Profile Piece: Why I’m gonna need more bisexual characters on TV

Note: This was written in December 2014. There are characters, and even shows, mentioned here that are not around anymore. Likewise, there are many bisexual characters that were not around yet. Please keep all of this in mind as you read. Thanks. –Ken


It was the spring of 2001 when Mya, Lil Kim, Christina Aguilera, and Pink gathered together on a Los Angeles set to film the music video for their cover of “Lady Marmalade.” The song was to be featured on the hugely successful Moulin Rouge soundtrack. As soon as it premiered, the video was everywhere, including the MTV Hits channel, which was constantly on in the background at my house.

Sitting in my living room with my mom watching the video and discussing which outfit we liked most (Mya’s) is where, I believe, my journey into self-awareness began. It only took one look at Pink in that top hat and corset for little 8 year-old McKenna to think that maybe she was a little too into the singer.

I didn’t hear the word “bisexual” until the arrival of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, (and a true gem of American cinema) at the age of 11 back in ’04. At the end of the film, Kate Veach (Christine Taylor) announces that she’s bisexual, effectively squelching the rumor of her being a lesbian, while also enticing our hero – the ‘underdog’ himself – Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn).

I don’t remember thinking too much of it, aside from understanding that it must mean that she liked both Peter and her girlfriend Joyce. I mean, I understood what the prefix “bi” means and what “sexual” means. Little McKenna looked at the threesome and thought that was nice for them.

It wasn’t until I was around 13 that I fully understood the concept. This was simply because I heard people talking about it. I listened and I inferred.

Okay, so this “bisexual” thing means that people are romantically and sexually interested in more than one gender – those of their own gender and those of other genders. Well, by then I was in middle school, the feeding ground of judgment, pettiness, and all-around viciousness. So, when I thought about this concept – this “bisexual” thing – my immediate, 13 year-old reaction was something along the lines of “well that sounds made up and slutty,” an idea that was widely accepted in my middle school, and later, my high school.

I believed that much like the tooth fairy, the Loch Ness Monster, or the limit Cady searches for in Mean Girls, bisexuality does not exist. “Bisexual” is code for girls making out with other girls to get boys’ attention or boys not being able to admit that they’re actually gay.

I distinctly remember walking out of one of the many pods of classes in my high school with my then-best friend Anne, and explaining to her that there was no way it could be real. I believe I said something along the lines of “I get being at least kind of attracted to both, but when it comes down to it, we all have a preference; we’re all going to pick a side.” And in my mind, and the minds of those around me, that meant that women usually chose men and men usually chose men. Funny how no matter what, it means attraction to men.

Don’t get me wrong, in the ten years between considering my obsession with Pink might be a bit less platonic than the other girls’ and coming to the conclusion that I was, in fact, bisexual, I was definitely attracted to other girls. I could still tell you the name of the first real girl I had a crush on (I say “real girl” because Pink is obviously an other-worldly goddess). It was my best friend’s sister. How awkward is that?

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t think anything of it. I assumed it was what my generation likes to call a “girl crush.” It just meant that I admired these ladies and liked their style; it definitely wasn’t a sexual thing. It couldn’t be. I was totally straight. In fact, when our classmates began to think that maybe Anne and I spent a little too much time together, we set the record straight – no pun intended – by saying that we “likey the fellas.”

I’m not proud. It was funny at the time.

By the time I was 15, I still thought bisexuality was “made up and slutty,” but I was in the early stages of developing my laissez-faire attitude about other people’s lives and I had nothing against bisexual people, personally. I just didn’t get it.

Grey’s Anatomy was in its fourth season when my favorite character, Dr. Callie Torres, began to have feelings for her female coworker and, as a result, changed how I saw things. Callie had previously only been with men, so the development of a crush on a woman surprised both her character and the audience, including myself. After having sex with the woman – Erica – for the first time, Callie sleeps with her male friend Mark, and tells him that she’s frustrated that she does not seem to prefer sex with one of them over the other. Eventually, she comes to the conclusion that it’s okay to not have a preference.

So what did this mean for me?

Simply stated, it meat that my favorite character was bisexual and that I clearly couldn’t keep thinking the way I did. Callie wasn’t some attention-seeking slut! She was a brilliant, funny, passionate surgeon! The best in her field! So bisexuality has to be a thing, then.

Everything changed.

Looking back, I really do think that Callie helped me understand bisexuality, and with it, myself. She helped me realize that we had more in common than a shared love of dancing around in our underwear.

