LGBTQIA+ representation in television has been going up in recent years. According to GLAAD’s 2016-2017 Annual Report on LGBTQ Representation, we are seeing a higher percentage of LGBTQIA+ main or regular characters on broadcast TV than ever before. The report also mentions that there are record numbers of LGBTQIA+ characters of colour, LGBTQIA+ characters with disabilities, and transgender characters played by actual transgender actors. There is still a very long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction.
Having said that, there is one group of people that continues to be shockingly misrepresented on the silver screen. That group is the bisexuals.
Of all the LGBTQIA+ characters portrayed on television in 2016-2017, approximately 30% were bi (or otherwise non-monosexual); a significantly lower percentage than that of bisexual people within the LGBTQIA+ community (which is closer to 50%). On top of that, most bisexual representation on TV falls into one or more bisexuality tropes. These tropes, or stereotypes, are laughably inaccurate at best and downright insulting at worst.
Here are four of the most common bisexuality tropes.
- The Slutty Bi Trope: A large portion of recurring bisexual characters on TV are portrayed as overly promiscuous and/or hypersexual. Most of the characters that fit this trope are female, which has led more than one think piece on the subject to conclude that these characters’ bisexuality serves as little more than titillation for the heterosexual male audience. Examples of this trope include Brittany Pierce in Glee and Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones.
- The Evil Bi Trope: Even if a bisexual character on TV is pickier about who they bed than a token Slutty Bi character, there is a good chance that they are a cold-blooded sociopath, who may or may not use sex as a tool of manipulation. Well-known examples of this trope include Frank Underwood in House of Cards and T-Bag in Prison Break.
- The Unnamed Bi Trope: Bisexual erasure, or bi erasure, is the practice of masking clear evidence of bisexuality, whether that be in history, the media, academia, or other sources. Bi erasure is rampant in television, most obviously in the simple fact that there are far fewer bi characters on TV than there are bi people in the real world. One of the more subtle methods of bi erasure is having characters that are obviously bisexual, but never properly called bisexual or acknowledged as such. Examples of this include Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory, Lily Aldrin in How I Met Your Mother, Faith in Buffy, and Jackson Whittemore in Teen Wolf.
- The Straight-to-Gay Trope: Another common bi erasure practice is having characters that are introduced as or presumed straight fall in love with somebody of their gender and immediately become gay, as though bisexuality is not a viable option that is discovered by many real-life bisexual people in just this way. The most often cited example of this trope is Willow Rosenberg in Buffy, who, after three seasons of being exclusively involved with men, falls in love with a woman and becomes gay. Santana Lopez in Glee is another well-known example, as is Mulan (and several other characters) in Once Upon a Time.
Bisexual people deserve to have their stories told, and deserve to be able to see accurate portrayals of themselves in the media, like any other minority group. But this is not just a question of equality and fairness. It is a question of necessity.
Television is an important part of our culture and we are influenced by it in a number of ways, including how we view minority groups. Accurate, non-stereotypical media portrayals of minority groups on television allow the general public to see these groups in ways they might not have done before. This enables greater acknowledgement, empathy, and humanisation towards these groups. In other words, in a television-loving world, accurate TV representation is an important step in breaking down prejudice. Dr Martin Luther King understood this all too well when he famously informed black Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols that she could not leave the show after its first season, because, for the first time, black people were being seen on television as they should be seen; not as a stereotype, but as actual humans doing incredible things alongside their white brethren.
Bisexual people need this sort of representation, and the current lack of it is proving to have real consequences. For example, only 28% of bi people are out, as opposed to 77% of gays and lesbians, and it should be noted that staying in the closet has been shown to negatively affect the mental health, career progression, and general happiness of bisexual individuals. And while you yourself may not believe the stereotypes of bi people, it is no coincidence that bisexual people are often mistakenly thought of as promiscuous, manipulative, non-existant, or transitioning from one monosexuality to another. People are influenced by the tropes.
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Fortunately, it looks as though attitudes towards bisexual representation on television are changing, and recent efforts on the silver screen have presented some excitingly nuanced, thoughtful, bisexual characters.
Here are four of the best portrayals of bisexuality on recent TV.
- Darryl Whitefeather from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Darryl is being noted for how excellently he portrays bisexuality, and not without good reason. Darryl does not in any way play into bisexuality tropes. He is dorky, enthusiastic, over-the-top, a mother hen, and seemingly unaware of how embarrassing he can be. His coming out was a Season 1 storyline, and, when he announces his bisexuality to his office, he does it by singing a fabulous 80’s style pop ballad, ‘Gettin’ Bi’. The song clearly announces the creators’ message: Darryl is not a stereotype. He is a fully fleshed out character who happens to be bisexual.
- Rosa Diaz from Brooklyn Nine-Nine: One of the most exciting things about Rosa Diaz and Darryl Whitefeather both being bisexual is that, apart from their sexuality, these two are about as different as can be. Rosa Diaz is the ultimate badass. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s direct, and she’s prone to violence against inanimate objects. We find out about her sexuality during the show’s 99th episode; after we have spent over four seasons coming to know and love her as a character. While the creators of Brooklyn Nine-Nine are not so obvious in their desire to defy stereotypes, Rosa Diaz’s actress, Stephanie Beatriz (who is bi herself) made the conscious decision to have Rosa say ‘I’m bisexual’ to push back against the Unnamed Bi trope.
- Valencia Perez from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: A non-LGBTQIA+ focused show having a bisexual character is unusual. A non-LGBTQIA+ show having two bisexual characters is practically unheard of. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually has three bisexual characters, although the third is not part of the main cast. As the long-term girlfriend of the primary male love interest during the first season, Valencia was presumed straight by most of the audience until very recently, when she is seen holding hands with and kissing a woman. Although Valencia has not yet said ‘I’m bisexual’ on-screen, her sexuality is being acknowledged in the legitimacy of both of the relationships we have seen her in. This is a recent development in the show, so it is unclear how it will develop, but it is looking promising so far.
- Adam Alvaro from Jane the Virgin: Adam is only in the show for a handful of episodes, and unlike the other portrayals mentioned, his bisexuality is explored through the point of view of Jane, who is dating him. Jane discovers that Adam is bi and claims to be fine with it, but throughout the episode it becomes clear that she is a little weirded out, because she keeps imagining him getting flirty with all of the men he talks to. Eventually she comes clean about her feelings, and she and Adam discuss his bisexuality. Jane asks Adam questions that indicate her assumptions; assumptions based on bisexuality stereotypes (‘Is being bi a stop to coming out as gay?’). Adam then proceeds to dismantle those stereotypes (‘No; it just means I am open to a connection with a man or a woman’). Adam’s character is an excellent opportunity for Jane (and, therefore, the audience) to educate herself, and thereby start to rid herself of prejudices she had not realised she’d had.
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To conclude, we still have a long way to go before bisexual people are accurately represented on television, but progress is being made in the right direction. We need to continue to support television shows that bring about these great portrayals of bisexuality, while rejecting shows that stick to tired, inaccurate bisexuality tropes.
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