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.