By the time I got to my senior year of high school, I knew I was bisexual, and boy was that ironic. I began to have conversations with myself in my head when walking through the halls, finding a weird sense of liberation in being able to look at a guy and a girl side-by-side and think they were both hot. And, yeah, I would date either of them. Shit, man, I’ll date both of them.

I didn’t have a huge “coming out.” I told the people who mattered – the ones I knew were going to continue to be part of my life after high school – and I am very fortunate that they were all supportive and loving. By the time this whole college thing came around I had simply decided to be “out,” in whatever way that meant. If people asked, I told them. If people knew, they knew.

It’s been a journey and, through it all, I feel like I owe Callie something – like we have some kind of strange bond or something. I know that probably sounds silly. It’s just a TV show, after all. It can’t do that much. It can’t mean that much.

But I’m not the only one. Representation is huge for the underrepresented and seeing someone like you on television or in a movie, seeing a character that is loved and revered, allows you to think maybe you can be loved and revered for exactly what you are.

I recently talked to Aaric Guerriero, director of the GLBTQQA Resource Center here at Colorado State University, when I wrote about Laverne Cox coming to speak on campus for the school paper. Guerriero, a trans man of color, expressed his gratitude to Cox for being the representation he never had, but always dreamed of: “I came out as trans a few years ago and, at the time, I had no trans people of color I could look up to as icons and role models, so having her here means so much,” he told me.

And that’s what it’s about. Caring about representation is not unimportant or frivolous or a waste of time. Representation is everything.

Those with access to television will likely admit to taking parts of their personality from what they see on TV, be it a favorite line or cute mannerism. In ways big or small, we have been known to model ourselves after what we see on TV. Hell, my family can’t get through a single get together without at least three of us quoting Friends. Gilmore Girls is probably a good 75-80% to blame for my weirdly fast speech, coffee addiction, and need to be an editor at my college newspaper. And I know for a fact that the reason why I often turn my head and give an exasperated look at a nonexistent camera is because of Jim Halpert on The Office. We take certain behavioral cues from these “people.”

So it’s easy to understand why we ask to have more bisexuals on TV, and for those characters to portray us well. We want both ourselves and other people to have something to make people aware that bisexuality exists and is valid.

The problems I see with the current status of bisexual representation are 1) a lack of representation, 2) the refusal to dare utter the word “bisexual” when there is representation, and 3) the excuse TV big-wigs hide behind: that bisexuality is too “confusing” for the general population.

Please allow me to delve a little deeper into each of these issues:

1. Where the bi’s at?

A couple of weeks ago I began to wonder if this was a problem only I saw; maybe this lack of representation only bothers me because I’ve taken too many classes analyzing popular culture habits and have recently found my inner social justice nut.

I reached out to a good friend of mine, who also happens to “bat for both teams,” as the expression goes. I wanted to see if it was all in my head.

Sitting in his obnoxiously-yellow Subaru with EDM unidentifiable to me playing the background, my pal Royce and I shared experiences of growing up outside of the binary.

Hailing from the middle-of-nowhere Colorado, (somewhere near Alamosa, I think, though I can never seem to remember even after he’s told me 43 times) Royce was not aware that his attraction to more than one gender was something he had in common with anyone else.

“I don’t think I heard the word ‘bisexual’ until college; and if I did hear it, it wasn’t in any kind of setting where you would understand what it meant,” he told me.

As a teenager, he had girlfriends and knew he was attracted to women, but also felt attraction toward men. This made my dear Royce question whether he was gay or straight, because there was no in between.

“When you have a system where people pretty much only see it as a binary of gay or straight, it makes it really hard for someone who would likely identify as bisexual to know that there is another option. Especially growing up where I grew up – in the middle of fucking nowhere – where there’s the ‘farm boy mentality.’ Not being straight is not okay and the only option besides straight is gay. … I think having someone to look up to in the public sphere would have definitely helped, if only for a reference point when explaining your sexuality to people, like a character you can point at and say ‘They are too.’”

It made us wonder if without representation, real life bisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals, etc. would know how to identify themselves. “If they haven’t been exposed to anything outside of the binary, how do they know they have that option?”

Short version? They might not.

In my regular TV viewing, I have found only six recurring, regular bisexual characters currently on TV. And, let me tell you, that’s saying something because I watch way too much TV.

They are as follows:

1. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) – House of Cards
2. Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) – Game of Thrones – Yes, [SPOILER ALERT] this character recently died horrifically. No, I am not over it. Hence why he is still included.
3. Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris) – Glee
4. Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) – Grey’s Anatomy
5. Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann) – Revenge
6. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) – Orange is the New Black

[Of course, there are probably some that I missed, so don’t get mad at me if you know of one that I don’t. Instead, share it with me! That’s a great way to get me to start watching a show – tell me there’s a cool bisexual in it.]

