Unreality TV

08.14.14

It Ain't Easy Being Bisexual on TV

Game of Thrones had an overly sensual libertine while House of Cards had a manipulative psychopath. And then there's Piper Chapman. It isn't easy being vaguely bisexual on TV.

In a recent interview with Anna Paquin, Larry King asked the actress, who is currently married to a man, if she is a “non-practicing bisexual.” In a perfect world, Paquin would have been able to cite multiple examples of well-known, “out” bisexuals to help illustrate how sexuality isn’t a button you can turn on and off, or a naughty habit that goes away once you find the right man.

Unfortunately, the television and film industries aren’t going out of their way to showcase bisexual role models. Game of Thrones and House of Cards are two of the only shows in recent years to have heavily featured male bisexual characters, and these men are portrayed respectively as an overly sensual libertine and a manipulative psychopath. While male bisexuality is routinely dismissed as a tool, an indulgence, or a fallacy, female bisexuality is almost exclusively trotted out to fulfill a male fantasy. No wonder Larry King didn’t have his facts straight.

In the GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2013-2014 television season, the organization noted an overall decrease in the number of LGBT characters slated for broadcast. More specifically, they counted 46 LGBT characters in total, out of which there were only 10 bisexual characters. Out of that minuscule number of bisexual roles, only two were male characters.

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Of course, homogeny is an irritating yet omnipresent aspect of the television experience, much like Simon Cowell or infomercials. The world inside our television sets is nothing like the diverse world we live in, and it would take many more words to explore the ways in which people of color, trans individuals, and women are under- or misrepresented time and time again.

Despite the growing acceptance of certain agreed upon queer lifestyles (namely, loving monogamous relationships between two people who share one gender), it’s important to note that a number of individuals have been left out of the conversation. The absence of bisexuals in the media, particularly bisexual men, is an issue that’s less commonly discussed and acknowledged.

Our mainstream media reinforces the notion that bisexuality is either a fun, voluntary act of experimentation or a mere myth through two tried and true tactics: misrepresenting and oversimplifying bisexual characters until they are either punchlines or wet dream fodder, or simply refusing to portray bisexual characters in the first place. Bisexual erasure—or the tendency to blot out bisexuality and deny its existence entirely—on film and television highlights the way that certain types of queerness are undermined and erased in popular narratives, while others are increasingly caricaturized and/or celebrated.

Part of the problem is simply a lack of daring and imagination. After all, television and film rely heavily on predictable scripts. Known characters result in familiar products, for which there is a pre-established and reliable audience. We are left with stalwart genres (action, rom com) and classic roles (prude, seductress, jock, backstory-less best friend). As homosexuality has become more and more prevalent and acceptable in the national conversation, the media has responded in the only way it knows how: boiling down a complex sexual identity into a recyclable, stereotypical character. While any other character’s (hetero)sexuality is taken for granted, a gay character’s sexual orientation is key to his or her characterization.

Most homosexual male characters are reduced to the Clueless definition of “a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde-reading, Streisand ticket-holding friend of Dorothy,” a man for whom gayness is an all-encompassing personality. One need look no further than Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a show that not-very-subtly reinforced the notion that a gay man's most important job is honoring his god-given aesthetic eye; while the straight “projects” on the show were given backstories and motivations, the gay men, who were actually recurring characters, were simply trotted out for their gay abilities, and denied any sort of complexity or realistic characterization in the process.

The question of Underwood’s sexuality is quietly pushed back into the closet; we are supposed to be content with the explanation that Frank is a man who denies himself nothing, who must control everyone.

Of course, there are examples of “good” gay characters, role models who play authentic, fully realized roles. Max from Happy Endings, the women of The L Word, and Will & Grace’s beloved Will are a few notable examples. However, this doesn’t change the fact that most gay characters are more shtick than substance, butch women brought in for a laugh, or a sassy gay friend who gives our beloved female lead a makeover or some advice on how to snare a man.

These characters have their pre-established roles, and they serve a handful of very specific purposes. But television and film don’t have an equivalent stereotypical “personality” for the bisexual man or woman. While we know all the markers for a gay man or woman in mainstream media, what would a bisexual one look or sound like? Would a bisexual man be half as sassy as a gay one, or half as well dressed? Would we even know how to recognize or differentiate him from his “normal," straight counterparts?

Because bisexuals, particularly bisexual men, are so absent from the agreed upon narrative of acceptable queerness, they are there own particular brand of illegible, much in the same way that no one seems to know how to write a female character who isn’t a sex object or a maternal Madonna. Of course, someone could attempt to simply write a complex, able, interesting character who is a woman, or who is attracted to both men and women. But so far, the mainstream media attempts to portray bisexuality have almost uniformly missed the mark.

Game of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell is a fantastic, nuanced character that has sex with men and women. However, he also lives in George R.R. Martin’s magical, man-made realm. Young boys can watch Will & Grace reruns and dream of being a successful, social, young gay professional. Meanwhile, it seems as though in order to be a sexually appealing, confidently masculine bisexual man one must travel back in time to a place that doesn’t even exist, throw on a sumptuous tunic with a deep V-neck, and go into extensive spear training.

