, some figured out these basic rules and noticed that bisexual lighting fulfilled all of the requirements.

A person lit in pink and purple, over a blue background makes them the focus of the scene, they were literally color-coded as not a part of the background. And as countless people on Instagram have noticed, dark neon lighting hides a multitude of sins. Having one single color on the face evens it out, it cancels out any shadows, eye-bags, imperfections. Go test out that red and blue filter on TikTok right now and see what I mean. Finally, and probably most importantly it gives whatever you are filming a very dramatic vibe. In the age of the internet, who doesn't want a dramatic vibe?

Think of YouTuber Contrapoints and the increasing aesthetic of her videos, that's the lighting we want

In any case YouTubers, and specifically, the left leaning de-facto group of highly aesthetic and mostly queer video essayists known as left-tube became notorious for using this kind of lighting. Weather or not this had to do with their sexuality or identities was irrelevant. Bisexual lighting was the norm and gained a spot in the middle of LGBT history then and there. Think of youtuber Natalie Wynn, also known as Contrapoints caressing a skull with perfectly manicured hands. It's always lit in these high dramatic tones. No longer were the blue, pink, and purple neon hues reserved for a dodgy bar, they were a signifier of quality. The gays cheered, gay pride had won. So much so, that, as all things do, they became a stereotype.

Hollywood comes knocking

Once something becomes popular on the internet, it's only a matter of time until some big shot at a studio tries to capitalize on it. I hear Addison Rae's new movie is really good by the way. So how do you make your film look cool and edgy when competing for the 15-25 demographic with literal teenagers? Simple, you adopt their aesthetic.

There was no need to tie any of the trends that youtube had adopted, and increasingly, there is no need to invoque the same-sex tendencies associated with the lighting. 

And so, begins the era of neon-noirs. An extension of the neo-noir movies that blurred the lines between good and bad and found their themes in revenge, paranoia, and the alienation of modern society. From Atomic Blonde to Blade runner 1984, neon became the shorthand to signal some kind of bleak future. If gender-expression is explored, it is through the use of cyborgs and paired with an overwhelming class consciousness. Some edgy aesthetics in a morally corrupt world. Think steampunk for a whole new generation. The trend was so overwhelming that everyone noticed and copied it. It trickled its way into video games like cyberpunk 2077. 

Still from cyberpunk 2077, which lets your character flirt with any gender

If bisexual lighting represented anything it was the vague concept of a future that was open, if a bit tainted by corporations run amok

In the mid-2010s edginess was bringing the nightclub wherever you went, or at least bringing the soft lights that made you want to party all night. Gay, straight or Bi the lighting is no clear signal of the outcome. Much like back in 2014, it’s a mystery to be discussed, not a declaration. Black mirror's episode San Junipero, gave it a romantic touch. Janelle Monae mixed it with Afrofuturism and made it represent a much more hopeful way forward.

The Black Mirror episode San Junipero made a romance flourish from neon lit bars

Music videos aren't exempt from the trend either, be it teenage angst or the remnants of cinematic trends, this lighting is still going strong in videoclips. Rapper and BØWIE Creator Dippy who we featured a few weeks back, is a great example of this.

But ultimately, bisexual lighting came to represent illicit underworlds rather than sexualities. Affairs hidden from the world at large, a grassroots struggle against the nebulous concept of bad capitalists and let’s not forget avenging your wife and your dog in a series of increasingly difficult martial art fights. Look don’t get me wrong, John Wick is a great movie(s), but a queer classic it ain’t

Back to the bedroom

There is something to be said about the problematic nature of associating bisexuality, or at least its colors with the seedy underbelly of societies. It relies on harmful stereotypes that would push lgbtq people to the outskirts of society and definitely requires some questioning. 

On the other hand rebels and outcasts have always attracted praise, especially for teenagers, and LGBT youth, well that’s on another level. Bisexual lighting is probably a bygone trend by now. Far fewer filmmakers have used it and up and coming YouTubers seem to have gone back to experimenting with other aesthetics. It no longer screams high production value or noir futurism, it screams LED lights. That's right, we have come full circle and are back in a teenager's bedroom.

The explosion of LED lighting is one part price and one part trend

The, somewhat conceited, marketing efforts of lightbulb manufacturers for colored lighting are not new. They have been pushed into our carts for decades, presumably enticing us with the possibility of having a photo studio someday who knows. Yet, just as the trend picked up in movies, LED strips became all the rage. Sure they're pretty tacky now. Synonymous with a hastily flipped Airbnb, but they were pushed as the advent of modernity itself.

Whoever came up with the idea of convincing people to light the areas under furniture was surely given a promotion because we fell for it hard. And with that LEDs kept being more evolved, changing colors, adopting the 21st-century gimmick of linking to an app, letting you customize your life in some way, they were set to be a staple of any teenager with a will to express themselves. Of course, if you are a teenager customizing your life, you're going to look at what's out there in terms of lighting. It can't be your parent's brightly lit kitchen counters, no, you want something edgy, something different. Well, luckily every piece of media you've consumed in the past few years gave you plenty of ideas.

This lighting that reflected edgy aesthetics, rebellious culture, and at least flirted with queerness was bound to unite a generation seeking just those attributes. Whether bi or not, whether intentionally or not, LED lights have united us all in the their warmth, or their scientifically proven heat resistance, whatever. They have contributed to the formation of a community who is accepting and projects this with aesthetics and the brightest lights they can find. 

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