“I Don’t Like Labels!”: TV’s Problem with the Word “Bisexual”
TV, we need to talk. Because, between my job (which involves writing about you) and my hobbies (which involve watching far more than the daily recommended allowance of you), you’re a big part of my life. And you’ve started getting me pretty pissed in the last few months.
Ever since I wrote a blog post coming out as bisexual to the internet (which responded with a shrugging “huh” as I put the Scissor Sisters on an endless loop and filled my flat with rainbow confetti), the way I look at my sexuality has changed. I feel confident identifying myself as LGBT, even though I used to shy away from the label; I’ve had long, productive discussions with people from all bits of the sexuality spectrum about sexuality, gender, and attraction; for probably the first time, I’m confident in challenging people on their insidious biphobia, and I’m 100% certain in yes, this is what I am, and it’s great and it makes me happy that the people close to me recognise that.
So TV, I came to you with my rainbow patches sewn on to my messenger bag(s), and I was finally on the lookout for bisexual characters on TV. And I was disappointed. I’ve written about bi-erasure in TV and movies before, but it was watching an episode of Arrow that really hammered home for me a particular bugbear in the way we depict and talk about apparently bisexual people on TV.
I’ve been dipping in and out of Arrow since season one, but I’m back on board now, and I discovered, to my delight, that one of their major characters-the original Black Canary- had been in a relationship with a woman, and had also had romantic entanglements with men. “Great!” thought I, “an intelligent, powerful, cool character who isn’t a) a vampire (seriously, so many vampires are bisexual that I think I might well be a blood-sucking minion of the undead myself) or b) outlandishly promiscuous, and identifies as bisexual!”.
But, then, of course, I had to go ruin it by looking up what the people behind this revelation had said about her sexuality. The producers had this to say on the matter:
“…we really wanted to approach it like not be salacious, and be sensitive, and be realistic. We actually specifically avoid using the term ‘bisexual.’ We didn’t want to label her at all. Let her be her own person. If the audience wants to label, fine, but we wanted to not make it like it’s that specific.”
Aside from the irritating re-iteration of the “my characters are out of my hands” trope (if you’re creating them, then no, you are entirely accountable for their actions), and the fact that they, inadvertently or not, described bisexuality as “salacious”, I finally managed to put my finger on why this bothered me so much: it’s the “We don’t like labels” line.
Now, let me be clear: if you’re a person who exists in real life and prefers not to label your sexuality, that’s great. I don’t deny that you exist, and you’re welcome to define your sexuality however you see fit. The reason this really gets under my skin is because, time and time again, I see characters acting in an explicitly bisexual way- ie, having romantic and/or sexual relationships with both genders- only to be described as simply “not liking labels”. Take Brittany in Glee- described as “fluid” or “queer” throughout the show’s run, the writers continually use bisexual as a stand-in for a confused gay person (see also: this rant). Then there’s the straight/gay characters who have a dalliance with people/persons not of their preferred gender, with the word “bisexual” not even whispered in the next room. Sex and the City’s Samantha has an intense emotional and sexual relationship with a woman after consistently sleeping with men, and that part of her life is simply referred to as “When I was a lesbian…”. In Sherlock, Irene Adler is described solely as a lesbian, even though she admits to having strong feelings for the titular character (then, maybe we’ve got Mark “I think a lot of people who say they are bisexual aren’t” Gatiss to thank for that). The Buffyverse has a handful of examples where someone seems like they could be bisexual, only for the option to not even be considered (Willow, and, later, Buffy, to name a couple). Maybe the most prominent bisexual character on TV, Piper, from Orange is the New Black, is only referred to as bisexual one in the show’s whole run, with characters generally just outright calling her straight or gay. Fox nixed an arc for Marissa in The OC where she came out as bisexual, after one fling with a woman. Then, of course, you’ve got the people who experimented in college, but are now firmly straight and only look at it as a phase; you’ve got the Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss, you’ve got more tropes than you could count where people act in a way that seems to fit with the term “bisexual” but continually skate around the term. I could go on and on and on and on and on here: if you don’t believe me, take a look at TV Tropes page for No Bisexuals.
I’m not demanding that every person who has a single flirtation with both genders must instantly be embroidered with a scarlet “B”. I know people who’ve had relationships with both genders, who define themselves as gay or straight, and that’s cool. And I know people who’ve had relationships with both genders, who do identify as bisexual, and, like me, a lot of them are flapping their arms around going “where am I?” when they watch television. We choose to identify ourselves as something, then being blasted by pop culture which tells us that no, we’re just straight and lying or gay and lying. It’s a weird thing, to watch someone who acts like you act, who is attracted to the same spectrum of people you’re attracted too, and then be told time and time again “no, this isn’t you, and if you think it is, you’re wrong”. Considering the number of people who do happily identify as bisexual, constantly skirting the use of using that word is to deny the existence of that community to some extent. When even the National LGBTQ Taskforce is publishing articles- on Bisexual Pride Day, no less!- encouraging bi-identifying people to drop that label and go with queer instead, it would be nice to have somewhere that embraced the word for what it was- a way of identifying and naming a common sexuality, a word that many people use to describe themselves. And it’s not just bisexuals: pansexuals, asexuals, basically anyone who falls outside of the mono-sexual binary basically doesn’t exist on TV.
So what the hell is TV’s problem with the word “bisexual”? They’ve obviously got no issue calling people straight or gay when they act in a way that stereotypically fits what we define as “straight” or “gay”. And I wouldn’t mind the odd character having a dalliance with someone outside their preferred gender, only to decide it’s not for them. But when it comes to “not liking labels”, the only label that TV writers seem to have a real problem with is bisexual.
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