The problem with having more fingers than characters to count on them is that it’s a very real possibility that people like Royce are not going to be exposed to the idea of bisexuality or any of its non-binary siblings (pansexual, asexual, demisexual, etc) for a very long time. If this is the case, they will spend way too long wondering if what they’re feeling is valid, if it’s real, and if they’re the only one who feels like this.

Being a teenager is tough; it shouldn’t be even more difficult because you’re forced to wonder if you’re some kind of alien.

2. Why are we so scared of the “B” word?

Of the six aforementioned characters, only two have actually dared to utter the word “bisexual” – Brittany Pierce and my dear Dr. Callie Torres.

Brittany has dared speak the “B” word on a few occasions, stating that she is a “bi-corn” instead of a unicorn, and bilingual (emphasis on the bi).

For Callie it took much longer. It was not until a couple years ago that she and others began to say it. My favorite moment is when Callie states that bisexuality is real, and that the “B” in LGBT “doesn’t mean badass. … Okay, it kind of does, but it also means bisexual.”

Media scholar Maria San Filippo discusses how oftentimes the word “bisexual” is avoided in reports, perhaps deliberately. She says that those who study media “occasionally appear to notice” bisexuality, but they give it different identification, burying it in easier-to-understand terms like gay, lesbian, homoerotic, queer, etc.

She states that “to a surprising extent, bisexuality remains the orientation that dares not speak its name.”

In my research, I’ve begun to theorize that perhaps this phenomenon cannot be blamed on the researchers and academics, but on the television representations they are analyzing. Is it possible that in their reports researchers leave out these identifiers because the shows they’re looking at refuse to use them?

It’s great to have Brittany, a character who is so open about her sexuality, on a show that has been known to have some profound positive impacts in society. It’s great to have Callie, a badass surgeon being proud of her equally badass bisexuality. But it’s not enough. They remain a minority in a system where the majority refuses to say the “B” word itself.

In three of the six cases I’ve noted, the character openly and directly addressed their sexuality, yet refused to utter the word “bisexual.”

In fairness to the first of those cases, you can’t really expect Game of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell to go around saying he’s bi; that would be about as historically accurate as Daenerys Targaryen planning her next conquest on an iPad. In this case, it makes sense for us to take his declaration of bisexuality in the form of this quote:

“Everyone is missing half the world’s pleasure. The gods made that, [referring to a woman] and it delights me. The gods made this, [referring to a man] and it delights me. When it comes to war, I fight for Dorne. When it comes to love, I don’t choose sides.”

Okay, Oberyn. Fair enough.

The same cannot be said, however, for characters such as Revenge’s Nolan Ross and Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman.

Mr. Ross identified as what would be considered bisexual early on in the series. In episode seven when addressing Tyler, a newcomer to the Hamptons, he says “Ah, ambiguous sexual identity. I get it. I’m about a three on the Kinsey scale myself.” He’s referring, of course, to the scale created by Alfred Kinsey in the late 40’s. A scale from zero to six, the Kinsey Scale assigns zero as exclusively heterosexual and six as exclusively homosexual, meaning that our dear Mr. Ross lands perfectly in the middle.

Throughout the series he’s had relationships with men and women, effectively representing what can be considered a bisexual lifestyle. So why the hesitation to put a name to it? Why not just say, “Ah, ambiguous sexual identity. I get it. I’m bisexual.” Maybe it’s less mysterious. Less sexy. One could also argue that it does not fall in line with his character. Nolan is mysterious and a bit strange. Perhaps it wouldn’t make sense for him to come right out and say the obvious thing. He had to make it a bit more fun than that.

But what about Piper Chapman who is known to say exactly what she’s thinking, oftentimes in the bluntest way possible? The Orange protagonist is caught between two relationships, one with fiancé Larry, who identifies as a man, and one with an ex-girlfriend, Alex. During the show we’ve clearly seen Piper swing both ways, but never is the word “bisexual” uttered. Instead, supporting characters constantly ask if Piper’s gay now and if she “went lesbian?” The answer, of course, being no.

There are two times I can recall that Piper addresses her sexuality directly. The first is a response to one of those enormously annoying “so you’re gay now?” questions. She replies that “You don’t just turn gay. You fall somewhere on a spectrum – like a Kinsey Scale.” Ah, the trusty scale explanation again.

The second time is when her friend Polly asks her about her relationship with a woman and she replies “I like hot girls. And I like hot boys. I like hot people.” And while I appreciate and relate to that answer, it’s not sufficient. Would it really be that difficult to say “Of course me dating a woman doesn’t suddenly make me gay. I’d probably identify as something closer to bisexual. What’s it to you, Pol?”

