Bisexual people are represented far more frequently in television than they are in film, but that representation is certainly not always positive or productive. We would like to explore the representation of both explicitly bi characters and characters that are implied to be bi, and how those have changed over time. Some tropes that we will address in this essay are the avoidance of the word bisexual and the idea that bi men are actually gay and bi women are actually straight, correlating an existing double standard in partner acceptance of bisexuality in a heterosexual relationship. As this is a class on gender and media, we would also like to focus on how bi women are represented verses how bi men are represented.
Scholars often point to the 1990s as the decade in which sexual orientations beyond heterosexual finally began to be really explored on television (Corey, 190.) Up until then, the concept of bisexuality to be far too complicated and taboo to ever explicitly address. However, the explicit recognition of bisexuality by name is an even more recent development. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, shows typically only portrayed bisexuality as a phase or a sudden shift from straight to gay. As shown above, Willow (played by Alyson Hannigan) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an infamous example of the latter. When Willow starts dating women in the later seasons of the show, she begins identifying as a lesbian. Confusingly, her previous attractions to men are still referred to as having been genuine, but the idea that she could be bisexual is never mentioned. Some point to Willow previously identifying as straight as an example of compulsory heterosexuality, a concept that theorizes lesbians often feel compelled to act like they are attracted to men due to societal pressure (Rich, 1996.) Others look at Willow as the prime example of bisexual erasure.
Sci-fi and fantasy television shows in particular often were among the first to explore bisexuality, as their genres provided magical and/or futuristic explanations for non-normative sexualities. Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman) from Doctor Who and Torchwood is an omnisexual time traveler from the far future. The fact that he flirts with people of all genders and alien species is presented as a result of hailing from a more progressive time period, and his sexual orientation is never identified by name. Rather, the show focuses more on his overt flirtatiousness, a trait often found in stereotypical depictions of all bisexuals, especially men.
At first glance, it’s pretty easy to analyze the differences in current bisexual representation for men and women on television. Bi women are sexualized in order to titillate a male audience, and bi men are hard to come by. However, as bisexual awareness and representation in mainstream media has increased over time, new patterns have begun to emerge. The discussion of bisexuality in TV is not only increasingly showing, but the differences in a straight couple’s partner reaction to bisexuality is also becoming increasingly present. An example of this discourse is represented in Orange Is the New Black.
In the series, Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) is a young woman serving time in Litchfield prison for perjury and money laundering. Prior to turning herself in to do her time, she becomes engaged to her male partner, Larry Bloom (played by Jason Biggs). Piper becomes openly transparent about what everyone refers to as her “lesbian phase” with ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon). During this previous relationship, Piper became involved in an international drug cartel per Alex, ultimately leading to both of their sentencing. Larry and his family, as well as Piper’s family accept her relationship as a temporary lesbian “phase” and due to that relationship ending, Piper is conclusively straight. Larry especially never refers to Piper bisexual, just that she was merely experimenting with being a lesbian. He even passively voices his welcoming attraction to this previous relationship. Inherently, this gives an example of a male gaze becoming prominently aroused in a female partners’ sexuality with another female.
In the hyperlinked article, it is stated that Piper, in the entirety of all Orange Is the New Black episodes, is only referred to as bisexual once. Her consistent black and white representation of her either being straight or gay constitutes this recurring theme of bi erasure. In the show, Piper soon falls back to her relationship with Alex, consequently presenting issues with both partners pushing her to be straight or gay, never openly bisexual. This not only pushes Piper to pick a side, it reflects a real life bisexual troupe of either being one or the other. This is an issue many bisexual individuals face, however, female bisexuals in particular are more-so sexualized and accepted as having sexual attraction or activity with another female from their male partners. For male bisexuals, this is not always the same. HBO series Insecure presents this example of a double standard in partner acceptance of sexual fluidity.
In Insecure, Molly (played by Yvonne Orji) is portrayed as a young career woman who is longing for a committed relationship. In her search for love through many run-ins with men in person and through dating apps, she eventually meets Jared (played by Langston Kerman). In the beginning of their relationship, Molly becomes overly infatuated with Jared. In one episode, Jared comes over to have dinner with Molly, and they begin to discuss their past sexual relationships. Molly begins to explain lesbian encounters in college, and Jared echoes that he, too, had a similar experience. Molly, clearly immediately taken back, questions him about his sexuality and if he was gay. She very much so echoes the rhetoric that someone is either one or the other; gay or straight.
