Bisexual characters remain rare on our TV screens, but D H Kelly notices that when they do appear, they are overwhelmingly sketchy and occasionally villainous
[Contains mild spoilers for various programmes and a significant spoiler for The Mist.]
When I began to come out in my early twenties, I was mostly met with extremely positive and supportive responses. Each confession filled me with trepidation – it had been such a secret and for a long time, a source of shame. I was shocked how relaxed folk were about the news. The two negative responses were also a revelation; I had been afraid people might respond with disgust and that straight female friends would worry I was coming onto them. Instead, I had one friend insist that – according to their perception of my sexual and romantic experiences – I simply didn’t have enough information to know that I was bisexual. I found this baffling and wondered how much practical experience a person needed before they were allowed to identify as straight.
The other negative response was from a straight male friend who casually corrected me; I was not bisexual, I merely liked the idea of being bisexual because I imagined it made me more interesting. It was at this point in my young life that I first considered confining my friendships to people who already found me interesting and would believe the things I had to say about my life. And I’m often reminded of that conversation when I’m watching TV.
Bisexual TV characters have only recently overtaken unicorns in their scarcity, but most of them are complete jerks. Scriptwriters too often see bisexuality just as my rubbish friend did: something to make a weakly constructed, usually female character more interesting; to give her an edge without any depth (a “flange” so to speak).
Steven Moffat’s female characters are often bisexual, but we only learn this when they randomly boast about same-gender sexual conquests. From Jane (Gina Bellman) in Coupling, through Jenna Colman’s Clara Oswold in Doctor Who, to Eurus (Sian Brooke), Sherlock‘s sister, we don’t get to see these women demonstrating attraction to women or flirting, let alone having same-sex relationships. Instead, we just get brief tales of seduction, usually apropos of nothing. Alex Kingston’s River Song’s apparent bisexuality in Doctor Who is handled marginally better, but we only know about it because of a single sentence mentioning a second wife. This is representation so thin you could blink and miss it.
Then there are the characters who are more generally jerks and their bisexuality is part of that. Michael Schur’s The Good Place is a comedy about an amoral young woman, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who dies and finds herself mistakenly assigned to heaven. We see from flashbacks that Eleanor was a promiscuous woman who was prepared to put the prospect of casual sex ahead of social obligations. Her flirtations with other female characters (we never see her having any sexual contact or romantic interaction with a woman) are part of her persona as an all-round sleaze. In Lucifer, while the characters of Tom Ellis’ Lucifer and his demon Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt) often end up on the side of good, their hypersexual bisexuality is part of what identifies them as the naughty beings from hell. Even with Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) from Doctor Who and Torchwood – the first bisexual male character I can remember seeing on TV – his promiscuous bisexuality is part of his morally-ambiguous, often morally-compromised persona; he can be heroic, but he may also let you down and try to seduce you before he does.
Then there are bisexual characters who are outright evil. When Willow, everyone’s favourite character in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (played by Alyson Hannigan), fell out of love with a man and fell in love with a woman, the character was not identified as a bisexual woman, but rather a woman who had turned gay. Sexual fluidity is a thing; some people do feel very straight and then something changes and they feel very gay, but bisexuality is rather more commonplace than quite such a dramatic and permanent shift.
However, Vampire Willow, who the heroes encounter after they slip into an alternative timeline, not only behaves as if she’s bi, she sexually harasses her human self. There’s a lot of bisexual behaviour among female vampires (who, of course, are traditionally hypersexual) and, later, from Faith (Eliza Dushku), a vampire-slayer who has gone decidedly off the rails.
The still tragically common idea that a bisexual man is a gay man who hasn’t quite admitted it means that bi men are more likely to meet with overt homophobia. Bisexual male characters still sometimes embody that very old-fashioned and most destructive of gay stereotypes: a sinister, deceitful predator whose orientation is part of a warped and violent personality (see especially Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) in Penny Dreadful and Adrian (Russell Posner) in The Mist). Given that I can think of only a few dozen bisexual TV characters and that many are fairly minor characters, it’s significant that two or three are rapists.
