It’s not a case of either/or: bisexuality on television

Logo from BiUnity.

Last Friday, “Teen Wolf” creator Jeff Davis had a little chat with Entertainment Weekly about slash shipping and casually dropped a bombshell: that the writers had “certainly made some hints to the possibility” of Stiles Stilinski — a fan favourite — being bisexual. Unsurprisingly, the “Teen Wolf” fandom lost its collective shit. During the subsequent fallout, some fans — those who are wholly uninterested in Stiles’ sexuality — have taken to bickering over the reason why the fandom’s reaction to this news has been so insane. The predominant opinion seems to be that fangirls just want their slash pairings to become canon, and Stiles’ possible bisexuality is one step closer to this happening.

That, pardon my French, is a crock of shit.

I’ll tell you this for free: any fangirl or fanboy worth their salt is going to ship regardless of a character’s indicated sexual preferences. And yes, some people may be beside themselves because seeing boys kiss makes them happy in the trousers and they want to see Dylan O’Brien put that mouth to good use. But really, the “Teen Wolf” fandom’s unanimous meltdown wasn’t about the content of Davis’ comment — we have, after all, been speculating about Stiles’ sexuality since the third episode — but the fact that he made it at all.

Bisexuals are the persona non grata of television. We’re few and far between. When we do show up, we’re stereotypes: we’re promiscuous, we’re cheaters, we’re mentally unstable. My favourite dreadful stereotype is the hot bisexual teenage girl — otherwise known as a walking ratings boost. She meets a girl, she likes the girl, she’s confused, they have a fling and, whoops, better break up and get back together with the buff male lead! Let’s never speak of this again, my God! Kids these days, am I right? (Yes, I am talking about “The O.C.” We could have had it all.)

Networks are fine with bisexual characters when we’re titillating or daring or a plot point with bad intentions — but executives won’t touch honest bisexual characters with a barge pole. You know, bisexuals who are just folks: who don’t need a dramatic coming out arc, who aren’t confused and who won’t have one, steamy sex scene and go back to being straight. Bisexual characters are allowed to walk in, be controversial, then either exit stage left or get tied up nicely with an opposite-sex partner. Networks can tick their Token LGBT Character Box and not elicit too many angry emails from bigoted viewers. Great.

Do I sound angry? That’s because I am angry. But I’m also not an idiot. As a walking, talking, out bisexual person, I am painfully aware of why portrayals of bisexual characters are so shitty: because all media reflects the society that produces it, and Western society does not know what to do with bisexual people. We’re an unknown quantity. To straight people, we’re either threesome material or gay guys in denial. To gay people we’re untrustworthy and contaminated. Disclaimer: I’m not trying to bad-mouth anyone. I know both straight and gay people who are inclusive and wonderful and I am blessed to have friends like them in my life. But most people have pre-conceived notions about bisexuals and bisexuality that they have to be disabused of before they can become inclusive and wonderful. And, sometimes, they won’t become inclusive and wonderful. Sometimes people suck.

The first time my ex-girlfriend kissed me, we were stood at the bar in a nightclub with some friends. We immediately had a guy throw his arms around us and start gyrating. We were once approached by a dude at a party who told us his friends had seen us kissing, but he’d missed it because he was in the bathroom — could we do it again so he could watch? (The answer was a resounding “no.”) The first time we had a frank conversation with our male friends about our relationship, one of them called dibs on who got to have a threesome with us first. The other two groaned because he’d beaten them to it. I know people who, when they see me, ask me if I’m gay or straight now. When I came out to my Mother, she basically said, “Okay hon, you know I love you. Whatever. It’s probably just a phase.” Thanks, Ma.

The media doesn’t help much either. Almost all interviewers ask heteronormative questions — whether it’s directed at the personal life of a celebrity or the life of their character. When Frank Ocean came out in July, journalists and bloggers immediately started labelling him as gay — despite the fact that he did not label himself, and still writes songs about women (and, let me tell you, if you’ve ever felt like you can’t relate to the majority of hetero love songs, listen to “Bad Religion”). The general attitude conveyed by the press is that everyone is straight until proven otherwise, and then they’re gay — no ifs, ands, or buts, and certainly no bisexuality. You know it’s dire straits when boyband members use gender neutral pronouns and journalists just can’t be bothered to use inclusive language. (Hi, Harry Styles! Call me!)

Then there’s LGBT activist and biphobe Dan Savage — pioneer of the It Gets Better movement — who doesn’t think bisexuality really exists and blames bisexuals for bi erasure and biphobia. So, if you’re a gay or lesbian kid it gets better — but if you’re bisexual then, well, you’d better prove it! And, while you’re at it, come out to everybody you know, because all the rampant bisexual erasure in the LGBT and straight communities is your fault!

See what I mean? People suck.

