Bi on the Big Screen
Story by Lexi Phillips
“She’s with a woman now… Does that mean she’s gay?”
Well, maybe she’s…
“Maybe she just doesn’t like labels.”
According to GLAAD’s 2016 “Reporting on the Bisexual Community” report, bisexual people make up 52 percent of the United States’ lesbian, gay and bisexual community. Despite this, bisexual representation has been mostly nonexistent throughout the history of film and television—mainly due to both the continuous (but receding) stigmatization of and prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people and, in the last few decades, the focus on representation of binary sexualities (that is, gay and lesbian identities.) Even when a bisexual character is introduced, like Piper Chapman in “Orange is the New Black,” the word ‘bisexual’ is often not used to describe their sexuality.
Recently, though, people are seeing more and more characters who openly identify as bisexual+, which GLAAD defines as an “encompassing [term] for people with the capacity to be attracted to more than one gender. This can include people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and more.” Though this representation primarily involves bisexuality and not other sexualities that fall beyond the binary as stated by GLAAD, this is certainly a step forward in LGBTQIA+ representation.
There is still a ways to go, though—PULSE spoke to members of the bisexual+ community and more to see exactly where we stand when it comes to bi representation in mainstream media.
For many bisexual+ people, coming to terms with their sexuality isn’t an easy ride, primarily due to how little exposure they are given in the media while growing up. Sophomore Food Science and Nutrition Major Maya Jensen recalls, “Growing up, I didn’t see any [bisexual representation]. I didn’t even realize that what I was feeling as a bisexual person wasn’t ‘normal’ until I was [in] late middle school, and then I realized that there was a term for it,” she says. “But I didn’t realize that because of TV and movies; there was just no representation.”
Since media is such a huge influence on our culture, and “more people consume film and television than any other popular medium,” according to Melissa Johnson—a senior lecturer in the CWU film program who teaches courses on gender and sexuality in film—what we watch shapes the way we view the world, and ourselves, from a young age.
“Up until I was around 13 or so, I truly believed there were only two sexualities a person could be: straight or gay,” says Jade Baker, a 20-year-old from Vancouver, Wash. “In my opinion, the media still seems to believe that.”
And while we are certainly seeing more representation than we were a decade ago, the stats are still pretty low. According to GLAAD’s 2017-2018 Where We Are on TV report, only 6.4 percent of the 901 regular characters who appeared on all broadcast scripted primetime shows—such as ones on ABC, CBS or NBC—in the 2017-2018 season were identified as LGBTQ. In the history of this report, this is the highest percentage that GLAAD has found.
Across all platforms (cable, scripted broadcast and streaming), “bisexual+ characters make up 28 percent of the LGBTQ characters,” according to the report.
Additionally, according to GLAAD’s 2018 Studio Responsibility Index, of the 14 out of 109 LGBTQ-inclusive studio films in 2017, only 14 percent contained at least one bisexual character—a slight increase from the year before.
“So, there has been far more representation in that last five years than there ever has been previously,” says Johnson. “And in that regard, we’re kind of in this golden age of representation, but it’s still a sad state of affairs to think that the minimal representation that [exists] is on par with some sort of golden age because it is such a dramatic shift from what there was before, which was nothing.”
Additionally, with still so little representation, we see far more bisexual+ women onscreen than bisexual+ men—a recurring issue among bi+ representation. According to GLAAD, of the 28 percent of bi characters on television during the 2017-2018 season, “these characters still heavily skew toward women (75 women to 18 men).”
Ben Almquist, a 23-year-old from Vancouver, Wash., says, “Unfortunately, I don't see a great deal of myself.” He says he has seen bisexual men portrayed more in musical theatre, “if only rarely, in a positive light.” Specifically, in the incoming Broadway musical “Be More Chill.”
This imbalance may have to do with the stigma of bisexual+ men versus bisexual+ women. “There’s the stereotype that if you identify as a man and as bisexual, you’re secretly gay, and if you identify as a woman and identify as bisexual … then you’re just promiscuous and slutty and more likely to cheat,” says Senior Film Major Jocelyn Waite. “And that’s kind of been a stereotype that’s been seen throughout media for a really long time, and it’s definitely an idea that a lot of older generations still have.”