Molly presents to Jared as if everything is fine, and in the next coming scenes she begins to panic. She presents her situation to her friends and they immediately tell her to end things with him because he’s obviously gay. This explicitly shows the double standard of men not only not being accepted as having a “phase” but also as being bisexual – they are pushingly portrayed as just being gay. Molly explains that she has difficulty finding Jared attractive because of this incident and eventually does end things with him. To summarize this contradictory perspective from a female partner via quote from the Medium article hyperlinked above, “Men — and particularly black men — are often judged by where they put their penises, even if it only happens once (Gray, 2016).
In the image below, different quotes are presented that discuss bisexual tropes and echo this issue of male erasure vs. female disapproval as partners of bisexual individuals in media representation.
The discourse displayed above echoes many issues and perspectives represented not only in media, but in real life bisexual experience as well. The male vs. female perspective is not only pressuring for the bi individual, but for their partners as well. This challenges sexual binary and that sexuality is multiplex and more fluid. Trends in media often represent the bisexual view as solely appealing to the male gaze or being invisible. Generally speaking, it’s still rare for a character to be explicitly identified as bisexual, rather homosexual and “in the closet” or straight undergoing an experimental phase.
However, the times are changing. More and more bisexual characters are popping up on TV every year, and they’re being represented better than ever. Brooklyn Nine-Nine made headlines when one of its main characters, Rosa Diaz (played by bisexual actress Stephanie Beatriz,) came out as unquestionably bi. Rosa is a character who rejects many of the stereotypes commonly associated with bisexual women. She has a rather standoffish and aggressive personality, and is never shown behaving or looking a certain way to appeal to men. Her sexuality is presented as something she has known since she was a child, which challenges the common representation of female bisexuality as a phase or experiment. Rosa’s coming out also made Brooklyn Nine-Nine one of the few mainstream shows not centered on queerness to have more than one canonically queer character in its regular cast, suggesting that her inclusion is not a case of tokenism.
Similarly, Adam (played by Tyler Posey,) one of Jane’s many love interests on Jane the Virgin, is a recent example of a character that contradicts common bisexual male stereotypes. The decision to make him bi was done to directly combat the idea that bi men can’t be attractive to women. In an interview with Variety, showrunner Jennie Urman states that they wanted to present a “romantic hero who’s also bisexual.” While this initially challenges Jane’s religious upbringing and causes her to hesitate, Jane and Adam then have a straightforward, on-screen discussion about what bisexuality means, and they continue dating. While their relationship doesn’t last long, their reason for breaking up has nothing to do with Adam’s sexuality. Despite briefly playing into the trope that women are reluctant to date bi men, Jane the Virgin ultimately ends up challenging this stereotype by showing Jane working through her prejudices.
It can be easy to look at the examples of Rosa and Adam and think, most audiences don’t need a TV show to spell out how homosexuality works, so why do this for bisexuality? Their explicit denials of bisexual stereotypes can be blunt at times, but the fact is that such bluntness is still needed in a world where many people still don’t believe that bisexuality is real or acceptable. Studies show that 15% of straight men don’t believe that bisexuality exists, more college students disapprove of bisexuality than homosexuality, and up to 80% of lesbians think bi women are just going through a phase (Castleman, 2016.) With television remaining one of the most widely consumed forms of media, we feel that it’s of great importance that bisexual representation on the small screen becomes more common and more positive in order to better support such an underrepresented community.
Castleman, M. (2016, March 15). The Continuing Controversy Over Bisexuality. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-sex/201603/the-continuing-controversy-over-bisexuality
Corey, S. (2017). All Bi Myself: Analyzing Television’s Presentation of Female Bisexuality, Journal of Bisexuality, 17(2), 190-205. DOI: 10.1080/15299716.2017.1305940
Gray, B. M. (2016, December 29). No Homo; or, why Jared in Insecure is one of my Heroes. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@bikomandelagray/no-homo-or-why-jared-in-insecure-is-one-of-my-heroes-f498b4e659ea
Martin, A. L. (2014). Scripting Black Gayness. Television & New Media, 16(7), 648-663. DOI: 10.1177/1527476414560443
New Report Reveals Bisexual Youth Face Specific Challenges – and Need Our Support. (2014, September 23). Retrieved from https://www.autostraddle.com/new-report-reveals-bisexual-youth-face-specific-challenges-and-need-our-support-255819/
Rich, A. (1996). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience, Feminism and Sexuality, 130–141.