Bisexual folks make up about 52% of the queer community and according to LGBTIQA+ organisation GLAAD, this is starting to be reflected by growing media representation. According to GLAAD’s ‘Where we are on TV 2016’ report, bisexual representation in film and television rose by ten percentage points to 30% of queer characters during 2016 on broadcast series, and from 20% to 26% on streaming series.
This is a good thing of course, but if you’re looking for a bisexual role model, you still have bit of a mission on your hands. That’s because, as the report points out, many of these characters still fall into dangerous stereotypes. This is a real problem when the bisexual community still faces enormous discrimination from both hetero and LGBT communities, leaving us in a queer no-man’s land.
There are two particular tropes that keep popping up. The first is the emotional wrecking ball trope, almost exclusively a woman, whose emotional instability wreaks havoc in the lives of all her mono-sexual (and therefore emotionally stable) friends. This usually includes cheating thanks to the myth that bisexuals are actually just greedy.
The ground-breaking show The L Word, featuring an almost entirely LGBT cast, is guilty of this. There are a few bisexual characters throughout the series but the first, and the most destructive, of these is Jenny. Jenny destroys her hetero relationship when she has an affair with a woman, and her actions grow increasingly out of control until she finally winds up dead in a pool. She identifies as bisexual for most of the series but finally ‘admits’ to actually being a lesbian. Frustratingly, this just gives more ammo to the ‘it’s just a stopover on the way to gay town’ crowd. Nonetheless, she portrays this trope with gusto, leaving her lesbian and hetero friends very wary of her.
Another series guilty of this is Orange is the New Black. Piper Chapman is a bisexual character who cheats on her male partner with her female ex-lover. She also doesn’t refer to herself, or get referred to, as bisexual. She’s referred to as a straight girl, lesbian, former lesbian, and so on. But the idea that she could be attracted to more than one gender, and not be confused about it, rarely seems to occur to anyone on the show. She’s instead characterised as confused and indecisive, cheating on her fiancé Larry and varying back and forth between him and ex-girlfriend Alex. At one point she says, “I like hot girls. I like hot boys. What can I say? I’m shallow.” She is portrayed as emotionally vapid, destructive, and criminally deviant.
This leads us to the second trope – the criminally deviant bisexual. This bisexual is corrupt and often morally irredeemable. In Shiri Eisner’s book, ‘Bi: notes for a bisexual revolution’ (2013), she describes this character as a femme fatale. “Her dangerousness is in particular connected to her (bi)sexuality in that she is often perceived as a sexual threat,” she writes, and her sexuality is indicative of her duplicity and unclear loyalties.
One example is Catherine Trammel of Basic Instinct, whose guilt as a serial killer who exclusively targets men is never truly established. Her unstable girlfriend also presents a threat to the male protagonist through violent jealousy, further embellishing the dangerous nature of the bisexual femme fatale.
Another example is the very creepy Julia, of Horrible Bosses. The films bring up several issues around male abuse not being taken seriously, and Julia is particularly abusive. Throughout the majority of the films she sexually assaults and threatens employee Dale. The kicker, from a bisexual perspective at least, is when she informs him she raped him while he was in a coma, and then tells him that she’s going to seduce his wife.
All of the examples thus far have been of women, who get much higher representation than bisexual men who made up only 30% of bisexual characters in 2016. But when men are represented, they are usually sexually predatory and violent. Take Eric Northman, a vampire in the True Blood series. He is one of the first antagonists in the series and engages in sex with both men and women when not ripping out hearts and plotting to gain power. He surpasses the moral ambiguity of the unstable trope and is downright sadistic. We also have Dr Quentin Costa of Nip/Tuck, who terrorises the community in his guise of The Carver, attacking and raping both men and women (including main character Christian Troy).
The message is clear – bisexual women are emotionally incompetent and dangerous, and bisexual men are predatory and sadistic.
“Creators overwhelmingly choose to portray bisexuality as a villainous trait rather than a lived identity. This trend of inaccurate portrayals undermines how people understand bisexuality, which has real life consequences for bi people and their wellbeing,” says GLAAD advocate and strategist Alexandra Bolles in the report.
At the bottom of these tropes is that bisexuality is an event in and of itself; it drives the bisexual’s behaviours which become plot points instead of being just one feature in a complex and multifaceted human being. It is also what gives them their insatiable appetites for sex and cruelty. These tropes suggest that it’s inherent in the orientation.
A lot of bisexual people experience rejection in queer spaces by gay and lesbian folks who have absorbed these messages. Attempts at dating on queer sites are met by many bisexuals with blanket rejection thanks to these negative stereotypes. These are the safe spaces in which queer people go to be just that – safe. Yet bisexuals cop the double whammy of rejection from both hetero and gay communities.
For the sake of bisexual people struggling to find their place and their queer identities in a monosexual world, it’s vital that we see ourselves represented on screen not just as the antagonistic fodder of serial programs, but as complex and multi-faceted people, whose bisexuality is just one more aspect of their lives.