4 Ways Bi Representation on TV Can and Should Be Better
GLAAD just released its annual “Where We Are On TV” report for the 2016/17 season. This is an interesting read that throws a lot of numbers at you. The good part is that overall there are eanore LGBTQ characters on television. There is also more racial diversity on television, and more depictions of disability. Television is trying to show a broader spectrum of the human experience. This is welcome progress, worth acknowledging. However, there were also some less happy trends that the report highlighted.
There are way more bi women than bi men on television, and mostly it’s about the gay men
About half of queer women portrayed on television are in fact bi women. Of the 278 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters, there were 64 bi women and 69 lesbian women. When you look at the men, the statistics are very different. Of those 278 LGBTQ characters, 115 are gay men and 19 (that’s 6.8%) are bi men. One of these 19 characters is Darryl Whitefeather (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Good for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for giving us a wonderful portrayal of a bi man, I wish there were more like it. Also, go watch his song “Gettin’ Bi” if you haven’t seen it.
It is important when we talk about bi erasure and the stigma around bi men to think about this lack of representation. We are not seeing bi men in popular culture, people are not writing stories about bi men, with few exceptions bi men are being completely erased from our televisions.
When you see such a disparity in representation, it’s hardly surprising that people deny the existence of bisexuality in general, and male bisexuality specifically. It’s wonderful to see more queer characters, but nearly half of all LGBTQ characters on television are gay men. Queerness is much more than gay men and it’s time for our programming to reflect that.
There are more bi characters than before, but they are often terrible
The report also pointed out that even though there are more and more bi characters on television, a lot of them are portrayed as devious and untrustworthy. Their bisexuality is often just seen as another facet of that. First the viewer thinks they’re attracted to one gender, then it turns out they are attracted to a different one as well, therefore they can’t be trusted (or so these biphobic portrayals imply).
Frank Underwood (House of Cards), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder), Barbara Kean (Gotham), Sarah (Transparent), Piper (Orange is the New Black), and the list goes on and on and on. It’s a difficult line to walk when we discuss representation in television. Obviously the answer isn’t that every LGBTQ character must be a saint. It does however mean that we need a variety of three-dimensional characters that demonstrate the variety of people who are bi. This means we need ethnic diversity; we need folks of different abilities; we need men and women; and we need villains, heroes, and the morally ambiguous. Currently most bi characters are portrayed as untrustworthy women or are killed off. This is not an acceptable range of bi characters.
Female bi and lesbian characters die… a lot
In her introduction to the report, President & CEO of GLAAD Sarah Kate Ellis notes that
“Since the beginning of 2016, more than 25 queer female characters have died on scripted television and streaming series. Most of these deaths served no other purpose than to further the narrative of a more central (and often straight, cisgender) character. When there are so few lesbian and bisexual women on television, the decision to kill these characters in droves sends a toxic message about the worth of queer female stories.”
Lexa’s death in The 100 was awful, not just because we loved this character, but because it should have been so predictable. Queer women die in television, this is often described as the “bury your gays” trope. They often die immediately after having an incredibly happy moment or in order to build up and develop the main (frequently straight) character. We all acknowledge that characters die in television. However queer women die at much greater rates. If you want to get a feel for the scope of how many queer women die on television check out this comprehensive list of 166 lesbian and bi female characters who died on TV.
LGBTQ folks are mostly all white, able, and beautiful
This is an issue with TV in general, but TV has an especially hard time with intesectionality. They will give us a queer character, a person of color, a character in a wheel chair, but they will not give us all of those things in one character. On cable, 72% of the LGBTQ characters are white, and on streaming series 71% of LGBTQ characters are white. These numbers do not accurately reflect our community even a little bit. Primetime scripted broadcast is doing the best in this department with 42% of its LGBTQ characters being people of color.
Most characters remain able, but there has been an increase in characters with disabilities. This number is in fact so low, that the report went ahead and described almost every series regular with a disability. There were 15. Most of these characters are not LGBTQ, which again is not representing our community. Queer folks suffer from the same physical and mental ailments as the rest of the world, why not show it on television sometimes?
When looking at the data about all of the LGBTQ characters, it is easy to feel like there are plentiful. But in fact, in 2016 less than 5% of regular characters on primetime scripted broadcast television were LGBTQ. We talk about how these numbers break down, but really we are still looking at very few characters on television. One of the problems with having so little representation is that there is a huge burden on the few we do see. When you only have 19 bi male characters, these 19 characters carry the responsibility of representing millions of bi men. You simply can’t write perfect enough characters to do that. We don’t just need LGBTQ characters, we need more diversity among our LGBTQ characters.
Looking at these broad trends allows us to get a feel for a cultural moment. In 2016, bi men barely existed in popular culture. In 2016, bisexuality was disappointingly synonymous with manipulative and amoral. In 2016, most LGBTQ folks were white, able, and beautiful. In 2016, bi women and lesbians died a lot. Of course this isn’t “real life”, but it does help shape our reality. It is a reflection of our society and its ideals, and we need to be working harder to make it a better reflection.