2018 has been a mixed year for bisexual representation. Shows like The Bisexual and Sally4Ever have focused on female characters exploring their sexuality, but film has mainly shied away from focusing on bi representation. As a medium, television has more storytelling room, so perhaps it is easier to fit in bisexual characters, but film needs to be making the push for more diversity in sexual experiences.
Representation is not arbitrary, and not just a box-ticking exercise, but helps shape and shift perceptions in the real world. This is important for people of any minority, and the statistics show the level of mental health problems that come with being bisexual. Studies have found that “approximately 40 percent of bisexual people have considered or attempted suicide, compared to just over a quarter of gay men and lesbians”. Although representation of gay and lesbian people needs to improve, it is clear that if progress is going to be made in regards to the mental health of bi people, it needs to happen quickly. Bisexual people are not just a small minority, but as a study by the Williams Institute found, in the US, “Among adults who identify as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority (1.8% compared to 1.7% who identify as lesbian or gay)”. This highlights the need for more bisexual representation on screen, especially for men, as they are less likely to identify as such. That is why it is heartening that more shows are including positive depictions of bisexual people.
Bisexuality on screen is not always explicit, not always explained, and there are schools of thought on both sides of the fence. Some people think not uttering bisexuals bisexaul is progressive and others feel it is holding progress back. The same debate is being had in real life, with some bisexual and pansexual people choosing not to label their sexualities, whilst others feel the label is vital if progress is to be made. I personally feel that whatever someone wants to identify as is fine, as long as it is not actively harming anyone in the LGBTQ community. I personally don’t think it hurts the bi community for people to classify themselves as fluid in real life, but I don’t think there has been good enough representation on screen for the label to be discarded in the media. Two of the Main offenders who refuse to audibly call their characters bisexual over the years continued in this vain in 2018. The protagonists in How to Get Away with Murder and Orange is the New Black show bisexual characters but refrain from having them identified as such on screen. There have been many think-pieces about this over the years, but they haven’t forced the shows into making a change. It can be argued that this representation is normalizing bi identities by taking away the dramatic coming out, and by showing them living their lives authentically. It is a nice idea, but only works if enough good representation has already been shown in the media.
An example of not explicitly labelling a character was discussed recently by Tessa Thompson, who starred as bisexual character Valkyrie in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok. She defended her character not explicitly being shown as bi, stating, “I played her as a woman that’s queer. I hope that we get to a space, in terms of the stories that we tell, where that’s something that gets to exist, and it doesn’t have to be noteworthy”. Her defense is well-meaning but the operative phrase in her statement is, “I hope we get to that space”. Thompson is bi and was clear in the promotion for Thor that her character is too, but we are not at a place in society where representation on screen can all follow the progressive mold of not identifying. Although I hope sexualities do not have to be spelled out in the future on screen, for now, it needs to be explicit in order to educate and to normalize.
Looking back at the year of Bisexual film and TV it is best to review them on the representation shown. Does it fall into any of the negative traps laid above? Does it skirt around the issue? Or does it show a happy and healthy character or relationship? Below is the good and the bad of bisexuality in film and TV.
Desiree Akhavan burst onto the scene with 2013’s wry Appropriate Behaviour. She finally directed her second feature, the heartwarming and vital gay conversion therapy film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post earlier this year. She followed the success of that film a few months later, with the aptly titled, The Bisexual. The show follows a 30-something American women, who after breaking up with her partner of 10 years (the masterful Maxine Peake) starts to experiment with her sexuality. Under a different showrunner the show could have perpetuated negative stereotypes, but identifying as Bisexual herself, Akhavan allows The Bisexual to upend all negative conventions. She sleeps with men and women, and does, as the show suggests, show the life of a bisexual woman. Funny, smartly-observed and as awkward as her debut feature, The Bisexual is the best example you will find this year, and maybe any year of a bisexual woman just figuring her life out.
The under watched and underappreciated Casual finished its run on Hulu earlier this year. It was A real gem of the past few years, sharing a tone with Bojack Horseman, with a tenth of the hype. This dramedy took the tired dysfunctional family setting and rejuvenated it bringing the will they/won’t they to the sibling relationship. I could talk about Casual for the rest of the article, but I’ll get focused on the sexuality of the daughter, Laura, played to perfection by Tara Lynne Barr. In previous seasons we witnessed Laura date both men and women, but there was always a sense she was still figuring out her attraction to the latter. That was no longer the case in the final season, as Laura happily dated women, showing no signs of doubt or internalized homophobia. Although she didn’t date a man in the final season, this was an important portrayal, as it busts the myth that being bisexual means you have to date men and women to an equal degree. You could go your whole life without dating either, but still be attracted to both, while still identifying as bisexual. Laura’s attraction to men and women was cemented in the first three seasons, making her happily dating women without renouncing her attraction to men a rarely seen but positive portrayal.
The Bi Life
Billed as a queer equivalent to Love Island, The Bi Life is a dating show where every contestant identifies as bisexual. Whilst not becoming the cultural megahit that Love Island has become in the UK, The Bi Life is a huge step forward in bisexual representation. Airing in the UK, and fronted by Queer drag icon, Courtney Act, the show both normalized and educated the idea of bisexuality. It showed the aching truth of dating when bi, but included 3 to 4 scenes in each episode where the contestants discussed the stereotypes surrounding bisexuality and the effect it can have on family and friends. The Bi Life entertained, educated and ultimately warmed the heart, making it a vital piece of television in 2018.
