“It’s called ‘LGBT’ for a reason. There’s a ‘B’ in there and it doesn’t mean ‘badass.'”
Back in February of this year, I took a swan-dive into the hypocritical, often dangerous and wholly misconstrued representation of bisexuality in mainstream media, with particular regard to television series popular in the run of series in the past five or so years.
To delve into the muddiness of it all was important, but the fools’ gold I gathered left me understandably but not surprisingly disappointed. In the backwards bias against bisexuality in the LBGTQ+ community, in the blindness to the B in the acronym, lie the fears and phobias and tip-toeing. In the way that bisexual people — who, after all, are just people like everyone else — are portrayed with a sickeningly skewed lens. It was a powerful and impactful thing to do. And despite the negativity I uncovered and with which I was faced, there was a kind of hope. A hope, and a knowledge, that there is positive bisexual representation in media. All I had to do was look for it. And I did. I mentioned in my first exploration a few examples that came to mind, ones with which I’m sure many of us are familiar:
Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) in Grey’s Anatomy, Reagan Lucas (Megan Fox) in New Girl, Brenna Carver (Haley Ramm) in Chasing Life and Gail Peck (Charlotte Sullivan) in Rookie Blue. Even Deadpool — the famous Merc with a Mouth — is written as bi/pan/omnisexual (descriptions vary), and both director Tim Miller and leading man Ryan Reynolds have expressed their desire to portray that on-screen in upcoming films. [There’s also] Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) in American Horror Story: Hotel [who] sits down with his son and clearly states his identity.
See! Not all bad. With that effervescence, I continued digging deep into television — a world that’s labyrinthine and beautiful and heartbreaking and uplifting and awful all at once — for positive (or at least not negative) bisexual representation. Here’s what I found: I’ve noticed that the generally positive representation of bisexual characters in television seems to be stratified into two tiers. There are the “Out-and-Out” characters, ones whose sexuality is acknowledged and labeled as bisexual on-screen. And then there are the “99%” characters, ones whose sexuality is not explicitly labeled on-screen (but may be off-screen by a writer/creator), are still depicted in a positive way, but face challenges separate from the “Out-and-Out” characters. They’re still bisexual, the 1% that’s missing is simply the actual label itself, and I’ve noticed a wrenching pattern that stems from that.
“Out-and-Out” characters, as I like to mentally refer to them, include some of those I touched upon in my previous article — Callie, Brenna, Reagan, Will, Gail. For them, their bisexuality is openly discussed, talked about, named, something that’s both rare and important when discussing bisexual characters. They’re out to themselves, to others and they’re sometimes even out outside of the television show. When a person involved in any aspect of the development and creation of the show acknowledges a character’s bisexuality, my heart sings a little. (OK, a lot.) They’re powerhouses and keystones for bi representation in the media; they’re more than just idols, they’re “bi-dols.” They shine big and bright. They’re absolute sunbeams. Though they are (humanly) flawed, they are still fantastic and allow bisexuality to be heard, thus both celebrating and normalizing it. Here’s some (read: most, as there isn’t a lot to choose from) examples of bisexual characters that are out, loud and proud.
- Callie Torres, Grey’s Anatomy — “I’m bisexual. So what?”
- Will Drake, American Horror Story: Hotel — “[I am] is bisexual. People think that word means something dirty, but it doesn’t. It means that I like men and I like women – equally. People don’t understand so they treat me like I’m weird. Or like I’m trying to hide something.”
- Magnus Bane, Shadowhunters — His actor Harry Shum Jr. describes him in plain language; he’s a “free-wheeling bisexual” who lives just as any other person of any other sexual orientation would: as true to himself as possible.
- Darryl, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — Just this entire video:
- Reagan Lucas, New Girl — Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) speaks of Reagan’s sexuality in totally clear terms, “She’s bisexual… she likes men and women.” To which fellow New Girl guy Winston Bishop (Lamorne Morris) explains, “I know what bisexual means.” YES YES YES!
Such positive, open, varied-from-show-to-show and nuanced-within-themselves representations of bisexuality in both sexes is so fantastic to see. I admire these characters, but more importantly, I rarely fear for them. That’s left for the “99%” characters.