Now that homophobia is increasingly less common in script-writing, bisexuality seems to be treated more as a different kind of deviancy, connected with amorality; folk who cannot discriminate in their attractions any more than they can differentiate right from wrong. Characters like Frank Underwood in House of Cards (the disgraced and disgraceful Kevin Spacey), or Kalinda in The Good Wife (Archie Panjabi), are rule-breakers and use sex to often cynical ends. One unwritten rule that they both break is that you have to “pick a side”.
The bisexual jerk woman is very often an extension of the older stereotype of a sexually promiscuous woman whose role may land anywhere between sketchy waif and femme fatale. A common myth about bisexuality is that if a person is attracted to men as well as women (other genders are usually forgotten in such thinking), they cannot be sexually fulfilled if they’re only having sex with a representative of just one gender. This bizarre model of human sexuality is heavily implied in the earlier series of Orange is the New Black, as if Piper’s much-discussed and yet unnamed bisexuality means that her duplicity with Alex and Larry is somehow more reasonable than if she was having an affair with another man.
In real life, being bisexual has no greater impact on monogamy than being straight or gay and not having a particular physical “type”. We don’t imagine that a straight woman who has an exclusive relationship with a tall thin black man is missing out on the fun she might be having with a short stocky white man if she has the capacity to fancy either.
Even if a person has a lot of sex with a lot of different people, bisexuality doesn’t elevate this to some kind of advanced level debauchery. In a recent update to its safety features, Twitter prevented users from searching images for “bisexual”, presumably because of the belief that bisexual content is explicitly sexual content. We may have a slightly larger pool of potential partners, but we don’t have extra hours in the day. Despite their best efforts, it’s unlikely that even the most energetic bisexual person is having much more sex than their monosexual counterparts.
The bisexual jerk stereotype also plays into the persisting idea that bisexuality doesn’t really exist as a valid orientation and that bisexual women are straight women who might dabble in bisexual behaviour as a performance for a straight male audience. In real life, boasts of sexual experience thrown into unrelated conversation (as so often occurs in Moffat’s oeuvre), or a suggestive remarks towards or about someone the speaker has already been mocking (as in The Good Place), are not necessarily read as expressions of authentic sexual orientation.
Doctor Who‘s Clara informs her school students that Jane Austen was “a phenomenal kisser”, but this is not the way folk introduce the subject of a romantic or sexual relationship. Even in a more appropriate audience, it would be more realistic to hear that Jane Austen had beautiful eyes or a nice bum or was hilariously funny (although, of course, this is all a joke about Austen as a straight-laced bluestocking from a writer whose idea of a flirtatious exchange often involves someone getting slapped).
In Coupling, Jane’s friends challenge her supposed bisexuality in various ways and I genuinely don’t know if the audience is meant to believe in it. Given that The Good Place explores the idea of soul mates by mixing up romantic pairings, it would have cost nothing at all for Eleanor to seriously consider whether she might be in love with her neighbour Tahani (Jameela Jamil) rather than just joking about it over and over.
What would be even better would be if characters could actually say the word. Historically, bisexual people have been reticent to use the word; Daphne Du Maurier referred to her “Venetian Tendencies” and I always liked Michael Stipe’s self-description as an “equal opportunities lech”. However, in 2017, out of all the people I have encountered who share my sexual orientation, most use the term “bisexual”. A few prefer “pansexual”, or the wider umbrella of “queer”, but I am yet to meet anyone in real life who describes themselves as “flexible”, “open-minded”, “a little bit gay”, “a bit of both” or any other of the myriad euphemisms used by and about TV bisexual characters.