Highlighting the lack of bisexual representation in the film world, I am forced to stretch the definition of film for Dirty Computer, the film accompaniment to Janelle Monae’s album of the same name. Running over 40 minutes and so much more than an extended music video, Dirty Computer is a great piece of feminist, avant garde and importantly, queer film making. Bursting with invention, striking visuals, and a love story at its core, Monae didn’t just make one of the best albums of the year, but also one of the best films.
Although Stephanie Beatriz’s character, Rosa Diaz came out on Brooklyn Nine-Nine in 2017, Diaz and Beatriz herself continued spreading positivity this year. Near the end of season five, Diaz found a love interest played by Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez, and the show continued to treat her sexuality the way it has always treated queer characters; perfectly. The positivity didn’t just end with the show though, and Beatriz has continued to be an advocate for her bisexual identity. After she was accused of picking a side when she married a man, Beatriz explained her sexuality in the most direct way possible, stating, “I’m bi till the day I die”.
Jane the Virgin
Fans of Jane the Virgin had long speculated (and in some cases hoped) that the character Petra was bisexual. The show confirmed this in 2018 when it gave her a love interest in the form of a new character Jane (not the virgin), played by the always brilliant Rosario Dawson. Because Petra dreamt of romancing Jane for so long, the romance was teased over a few episodes. However, once it was confirmed, the couple became a pitch-perfect example of bisexual representation. The show is campy, so the relationship was not without its highs and lows, and going into the next season, it is not clear whether they will continue dating. However, in the time that they were, it was not presented stereotypically in the slightest. Jane the Virgin (which has always been great on queer stories) got this one right.
The underappreciated tour de force that is, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend introduced its third bisexual character in 2018. That’s right, 3 bisexual characters on one show. To show three bisexual characters on one program, without falling into any negative tropes, is really going the extra mile. This normalizes bisexuality and is exactly the kind of representation the community needs. There is not much more to say about this, except for, we love you Rachel Bloom.
Sally4Ever, which is still in the middle of its first season is a heightened, absurd story of a woman married to a man, falling for another woman. At times the show plays into stereotypes, but it is nice to see a show that isn’t obsessed with the dramatics of it all, and instead allows the relationship to work in a bizarre world. It plays like an absurd The Bisexual, and is a reminder that representation doesn’t always have to be stale and factual, it can be great fun too.
Alex Strangelove is an interesting addition to the bad category, because for the most part, the film is similar to the better-known, Love Simon. It follows a high-school student who comes to grips with his sexuality, finally realizing and accepting that he is gay. The film is funny, sweet, but ultimately standard, diverting romcom fare. The problem, however, is how it shows Alex coming to grips with his sexuality. The film presents bisexuality as a stepping stone, and whether accidentally or not implies that it is a safe middle ground. It can often take many gay people time to truly come to terms with their sexuality, and pondering the idea of their bisexuality is a legitimate step on many people’s journey. Some gay people ultimately suppress their same-sex desires and come out as bisexual before accepting their homosexuality. But the idea that it is a stepping stone can be toxic, as it can imply it is a phase. So, for that reason it is in the bad category, but it hopefully highlights that representation is not always good or bad, but sometimes there is just more that needs to be done.
In the recently released Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury, as played by the magnetic Rami Malek, tells his female partner that he is bisexual. She responds, “Freddie you’re gay”. Her response is authentic and a painful reminder to any bisexual man that we are coded as gay if we have any same-sex attraction. For many, getting past the binary straight/gay divide is too much, as they believe bi people must choose. The film does nothing to dissuade the audience that Mercury is in fact gay, and like what often happens, our specific identity is erased. This film did nothing to counter this, and is a continuation of how the film world treats male bisexuality.
Riverdale has not shied away from sexuality and queer storylines in its three seasons on the air, and even included a bisexual character in the first season. Although that character, Moose, is now peripheral as the show continues onto season 3, in the past year audiences were baited, but ultimately let down by a bisexual storyline. Head cheerleader, and all-round ice queen, Cheryl Blossom had shown interest in men early on in the shows run, but started to engage in a same-sex romance in season 2. At its infancy, Madelaine Petsch, who portrays Cheryl stated, “I would say she is bisexual”. Hopes were raised, but after her romance with Toni Topaz was cemented, Petsch changed her tune, confirming that after talks with the showrunner, “Cheryl is a lesbian”. This is a hard blow for bi representation. Not because Cheryl had previously shown interest in men, but because her bisexuality had been publicly confirmed. Stating it publicly, then denouncing it is painful, and stings harder considering Cheryl is dating a great representation of bisexuality on the show, Toni Topaz. The flip-flopping perpetuates the stereotype that bi people need to choose a side, and damages the great representation Riverdale had established with Moose and Topaz.
Bi representation is getting better and despite its flaws, 2018 has been a great year and a great step forward. TV is embracing queer identities more every year, and is finally starting to allow queer characters to live happy lives. Film is failing all queer identities, but its lack of bi representation is shocking, and its lack of meaningful positive representation of queer identities in general is disgraceful. 2018 has been a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to highlight different voices, and make more people in 2019 comfortable to proclaim, “I’m bi till I die”.