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The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: biphobia on tv

“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 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.

To clear something up: I’d be trying to be exactly like Catherine Trammel whether or not she was bisexual. Because those LEGS.

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.

Really, this post is an excuse to have lots of lovely pictures of men kissing men. Incidentally, this was the best and most realistic first kiss Glee has done in it’s entire run so far.

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.

Fuck you, Bradshaw.

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.

The name for this ship is “Janto Jorkness”, which thrills me almost as much as this sexy as fuck picture.

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.

Man, I need to re-watch The L Word.

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

Through a Glee, Darkly: Biphobia, Transphobia and the LGBTQ Community

Because I’m a long-time hostage of the Murphchuck series Glee, it’s become a lens through which I view a lot of important TV issues. I’m planning a series of articles in the upcoming weeks about representation, discrimination, and the process of making a successful television show using Glee as my base point. It’s going to be great, and also drive me over the edge into blissful insanity. It’s a win all round! Let’s get cracking with this week’s instalment.

Glee’s big message is acceptance. If you’re gay, straight, white, black, Asian, Jewish, virginal, promiscuous, hot, hideous, or some unholy combination of the above, there is a place for you as a viewer. I hadn’t really questioned this before, as seeing specific sexualities and identities portrayed on TV in an often sympathetic and delicately handled way seemed rare enough that I felt I had to forgive the flaws that arose. That, and the fact that Chris Colfer, who plays the most prominent LGBTQ character Kurt, is an insanely talented guy who I’m just happy to watch doing anything.

But it’s been brought to my attention, while catching up on series five, that the representation of the youth LGBTQ community seems to end after the LG. Let’s take a look at two quotes from the show- one from Kurt, delivered to his then-crush as said crush considers the possibility that he might be bisexual after kissing a girl, and enjoying it.

Kurt: 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

Blaine: Whoa, why are you so angry?

Kurt: Because I look up to you! I admire how proud you are of who you are. I know what it’s like to be in the closet, and here you are about to tiptoe back in.

Later in the scene, Kurt is vaguely called out for this behaviour, but in the end it turns out he was basically right and Blaine announces himself “100% gay” after another kiss. I have no problem with characters exploring their sexuality, but there’s a hypocrisy here that suggests bisexuality is a cop-out, a way to avoid the ramifications of actually being sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex. I’ve been extremely lucky in that the people I’ve come out to as bisexual couldn’t care less where I put my genitals, but even now I am told outright that I’m gay and lying or straight and lying. The denial of bisexuality as a legitimate sexual identity in and of itself is a persistent one of television, even on shows that claim to represent the LGBTQ community (I’d like to take a minute to point out that Nip/Tuck, Ryan Murphy’s longest-running show, featured three significant bisexual characters-one an emotionally damaged victim and one-time cult member, one a serial killer and rapist, and one an accomplice to the latter). This also ties in to the furore about changing one’s sexual indentity. Check out the shitstorm that ensued when Jessie J announced that she no longer identified as bisexual and instead was hetereosexual, versus the applause and adulation Tom Daley recieved for confirming his status as, not bisexual, but gay. I’m not saying Daley didn’t deserve the support, because he did, but the concept of “betraying” LGBTQ-land by deciding that you are straight (or, in Glee’s case, bisexual) is a massive hypocrisy when we can so easily accept other changes in sexuality.

Then there’s this quote from season five, where lesbian character Santana attempts to gauge if her crush, Dani, (played by Demi Lovato, of all people) is also gay.

Santana: I had a girlfriend, and she was bi

Dani (pulls face): Any chance of you getting back together?

Sanrana: I love her, but it’s over.

Dani:I mean, it’s probably for the best. I think you need a 100% sapphic goddess. 

Predictably, they get together, and Santana delivers the clincher of the episode “...and I finally have a girlfriend who I don’t have to worry about straying for penis”.

It’s a regularly circulated assumption that bisexual people can’t be monogamous. The ability to have sexual desire for two separate sexes, apparently, will prohibit the ability to stick with one partner without running off for a dicksickle or a vaginapop. It should be noted that the girlfriend she’s referring to never cheated on her with anyone, let alone “strayed for penis”, and no-one comments on the stereotypical, nasty nature of the comment. Sure, this character is meant to be the bitchy one, but Glee is so often wildly keen to cram the after-school-special, anti-bullying, anti-anti-LGBTQ stuff down it’s viewers throats that to live this pretty offensive comment floating in the middle of an episode seems pretty lax. The prior comment, about Santana needing a “100% sapphic goddess” is meant to be fun and flirty, but comes off as if Dani is suggesting that lesbians and bisexual woman cannot have as fulfilling a relationship as two outrightly lesbian women. TV Tropes does a great line in discussing the mountains of stereotypes that bisexual people face on TV and in movies (evil, slutty, slutty-evil, closeted, attention-seeking, lying….), and this non-sequiter with no basis in the canon of the show fits into a slew of narratives about bisexual people as unfaithful or unable to commit to one person, or simply unable to form a relationship as meaningful with people who do not share their orientation.

