I often refer to my sexuality as the “invisible” one. Which is odd as bisexuals arguably make up more than half of the LGBT+ community. The issue is that for years there have been two options: you are gay or you are straight. And this ideology hasn’t gone away — depending on who my partner is, I am gay or I am straight.
As with all minority groups, representation in media is the first step to sloughing off our invisibility cloaks. But is bisexual representation really helping? Or is it just driving us further into the “pick a side” argument? I’ve chosen a few examples that I think highlight the strengths and weaknesses of bisexual representation in TV.
1. Jack Harkness in Doctor Who
Time-traveler from the future, Jack is your classic, flirty space pirate. Into pretty much anything that moves, Jack also sadly falls into the bisexual stereotype: no wonder we’re into more than one gender when we’re just so horny.
I adore Jack’s character, but I’m the first to admit that there are issues with his portrayal of bisexuality. There’s nothing wrong with being overly flirtatious, and some bisexuals are, but there’s a very strong stereotype that all bisexuals are “into everything”. A quick glance at the world of online dating clearly highlights this issue; if our profile says we’re bisexual, the world hears “I want a threesome”.
The positive side of this stereotype and Jack’s character is that we’re not questioned. If we’re seen as “into everything”, it seems to legitimise us and our actions. However, the word bisexual is never mentioned in regards to Jack. In fact, Bill Potts, nine series later is often credited as the Doctor’s first LGBT companion. So while Jack is lovable, funny and humanised, his sexuality is still often disregarded.
It’s possible they do a better job representing Jack Harkness’s sexuality in Torchwood (a spinoff series), but I haven’t seen it yet.
2. Brittany in Glee
In many ways, I blame Glee for a good portion of my internalised biphobia. This is due to one very specific plot point and its reception from the public. Brittany is dating a woman, they break up and she begins to date a man, Sam. On surface level, this seems like great bisexual representation. However, before she starts dating Sam she tells him
No, it’s not just Santana, it’s like all the lesbians in the nation. … I worry, that if they find out about you and I dating that they’ll turn on you … and hurt your beautiful face and mouth.
Which was true as many lesbian viewers of the show felt like Brittany ditching a woman for a man was illegitimatising her previous relationship and therefore was bad representation for lesbians.
Uh oh. How did we get to a point where good representation of one sexuality badly represents another? The problem is that biphobia isn’t just a position shared by straight people, other members of the LGBT+ community can look down on bisexuality. It can even be worse because it can be an act of self-preservation for one’s own sexuality. The “it’s just a phase” is a HUGE problem, especially where the lesbian community is considered — society is much more likely to dismiss women being gay than they are men.
When Brittany said the lesbians of the world would come for her, I laughed. I thought it was a good link to the real world debate about the show, and it worked well with Brittany’s character. However, even now, I catch myself feeling guilty when I date men, as though I too am “betraying” the lesbian community.
3. Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This is an odd one. Willow is typically referred to as gay, however we see her in loving relationships with both men and women at different points in the show. Surely this makes her bi, right? Not necessarily.
Willow is a great example of the muddy business that identifying as a certain sexuality often is. Some people identify as gay but acknowledge that they’ve been attracted to both genders. Some identify as bi, but aren’t interested in a long-term relationship with the same gender. Even a large number of straight people have kissed those of the same gender.
There’s nothing wrong with how people want to identify, but it does make it a confusing place to navigate. For me, the question brought up by Buffy is does Willow’s relationship with a woman erase the fact that she used to be in love with a man? I don’t think it does and I would say Willow was an okay representation of a bisexual character — her relationships with both genders are seen as powerful and ‘real’ in both their representation of lust and love.
The writer of the series, Joss Whedon, has stated that he didn’t think the world was ready for a ‘bi’ character, feeling people would then dismiss her lesbian relationships. Nearly twenty years later, and I’m not sure there’s been much improvement in this area.
Was labelling Willow’s sexuality as ‘gay’ the right choice? I don’t know. In my mind, she’ll always be a beautiful LGBT+ icon, and I think that’s good enough for me.
4. 13 Reasons Why
Admittedly, I have only seen the first season of this series. However, I saw a quote from a bisexual character in 13 Reasons Why that I wanted to talk about.
I’m not 100% straight. I’m not any percent straight — I’m bi, I guess.
I think this is a great rebuttal to society’s biphobia — we see queer people as ‘sometimes straight’ and ‘sometimes gay’. I don’t think I’m alone when I openly declare the gayness that I feel because I’d rather be mis-identified as gay than straight. I’d like to say that’s because on the Kinsey scale I’m closer to gay than straight, but I think a lot of it comes again from this internalised fear of simply being a “fake” lesbian.
Going back to the “It’s just a phase” idea, I think history provides a lot of answers for why we have this issue, especially with bisexual women. Homosexuality was illegal in the UK between 1533 and 1967 and men were frequently imprisoned for it. This never happened to gay women, because the act of publishing a law was thought as ‘giving women ideas’.
Criminalising homosexuality was incredibly problematic, but it did a very important thing: it made it absolutely clear that being gay was a real thing that real men could be. Lesbians, while less prosecuted, never had that “you are real” moment.
Bisexuality also didn’t get its ‘real’ stamp, and still straddles the straight and gay camps. The quote from 13 Reasons really speaks to me: I’m not any percent straight, even if I’m with a man. Talking about this part of bisexuality, and legitimising it as its own, separate camp might be the best way to portray this sexuality on screen.
5. Rosa in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Another example of good representation. Not only is Rosa bi, she’s also latino, opening an opportunity for many young bisexuals to see someone of their sexuality who isn’t white. The actress, Stephanie Beatriz, is also bi, and was able to heavily influence how her character came out.
Stephanie says it was really important that Rosa said ‘bisexual’ many times, which I think really helped make her character’s sexuality feel real. There are a lot of examples in TV where a bi character is never referred to as ‘bi’, so I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine did a great job with making sure they used the word bisexual.
I also love how the show explored the stereotype of “it’s just a phase”, and the “You’re with a man, you must be straight now” idea. Exploring the problems society has with stereotyping an underrepresented group can be a really good way to raise awareness of our own biases.
How should TV portray bisexuality in the future?
Navigating bisexuality is hard. Not only can it turn into badly portraying gay relationships, there are so many ways to be bisexual and even lots of different labels for bisexuality (i.e. pansexual).
I want to see a huge swathe of bisexual characters from every walk of life and every personality, but I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. Bisexuality still needs to be given its “I’m real” stamp, before we can break through stereotypes.
In my view, sexuality is fluid and we’re all somewhere on the scale between only loving people of the same gender and only loving people of the opposite gender. The majority of society sees sexuality as a binary choice — you are one or the other. I think using TV to open up discussions about this fluidity and the problems with bi visibility would be incredibly beneficial.
So what can we do? Well, our voices are more powerful than we think. We can start conversations about bi representation, and raise awareness about what we want to see on TV. We can critique shows, like I’ve done here, and be honest about how we feel. In many ways, this is already happening, as some recent shows have done an excellent job of representation. So add your voice to this crescendo and advocate for shows that tell the little me of the future that no, we’re not fake lesbians — we are 0% gay, 0% straight, and 100% real.