Last week The Atlantic published an article entitled “Bisexuality on TV: It’s Getting Better.” The article explains that although the quantity of bisexual characters is still very limited, with currently only 18 bisexual regular or recurring female characters in all of primetime television, the quality is improving. The article cites characters like Callie Torres of Grey’s Anatomy and Kalinda Sharma of The Good Wife as examples of well-drawn, fully realized, characters while pointing out that other characters, like Piper Chapman of Orange is the New Black and Pam from True Blood are a bit more problematic. I agree that it’s helpful to acknowledge how far we’ve come in terms of bisexual visibility in the media. However, I’m not convinced that representations of bisexuals on television have improved as much as we’d like to believe.
A person’s sexual orientation is based on how they feel, not what they do. Therefore, just as a heterosexual person doesn’t have to have sex with the opposite sex to know that they are straight, and a lesbian doesn’t have to have sex with woman to know that she is a lesbian, a bisexual person shouldn’t have to have a relationship with both a man and a woman to know that they are bisexual. Nor should we as an audience have to see a character be in a relationship with both men and women to co-sign on the sexual orientation the writers and producer’s assign to a character.
But, it doesn’t hurt.
Because bisexuality is often viewed as a performance or phase, it’s great to see bisexual female characters who are or who have engaged in meaningful, long-term relationships with other women. There are other positive bisexual female characters that weren’t mentioned in the original article from The Atlantic that do just that, proving that bisexuals are not merely experimenting with same-sex relationships. This is why bisexual character, Cosima, one of six clones in Orphan Black who despite her misgivings, falls for French student Delphine is important for bi-visibility.
Watching bisexual characters also participate in relationships with men (though not at the same time as they have a relationship with a woman as that would seem to support a different stereotype) no matter how casual or fleeting the relationship is, is also beneficial in dispelling the myth that bisexuality is just a quick stop on the sexuality train on the way to gaytown or lesbianville. Bo from Lost Girl, a succubus who quite literately needs sex to live, does so with both men and women. In season one, she has a relationship with a man and in Season 2 she has an equally important relationship with a woman.
Imogen Moreno is a refreshingly uncomplicated bisexual (or some would say pansexual) character from Degrassi who dated a boy name Eli and a girl named Fiona before having a brief fling with a trans* character named Adam Torres.
Though some might find the character of Piper Chapman to be problematic because she refuses to label herself (though everyone else seems to want to label her as an ex-lesbian). Instead, she tries to make it clear that sexuality is on a spectrum and can be fluid. “You don’t just turn gay,” she says, “You fall somewhere on a spectrum, like a Kinsey scale.”
In a flashback scene while helping her friend Polly get ready for her wedding, she makes it clear that she is interested in both men and women when she says, “I like hot girls. I like hot boys. I like hot people. What can I say? I’m shallow.”
When people call her a lesbian and she replies with statements like “I’m not even fully that way,” she is being honest. She isn’t denying her same sex attraction; she just refuses to deny her opposite-sex attraction as well.
On one hand, the fact that she cheats on her fiancé Larry is a bit troubling as it seems to support that stereotype that bisexual or pansexual people are inherently cheaters. On the other hand, it seems unfair to expect bisexual characters to behave perfectly while all the other characters are realistically flawed. Also, while imperfect characters can be infuriating, perfect characters are boring.
So yes, it’s getting better. There are more representations of bisexual, pansexual and sexually fluid women than ever before. Yet, just like in life, it can get complicated. Take Morello from Orange is the New Black, for instance. She was engaged to a man before being incarcerated and then while in prison has an affair with a woman. Is she bisexual? She never self-identifies as such although she certainly seems fluid. Perhaps, Morello doesn’t yet know how she identifies. Would we consider that bi-erasure, or just honesty?
And then there is Mulan from Once Upon a Time, whom we are all happy to welcome into the queer fold after she attempted to tell Aurora about her romantic feelings for her. And yet, when we were first introduced to Mulan it seemed that, despite her protestations to the contrary, that she had a thing for Philip. If this is true, what does that mean? Is she a lesbian or bisexual?
It’s unclear, and somewhat controversial. In fact, it is reminiscent of the Willow Rosenberg argument, in which some Buffy fans insist that despite the fact that folks from Joss Whedon’s camp have identified Willow as a lesbian, they can’t dismiss her past relationships with Xander and Oz or concede that there were any less meaningful than her relationship with Tara.
Is Mulan’s sexual identity merely evolving, like Willow’s did? Mulan thought she was into boys, but it turns out she’s into girls? Or is she into both? The character of Mulan would be a great way for Once Upon a Time and ABC to increase bi-visibility, but only time will tell if the show will attempt to open the character up or stick to the lesbian-heterosexual binary.
Don’t even get me started on the way bisexual characters are treated on television by other gay or heterosexual characters. As a bisexual woman, even our beloved Calzona on Grey’s Anatomy makes me cringe when I think of some the horrific, bi-phobic rants Arizona has spewed out at Callie to mask her own insecurity. On the one hand, these biphobic scenes help to highlight the very real marginalization that bisexual people feel in both queer and straight communities. On the other hand, the fact that Arizona was never called out on her bi-phobia doesn’t do anything to help make it better.
So I pose the question to you: Are representations of bisexuality on television getting better? Or do we still have a long, long way to go?