There is absolutely no denying that television shows and films have begun to feature more diverse LGBTIQA+ characters in recent years, and thank god for that. However, as audiences are increasingly more exposed to representations of different sexualities and varied queer experiences, it becomes clear that bisexuality lacks representation on the small screen, both domestically and internationally.
In what is being described as the golden age of television, gay and lesbian characters are as culturally diverse and complex as ever, but bisexual characters still rare, particularly men. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report, in the 2014-2015 American television season, there were just 12 bisexual characters on broadcast television, with only 2 of them male. American cable television is somewhat better, with 21 bisexual characters, but still only 10 of them are men. And Australian television isn’t doing much better, with few bisexual characters on our channels, let alone any male bisexual characters.
Indeed, overall GLAAD reported an increase in the percentage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans characters on television, but in the face of all this, portrayals of bisexual men and women continue to be unrealistic and perpetuate seriously harmful stereotypes. Still, it is important to remind oneself that the quality of bisexual television characters is in fact improving, though at a pace that some consider glacial.
Asking friends and acquaintances about recognisable bisexual characters resulted in a shopping list of many (problematic) female bisexual examples. Kalida Sharma from The Good Wife, Piper Chapman from Orange Is The New Black, Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy, Amy Raudenfed from Faking It, Brittany S. Pierce from Glee, and the list went on. Certainly many of the characters are shown engaging in bisexual activities, but many times their sexual preferences are portrayed as an aphrodisiac for men, an extra hurdle for men pursuing them or simply as a character trait like “smart” or “rich”, intending it to cause conflict or spice up a story. These representations are even worse when bisexual women are seen in casual relationships, implying that bisexuality and polyamory are conflated ideals.
Depictions of bisexual men are few are far between. Instead, gay characters are shown as briefly experimenting with women before returning to their singlegendered sexuality. And while there are discussions about characters such as Gob from Arrested Development, Tony from Skins and Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, among other being bisexual portrayals, so many show-runners and TV producers are afraid to name their characters as bi or consistently represent them as such. Instead, they avoid the situation by making bisexual interactions a one time thing and never having frank discussions about sexuality in the series. It is also part of a bigger bisexual erasure in television, whereby TV producers refuse to acknowledge bisexuality, but perpetuate the idea that bisexuals are just confused straight people or closeted homosexuals.
Revenge’s Nolan Ross, played by Gabriel Mann, is one of few representations of bisexual men on television. Ross, a rich software investor and confidante of the main character Emily (always the supporting character, never the main), is depicted as having serious and casual relationships with both men and women in the show. Funnily enough, the show didn’t find the need to brand Ross with the bi stamp, but casually had him reveal it to one of his male lovers. Even better, Ross’ “reveal” of his sexuality didn’t capitalise on the shock value of two men having sex on television. The knowledge of his sexuality isn’t a huge revelation, but a matter of fact, and isn’t considered a big personality trait. He’s bisexual and it doesn’t impact his friendships, family, job or character.
Game Of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell is another bisexual character whose appearance on TV was short lived. With his introduction at a brothel in King’s Landing, he is immediately depicted as being surrounded by naked men and woman, where he chooses a paid casual encounter with Olyvar. Oberyn acts as a loyal fighter and is seen as being traditionally masculine, with the exception of his sexuality. But in this case, Oberyn’s bisexual tendencies are intrinsically linked to his exotic otherness—he resides in the “uncivilised” Dorne, south of Westeros, wearing nontraditional royal clothing, and is one of few darker-skinned characters among the predominantly White upper class of King’s Landing, along with his lover Ellaria Sand. But as with all bisexual characters on television, Oberyn is quickly disposed of and doesn’t become an integral part of the series.
Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who, and later Torchwood, is apparently one of few accurate portrayals of bisexual men on television. Jack is seen as more of a conventional action hero with some moments of unabashed flirtation. Having never been interested in DW or Torchwood myself, I never watched Jack, but have heard from other young gay and bisexual people that Jack’s sexuality isn’t exploitative. It doesn’t undermine his character, and is considered ordinary and dealt with matter-of-factly. Jack has also been deemed pansexual, which is a progressive aspect of his characterization, but somewhat falls outside the field of bisexuality.
Audiences influence much of the lack of bi men on TV. There’s an inherent issue with straight male audiences not understanding that bisexual men would want to sleep with other men rather than a woman, even though they understand that gay men don’t choose to be gay. A paper in the Journal of Sex Research, “Heterosexuals’ attitudes towards bisexual men and women in the United States” echoes this idea, displaying that heterosexual men rated male homosexuals and bisexuals lower than female homosexuals and bisexuals. Likewise, many male viewers may feel threatened by bisexual characters, because they defy heteronormativity in a different way to homosexuality; bisexual women are less threatening to a straight male audience than lesbians because they are sexually available to men.
The recently ended TV adaptation of the comic book Constantine downplayed the titular character’s sexuality. Many commentators believed that he was never bisexual (because references to his sexuality are subtle in the comics) and felt that his sexuality wasn’t integral to his character. The show was cancelled, but fans never forgave TV producers for once again erasing Constantine’s bisexuality in the story.
What appears to be happening is a pattern of bi-erasure on television. Recognition has always been a challenge for bisexual community, especially when numbers of self-identifying men are small. Onscreen representation is something that is important to people in the bisexual community, especially ensuring that their portrayals are accurate and fair, and not for the drama of a series. What the bisexual community needs is TV shows that will inspire and represent our community effectively, like what Will & Grace and Ellen did in the 1990s to empower the gay and lesbian community.
TV frequently misunderstands bisexuality and abuses it for the sake of story lines. Instead, we need characters on TV to embrace their bisexuality and to be shown exploring their identity, like so many of the community. It is right to praise the growing complexity and inclusion of gay and lesbian characters on TV, but it’s time for female bisexual characters to stop pandering to straight male audiences and time for the bi men to come out (literally and figuratively) so that their characters evolve as well.
Originally published in Honi Soit, September 2, 2015.