I’d like to talk about bisexuality and sexual fluidity on TV. I’d like to do this without outrage or pitchforks or the heat of torches licking against my back. I think it’s possible without angry accusations and knee-jerk name calling. You may call me a dreamer, but we’re all about to find out if I’m the only one.
You see, new Glee scribe and consulting producer Marti Noxon had some very interesting, potentially provocative things to say about the direction of the show and one Brittany S. Pierce in particular recently. In an interview with TV Guide, the former Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer and producer (who has since worked on Angel, Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice), was unusually candid when the topic of sexuality came up.
The portrayal of bisexual and sexual fluidity (which, mind you, are not the same and not necessarily interchangeable) on the large and small screen has been a bit of a third rail in the world of gender politics. Many skirt around it, fearful of its power. Others plunge ahead, and experience the unprecedented jolt of emotions that often follows. If you think I’m kidding in any way about that, please go back and read the comments on my The Kids Are All Right review. Or review the comments about Tea on the American Skins. We really, really don’t like it when gay women sleep with men.
Noxon, who was coincidentally raised by her lesbian moms, told TV Guide that self-described “bi-curious” Brittany was the character that most interested her:
TV Guide: Are there any characters you’re excited to help write stories for?
Consider that the third rail touched and possibly full-body embraced. I am expecting strong lesbian emotions in 5, 4, 3, 2, now.
Many people will probably take issue with her use of the term “un-gay.” It’s dangerously close to “ex-gay” and that’s the dangerous delusion that you can – in any way, shape or form – pray away the gay. Let us be perfectly clear, you cannot. Nor can you catch it, like the flu, or spread it, like the gospel. It’s just something we’re born with, like blue eyes or that funny mole shaped like Wisconsin.
Others of us are still mad at Noxon for her involvement in Buffy’s sixth season, the infamous Dark Willow season where Tara was killed. Though it happened 10 years ago, outrage for some are still as raw as if it was yesterday. Yes, it was heartbreaking to have such a beloved character brutally taken from us. And, yes, it did unfortunately follow the well-worn trope of the tragic (in this case dead) lesbian. Let me just say this, I’m pretty sure Marti has no plans to kill Brittany.
What Noxon is really talking about is the concept of sexual fluidity and a desire to live without labels. It’s something a lot of people agree with, and a lot of people don’t agree with. It’s a complicated and delicate discussion, one I’m sure is being heatedly argued in gender studies classes and living rooms across the country as we speak.
Here’s the thing. There really shouldn’t be a reason we can’t have good bisexual characters on TV and there really shouldn’t be a reason characters can’t express their sexuality fluidly on TV. Indeed, I think we do have some good bisexual characters on TV today. Kalinda on The Good Wife and Callie on Grey’s Anatomy spring to mind almost immediately.
But – and there is always a but – the problem is representation of sexual fluidity and bisexuality often rubs awkwardly against ongoing stereotypes and misconceptions about what it means to be gay and lesbian in general. And all-too-often it’s just portrayed poorly. Think sweeps-month lesbianism. Think ratings grabbing same-sex kisses. Think anything with the headline “Girl-on-Girl!” This is not the positive representation we speak of.
The other problem is the televised representation of bisexual and sexually fluid characters has a tendency to reconfirm the long-standing stereotype that homosexuality and lesbianism are just a phase. It’s a just fling on the road to back to straightsville and married heterosexual bliss with those 2.5 kids.
Still the other sometimes ugly truth is that lesbians tend to only like bisexual TV characters when they’re actively involved with women. Part of this is a reaction to the bi-by-name-only tendencies of some characters. It’s used as something to titillate men, the great lesbian fantasy in the sky. But it’s also a real prejudice that exists as well which denies what it really means to be bisexual.
So with all that in mind, should the idea of Glee tackling Brittany’s sexuality as fluid be scary or maddening? No, it shouldn’t. But whether it is depends on how it is handled. Will this be an honest, realistic exploration of what it means to live without labels? Or will this be another de-gaying that reinforces the idea that all gay women need is a good man?
Trust me, if producers were having this discussion about Santana instead, the outrage would be more universal and more rightly deserved. But the characters of Brittany and Santana have touched on this subject themselves with Brittany calling Santana “Lebanese” and herself “bi-curious.” Santana has even said, “Whoever thought that being fluid meant that you could be so stuck.”
Making Brittany more sexually fluid does not make her any less gay. And creating a character on TV who is shown expressing that should not give us the vapors. Yet the question of our representation goes beyond how we look at it within the community. It also must be examined from how the larger world looks at us.
It would be nice if we could all examine sexuality through a prism devoid of politics. I mean, let’s face it, it’s complicated enough just figuring it out about ourselves. But when you add the dimension of politics and the fight for full equality and all that other real-world baggage, let’s just “it’s complicated” is the understatement of the century.
Which brings us back to labels. If Brittany refuses to wear one this season on Glee, what does that mean for us? On a show that has never shied from putting the gay storylines front and center, it could be just another exploration of the big gay rainbow. And, just like a real rainbow, I hope it makes appreciate all the different, beautiful colors this world has to offer for those who take the time to stop and look.