The “B” word, a very present and real orientation in the LGBTQ community, is still largely absent and misrepresented in media and television.
Although bisexuals make up a slight majority of those who identify as LGB, bisexual characters on television are few and far between. When they do appear they are most frequently illustrated as promiscuous villains, blood-sucking tyrants, or the characters stuck in a labyrinth of experimentation. Their visibility is negated and their authenticity is flawed. This has the effect of alienating people who seek representations of themselves on the big and small screen. Young bisexual women are the highest at risk for suicide, depression, and anxiety than their counterparts who identify as straight or lesbian. Because of this, visibility and affirmation are key in preventing damaging narratives for real people in real life. As a self-identifying bisexual person, straight-washing has definitely tainted my voice, and my lack of confidence is directly correlated to this under- and misrepresentation.
Bi Visibility Day, or International Celebrate Bisexuality Day, has highlighted the bisexual community since 1999 in order to create a discourse around the globe. Events, held online and in the real world, contribute to the notion that my identity, and the identity of more than 4.6 million people, deserve a platform of proper deliverance and depiction. But even with this annual celebration—held on September 23—television producers have yet to move the needle in a significant way to dramatically improve the storylines of bisexual people. While we celebrate this year’s Bi Visibility Day, we also have to ask that the media can do better: Our lives depend on it.
A 2016 study from Drexel University found that young bisexual women have higher rates of suicidal thoughts and increased depression in comparison to straight and lesbian women. The study’s reasoning for the results were due to “stressors such as stereotypes that bisexuals are promiscuous or that bisexuality is ‘just a phase.’” Researchers have found that those who identify as bisexual face the same amount of discrimination from the LGBTQ community as they do from straight people. Bisexual teenage girls question their sexuality and identity more so than other young women, and as a result feel more depressed than young women who identify as straight or lesbian.
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Additional studies have found that people are positively influenced by LGBTQ characters on screen if they don’t know an LGBTQ person in real life. According to the LGBTQ organization GLAAD, there are 278 regular LGBTQ characters on television and 83 of those were bisexual, most of them women. A 2004 study in Sex Roles found that participants had higher self-esteem if they shared similar traits with characters who acted as their role models, which results in self-efficacy. Researchers found that media characters help LGBTQ people find someone they aspire to be on television. A 2011 study, “The Influence of Media Role Models on Gay, Lesbian, and Sexual Identity” found that LGBTQ people found positive depictions of GLB characters in Ellen, The L Word, and Will and Grace. However, people in this study also noted that they would like to see “more realistic portrayals of GLB individuals.” Ethnicity, income level, occupation, and age were among the reports for characteristics that they would like to see improved on television.
Television, it seems, has the upper hand in challenging—and possibly helping to end—the stigma that bisexual people face on an everyday basis.
GLAAD presented a panel at the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour where the speakers noted their concerns about the “evil bisexual” trope on the small screen. For example, Season 4 of American Horror Story: Hotel presented us with Lady Gaga’s bisexual character, Elizabeth, who slits the throats of two straight individuals after seducing them with Matt Bomer, who plays Donovan. “Good” bi characters exist but they are far and few between. Other examples include sociopaths like Frank Underwood or pleasure-seekers like the Red Viper who plow down anyone for their taste of seduction. The depraved bisexual is linked to their lack of morals and ethical behavior—associating their sexuality with promiscuity, adultery, and mistrust.
Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, said at the TCA panel that bisexual men were seen as “wicked, villainous characters whose bisexuality is directly tied to why the audience is supposed to understand them as bad people.” Moreover, bisexual women are viewed as “scheming manipulators, and that is tied to their bisexuality.”
The panelists’ overarching argument was that bisexuals deserve a proper character plot that transcends beyond lacking a moral compass.
Growing up, I enjoyed watching The L Word, the first lesbian show on television. Sex and drama were the lynchpin for The L Word—it was basically Sex in the City with breakthrough topics like biracial lesbian parenting, gender transitioning, terrible haircuts, and the Los Angeles lesbian scene. The show validated me. However, it first aired in 2004, and my teenage identity was ultimately erased when I witnessed my beloved Alice Pieszecki claim that yes, in fact, she was a lesbian, after several seasons of being bi.
Like the depraved trope mentioned earlier, bi-erasure is another factor that plays a huge role in bisexual characters. As a result, this reinforces bisexuality as a phase, or a trend. Throughout the entirety of the series, characters on the show erase Alice’s legitimacy and claim that she has to “pick a side.” The bi-erasure happens again with Jenny and Tina, who are seen as confused and simply labeled the “enemy.” Biphobia is sprinkled throughout the seasons, leaving viewers with no affirming role model. Tina, Jenny, and Alice’s sexuality’s are dismantled and criticized by their peers, who are all part of the LGBTQ community.
Since The L Word is a show that first premiered in the early 2000s, we can write this off as an outdated phenomenon and look at how far we’ve come since then. However, bisexual characters are still being negated in television today, per the studies and panels discussed above. As a now-27-year-old bisexual, I grow weary at the sight of another evil or lost character on television. While I don’t doubt my sexuality, as I may have in my late teens, I do feel falsified.
Like the bisexual characters on The L Word, or other television shows featuring bi women, my own experiences with speaking about my sexuality are often met with eye-rolls and smirks. For many of my peers, bisexuality is still viewed as a transitional and experimental phase. Sometimes, I decline to answer questions about my sexual identity for fear of hurtful comments, such as “You’ll figure it out one day,” or “Have you even been with a woman?” which are offensive and exhausting to emotionally defend.
Because the B word is still seen as a false identity—you’re either gay or straight in some eyes—I worry for future generations of teens. To be sure, sexuality education, inclusive spaces, and safer health care are at the core of creating a better culture for bisexual people, both onscreen and off. But television has an important role to play in that. So what can producers and other media makers do to improve this representation?
Creators can begin by allowing characters to outwardly claim bisexuality. Hearing a character do so would give me the confidence to express my sexuality, and I’m sure the same would be true for many others.
Shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are doing more to uplift bisexual characters—their stories matter, especially because their voices don’t reinforce the stereotypical tropes that we’ve seen for the past decade. Darryl on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend declares himself to be “bothsexual,” and sings a musical number which chimes, “I’m gettin’ bi and it’s something I’d like to demystify. It’s not a phase, I’m not confused, not indecisive, I don’t have the gotta-choose blues […] I’m definitely bi.”
But that’s just one character and there will be many future opportunities for others to proclaim their bisexuality. TV producers should take those chances.
Media, television, and film creators can also make bisexual characters more three-dimensional. GLAAD announced that over 50 LGBTQ women have been killed off since 2015—meaning that these character’s stories were cut off prematurely, without furthering their narrative or development.
Bisexual characters deserve better—to be dominant, to be visible, and to be represented in a factual narrative. We exist, we are here, we are a part of the LGBTQ community. We aren’t a phase. We are permanent.