Too often writers imagine they are doing something progressive by having a character who “rejects labels” or whose sexuality somehow “defies classification” without considering why, in real life, almost everyone picks a word. Thus, in order to talk about bisexual characters at all, I’m forced to compound bisexual behaviour and bisexual identity – something I would try to avoid in real life. If I tell you that I’m bisexual, I’m not informing you about the sort of person I might be sexually attracted to; I’m talking about social and political experiences which have influenced who I am, and of a shared culture and solidarity with other bisexual people and all those with a letter in the QUILTBAG. I can envisage a future where someone would only talk about bisexuality in the context of individual attraction but, currently, the ability to reject any sort of label and not be promptly mislabelled by others is rarely enjoyed outside celebrity.
It’s not that I wish for marginalised characters to be entirely good people. When we’re not represented as embittered villains, disabled characters are often selfless victims who do nothing but provide some cutesy life-lesson for non-disabled characters. For a long while, having largely escaped the role of sinister deviants, queer TV characters were almost entirely white, non-disabled, cis gay men who occupied only the safe benign roles of workplace comedians, best friends and confidantes, there to provide support (and occasionally fashion advice) for more complex straight protagonists.
It’s a wholly good thing that this has changed, but I think writers are far more aware of how to avoid the more harmful stereotypes around gay men and lesbian women than those that affect the rest of us. Transgender people still get a very raw deal – rarely seen at all and often only present as some kind of sexualised joke. Asexual and non-binary people are pretty much invisible and bisexual characters seem to remain stuck uncrossing and crossing their legs on a loop ever since Basic Instinct.
I want sexual orientation (along with disability, race, fatness, gender identity, the intersections of age and gender etc.) to be part of who a character is, but largely incidental to a plot. I want disabled characters who are villainous, but not ones whose badness is explained with a psychiatric diagnosis or a backstory where physical impairments made them embittered against the world. I want bisexual characters who are jerks but not ones who signal their sketchiness by coming onto everyone around them or singing I kissed a girl and I liked it with a knowing look in their eye.
How To Get Away With Murder‘s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is one of my favourite bisexual characters on TV, even though her behaviour is often reprehensible. Her bisexuality is part of who she is, but not a symbol for anything else. The same goes for other facets of her back-story; her experience of child abuse and miscarriage and her experiences of discrimination as a black woman working in criminal law. All these things influence who she is, but they are not shorthand or symbols for aspects of her personality. Annalise enjoys sex and loving relationships and although she may exploit or betray her lovers to meet other ends, her sexuality is not a tool for manipulation. Annalise is an antihero, but she is not a bisexual villain. She is not an “angry black woman” and if she walked with a cane, she would not be a disabled villain.
While bisexual people (as well as disabled people, Muslim people and other groups) are overrepresented among TV villains, it seems likely that we shall remain overrepresented among negative statistics in real life. Bisexual women are more likely to experience mental ill health, and in the US (there are no equivalent UK statistics), bisexual women are more likely to experience intimate violence, including rape, and are significantly more vulnerable to poverty than straight and lesbian women.
Derogatory representation is a small but powerful part of a culture which undervalues and excludes us. As well as reflecting the world around us, more complex and varied bisexual characters could help make our lives a whole lot better.
[The first image is a photograph of Kristen Bell in the role of Eleanor Shellstrop in the show The Good Place, a young white woman with straight blonde hair who is smiling and clapping amid a crowd of people. The photograph is by Vivian Zink/NBC, was found on the NBC website and is used here under fair dealing.
The second image is a photograph of Leslie-Ann Brandt in her role as Mazikeen in the show Lucifer, a young brown-skinned woman with straight black hair partly tied up into buns to imply horns, who is smiling and folding her arms. This photograph was found on the official Lucifer Facebook page belongs to Fox and is used here under fair dealing.
The third image is a photograph of Jenna Coleman in her role as Clara Oswold in Dr Who, a young white woman with straight brown hair who is looking up and smiling. In the background there are twinkling lights, perhaps Christmas decorations. This photograph was found on the BBC Doctor Who website, belongs to the BBC and is used here under fair dealing.]