In the last decade, American TV shows and movies have begun to showcase more LGBT characters than ever before. Bisexual viewers, though, may still find representations of their life experiences onscreen rare. Even as complex homosexual television characters multiply, giving viewers The LA Complex’s Tariq, United States of Tara’s Marshall Gregson, and Dexter’s Isaak Sirko, bisexual characters remain more elusive. GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report reveals that in the 2013-2014 TV season, there are just 24 bisexual recurring or regular characters on all of primetime TV, and 18 of them are women. Look closer, and it becomes clear that even in that small group, portrayals of bisexuality tend to be unrealistic.
The fact that television lacks bisexual characters, especially bisexual men, is well documented: As Josh Eidelson pointed out in The Daily Kos in 2011, it wasn’t easy then to find a bisexual male television character at all. And in early 2012, a Bitch magazine piece by Carrie Nelson highlighted the fact that even when they exist, portrayals of bisexuality are often deeply flawed. (Glee ignored the perspective of high-school glee-club star Blaine Anderson, she wrote, in favor of a plot that saw him get tossed back and forth between his gay and straight love interests.) And most recently, Slate’s June Thomas covered the increase in bisexual women on television, mentioning that in shows like House of Lies—where “being bisexual is mostly about being hot and uninhibited”—many bisexual women are still portrayed as performers, and their audience is considered straight men.
Still, it’s important to note that some breakthroughs have taken place in the past few years, however small they may appear. The quantity isn’t there, to be sure. But the quality of bisexual television characters is, on the whole, improving.
Revenge, for instance, created the character of Nolan Ross, one of the few representations of bisexual men in the media. Ross, a wealthy software inventor and lead character Emily’s confidante in her quest for revenge, has been in serious relationships with both men and women, and has had more casual relationships with men than with women. The show didn’t acknowledge or discuss his sexuality, however, until an episode in the first season which Ross sleeps with a man named Tyler. In response to Tyler’s confession that he sometimes sleeps with men, Ross simply states, “I get it. I’m about a three on the Kinsey scale myself.”
To its credit, Revenge reveals Ross’s sexuality in a way that doesn’t capitalize on the supposed shock value of two men having sex. True Blood’s steamy scenes between men—like the ones featuring male vampires Eric and Talbot, and one male character’s dream sequence in which another male character invites him to take a shower—often give off an aura of “You never thought this would happen, did you?” But Ross tosses out the information casually, like any other fact about himself, suggesting to the audience that this knowledge isn’t a great revelation—not because Ross is the most dapper man in the Hamptons, but because bisexuality is not a big deal.
That kind of message is especially necessary right now, because despite some improvements in quantity and quality of bisexual male characters on TV, it still seems far more shocking for a man to be bisexual than for a man to be gay.
Why? In 2013, a straight male audience is more likely to understand that gay men don't choose to be gay, but still can't seem to grapple with why a bisexual man would choose to sleep with another man rather than a woman. Perhaps that’s because a straight male audience or an audience informed by the straight male perspective tends to believe the female body is innately more appealing than the male body. Seeing the world from this point of view, it’s easier to understand why a woman would stray from the acceptable heterosexual path, lured by the female form’s beauty. Thus, the bisexual woman’s preferences are more socially acceptable and are often seen as more natural than the bisexual man’s. A 2002 paper in the Journal of Sex Research titled “Heterosexuals’ attitudes toward bisexual men and women in the United States” reflects this: It showed that heterosexual men rated male homosexuals and bisexuals less favorably than female homosexuals and bisexuals. (And as Slate's Willa Paskin rightly notes, passionate scenes between two women are far more prevalent than passionate scenes between men.)
Additionally, as Eidelson theorized, some male viewers may be more threatened by the concept of bisexual men than homosexual men because it essentially defies heteronormativity in a different way than homosexuality does. Bisexual women, he wrote, may be considered less threatening to a straight male audience than lesbians because they are sexually available to men.
That doesn’t mean bisexual female TV characters have had it any easier. Bisexual women may be portrayed more often, but their sexual preferences have been frequently portrayed merely as an aphrodisiac for men or an extra hurdle for the men pursuing them. Female bisexuality also often goes unrealized beyond a single onscreen kiss between women; in other words, bisexual women are frequently seen only in fleeting encounters, rather than meaningful relationships, with other women.
There is nothing inherently wrong with portraying bisexual women having purely casual sex. But portrayals of emotionally deep relationships between two bisexual women, or lesbian and bisexual women, have been a recent breakthrough. There are, indeed, now some fairer representations of bisexual women that defy the mainstream tendencies to doubt bisexual women’s feelings about other women, to delegitimize sex between women as “real sex,” and to treat said sex as a performance for men.