This portrayal often finds its way into real life, as well. “One of my best friends in high school had that idea and it was frustrating,” recalls Waite, “because she says that she’s okay with me being bi but then she likes a guy and it turns out that he’s bi, and she’s like, ‘Well my mom said that he’s just gay.’”
Though this trope still finds its way into today’s media, it is becoming less of a commonplace and is even being challenged by different movies and TV shows—“Grown-ish,” the Freeform spinoff of ABC’s “Black-ish,” tackled the issue in the January episode titled “Starboy” in which a bisexual character, Nomi, finds herself the target of biphobia as well as the offender, coming face-to-face with her own internalized biphobia.
Another show that tackles this trope in a more humorous way is The CW’s musical comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in which the quirky character Darryl comes out as bi to his colleagues through a song titled “Getting’ Bi,” which includes lyrics such as, “’Oh, you’re just gay / Why don’t you just go gay all the way?’ / But that’s not it / ‘Cause bi’s legit.”
With characters like Darryl and storylines challenging harmful stereotypes, it seems we’re well on our way to a more equal representation of bi+ men and women.
Not Just a Phase
Waite says that growing up, she felt a push from her parents to marry a man despite her sexuality. In watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” portray this struggle through the character Rosa as she came out to her parents in the episode titled “Game Night,” Waite saw herself in Rosa’s place; upon coming out, Rosa’s parents assure her that she can still marry a man and have a child.
“It … kind of reflected a bit of my experience with having parents who think that because you are attracted to more than one gender but you’re still attracted to the opposite gender, then you can still have a ‘normal’ marriage and live a ‘normal’ life,” says Waite, “and it was nice to see that experience also reflected onscreen and see a character have to struggle with that.”
While this instance reflects what many bisexual people experience when coming out, there are still a multitude of instances in which films and TV shows depict bisexuality as a phase, often to make a character seem ‘sexier’ or more ‘complicated.’ Baker says she often sees this in the form of “hot girls in movies making out with other hot girls, then getting with the main male character in the end.”
This trope can be found in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” when Scott Pilgrim must fight off one of Ramona’s “evil exes”—a girl named Roxy. The scene is highly sexualized and at one point Scott asks Ramona, “You had a sexy phase?” Ramona responds with, “I was just a little bi-curious.”
According to GLAAD’s “Reporting on the Bisexual Community” report, “The bisexual orientation is an integral, valid, and permanent part of a person’s identity. Characterizing bisexual people as ‘passing,’ ‘confused,’ [or] ‘indecisive’ … is defamatory, as it seeks to undermine bisexuality's existence and generalizes bi people according to harmful tropes.”
Not only this, but when the ‘phase’ trope is used to make a character seem ‘sexier,’ it further serves to invalidate bisexuality. “It’s this … constructed idea that’s meant to sort of justify this permeation of sexuality or of constant sexual desire that can’t be satiated somehow by just one gender or one sex,” says Johnson.
Just as common, if not more, is the tendency to make a character bi+ without ever explicitly stating the character’s sexuality, as if saying the word itself is taboo.
“Far too often, LGBTQ characters and stories are relegated to subtext, and it is left up to the audience to interpret or read into a character as being queer,” according to the GLAAD 2018 Studio Responsibility Index.
When this occurs, viewers can identify with a character’s experiences but may have no idea what to make of them.
“Every bi person experiences things differently and if you don’t want to label yourself, I think that’s [fine], but you understand that you’re experiencing romantic feelings for both or multiple [genders],” says Jensen. “So, it’s okay for me to see certain characters not be labeled … but it’s every character. I don’t think every character that is [bisexual+] doesn’t want to label themselves.”
An alternate version of this is when viewers are told outside of a film or TV show—typically by the creators or actors—that a character is bisexual+ without actually showing it onscreen. For example, after “Thor: Ragnarök” hit theaters and became a box office hit, Tessa Thompson, who played the film’s character Valkyrie, confirmed that Valkyrie is bi despite the film never giving any evidence of the fact. It was later revealed that a scene in which Valkyrie’s bisexuality was made known had been shot but was later cut from the final version of the film.
In a 2017 Teen Vogue article written by Brittney McNamara, bi advocate Eliel Cruz-Lopez said, “This ambiguous, maybe-they-are-maybe-they-aren’t bisexual only encourages people to treat bisexuality as something that should be hidden away and not proudly celebrated.”