So it’s really no surprise that portrayals of bisexual people on television are so terrible. Even shows like “The L Word” and “Queer As Folk” — shows that are custom made for LGBT people — can’t get it right. At the start of season one, “The L Word” had three bisexual characters: Jenny, Alice and Tina. By the end of the series both Alice and Jenny identify as lesbian — Jenny even verbally attacks Tina for being bisexual and having heterosexual privilege because she’s with a man. Harrumph. (Obviously sexuality is fluid for a lot of people, and there’s nothing wrong with identifying one way and changing over time. But, on a show literally full of lesbians, it would’ve been nice to keep a few bisexuals truckin’.)

“Queer As Folk,” on the other hand, doesn’t have any out bisexual characters. Lesbian Lindsay sleeps with a man, insists she’s still gay, and forgets it ever even happened; the only time the possibility of her being bisexual is brought up is when her best friend tells her, “It’s okay to like dick and it’s okay to like pussy. But not at the same time.” Congratulations on irritating and offending a huge part of your demographic, “Queer As Folk”! You’re a bunch of numpties! They almost redeemed themself with Hunter — a teenage hustler — who, after years of having sex with men for necessity and a season-long unrequited crush on another male character, falls for a girl at his school. He immediately starts identifying as straight. The word bisexual is never mentioned.

There’s also “Glee,” which — despite its flaws — has proven it can handle gay characters with respect and grace (although they went down some puzzling routes with Santana; like when she’s outed by the main male character — who is never reprimanded for it, may I add — and then goes on to sing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” like it’s a queer anthem and not a dreadful song about snogging other girls for fun so your boyfriend can watch).

But, other than the frankly bizarre song choice, “Glee” really does a good job on the queer characters front: there are gay men and bisexual and gay women. There was a point in time where it looked like they were going to introduce a bisexual male character, too: Blaine. Gay Blaine, Kurt’s love interest Blaine, who — after a drunken game of spin the bottle wherein he kisses Rachel — starts questioning his sexuality. When I heard about this plot line, little clouds appeared under my feet and I floated skyward on my joy. A “Glee” episode focusing on bisexuality! Bisexual men, more importantly! Showing us how everyone questions their sexuality, not just straight people! Heterosexuality isn’t the default setting! How wonderful!

Unsurprisingly, it all went a lot better in my head than it did on the show; the episode was a complete shambles.

First, Kurt tells Blaine that “bisexual’s a term that gay guys in high school use when they wanna hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change.” Which: okay. I could work Showing Kurt How Wrong He is and How the Gay Community Needs to Be More Inclusive into my mental plan for the episode. But, alas, it is all downhill from there. That is the end of Blaine’s input on his sexuality. The episode becomes a fight between Kurt and Rachel to see who can make Blaine their boyfriend; to see whether he is gay or straight. As if he can’t possibly be attracted to both of them at the same time. The whole thing culminates in Rachel surprising Blaine with a kiss and Blaine proclaiming that he is definitely gay; thanks Rachel! Whew! Dodged a bullet!

I sulked for an inordinate amount of time after that episode aired. “Glee” and I still aren’t on speaking terms.

Many people don’t understand why, after constantly complaining about the lack of bisexuals on television, I’m now filled with dread when shows announce they’re going to have a bisexual character or plot line. Well, this is why. Their portrayals of bisexuals are tiring, offensive and awful, a three-episode (if that) flash in the pan, and I’m sick to death of bisexual characters being entirely — and terribly — defined by their sexuality. I want bisexual characters who are everything else first; whose major personality features aren’t that they’re into guys and girls; who are just people who happen to fall in love with men and women. It doesn’t have to be a plot point. It doesn’t have to rule their character arcs. It can just be a thing.

“Teen Wolf” is perfectly set up to make my dreams a reality. It’s set in a world, says creator Jeff Davis, where there’s no homophobia, sexism or racism (or, at least, the show tries its best). Could the same be said for biphobia? Could a show that portrays its gay character so wonderfully do the same for a bisexual character — a bisexual male, moreover? You know, I really think it could. I, like a lot of the fandom, decided Stiles was bisexual early on in the first season, but — like, I’m guessing, most bisexual people — I’m used to recognising that potential in characters, sighing, and moving on. Having a writer acknowledge the fact that they’d hinted at a character potentially being bisexual — like it was no big deal — really knocked me for six. And, God help me, I want it.