This pattern of saying anything besides the word in question has left many, including myself, frustrated to say the least. Case and point, a Tumblr text post stating: “If I ever heard the word ‘bisexual’ used on a TV show I’d probably drop dead from shock,” that has gained over 30,000 notes.

The word “bisexual” is an identifier. And, to be sure, identifiers can be annoying; we all have those friends who are “not into labels.” And, you know what? That’s fair. Identifiers can make people think that they have to be one thing or another.

One of my favorite humans/YouTubers/bisexuals is Connor Manning, who sees that labels can be restrictive and often doesn’t like to use them for himself. However, he sees the appeal of them and uses them as a way to help others understand who he is and where he’s coming from:

“I find that for the most part, an identity label is more for other people to have a better understanding about who you are, and less for you. There is kind of a community vibe about identifying with a label, for sure; it kind of lumps you in with a bunch of teammates and you’re all doing your thing under your label umbrella.”

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to identify our sexual preferences. We’d all be one team. We’d all like who we like and everyone would accept it.

The problem with that thinking right now is that we’re not there yet as a society. We still live in a heteronormative world. The fact is that people are assumed straight until proven otherwise. So if we’re going to have a real discussion about bisexual representation, we need to talk about labels and how they can be beneficial. If only for those kids who fall outside of the socially-accepted binary.

They need the validation that comes with being able to explain who you are and have a word to back you up.

3. The general population is smarter than you think they are

Amber Raley and Jennifer Lucas recently conducted a study of GLBT characters on primetime television, a section of which they dedicated to bisexual representations.

When introducing their study, they suggested that bisexuality may be a concept that is too confusing, too difficult for the average person to grasp, and is therefore often left out of popular culture.

I can tell you that there are many times in real life when declarations of bisexuality are met with confusion. However, if one’s mind is open and receptive, it’s really not a hard concept to grasp. Knowing that I can only speak from my own experience, I’ve found that usually a simple “I like humans of my own gender and other genders” works just fine.

What I am saying is that in a medium like TV, it cannot be that challenging to include more bisexual characters. Sure, it may be confusing for some at first, but I assure you, in practice, it really would not be that disorienting.

For this, let’s spend some time with a few dreamy fellas: Nolan Ross, Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and its spinoff series, Torchwood, and Frank Underwood from House of Cards.

Nolan, we have of course already met previously in this rant-like thing that I’m writing. Here’s how his bisexuality is shown on the show: he has relationships with men and women. That’s it. It’s really as simple as that. He has a relationship with Tyler, a man, followed by a relationship with Padma, a woman, and finally a relationship with Patrick, a man. That’s not too tricky, right?

And then there’s Jack Harkness. He’s not included on my list of six, as he has been absent from Doctor Who for an annoyingly long time. But he’s still awesome.

From his introduction Jack was presented as the biggest flirt in the Doctor Who-verse. He is known for flirting with pretty much anyone and anything. He flirts with Rose and Martha, two of the doctor’s female companions. He flirts with the Doctor himself. He flirts with alien creatures of all genders on all different planets. And it doesn’t stop at flirting. In the episode “The Parting of the Ways,” Jack actually kisses both the Doctor and Rose before going off to a fight.

In his own show, Torchwood, he can be seen frequently flirting with Gwen, his enchanting female coworker, and making out with Ianto, a male team member, after hours. Things get complicated when Jack’s ex-husband shows up, but it’s all worked out in the end.

So, basically, Jack flirts with everyone, develops serious relationships when he wants to, and still manages to be a badass who saves the world quite a few times.

He’s basically your average charming, immortal, con artist, anti-hero-esque protagonist.

His sexuality is a part of his life, but it’s inherent. The only time we see characters being confused about it is when the new girl, Gwen, joins the team and the group shares information about him.

Owen suggests that Jack’s gay because of the way he dresses (I don’t even have time to explain how wrong that is). But Toshiko says she doesn’t think so because she’s seen him in action and he’ll “shag anything that’s gorgeous enough.”

Torchwood in its entirety is actually a fantastic example of bisexual characters, or at least, characters with the potential to find love with people of their own gender and other genders. Every member of the five-person main cast shows attraction to people of their own gender and other genders at some point or another. Whether it was just sex or a full love story, every character was given the opportunity to be attracted to whoever – no questions asked.

And while it would have been more ideal for at least one of them to speak the “B” word, we have to applaud them for their go-with-the-flow attitude towards sexual identity.