But The Red Viper’s sexual philosophy is even more problematic than his otherworldliness. Commenting on his character’s bisexuality, Pedro Pascal explained that Oberyn “does not discriminate in his pleasures. This is the way he understands life, to live it to its fullest. And to limit yourself in terms of experience doesn’t make any sense to him—what’s beautiful is beautiful.” This, in and of itself, is a form of bisexual erasure. Martell is not presented as a man who was born with a particular sexual orientation, who goes on to honor his identity in the face of hardships and doubt. Rather, he is portrayed not as someone who happens to be bisexual, but as a man with an insatiable appetite. His sexuality, therefore, is simply a means of characterization—this is a character that wants every pleasure, be it sexual, physical, or academic. In this way, bisexual is code for libertine, which is something else altogether. This convenient coding turns bisexuality, a potential source of questioning and shame, into a masculine asset: the capacity for pure, unbridled desire and acquisition.

House of Card’s Frank Underwood is another prime example of this phenomenon. Underwood has sex with men and women. But instead of presenting Frank’s bisexuality as another layer of this complex character, the show wraps Underwood’s sexuality up with his ethos. In Underwood’s words, “Sex is power,” and power is everything. In this way, the question of Underwood’s sexuality is quietly pushed back into the closet; we are supposed to be content with the explanation that Frank is a man who denies himself nothing, who must control everyone. Bisexuality is one of his tools, but the show stops just short of saying that it is part of his identity. House of Cards isn’t afraid of sex, but sexuality is another matter.

While many of these depictions play into bisexual erasure, others reinforce harmful bisexual stereotypes. More often than not, the use of one of these tactics over the other follows the gender divide; bisexual men are largely unseen and uncelebrated, while bisexual women are trapped in oversimplified roles, their sexuality transformed by a misogynistic industry into another means of sexual objectification.

To understand the ideology that these bisexual stock characters reinforce, we must examine the pervasive stereotypes that surround female bisexuality. In his interview with Anna Paquin, Larry King unwittingly went through a checklist of bisexual lady myths, casually outlining the many stereotypes still left to debunk. When Paquin said that she was merely in a monogamous relationship with a man, the clearly befuddled host responded, “but you were bisexual?” King is alluding to the widely held belief that a “bisexual” woman is simply a misinformed girl who hasn’t settled down yet. Once this experimental floozy finally finds monogamy with a man, her bisexuality will be relegated to the mythologized realm of experimental adolescence. According to this false theory, bisexuality is nothing more than a phase.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to unpack the appeal of this falsified narrative of bisexuality. The concept of a bisexual or lesbian woman who needs to be “saved” from her own sexuality is essentially a revamping of the classic damsel in distress narrative, with the male character’s conquering masculinity cast in the role of hero. The character of the bisexual woman offers the potential for a killer combination of girl-on-girl action paired with the possibility of heterosexual redemption.

Look no further than Dodgeball’s Kate Veatch, whose cold attitude and softball skills make her the butt of lesbian jokes throughout the film. Since Kate is a beautiful blonde, it makes sense to have her passionately make out with a girl at the end of the movie—that’s hot! But instead of leaving Kate with her lesbian happy ending, the film insists on going a step further when Kate declares that she’s actually bisexual, which makes her finally available to the movie’s male protagonist. Through this clever device, “bisexuality” comes to describe a girl who hooks up with other girls (and lets you watch), but will still eventually acquiesce and be your girlfriend. This isn’t an attempt to represent a group of women—it’s a male fantasy. Because we all know that the sexual gratification of the off-screen male viewer is valued more than an accurate portrayal of female sexual gratification.

From Orange Is the New Black’ s Piper Chapman, who describes herself as a “former lesbian” who has only ever been interested in one woman, to Kurt Hummel on Glee, who smugly informs his boyfriend 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,” pop culture is quick to perpetuate confusing and destructive narratives of bisexuality. When even a show like Glee, which claims to recognize and empower all the freaks and underdogs, makes fun of the “myth” of bisexuality, it’s clear that bisexual representation, at least on network television, is still stuck in the dark ages.

The act of erasure through mis- or under-representation is an insidious one. Regardless of sexual orientation, everyone should have the right to envision a future for themselves; to engage with popular culture as an aspirational means of self-discovery. Just as every young girl should be able to see a reflection of her future self in a blockbuster female superhero or a powerful network TV executive, so should children of all sexual orientations be able to imagine lives for themselves inspired by the images they see in movies, television, and magazines.

For those who are growing up in families, institutions, or regions that do not accept their desires or lifestyles, this positive media reinforcement could become an invaluable inspiration, as essential to continued life as food or air. Pop culture has a responsibility to these children, just as it has a responsibility to accurately depict, to the best of its ability, the world in which we live. While not every show is, or should be, reality television, hundreds of channels filled to the brim with white, traditionally beautiful, heterosexual characters is a manufactured unreality; a deliberate denial of authentic diversity that could result in or contribute to self-hatred and denial for anyone whose desires differ from the glorified norm.