There is one bisexual character in the show, mentioned above, named Brittany. Though she rarely (I believe once in the show’s run) refers to herself as bisexual (generally favouring bi-curious, or bicorn), she forms meaningful romantic relationships with both men and a woman. Which is good. Not so good, however, is her portrayal- seriously, sensationally dumb, she’s established to believe leprechauns exist, that her cat is a slum lord (“None of your buildings are up to code. Those families are living in squalor”), that storks bring babies, and that kissing is just two friends “talking with their mouths really close”. The question of her actual ability to consent has been brought up by a handful of commentators due to her childlike intellect, and this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of bisexuality as an informed identity.

But wait, there’s more! There is, if you’ll notice, a T in that famous acronym. And in the last couple of seasons, Glee has addressed the transgendered community with the introduction of the excellent Alex Newell as Unique, an MTF (male to female) transgendered teenager and the problems she faces as an out transgendered high school student. This is commendable in and of itself, as the visibility of transgendered characters in pop culture is wretchedly low, and hate crime against transgendered people continues to flourish in horrible, horrible ways. In the show, phrases like “she-male” and “tranny”- which, to be clear, are pretty fucking offensive- are used without real question. Anti-gay slurs were tackled early in the series and treated in a serious way, while here Unique is told she needs to “tone it down with the whole boob thing” by Mr Schuester, set up as the great ally and crusader for these children. Introducing a serious transgendered character-who isn’t there as a “trap” for a straight lead playing for laughs, or a joke, or a one-episode talking point-is a really, really good thing, but you need address the ways in which the community is being discriminated against and identify them to stop them becoming more normalised than they already are.  It’s worth noting that Newell arrived on the show from spin-off reality nonsense The Glee Project, and was told in a “last-chance audition” (basically a finale where three of the kids sang a song in front of judges to retain their place in the competition) by Ryan Murphy that the creator would love to see him come out in a dress and heels.There’s been some debate over whether Murphy was seeing dollar signs flashing in his eyes at the possibility of recruiting another “alternative” character to the series, or if he just thought Newell would fit the role. I’ll also throw in here that Nip/Tuck featured one prominent transgendered character, a gay man who changed his sex in order to hook up with a straight crush, then proceeded to commit incest, trawl bars picking up high school boys and steal a baby. Again, not grand.

But it’s not just Glee who is guilty of this kind of representation. Mike and Molly was prodded angrily for featuring a transgender person who was repeatedly questioned about their genitals and referred to as a “she-male”, Two and a Half Men saw a character dump a potential new lover after discovering that he had previously been a she. Wendy Williams, high-profile talk show host, repeatedly misgendered Chaz Bono, declaring her “not as strong as a man who was born a man”. Fox News used a photo of Mrs Doubtfire in a trans-related health story. Ricky Gervais compared trans people to someone believing that they were a gerbil. Glee had a great chance to dismantle some of those deeply imbedded stereotypes, but far too often stepped back and went for the easy joke, the joke that we’re comfortable with. The onus shouldn’t be on Glee alone to fix the problems with the depiction of transgendered people in the media, but it still feels like they could have gone further in challenging them.

Let’s put it this way: Glee is a show that has it’s heart in the right place. It tries to represent LGBTQ characters as more than just a label, exploring their romantic and sexual relationships in an often mature and sensitive way, and a way that has helped many LGBTQ youth. That’s excellent, and I can only commend everyone involved for that. But the perpetuation of stereotypes isn’t helping anyone, especially when you only apply them to certain minority characters. It’s not enough to simply put these characters in the show, and have them face discrimination- you need to constantly question that, and draw attention to it’s invalidity. Then you can have some pride in your LGBTQ.

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Further Reading

TV Tropes discussing the depiction of bisexual people in the media-

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DepravedBisexual

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ButNotTooBi

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IfItsYouItsOkay

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ExperimentedInCollege

Information on anti-transgender hate crime-

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/20/islan-nettles_n_4311344.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/hate-violence-report-2012_n_3390090.html