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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer. While the LGBTQ+ label continues to expand with the increasing awareness of sexual and gender identities, we are not yet seeing this awareness extend to our screens. While we are seeing an uptick in positive, empathetic stories of homosexual characters, those characters whose sexualities are not so neatly black or white (or pink, lavender, and blue), are still depicted as confused, sexually deviant, or greedy – if they are even depicted at all. While a more fluid take on sexuality is trickling into more mainstream media, it is often done so without seeing the need for ‘labels’, ignoring an entire subgroup of the queer community who long to see themselves not only portrayed on screen but portrayed correctly and proudly.
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Bisexual Erasure – “A pit stop on the way to homo” – Perpetuating Negative Stereotypes:
The 1990s and 2000s saw a number of new media hit screens that aimed to not only appeal to the queer community but to educate those outside of it as well. Joss Whedon’s landmark show Buffy the Vampire Slayer displayed the first on-screen lesbian kiss, while shows such as Will & Grace and The L Word put gay and lesbian characters to the forefront of serial narratives. While borderline revolutionary for their time, such shows now seem outdated in a time where sexuality is understood to more fluid than simply gay or straight.
Buffy’s Willow Rosenberg came out as gay after her first relationship with a woman, discarding that she had a strong emotional and physical connection to her previous boyfriend, Oz, for two and a half seasons. The 2005 drama Brokeback Mountain is often described as a romance between two gay men, similarly dismissing that both Ennis and Jack are married to women towards whom they display attraction. Katherine Mayfair of Desperate Housewives suffered a similar fate, jumping straight to believing she might be gay after her first sexual experience with another woman despite a lifetime of heterosexual relationships, with bisexuality not proffered, or even mentioned, as an option.
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While the words bisexual or pansexual were never mentioned in any of these narratives, others discussed it to their detriment. Will Truman, from the now at times dated Will & Grace, referred to pansexuality as “a pit stop on the way to homo”, contributing to the common myth that bisexual or pansexual people are confused or can’t yet admit to themselves that they are gay. Friends works this line into one of Phoebe Buffay’s songs for a laugh; “And then there are bisexuals, but some just say they’re kidding themselves.”
Sex and the City also contributed to negative bisexual and pansexual myths, with Carrie Bradshaw referring to bisexuality as ‘double-dipping’ and ‘greedy’. This is another common stereotype of the bisexual. Returning to Desperate Housewives, in the episode I Know Things Now, bisexual character Peter McMillan ended up cheating on Bree with her teenage son, Andrew. HBO’s True Blood also contained a number of bisexual characters including Eric Northman and Pamela Swynford De Beaufort, whose homosexual scenes were played as kinky or deviant, saving the romance for the heterosexual couples.
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“I like hot people!” – is casual sexuality progress?
A more modern approach has been taken in recent years, showing sexuality as more fluid than the rigid homosexual or heterosexual labels. But is this really a step in the right direction? Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black is shown having serious relationships with both fiancé Larry Broom and ex-girlfriend Alex Vause, without once describing herself as bisexual. The closest we are given is Piper explaining that “I like hot people!” In The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop’s attraction to Tahani, Janet and Simone is made clear, but is used only as a comedic landing-place, with Eleanor’s sexuality going undefined and unexplored. While this take on sexuality as a place without labels is refreshing and a step up from the representation of the bisexual as deviant or confused, it leaves the need bisexual and pansexual people have to see themselves on screen unfulfilled.
Even shows that pride themselves on being progressive in their representation of sexuality can be found complicit in bisexual erasure. Fox’s popular musical drama Glee dedicated much of its screen time to Kirk Hummel’s struggles as an openly gay teenager in Ohio and Santana Lopez’s struggles to accept herself as a lesbian, but bisexual character Brittany S. Pierce is denied this same careful treatment and seemed to come to terms with her sexuality remarkably quickly in comparison.
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“Letting my bi flag fly” – getting it right
All this isn’t to say that bisexuals are never represented correctly. Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Rosa Diaz, played by bisexual actress Stephenie Beatriz, is not only given a coming-out story – something bisexual and pansexual characters are often denied – but the struggles of her coming to grips with her sexuality are also displayed in full with understanding and tolerance. The brush off of “You’re gay, so it’s not a big deal,” applied to many members of the queer community who do not fit neatly under a homosexual label, is debunked here. Not only is Rosa given a coming-out story at her workplace, which is fielded by her colleagues with grace and acceptance, but she is also given one to her parents, causing a rift between her and her mother when Rosa insists that she has an equal chance of ending up with a woman as with a man.
The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend features a total of three bisexual characters over the course of its four-season run, most prominently Darryl Whitefeather. After divorcing his wife after a long-term marriage, Darryl is confused when he becomes attracted to White Josh and begins to question if he’s gay. This journey to discovering his bisexuality culminates in the celebratory musical number Getting Bi, the lyrics of which debunk the myth that bisexuals are confused, indecisive, or sexually deviant. It is important to note that this song is also a coming-out story, which is a refreshing change to the idea that coming to terms with being bi or pan is easy or without confusion.
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Pansexual characters are also starting to find a name for themselves in mainstream media. Klaus Hargreeves from The Umbrella Academy is most likely pansexual, although once again this comes without explanation or labels, denying the pansexual community visibility on screen. This is not the case in either Sex Education or Schitt’s Creek. Sex Education, which also sees Adam Groff come to terms with his bisexuality, gives Ola Nyman not only a journey of self-discovery with her sexual identity but a journey that culminates in a neatly worked-in definition of pansexuality. Schitt’s Creek takes a more nuanced but by no means less helpful approach with the now-iconic wine bottle analogy. David Rose, who has long since known he is pansexual, describes his sexuality tidily and succinctly as “I like the wine but not the label.”
We’re making progress. We’re increasingly seeing not only a wider range of sexualities and genders enter our content, but we are also seeing LGBTQIA+ characters be more than victims, stereotypes, or defined only by their labels. While it’s important to have such characters in narratives be more than their sexuality, it is equally important to depict these sexualities correctly and visibly. While films and shows may be getting better at giving us the wine, sometimes we do like the labels to be there as well.
By Cat Sole
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