The Cutprice Guignol

The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: are bisexuals real

“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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In and Out of the Closet: Bisexuality and Me

This is kind of a weird article for me to write, because a lot of people I know and have known for a long time read this blog, and my sexuality isn’t something I’ve really discussed at length. But I’ve identified as a bisexual since before I knew there was a word for it (and as soon as I realized that no, not all other women want to have sex with other women). There’s been a lot of talk recently about how bisexuals fit into the LGBT community, with bisexual vloggers, bloggers, and various other personalities talking about how they often don’t feel queer enough for the queer community, but are denying part of themselves by playing straight. And don’t get me wrong, I feel that the world could do with switching it’s whole attitude up regarding the way we look at and treat the LGBT+ community. But yeah, I get that “not-queer enough” feeling a lot.

I’ve been out for a long while now, and I’ve never necessarily felt proud about my sexuality. Comfortable in it, yes; grateful that my family and friends couldn’t care less, yes; but proud seems like the wrong word for something that’s inherently a part of me (personal opinion entirely, all power to those LGBT people who do take pride in their gender identity or sexuality). I’ve been in a long-term relationship with my marvellous boyfriend for over two years now, and, whenever the conversation about sexuality or past relationships comes up, I get the head-tilt of “so you’re in an open relationship?” or “haven’t you been dating *insert boyfriend’s name here* for while now?” or, the worst of the worst, “you hooked up with girls? That’s hot” (spectacularly, the first result that comes up if you type “bisexual” into google is “bisexuals don’t exist”, which is a myth I hope to bust by my continuing corporeal form). As an openly and comfortably out bisexual woman, I feel like I’m in and out of the closet, having to justify my sexuality to people by convincing them that my attraction to both genders is legitimate and ongoing because I don’t broadcast my dating history to everyone I meet. I don’t want to feel like I’m playing at being straight or gay depending on who I’m with; I want to be able to be open in my sexuality without justification or qualification.

Dating somebody of one gender doesn’t mean that I’m not still attracted to members of the other. I apologise if this is coming off as whiny or petulant, because these are just things that I’ve had to put up with for the last few years and I’m pretty bored of them and I want to talk about it to see if anyone else feels the same way. And I’m not claiming that these annoyances are in any way equal to the unbelievable discrimination that many members of the LGBT world face every day, but they are an irritation. Because yeah, I do think I’ve had it a lot easier than other non-bisexual members of the LGBT world. But there seems to be a dislike of the idea that, as a grown-ass woman with a flat and a job and a cat and an almost-degree, this might not be a phase, that I might actually, permanently like men and women.

And it’s not that I’ve felt actively pushed away from the LGBT community. It’s just that, until very recently, I didn’t feel like I had a place there, which could be entirely my perception, or my perception of the way I see the LGBT community represented, or something I’ve plucked straight out of the air. I would feel like I was cheating or lying or misrepresenting myself if I turned up to Pride while I was dating a man, even though I identify as that B. Part of me feels like I’m denying some part of my identity by being with my boyfriend, even though I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with anyone else- man or woman- right now, because I’m in a straight relationship and, to most of the world, there’s nothing queer about me at all. I don’t want to make my sexuality the only thing that matters about me (I think wearing a friendly “Hey, I’m Bisexual, Ask Me About It!” badge is the best route to go down), or deal with that look of bewilderment and sometimes kind of intrusive questions about my dating history (for the last fucking time, you don’t have to have sex to know your sexuality, so, no, it’s none of your business if I’ve had sex with literally every man and woman who’s every walked the earth). But my sexuality is a big, sometimes confusing, ultimately vital part of who I am as a person, and I don’t like the feeling of having to justify it to people. I don’t like hearing that it was probably phase since I’m dating a guy, or that I was doing it for attention, or that I’m young and might change my mind. Yes, my sexuality is fluid and it might change in the years to come; why can’t you handle the label that I’m choosing to give myself right now? The reactions I get from a number of queer and straight people make me feel like I’m faking it, when I know that I’m not. And that doesn’t anger me or upset me, but it frustrates me.

Because I have amazingly liberal family and friends, I have had it much easier than many members of the LGBT world, and that sometimes makes me feel like I don’t have a right to speak up about the ways I’m treated, and the way I see other bisexual people treated (article will be up later this week about bisexual representation on TV). It’s not a coincidence that so many bisexual/pansexual/queer people are talking about how they don’t feel accepted into the LGBT community or the hetereosexual world, and just because we’re perceived to have it easier doesn’t mean everything is always hunky dory.

I don’t entirely know what point I’m trying to make with this blog post, I just know that these things have been niggling at me for a long while and I needed to word-vomit them out in some semblance of sense. I think what I’m trying to say is that, when you deal with a bisexual person in any circumstance, please don’t question it. This is just a thing that’s part of thousands upon thousands of people, who go about their lives every day comfortable in the knowledge that they like men and women. I’m one of them, maybe you are as well. Maybe you’re someone who straight up doesn’t give a fuck about what sexuality someone is and wouldn’t dream of questioning it and if you are, thank you, I love you a little bit more. But these are things that me and people like me have to deal with on a daily basis, online, in person, in pop culture. The world will be a happier place for bisexuals everywhere if we don’t feel the need to prove our queerness to anyone.

Peace, I’m out. In both senses of the phrase.

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