Bisexual Representation on Screen
By Roshanah Masilamani (she/her)
The issue of representation has become increasingly topical in recent years. A dialogue has opened up around who is being represented on the screen and how this is carried out. Throughout television history, the characters being portrayed are typically limited to white, straight, cis individuals. Growing up as a bisexual woman of colour means I’m used to not seeing myself represented on screen, but it still stings when I see yet another show featuring an all-white all-straight cast. As marginalised individuals are given more opportunities to tell their own stories, television is becoming more diverse and inclusive – yet there is still a long to go. In light of CANTA’s Pride issue, I thought it fitting to examine bisexual representation on screen, especially because it highlights the difficulties in depicting queerness authentically.
The 2019 GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” report shows that 488 regular and recurring characters on scripted television were within the LGBTQ+ umbrella, which equates to roughly 10% overall. Of that number, 26 per cent were bisexual. Although that percentage may appear high at first, it becomes less so when considered in relation to the number of bisexuals within the queer community – according to UCLA’s Williams Institute, bisexual individuals make up the majority of the LGB community at 52 per cent.
So why this disparity?
One reason for bisexuality being underrepresented is the difficulty in defining the term. The bisexual umbrella is an encompassing term for individuals with the capacity to be attracted to more than one gender. This can include people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, queer, and more. Consequently, bisexuality becomes a fluid identity that resists set demarcations of expression. Although gay and lesbian representation isn’t great by any standard, it is still better represented as it fits neatly into the binary. You are either attracted to the same sex or the opposite sex. The idea of being attracted to both complicates this binary and is therefore often misunderstood or simply erased.
This brings me to my second point: bisexuality is not only underrepresented but also misrepresented. The way in which bisexuals are portrayed on screen is often harmful, drawing on negative stereotypes that perpetuate bi-erasure and biphobia. This includes treating a character’s bisexuality as a temporary plot device, depicting bisexual characters as promiscuous and untrustworthy, or refusing to label characters who engage in sexual and/or romantic relationships with multiple genders as bisexual. Notably, bisexual representation is skewed towards women – in 2019, bisexual characters on television were made up of 90 women, 36 men, and two non-binary characters. This statistic clearly shows a gender difference within bisexual representation, which is further emphasised through the way in which the character’s sexualities are treated on the show.
For instance, bisexual women on screen are heavily sexualised and often fetishised. They are frequently shown to engage in sexual relationships with other women yet only ever entering into romantic relationships with men. In doing so, female bisexuality becomes objectified under the male gaze. The entire trope of “I kissed a girl, but I’m still straight” is connected to misogynistic ideas of women’s sexuality as a commodity for men. Additionally, female bisexual characters are depicted as overly promiscuous and always up for a threesome.
Bisexual women also fall into the trope of never admitting their sexuality. Instead, they are often portrayed as straight women turned lesbian, or worse, straight-lesbian-straight again under the guise of sexual experimentation. A notable example of this is Piper from Orange Is the New Black. Piper avoids identifying as bisexual despite having been in serious romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women throughout the show – at one point, she refers to herself as a “former lesbian”. The flipping between straight and lesbian erases bisexuality as it reinforces the notion that every bisexual individual eventually chooses a side.
Gay male representation on television has come a long way; however, men who openly identify as bisexual remains virtually non-existent. When depicted, bisexual men are often seen as closeted gay men. Glee features an episode where Blaine, an openly gay character, considers the possibility of being bisexual after sharing a drunken kiss with a female character. Kurt, another gay character, dismisses this by saying, “bisexual is a term that gay guys in high school use when they want to hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change”.
Does representation really matter? In short, yes. Underrepresentation and misrepresentation have very real consequences for the community affected. The way bisexual individuals are depicted on screen carries implications for how wider society understands bisexuality and contributes to the hesitance that bisexual individuals may feel in coming out to family and friends. Television is still far away from reflecting the reality of the bisexual community, particularly when you consider additional intersectional issues – the majority of bisexual characters are white (59 per cent) – and therefore, we must continue to push the conversation around representation forward. Bisexual individuals are nuanced and varied, and our representation onscreen should reflect that.
Modern media has taken huge strides in representing bisexuality. The trend toward characters who openly identify as bisexual and engage in well-developed relationships with both men and women is hugely gratifying. We have some great bisexual characters to look up to and lust after – my personal favourites include Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy), Petra Solano (Jane the Virgin), David Rose (Schitt’s Creek), and any character created by Ryan Murphy. My hope is that this signals a shift toward greater representation for all.