Bisexuality on TV: It's Getting Better

Depictions of bisexuality are few in number and often still based on stereotypes, but the quality of their portrayals is improving thanks to shows like The Good Wife and Revenge.

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.

For example: Grey’s Anatomy’s orthopedic surgeon Callie Torres is shown having a meaningful, often heartbreaking relationship with Arizona Robbins, and her love triangle with Erica Hahn and Mark Sloan is no less tortured or dramatic than, well, any other Grey’s Anatomy love triangle. And take The Good Wife’s private investigator Kalinda Sharma: Sharma isn’t making out with women in front of men in an attempt to get their attention; instead, she’s trying to protect the female FBI agent she’s sleeping with from her homophobic and violent ex-husband who considers her sexuality a threat. Her interest in women isn’t shown as an add-on to her identity, but rather a significant part of it. Her scenes with women are supposed to be titillating, but like her scenes with men, a lot is left to the imagination, and Sharma’s relationships with women are also portrayed much like her relationships with men: They involve intensity followed by detachment.

Once Upon a Time also recently featured a fascinating bisexual storyline between two fairy-tale heroines, Mulan and her friend Princess Aurora (also known as Sleeping Beauty). In the first season, the writers portrayed Mulan as interested in Prince Phillip, the devoted prince who’s in love with Aurora, and depicted Mulan as jealous. Mulan became incredibly emotional when Aurora was later kidnapped. Despite the subtext, many viewers expected Mulan to at some point confess her love for Phillip, not Aurora. But in an episode earlier this month, when Mulan comes to see the newly reunited Aurora and Phillip, she tells Aurora that she, not Phillip, is the person she came to speak to. There is a tendency for people to read this as “Mulan is a lesbian,” but there’s no reason to dismiss her interest in Phillip in the first season. All signs point to Mulan being bisexual.

Other television characters remain less clear in their bisexuality—like True Blood’s Pam, a former prostitute. The book the show is based on makes apparent that Pam is bisexual, with a tendency to sleep with more women than men. In the television series, however, it’s less clear. Throughout the series, Pam sleeps with women, including the cynical Tara. She is only shown sleeping with a man, Eric, once, and the sex is simply an exchange for a deal worked out between the two. The only time her sexuality is alluded to is well into the series, in a moment when she cracks a joke about it: “Let bygones, be bygones; bi girls be bi girls.”

On one hand, the fact that her bisexuality isn’t really understood until later in the series is somewhat problematic: Bisexual erasure—or refusing to believe that a person can be bisexual—is still an issue, and when we don’t acknowledge bisexuality, it’s easier for people to perpetuate the idea that bisexuals are simply confused straight people or homosexual people. On the other hand, though, Pam isn’t a one-dimensional character—her feelings for her “maker” Eric and her “progeny” Tara, are complex. Pam, then, represents more of a step forward than a step back.

True Blood has other representations of bisexual women, too, with Tara, vampire monarch Queen Sophie-Anne, and perhaps the femme fatale Salome. Tara’s feelings for both Pam and her girlfriend Naomi are portrayed as serious (Tara loves Naomi strongly enough to tell her the truth about her past and show her her real identity as a bartender in Bon Temps, and enough to push her away once she realizes Naomi is in danger), and with Pam, a little strained. In Tara and Pam, the show manages to give viewers two well-developed bisexual characters.

Convicted drug smuggler Piper Chapman in Orange Is the New Black is also a complex protagonist who happens to be attracted to both men and women. Chapman, as the star of the series, has boosted the visibility of bisexual female characters, to be sure; before her, bisexual television characters mostly languished in the background, at worst, or became dynamic characters serving as close friends to the lead character. The show’s treatment of her bisexuality, however, is arguably more problematic: Chapman refuses to call herself bisexual, and everyone in her life, including herself, refers to her as a “former lesbian.”

The term “former lesbian” is controversial for plenty of reasons. Perhaps most prominently, it suggests a person can only be homosexual or straight and diminishes the identity of “lesbian.” Lesbians are often told they don’t really know their own sexuality; that they could eventually change their minds and sleep with men if they found “the right man.” Calling Chapman a “former lesbian” only perpetuates that idea. It is, however, an accurate representation of the confusion around bisexual people, including bisexual people’s frequent struggle to describe their sexuality to others. (Chapman may also think of herself as a “former lesbian” instead of bisexual because she associates her relationship with Alex Vause as part of a past she regrets.)

Characters like Chapman serve as a reminder that TV still frequently misunderstands bisexuality, and the fact still stands that bisexual men are hard to find on TV. But thanks to characters like Nolan Ross, Callie Torres, the women of True Blood, and Kalinda Sharma, there is no question that portrayals of bisexuality on TV are improving. As gay and lesbian characters grow in their complexity, hopefully bisexual characters will continue to evolve as well.