The ‘B’ Word: Bisexuality in television

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Over the past few years, mainstream media has made impressive strides in LGBTQ+ visibility. But there’s still one particular letter in the acronym that’s in need of proper attention.

Bisexual individuals are simply underrepresented in television. And when they are represented, it’s through extremely detrimental stereotypes. In GLAAD’s 2015-2016 “Where We Are on TV” report, representative Alexandra Bolles states that bisexual individuals’ identities are “constantly misconstrued as either a form of confusion, a lie or contrived and hypersexualized means to an end.” By continuing to support, consciously or unconsciously, the perpetuation of bisexual misrepresentation, the truth of bisexuality is undermined. The report also states that of bisexual characters, most are seen as “untrustworthy, prone to infidelity and/or lacking a sense of morality,” manipulative, self-destructive and “lacking the ability to form genuine relationships.” Additionally, bisexuality is often treated “as a temporary plot device that is rarely addressed again.”

There’s a wonderfully written article by writer/YouTuber/bisexual advocate Eliel Cruz regarding why openly bisexual characters are so important to see on television. When Cruz’s powerful words were shared on another website, his message was rebutted by a commenter who said things you would assume only overly dramatized, meant-to-be-evil antagonists would say. They claimed that “bisexuality representation decreases gay representation,” and that gay individuals are more deserving of representation than bisexuals because the latter can already relate to straight-identifying and gay-identifying individuals. The commenter continued their tirade, stating that “bisexual representation will inevitably lead to gay fetishization.” The ignorance went on, hitting possibly the largest issue bisexual individuals face regarding the straight and gay communities accepting their identity: bisexual characters “need to engage in relationships with both men and women,” and should not only be seen in heterosexual or homosexual relationships. Essentially, this person claimed that someone is only truly bisexual when they’re actively engaging in relationships with people of their same gender and people of other genders. There’s a word for that notion. It’s called bi-phobia, and unfortunately, it’s common in the LGBTQ+ community, in the straight community and all throughout the media.

A lack of representation on television — in cable networks and in original series by streaming sites — makes misunderstandings the norm. The current, predominant portrayals of bisexuality in television can be broken down into three equally harmful categories — all of which are, unfortunately but not surprisingly, imbued with overlapping negative stereotypes.

1. The “Straight” Girl / “Gay” Guy Trap.

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Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black is one of the most misrepresented bisexual women in television history. By both ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and fellow inmate and close friend Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), Piper is referred to — exclusively negatively or derogatorily — as a “straight girl.” Others in Litchfield Penitentiary are quick to pin the heterosexual label onto Piper too, despite her clear attraction to more than one gender. Sadly, this is often the way things go for bisexual women’s portrayal on television. Their capacity to be romantically and sexually attracted to another woman is seen as fleeting, and it’s assumed that will eventually “make their return to men.” Piper is struck down with this misconception as well, as Alex states Piper “went back to boys” after ending their relationship.

Herein lies the issue with how Piper’s identity is portrayed: When she is in a relationship with Alex, she’s considered a lesbian; but the moment that she’s not, the second after Piper breaks up with Alex or states her love for Larry, she’s a straight woman. That’s a dangerous depiction, because that’s how the majority of people already view bisexuality. There’s the stereotype that, to lesbian women, bisexual women are greedy and untrustworthy, and will eventually “go back” to men. There’s also the stereotype that when a bisexual woman ends a relationship with a man and later starts a relationship with a woman, that she has suddenly become a lesbian. Orange Is the New Black hits both of those in a double-whammy. Piper is shown as a woman confused about her sexuality, and is seen as evil because she “can’t choose” between men and women. In reality, she isn’t; the show just never utters the word “bisexual.” She can’t win because her identity is never seen as valid.

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In Fox’s Glee, Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), at one point, question his sexuality — and his identity as a gay man. “I thought so,” he admits when his then boyfriend Kurt (Chris Colfer) definitively states that he is 100 percent gay. Blaine is clearly struggling. As he begins to feel a pull toward Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), he becomes unsure of what his changing romantic and sexual attractions mean. Blaine wishes to explore these feelings, and see if the bisexual label not only fits his emotions and drives but if he feels comfortable in that identity. His thought process is a mature one, one that says, “I acknowledge these current feelings. I want to dive deeper, and if a new label is more befitting of my attractions, it doesn’t make me a bad person.” That is an important representation of sexuality in general. Instead of moving forward with this completely valid journey of self-discovery and reflection, Glee commits one of the most blatant acts of bi-phobia I’ve ever witnessed.