With instances like Rosa’s arc in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and others which have been popping up in film and television over the past few years, though, we may be hearing more of the B-word coming through our speakers.
The Bi Villain
“When there are relatively few depictions of bisexuals, the representation and integrity of each bisexual character holds more weight,” wrote Zachary Zane in a Nov. 2016 Washington Post article titled “TV producers, stop portraying bisexuals as villains.”
As such, many portrayals of bisexuality+ do include villainization, which Jensen predicts has to do with “associating understanding your sexuality or being confident in your sexuality with being evil or promiscuous.”
Zane elaborated in his article: “Many bisexual TV characters lack a moral compass. They exploit their own sexuality as a means to get ahead. They’re also unabashedly shameless in their actions, never having an ounce of remorse,” he wrote. “It is as if, for these fictional bisexual characters, sexual fluidity equals moral fluidity. In this regard, sexuality is not seen as an identity, but rather, as a personality trait.”
An example, as Zane pointed out, is Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” whose bisexuality “is not a defining aspect of [his] identity,” he wrote. Beau Willimon, the showrunner, even went as far as to dismiss Frank’s bisexuality, saying, “He’s a man with a large appetite, he’s a man who does not allow himself to be placed in any sort of milieu or with one definition.” Frank’s bisexuality is only a part of his quest for power, according to Zane.
(Not-So) Fast Forward
So, where do we go from here? To figure that out, we must first determine how we got this far in the first place.
According to some, this recent growth in bi+ visibility has much to do with activism and outspokenness from the LGBTQ+ community. “I think the honest take from members of the bisexual community, as well as a greater representation of queer individuals and characters in the community and in popular media, is making bisexuality more common,” says Almquist.
Johnson agrees: “Film and television have always been straddling this line between influencing and being influenced by what’s happening in [our] culture, and the more that audiences are demanding in a broad sense that their experiences be seen and be validated, the more likely it is that our popular forms of entertainment are going to start listening to that,” she says.
For Elaina Johnson, a high school senior in Ellensburg, other forms of media have contributed in this push. “There are a lot of YouTubers that I watch that have come out as bi, and so I think that when … public representation is out there, it becomes more represented in television [and] media.”
To move forward, then, would mean to continue the outreach and the activism—and it’s not impossible.
“I am from a different generation, when sexuality was closeted [and] censored. A lot has changed, to say the least,” says Ted Arabian, a 54-year-old actor living in Los Angeles. “And a lot has to be credited to the media, to television and film and to the individuals who came out. A lot has changed because of brave people. Representation brings about change; I've witnessed that.”
A big step in increasing this visibility and authentic representation is making the effort to better understand bisexuality+. “We do make up most of the LGBT community, so there’s no shortage of us,” says Jensen. “They can come and talk to us, it’s okay. … And then going from there would be the appropriate thing to do.”
From there, we can better understand how to create these bisexual+ characters onscreen. “Most people, when they write queer characters, seem to make their queerness everything they are. … Coming into yourself and your sexuality are big, important things, but it’s not everything,” says Waite. “I want queerness to be celebrated, and I want queerness to be multi-dimensional.” In the case of Darryl’s coming-out arc in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna worked closely with GLAAD to make sure his storyline and characterization didn’t fall into harmful stereotypes, according to a March 2016 Daily Beast article written by Samantha Allen.
However, Waite insists that allowing bisexual+ people to write and play bisexual+ roles is what will allow for the richest and most authentic portrayal. “Allowing people to write characters that reflect their lives and their friends’ lives … will help to combat a lot of the stereotypes that have developed over time and that are often very prevalent in media,” she explains, “because people go off of what they know and what they’ve heard, but if you’re going off of what you’ve experienced or what people close to you have experienced, then it will feel more real and it’ll connect to a wider audience and it’ll educate people who have never gone through that or have yet to go through that.”
According to Melissa Johnson, an increase in representation doesn’t just benefit bi+ people. “I’m not bisexual, but I think it’s still valid and necessary to see those experiences represented ... because it is different from me,” she says, “and how else and where else I am going to be able to fully immerse myself in somebody else’s experience—somebody else’s story—if not through this place that we almost all invest in at some point in our lives?”
Ultimately, we need to remember one important thing, according to Baker: “It’s important to show a more diverse world in the media, because the real world we live in is diverse.”