In the movie “The Haunting,” Theo says to Nell Vance regarding whether she has trouble with commitment, “Well, my boyfriend thinks so. My girlfriend doesn’t. We could all live together, but they hate each other.” It’s a casual, throwaway line that isn’t returned to later in the movie. In “Pitch Perfect 2,” Chloe Beale says to Beca Mitchell, “You know, one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t do enough experimenting in college,” while a flustered Beca tells rival female acapella group leader Kommissar that she is “physically flawless,” a “gorgeous specimen,” and her “sweat smells like cinnamon,” and Beca admits to feeling sexually confused around her.
Offhand references to characters falling along the sexual spectrum can be found throughout film and TV, from “Glee” (the famous “sex isn’t dating, if it were, Santana and I would be dating” line was originally a joke not intended to lead anywhere) to “Warehouse 13” (H.G. Wells and Myka Bering subtext aside, Wells nonchalantly mentions knowing about the opposite sex because “Many of my lovers were men,” implying that not all were) to “500 Days of Summer” (Summer mentions of her ex Charlie, “She was nice.”).
This casual one-off referencing of same-sex inclinations is so common that the site TV Tropes lists it as a trope called “Bi the Way.” Although the trope is more benign than other bisexuality tropes, such as the “Depraved Bisexual” (the character’s bisexuality is correlated to evilness) or “Anything That Moves” (the character is so sex-crazy he or she doesn’t discriminate based on gender), it often leads the trope “But Not Too Bi,” in which a character is nominally bisexual but almost exclusively dates the opposite sex while on screen. What are we to make of these glimmerings that ultimately go no further? Do they sensitize audiences to the sexual spectrum, or are they laziness or gratuitousness on the part of writers and producers?
There are points for and against such “casual bisexuality.” First, a point against: from a studio standpoint, casual bisexuality in characters provides no-cost minority demographic points. A mere sentence referencing bisexuality can be used to avoid having to show real sexual diversity among characters; a box checking exercise that enables writers and producers to continue focusing on a character’s heterosexual romances. It is probably not by coincidence that, according to GLAAD’s 2016 “Where we Are on TV” report, the number of lesbian characters on TV dropped an unbelievable 16% on broadcast TV and 2% on cable TV in 2016, while bisexual representation rose 10% on broadcast TV and 6% on cable.
Even when the number of lesbian characters went up 7% on streaming TV, this growth was outpaced by the bisexual female character count rising by 15%. Studios are replacing lesbian characters with bisexual female characters. Although one could reasonably and logically argue that in real life bisexual women are at least double the number of lesbians, making this shift more demographically accurate, so many bisexual characters fall into the “But Not Too Bi” trope (for example, Angela Montenegro of “Bones,” who dated college fling Roxie Lyon for all of three episodes) that it seems that many shows are continuing to choose superficially bisexual female characters—who can continue dating male characters but allow the network to claim to have a “queer character”—than a lesbian character who can only date female characters or must remain celibate.
As a second point against the “Bi the Way” trope, when it is presented in the context of a female character already in a relationship with a male character it may have the effect of reinforcing the stereotype that bisexual women always end up with men. This is a trickier problem than it seems. The 2013 Pew Research LGBT Survey found that 84% of bisexuals in committed relationships have a partner of the opposite sex and only 9% have same-sex partners, so it would be inaccurate to show the bisexual woman always ending up with a woman.
Then again, there are multiple reasons for this. The most obvious is that there are probably at least thirty times more men for bisexual women to date than women, meaning they are statistically more likely to fall in love with a man than a woman, all things being equal, but it wouldn’t be surprising to find that the trope of bisexual female characters always ending up with male characters also subconsciously influences bisexual women and incites a measure of biphobia among some lesbians.
And of course, as a third and final point against the “Bi the Way” trope, it can contribute to the stubbornly persistent titillation factor of having a beautiful bisexual character—but not too bi!—on screen. On “New Girl,” Cece Parekh turns out to have once hooked up with Megan Fox’s guest character Reagan. Although Regan was praised—including by AfterEllen—as contravening bisexual Hollywood tropes, it was still Megan Fox. And at the end of the day, Reagan was still interested in Nick.
The point in favor of of the “Bi the Way” trope is that nowadays a character’s bisexuality can advance social acceptance of the sexual spectrum in a low key, almost subliminal way. Gone are the days of bisexuality as a Sweeps Week gimmick for viewership; if bisexuality triggers no outrage among fictional characters, then real life viewers are primed to accept it as well. A study in 2016 by trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that only 48% of 13-20-year-olds (Generation Z) identify as “exclusively heterosexual,” compared to 65% of millennials aged 21 to 34.
The 17% difference almost certainly can be attributable in large part to greater exposure to homosexuality on TV and in movies (along with more out celebrities and a more receptive society than previous generations). There are more LGBT characters on TV today than any year previously. Then again, the vast majority of these characters are well fleshed out, so do viewers still need these offhand references to bisexuality if the intent is sensitizing viewers to the sexual spectrum?
The “Bi the Way” trope is only as good as the intention behind it. When it is only used to further the “sexiness” of a female character for male viewers, for example, that’s clearly an improper use of the trope. When it is used to remind viewers that sexual orientation is a transcendent but not necessarily a primary characteristic, that can be good. Over the last decade, networks have become significantly more sensitive to portrayals of gay and bi women and for the most part have approached bisexuality with good intentions. While some bisexual tropes, most notably the Depraved Bisexual, continue to linger, they seem to be on the decline. That’s progress.