If there are still people who think the concept of bisexuality is confusing, allow me to write of one final example: Frank Underwood. The twisted, but brilliant House of Cards protagonist is what we would likely consider to be bisexual, though he hasn’t told us to our faces. He is married to a woman, has an affair with a woman, watches gay porn, has a threesome with his wife and a male Secret Service agent, and had a romantic relationship with a man in college. All signs point to bi, or bi’s sibling: pansexual.

But it’s not like it’s a big deal. He just likes who he likes. And sure, the revelation of a past romance with a man was surprising to audiences, but it wasn’t a show stopper. Frank Underwood is Frank Underwood. He does what he wants and he doesn’t have to explain it to anyone. So it’s not like audiences were too confused by his apparently more-fluid-than-we-thought sexuality.

Though I will send a shout out to Netflix: Hey, guys, him stating his bisexuality in one of his many scene-stealing monologues would be super awesome. Thanks. Love you. Big fan.

My point here is that these characters show that representing a bisexual-identifying individual on a TV show is not tricky. It’s not confusing. Just simply have a character who says they’re bi and shows an interest in people of more than one gender.

I know that bisexuality can initially get some quizzical looks. I got that from the many days I spent with my sister-in-law this summer. In between runs to Chipotle and episodes of our favorite shows, we had some lovely deep conversation in which she repeatedly asked if I was sure I didn’t have a preference, and if I had to choose a gender which would I pick, and am I sure I’m not trying to say I’m a lesbian?

For the record: No, Kal, I don’t have to have a preference. I’m not going to pick a gender, because I can’t. And, yes, I’m sure I’m not a lesbian. My mad crush on Jensen Ackles – the one we’ve talked about in depth – is just one of many indications. Probably chief among those indications being my attraction to two groups of people: those who identify as my same gender and those who do not.

Thanks for the info, Ken. Now what?

Hopefully, by now I have you asking what the point of all this is. Why did you just read a 3000+ word rant by some college girl when you could have been watching House of Cards, Game of Thrones, or some other ______ of ______? And thank you for asking that.

Here’s where we go from here: We see that this problem exists and why it is problematic.

Those of us who identify as bisexual (or anything else on the spectrum) deserve to see more people like us on our favorite shows and we deserve to have our identifier included in those representations. Not only will it help us potentially figure out who we are a little sooner, but it also helps to share our validity with the world.

“See, what I am isn’t so weird! I’m basically Oberyn Martell minus the sick spear-fighting skills and Inigo Montoya-esque monologues!”

A few weeks ago a friend of mine told be a story about how he – as a gay man – lived most of his life believing the myth that bisexuality does not exist. He said that he’d heard about it – bisexuality – in high school, talked it over with some friends, and together they decided it didn’t make sense.

He told me that after meeting me and talking to me about my identity, he is able to see that it is very real and makes perfect sense. More than that, he said that he was able to speak up in class when a peer claimed that it did not.

This was a wonderful thing to hear. And I couldn’t help but think about how if I could help one person understand this, and he was then able to inform someone else, that’s two people who are now going to be more familiar with bisexuality and bisexuals.

But I’m just one chick. And, as much as I’d like to, I can’t do that to everyone.

However, there is a nifty thing that can reach millions of people every single week: a TV show.

To the writers, directors, actors, producers, assistants, interns, Foley artists, boom operators, etc. of the world: Please consider including more bisexual characters. It can only make a positive change and the only difference it brings in regards to how the character will be written is that you can give them any significant other you desire. If anything, it opens up more plot possibilities.

To the TV watchers out there – my fellow Netflix-addicted, Hulu-subscribing, Emmy nomination-predicting consumers – be aware of this.

Watch How to Get Away with Murder and wonder why they didn’t make Connor bisexual. The show is brand new. They totally could have. I’d still be holding out hope if the dude who plays him – the ridiculously good-looking Jack Falahee – hadn’t tweeted saying his character is gay.

Watch Orange is the New Black and be annoyed along with all of us bi folk every time Piper cleverly words explanations of her bisexuality to leave out the actual word.

Watch a sitcom with a predictable love triangle and think about how much more unexpected it would be if the main girl/guy was in love with a guy and a girl. Whoa. Drama.

But above all else, be accepting of the bi’s in your life. Validate them. Love them. Hug them (unless they’re not into touching and then an air-five will probably work).

And if you’re sitting around with them eating pizza in your pajamas and they’re pissed because Supernatural has been on the air for 10+ years and never had an openly bisexual character, look over at them and say, “Yeah, man. What the hell is that about?”

Because, really, what the hell is that about?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s