“Bisexual is a term gay guys use in high school when they want to hold hands with girls and feel normal for a change,” Kurt Hummel says, then continues to say that if Blaine came to realize his own bisexuality, he’d be “tip-toeing back into the closet.” Ouch. 

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We saw something verging on beautiful in MTV’s Faking It, a show that is otherwise notorious for its bi-phobia. Two central characters, Shane (Michael Willett), a gay man, and Karma, a straight-identifying woman, were seen struggling to pin an identity on a new student’s sexuality. The duo couldn’t decide if Wade (Cameron Moulène) was gay or straight, as he had exhibited attractions to more than one gender. This is the same pattern we saw in Orange Is the New Black — characters completely ignoring bisexuality as a valid identity.

“I’m bi,” Wade says. “Had that not even occurred as a possibility to you two?” Then comes Shane’s insanely bi-phobic rambling, in which he says things like, “The ‘bi’ label is just a step in the coming out process. It goes: drunken hookup, curious, bi, full-blown gay, Elton John; [Wade] only thinks he likes [Karma.] He’s like a gay butterfly not yet sprung from its cocoon. He’s… caught in transition;” bisexual guys are “like Bigfoot — people talk about it but no one has any proof.” To the characters of Faking It, bisexual men are simply closeted, are biding their time before coming out as fully gay and don’t have a valid identity. I don’t think explanation is necessary regarding why those are awful things to say or why that kind of negativity is so harmful to the bisexual community.

This “straight” girl / “gay” guy portrayal only reinforces the idea that for bisexual women, same-sex relationships are experiments or phases, and for bisexual men, same-sex relationships are the “stepping stone” to homosexuality. It’s pretty devastating.

2. Power Play.

We see this most often in depictions of bisexual men — the idea that sex equals power, and that men can’t resist that kind of temptation. In the Netflix original House of Cards, we see Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) engage in sexual relationships with women and men, but the latter isn’t seen as affecting his identity. He has said that, “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” He’s also said that when he’s attracted to someone, he’s attracted to someone, and that’s the end of the story. Here’s where things get tricky. While Frank’s marriage to Claire (Robin Wright) is shown as an unbreakable bond, his attraction to men is seen as a means to make him feel powerful whenever he feels like it. This paints bisexuality in a poor light, as it implies that bisexual people use others for entirely selfish purposes.

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In Mr. Robot, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) is depicted in a similar way. He’s married — though we’re not sure if it’s happily or otherwise — to his wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) and is very clearly sexually active with her. Like Frank, Tyrell uses same-sex relationships as a means to gain power. Playing into another trope around bisexuality, others refer to his engagements as “going gay” in order to ensure leverage against competitors and to secure promotions at E Corp. He possibly is bisexual, as his actions fit the standard definition, but instead of it being shown as valid and healthy, it’s shown as greedy and serving a strictly utilitarian purpose. Not good.

3. Pleading the Fifth, or No New Labels.

I’m all for a label-free identity. I acknowledge its validity. I understand that sexuality can be and, for a lot of people, is fluid. I know that labeling oneself can be constricting to some, and I would never want to imply that a person has to label themselves – that would make me a pretty mean-spirited person. I find it absurd that labels just don’t exist for the majority of characters who have expressed romantic and sexual interest towards more than one gender. The ratio of real-life people who don’t prescribe to any labels is disproportionate to on-screen characters who live without labels.

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“When it comes to love, I don’t choose sides.” — Oberyn Martell.

Prince Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones also falls victim to the no-label-zone. Though his actions could be labelled bisexual, as he openly engages in sexual relationships with men and women, it’s not discussed. And I know it shouldn’t be within the context of the show, as that exact label wouldn’t make historical sense in the time period, but acknowledgement outside of the show is what’s important in this particular case. However, actor Pedro Pascal insists on no label at all. He says that isn’t in Oberyn’s nature to “limit his experience of pleasure… whether it is wine or food, a man or a woman,” and that “what’s beautiful is beautiful.” It’s a wonderful sentiment, but it would be even more wonderful to hear his identity being clearly recognized.

We see this ambiguity again in Constantine, the adaptation of DC Comic anti-hero John Constantine aka Hellblazer, an openly bisexual man. His sexuality is clearly discussed in the comic series — John talks about his past girlfriends and boyfriends freely — but is avoided in the television show. The producer of the series stated that John’s bisexuality (what he refers to as a “curious character aspect”) simply isn’t “a defining part of who he is.” Similarly, to reference House of Cards again, when asked about Frank Underwood’s sexuality, show creator Beau Willimon describes him as “not [putting] much stock into those sort of labels” and as a “man with a large appetite.”