Before we get into the complexity of the 99% characters, let me preface: As aforementioned, I recognize that labels aren’t for everyone. I’m a massive supporter of any and all people who don’t feel like they need (or simply don’t want) a label on their identity/sexuality. I know that it’s valid, and I’d never want to give off the impression that a person is required to label themselves. That’s totally not my jam. Like those characters whose identities are explicitly pointed out and named, these characters are wonderful and valid and adored — they just aren’t given a label, and that’s where things tend to get tricky for their fates throughout their shows.
While it isn’t the case for all label-less bisexual characters on television, there is staggering evidence that shows these characters whose sexualities are never discussed outright — “bisexual” is never explicitly mentioned in the context of describing a character or their sexuality — are killed off before such a discussion can ever be had. This goes far beyond “killing your darlings.” Though I’m sure it’s not entirely deliberate, there isn’t some master plan to wipe out bisexual characters or to put them in harm’s way, but I can’t help feeling it isn’t entirely coincidental either. There’s something more going on below the surface, something that needs to be addressed and changed. To counter the out characters, here’s just a smidgen of a list of bisexual characters (since there’s a lot of examples from which to choose and we’d be here for a while) who were killed off before given the chance to discuss their sexuality openly. Some spoilers ahead!
- Marissa Cooper, The O.C. — While she had relationships with men and women, her same-sex relationship with Alex Kelly was, unfortunately, revealed off-screen to serve as a boost to ratings, and was “wrapped up as fast as humanly possible,” according to O.C. creator Jon Schwartz. On-screen, her relationships were mostly taken seriously, even if their nature was just casual. In the season 3 finale, Marissa dies in a car accident. Her bisexuality was never openly discussed.
- Sara Lance, Arrow — Sara was what could be described as conventionally bisexual — attracted to her same gender and people of other genders — but creator Marc Guggenheim stated that he and the rest of the Arrow team “actually specifically avoid using the term ‘bisexual.'” Ouch. She was a wonderful character, but was murdered in season 3 by an unseen assailant.
There was even Delphine Cormier from Orphan Black, who stated that she had “never thought about bisexuality” despite engaging in same-sex and different-sex relationships. An attempted murder on her was seen in the season 3 finale of the show, as she was shot in the stomach. (Thankfully, she survived.) A similar situation unfolded with Alana Bloom in NBC’s Hannibal. She’s seen in relationships with both Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), but is also seen with Margot Verger (Katherine Isabelle). Alana has faced more than her fair share of near-death experiences, even in the gory and gruesome context of the show. This doesn’t start and end with bisexual characters either — there’s a HUGE television trope that wipes out its queer characters, the “kill your gays” trope.
These characters, both out in the open and the ones who didn’t or haven’t yet had the chance, have voices to be heard. And they should be heard. They have stories to be told, and they should be allowed to tell them. Their portrayal is a generally positive one, the most important yet simplest aspect of such is their raw humanness. Bisexuality is often so muddled by the media — and in everyday life as well — that it becomes fetishized through the male gaze upon women and reduced to “a stepping stone to homosexuality” in men. Showing bisexuality and bisexual characters in television and treating them with the same kindness, attention and respect (especially in terms of their attributes, back story and development, as well as their growth throughout the show) as a gay character or a straight character is important beyond elucidation or articulation.
While it brings me an unmatched joy to see these “bi-dols” on the not-so-big screen, living so deeply in their truth, there also needs to be a conversation — a real, up-front conversation about the ways in which bisexual characters are depicted, and then further about their longevity in the scope of their respective series. Because visibility still matters, especially for bisexuality that is infamously and notoriously under and misrepresented, swept under the rug or purposefully avoided. Because the notion that this is all we’ve been given, all we should expect to ever get? I’m not bi-ing it. It’s high time we talk about these issues: What have we done? What can we, what will we do?
As I linked in part one, to keep up with the conversation, or to educate yourself more on bisexuality in general, in culture and in media, you can start by checking out these fantastic folks on YouTube.