In Two Minds: Bisexuality and Pop Culture
Last year, during the New York Pride Week preparations, three people- Johnathan Groff, Laverne Cox, and Lea Carey- were announced as representatives. And it wasn’t until Faith Cheltenham, prominent bisexual activist, wrote an op-ed and pushed forward a petition that everyone noticed a disturbing oversight- there were no bisexual representatives selected as part of Pride 2014.
And NYC Pride isn’t the only place where bisexuals have found themselves pushed to the sidelines. Earlier this year, the Williams institute released a paper identifying around 1454824 (0.6%) members of the adult population of the USA as bisexual. Despite these numbers, the representation of bisexual people in the media remains at a depressing low.
While lesbian and gay characters have slowly but surely gained a place amongst the casts of mainstream television shows and in movies, bisexual characters remain thin on the ground. While many characters will find themselves attracted to more than one character throughout the course of their screentime, many will simply identify as gay or straight, as opposed to considering the possibility of bisexuality- take landmark LGBT character Willow Rosenburg from Buffy. Initially shown to be romantically attracted to men, she engages in an important relationship with another woman, and from then on describes herself as a lesbian- even though the admits to still finding men attractive. There’s no problem with her and her partner Tara being gay, but it seems odd that this possibility wasn’t even considered by any characters on the show.
When a prominent gay character on Glee, Blaine, considered the possibility that he might be bisexual after enjoying a kiss with a woman, he is told that “Bisexual is a lie gay guys tell in high school to hold hands with girls in the corridor so they can feel normal for a change” (I wrote a whole, massive article on the biphobia and transphobia Glee was guilty of in it’s early seasons; read it here). Sex and the City, considered a vital part of the definition of the modern sexual woman in the media, had their lead character admitting that she didn’t believe bisexuality even existed, describing it as a “layover on the way to gaytown” when she encountered a bisexual guy. Finding any kind of representation of bisexual characters is difficult enough, when even sex-positive and progressive shows continually wave it away with jokes, mistruths, and shaming.
But there are indeed bisexual characters on television. Even bisexual characters who openly call themselves bisexual. But their representation is often problematic. Cult pop culture website TV Tropes- which archives thousands of clichés in film, television, and across other mediums- does a great line in identifying the irritating number of negative platitudes often attached to bisexual characters- promiscuous, evil, manipulative, sociopathic, dishonest, or any combination of the above. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct played a serial-killing, promiscuous vixen who used sex as a way to get what she wanted, while any number of American teen soaps have female characters indulging in what TV Tropes affectionately refers to as a Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss to pull in more viewers. And bisexual men are one of the most woefully under-represented groups on television. If they exist at all, it’s often as characters totally removed from anything resembling a modern, vaguely realistic world- take Ragnar Lothbrok from Vikings, the vampire Eric Northman from True Blood, or Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones, all of whom exist in the vacumn of either fantasy or history. Some male bisexual characters do make it through, but they’re rarely too groundbreaking- Captain Jack Harkness from Torchwood (below, with loves interest Ianto Jones) is an alien who actually identifies as “omnisexual”, while Frank Underwood from House of Cards is a cruel psychopath. It seems that bisexual characters can either be lavicious fantasies or manipulative sociopaths- and those that do exist as strong, nuanced characters rarely do so in anything resembling our world.
So, we’ve established that bisexual characters don’t earn great representation in pop culture Why? There’s a term, bierasure, that puts the lack of bisexual representation in the media and beyond down to the fact that they uncomfortably straddle two groups who are often positioned at odds with each other- that is, gay people and straight people. They often find themselves placed outside both groups and treated with suspicion by both- not straight enough to be straight and not gay enough to be gay, they find themselves landed with monikers like “greedy”, “in denial”, or “lying”. That’s why it’s important for the media to reflect the truth of bisexuality-that it does not define anything other than who that particular person is attracted to.
Too often, bisexuality on TV and in film is shown as a choice, as a dalliance, as a fantasy. It’s the “safe” way to portray gay characters- writers and directors can pat themselves on the back for LGBT representation, and then land their character of choice with a member of the opposite sex and have them forget about that silly phase almost immediately. There’s an apparent reluctance to identify bisexuals as characters who exist outside of their sexuality (The L Word, which featured confidently bisexual character Alice Piezecki, had her describing bisexuality as “gross” by the end of the show),
as people who’s only separation from other characters is the fact that they’re attracted to men and women. The only thing that the label of bisexuality confirms is that the subject is, believe it or not, bisexual- not that they’re more likely to be be evil, promiscous, or cheat on their partners (whatever gender they might be). There’s a temptation to focus on a bisexual character’s sexuality over anything else because so few of them exist on television, but the best thing that the media could do is to create interesting, layered, prominent characters who’s sexuality is an aspect, and not the focus, of their existence