I want a loyal, funny, intelligent, long-standing fan-favourite who just happens to be questioning his sexuality. I want a kid who always has a plan to save the day and who also happens to like guys as well as girls. I want a character who can hold his own among werewolves and hunters and identifies as bisexual — on an MTV supernatural show aimed at teenagers. That’s it. It doesn’t have to rule his arc for the season, it doesn’t have to change anything, it doesn’t need more focus than a conversation or a couple of throwaway comments. Then maybe a kid would bite his tongue instead of asking for a threesome next time he meets a bisexual person because, hey, that Stiles Stilinski is bisexual, and he’s not promiscuous/a sex addict/a depraved individual! Cool! Just the fact that Stiles would be Stiles and also identify as bi would do so much to challenge people’s ill-informed opinions of bisexuals.

Is that really so much to ask for?

I know there are bisexual characters on television. I know that, surprisingly, some of them are actually pretty great (Nolan ‘I’m about a three on the Kinsey Scale, myself’ Ross from “Revenge,” for one, an actual bisexual character that I’m not ashamed of). But a handful of bisexual characters dotted around a handful of television shows isn’t good enough for me. I want more. I want bisexuals chosen by God hunting demons across the Midwest. I want bisexuals running crime rings in Harlan County, KY. I want bisexuals killing zombies in the South. I want bisexual meth cookers. I want bisexual crime solvers. I want bisexuals whose best friends are werewolves. I want bisexuals in this world, in other worlds, in outer space. I don’t want to be told that there’s a bisexual in this show or that show and be expected to nut up and shut up. I want bisexuals everywhere. Why?

Why the hell not?


23 thoughts on “It’s not a case of either/or: bisexuality on television

  1. Give the Canadian “Lost Girl” a shot. After two seasons with a (female) bi lead character, it has still never been the All My Bi Nightmares I was afraid it would be.

    • You know, I’ve never even heard of that! I’ll definitely rustle it up. Anything with a main bi character that’s good enough to be recommended is a-okay in my book. Thanks!

  2. looove the points made about “Glee” – I really can’t with the show after the whole Blaine-Bi!Scare-Fucktacular. however, I think Glee doesn’t handle any of its lgbt* characters well… but that’s a totally different post, lmao.

    AND UGH YES THANK YOU FOR TALKING ABOUT “THE L WORD” AND “QUEER AS FOLK” i know at Brown University those shows are used in the modern culture & media department to illustrate queer-friendly tv but i personally CAN’T call those shows lgbt* friendly because of it’s lack of a real, properly written bisexual character.

    • Thanks, Amanda! I thought the handling of Brittany and Santana pre-s2 was shitty, but they pulled their socks up when they gave Santana their lesbian storyline, I think.

      Man, the total lack of bisexual/trans* characters in QAF is the worst – as far as they’re concerned “queer” means gay white men and women. Sigh. The L Word tried, at least.

  3. Pingback: Introducing the idea of having a threesome « Threesomes and variations

  4. Try Torchwood! The show’s full of people who like both guys and girls. And most of the time it’s not labeled, but you either see them snogging men and women, or they fall in love properly with someone of one gender, and then later properly in love with the opposite gender. And main character Jack Harkness (a character originated in Doctor Who (that has some lovely bi/pansexual people too)) doesn’t give a crap about gender (explicitly stated), though he happens to have much more moments with men on the show. I’d like to see not just more bi people, but also more pansexual and asexual people. And people who just happen to fall in love with someone who happens to be of another gender than that they’re usually attracted to. And more gender variations as well. As a genderqueer pansexual I wonder when I can see someone like myself on the tele…

  5. Reblogged this on alphabetsouprainbow and commented:
    Bisexual stereotypes are all over the place, and I usually love to rave and rant about it. We are always confused, evil, or secretly gay, etc,. All of this adds to the loads of biphobia and bi erasure.
    Here’s a great rant about this topic by a fellow out and pissed off bisexual.

  6. Pingback: Bisexuality and its miscontents « Alphabet Soup Rainbow

  7. Pingback: Bisexuality and misrepresentation. « Alphabet Soup Rainbow

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  9. Pingback: Bisexuality? Let me Google that for you « Velociriot!

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  14. Hi, i love this post and i share your feelings about bisexual representation, i’m also bisexual and i’m really tired of those bad stereotypes and bi* erasure. Try shows like Orphan Black where there’s two really great bisexual characters, also i heard that in Bones there’s an openly bi* character, on Torchwood, and i haven’t seen so much about this show called Make It Or Break It but i know a bisexual guy has a great coming out. Also i have theories about Orange is the new black with the main character who says “you don’t just turn gay, you fall on an spectrum, like the kinsey scale” and she has been atracted to both men and women.

  15. Pingback: What lesbians think about bisexuals vs what bisexuals think about bullshit | Velociriot!

  16. There is vince noir in the mighty boosh this is revealed in s3e5 all though its kinda crappy because he is shown as narcisstic vain and always sexually harassed but he can handle it and like hair straightens this guys nose when he is harassed by the guy

  17. Pingback: Velociriot! | What lesbians think about bisexuals vs what bisexuals think about bullshit

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