Media is making the bisexual label out to be obsolete, when it isn’t. It’s important not only to out bisexuals in terms of representation, but to those coming to terms with their sexuality. When people see that an identity is being understood and accepted, they become more comfortable identifying as such and embracing it openly.

Even more frustrating is a lack of discussion altogether regarding a character’s bisexuality. Often, it’s ignored entirely. There’s this mentality of, “It’s there, we see it, but we don’t talk about it.” It’s happened in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and it’s currently happening in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder.

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In the Showtime series, Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best) was conventionally bisexual, attracted to her same gender and another gender. She slept with a male nurse, Sam. She also had a serious girlfriend, and though they were in a somewhat open relationship, it wasn’t anything to write off. Dr. O’Hara has a history and an identity, but both are swept under the rug. It’s worse when an identity is simply not discussed at all. Gay characters are discussed in this show. Straight characters are discussed in this show. While both do come with their own stereotypes and misrepresentations, they are openly named. I would love to see healthier — by that I mean more positive and less tropey –- and more abundant gay representation, of course. But the glossing over of Dr. O’Hara’s sexuality is just so disappointing. For a show that primarily deals with lead-level heavy material and adult themes – from drug addiction to sex in a hospital chapel (and hospital bed and on a hospital’s roof) – it seems odd that what is so openly talked about with other characters is ignored with Dr. O’Hara. The gentle giant Thor Lundgren (Stephen Wallem) is openly gay. Dr. Fitch Cooper (Peter Facinelli) has lesbian mothers. They are represented and received positively not only within the show, but by the audience too. It’s upsetting that such a kind, wonderful, intelligent and lovable character wasn’t granted the same acknowledgement; throughout the entire show’s run, her identity was never openly addressed like others’ were. There was an immense opportunity for positive bisexual representation that was missed.

The same disappointments play out in How to Get Away with Murder, concerning Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis) bisexuality. Annalise was married to Sam Keating (Tom Verica) and is involved in relationship with Nate Lahey (Billy Brown). It is made clear that she likes men. It’s also made clear that she likes women, too. She had a long-term relationship with Eve Rothlo (Famke Jansen) and continues to be involved with her. But has “bisexual” been used in conversation? Not yet, but here’s to hoping.

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By not actually saying the ‘B’ word, the visibility of bisexuality and its validity is reduced. By skirting around actions and expressions of characters, the misunderstanding that bisexuality is a phase, or just a pattern of behavior or not as important as any other sexuality, is supported. If we can explicitly label characters of other sexualities, why can’t we do the same for bisexual ones?

Let me make it known that I’m a fan of most of these shows. I think they’re incredible and ground-breaking in many ways. I eagerly await the newest episode of How to Get Away with Murder, and I love watching the cast live-tweet. I binge watched all seven seasons of Nurse Jackie in about two weeks; I’m a long-time fan of Game of Thrones; Mr. Robot is neck-and-neck with Mad Men for my favorite show of all time; I wrote an editorial on why Annalise Keating and Piper Chapman are important female anti-heroes. These shows, their plots, their direction and their characters aren’t bad. Their portrayal of bisexuality is.

Thankfully, however, there have been some shining examples on the bisexuality representation front. We have some awesome, openly bisexual characters like 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.

Just this past year, we saw one of the greatest discussions of bisexuality on television through Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) in American Horror Story: Hotel. Will sits down with his son and clearly states his identity: “Your father 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.”

Crafting a conversation addressing these issues helps spark change. When people — not just television writers — start to understand bisexuality and the importance of healthy representation, the negativity and misconceptions surrounding the identity will begin to dissipate. And when it comes down to it, that’s all anyone really wants: to be understood and to be heard.

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.

RJ Aguiar, and his series “Ask A Bi Guy.”
Rachel Whitehurst, and her series “Bye Biphobia.” (You can also purchase a rad #byebiphobia shirt here.)
Connor Manning, and his videos on bisexuality.
Eliel Cruz’s channel.

AJ Caulfield is a 22-year-old writer, pun lover, massive goofball, first-year English graduate student, and quite possibly Leslie Knope's long-lost twin. She's a big fan of 80's rock music, female-directed films, and Mad Men.