Eight episodes into the first season of Netflix’s American reboot of House of Cards, the power-hungry congressman Frank Underwood returns to the Southern Carolina military academy he attended decades earlier. Hanging out with his college bros, it becomes clear to viewers that Frank, now married to a woman and carrying on a lusty affair with a young female reporter, once had an indeterminate relationship with one of those bros.
This revelation, so far, has had little impact on the rest of the show. At one point, Frank has a threesome that involves his wife and a man; at another, he seems to hit on his biographer, who is male. In season three, he has a phone conversation with his college lover, and they vaguely allude to their past.
Maybe this will all add up to blackmail material later. But perhaps it’s just a detail meant to flesh out the inner life of a man who murders, betrays, and bribes to get what he wants. The showrunner Beau Willimon has rejected the use of labels to describe Frank’s sexuality, saying, “He’s a man with a large appetite,” a statement that suggests physical attractions are subsets of other personality traits.
The 2015 edition of GLAAD’s annual report on the state of minorities on TV mostly looks like progress to anyone who favors casting that reflects humanity’s diversity. About four percent of characters on broadcast primetime programming are identified as LGBT—a percentage that’s in line with what some studies show about the percentage of U.S. population identified as LGBT—and there are more women and more ethnic minorities on TV than ever before.
But larger pools of diverse characters make it easier to spot cliches about those kinds of characters. One observation: It appears that what the website TV Tropes calls “the Depraved Bisexual” is only getting more common. Bisexuality in general on TV is on the rise; among television’s regular and recurring LGBT characters, 28 percent are bisexual. But while gay and lesbian characters on TV increasingly are portrayed in a way that doesn’t make their sexuality into a large and dubious metaphor about their character, bisexuality often is portrayed as going hand-in-hand with moral flexibility. The tropes, as identified by GLAAD:
• bisexual characters who are depicted as untrustworthy, prone to infidelity, and/or lacking a sense of morality;
• characters who use sex as a means of manipulation or who are lacking the ability to form genuine relationships;
• associations with self-destructive behavior;
• and treating a character’s attraction to more than one gender as a temporary plot device that is rarely addressed again.
These characteristics are surprisingly common among male bisexual characters on some of the most buzzed about new shows. GLAAD writes that the list includes “Cyrus Henstridge on E!’s The Royals who last season seduced a member of parliament and then blackmailed him into helping the Queen; Mr. Robot’s Tyrell who sleeps with a male office assistant to install spyware on the man’s phone; and the traitorous Chamberlain Milus Corbett on FX’s The Bastard Executioner, whose sexual liaisons have so far been depicted as a way for him to exert power.” The report also says that bisexual women don’t have it quite so bad, “with characters like Grey’s Anatomy’s Callie and Chasing Life’s Brenna whose sexuality is established as just part of their lives.” (Casey Quinlan had a nuanced look at the topic for The Atlantic in 2013.)
This all conforms with some larger trends in attitudes about bisexuality. Studies have revealed widespread stigma and disbelief facing people who identify as bisexual. Women are frequently seen as experimenting when they identify as bisexual; men have it arguably worse because they’re often seen as lying to themselves and others about just being gay. In both cases, the upshot is: untrustworthy. Which is certainly an adjective that applies to Frank Underwood, though probably not to an outsized number of bisexual people in real life.
As for why any of this matters, GLAAD’s Alexandra Bolles explains in the report, “Though bisexual people make up the majority of the LGBT community, they are less likely than their gay and lesbian peers to be out to the people they love, because their identity is constantly misconstrued as either a form of confusion, a lie, or a contrived and hypersexualized means to an end. Perpetuating these tropes undermines the truth that bisexuality is real and that bi people deserve to be treated equally and fairly.”