Bisexuality in the Media: Where are the Bisexuals on TV?

Originally published on by Eliel Cruz.

Almost everyone thinks LGBT visibility in the media is on the rise. On the whole, they’d be right … but not so fast with those pats on the back.

In reality, LGBT representation on film and TV went down overall last year. It’s even rarer to see bisexuals represented in the mainstream media, without hosts like Larry King and columnists like Dear Prudence shaming bi people for their sexual habits and discouraging them from living openly.

So much for visibility.

While there are certainly more LGBT characters in shows and movies than during the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s a far cry from accurately representing the entire community. And anyone familiar with its politics knows that the racial, sexual and gender diversity of the community isn’t remotely well represented.

Indeed, according to GLAAD’s latest media reports, on television, out of the “66 regular or recurring LGBT characters on scripted cable television, 35 are gay men, while only 4 are bisexual males.” Meanwhile, of the 102 LGBT-inclusive films released in 2013 (note that’s not all films, just the ones that had LGBT characters), there was only one bisexual male character. That means that less than 6% of LGBT representation on television was of bisexual men, and less than 1% in films in 2013.

While it would be easy to shrug off these statistics — and judging from the lack of protest, many have done just that — media representation of minority groups is important. Fiction or not, media portrayals of minority groups help the general public acknowledge, relate to and humanize a group they might not interact with in their day-to-day lives.

For bisexual representation, it helps bisexual youth see themselves on television, and it helps everyone understand that bisexuals are really not that different from anyone else.

Over the years, Hollywood has slowly showed more queer stories, although they have typically only been those of white, affluent, gay men. Shows like Queer as Folk and Will and Grace were trailblazing because they garnered widespread appeal, inviting millions of Americans to welcome the stories of gay men into their living rooms. In a similar way for lesbian characters on TV, Showtime’s The L Word and HBO’s current hit Girls have featured the stories of mostly white women in the community.

Since then, more mainstream, family-friendly comedies have included groundbreaking same-sex relationships, as shows like The Fosters and Modern Family depict “normal” gay relationships. But when it comes to bisexuals, audiences usually only see bisexual women, and they’re introduced in an overtly sexualized manner to appease the male gaze.

There are few bisexual characters in TV and film, but the word “bisexual” is typically avoided.

Piper in Orange Is the New Black is only referred to as bisexual once in both seasons; her onscreen husband referred to her as a “lesbian” while her ex-girlfriend Alex refers to her as a straight girl. This split portrayal has prompted more than one critic to complain that show’s portrayal of its main character constitutes bi erasure.

Image Credit: Alex Vause Blog/Tumblr

House of Cards had a surprise bisexual threesome, but the producers of the show were quick to not label Frank’s sexuality, dismissing the scene as “whims and desires.”

This year brought an honest portrayal of a bisexual male lead in Halt and Catch Fire, but it’s the only one this year. NBC has been accused of straight-washing a bisexual character in its upcoming TV adaptation of the long-running series Constantine, prompting fans to create a petition asking for the character to be bisexual as depicted in the comics. When show producer David Goyer was asked about bi erasure at San Diego Comic-Con, he became contradictory and a little defensive. Goyer asserted that he “never said Constantine wasn’t bisexual. He just isn’t getting out of bed with a man in the pilot.”

Goyer’s stance on the issue, not condemning the behavior, but casually pushing it out of the frame, seems to echo a recurring theme with bisexual male characters. Why can’t we have authentic bisexual male characters in our stories?

Asking for media representation isn’t asking diversity for diversity’s sake — it’s for the sake of accuracy.

According to a 2011 Williams Institute report, researchers found that about half of the LGBT community identifies as bisexual. Yet, as mentioned above, there are only a few bisexual characters portrayed in media.

For some odd reason, many Hollywood producers have internalized the misconception that a man can’t be romantically involved with another man and still be interested in women as well. This inaccurate notion centers around the idea that masculinity requires a wanting and “getting” of women, but not that same type of passionate desire for men. Bisexuality threatens the heteronormative narrative even more than even homosexuality, because it destroys our ideas of a binary; it’s an acknowledgment that humans sexuality works in a more complex manner than only having romantic and sexual attractions for one gender.

Image Credit: Williams Institute

“Our mainstream media reinforces the notion that bisexuality is either a fun, voluntary act of experimentation or a mere myth through two tried and true tactics: misrepresenting and oversimplifying bisexual characters until they are either punchlines or wet dream fodder, or simply refusing to portray bisexual characters in the first place,” wrote Amy Zimmerman over at the Daily Beast. “Bisexual erasure — or the tendency to blot out bisexuality and deny its existence entirely — on film and television highlights the way that certain types of queerness are undermined and erased in popular narratives, while others are increasingly caricaturized and/or celebrated.”

The “Dear Prudence” brouhaha is just one more example of the importance of elevating bisexual voices, both in the media and in pop culture. Lesbians and gays have witnessed an enormous, positive cultural shift in the past decade, spearheaded in large part by the visibility brought by popular gay and lesbian entertainers and actors. But this push for equality has not been distributed equally, leaving many bisexuals to wonder when they, too, will get their “Ellen” moment.


Lisa Peyton

  • Charles Davy

    Personally I am glad Bisexual representation hasn’t been common for multiple reasons.
    1) Bisexuals can already find characters to relate to in media through straight couples and gay couples. Gay people typically don’t have that benefit.
    2) Bisexual representation is a good way to queer bate an audience or appeal to the masses. For example Supernatural uses subtext of Dean and Castiel being bisexual to increase their viewership without making an actual same sex relationship. In other shows bisexual women couples are used as temporary eye candy to bring in a larger audience. Typically they are broken up 5 minutes in to further the plot and then get together with some guys.
    3) Bisexuals as a whole aren’t oppressed by society. While it might be unpopular to say bisexual people get the choice to engage in emotionally/physically fulfilling heterosexual relationships anytime they want with society’s approval. When they get tired of not being able to get married, show PDA in public, getting discriminated from jobs and services they can choose to regain those privileges by engaging in heterosexual relations.
    4) Chances are writers and directors are not going to include a bisexual and a gay person in a piece of work. Typically there are 1-4 main characters in a media piece by making a bisexual a main character gay representation is decreased.
    5) To be represented as a bisexual they need to engage in relationships with both men and women. Saying a character is bisexual and then only having them in heterosexual relationships isn’t representation. Saying a character is bisexual and only having them in gay relationships isn’t representation.

    So basically bisexual representation decreases gay representation, is difficult to write because straight and gay relationships need to be written for one person, bisexuals already have role models in media through straight and gay characters, and bisexual representation will inevitably lead to queer bating or gay fetishization.

  • gallifreyankhaleesi

    I’d say it’s possible to repreent a bi character well. Also, bi people are mistreated in society due to homophobia and biphobia. But I understand your points.

  • Crazy Cat Lord

    You’re assuming that bisexual individuals can easily relate to any character in the media, no matter if gay or straight. The problem is that the media gives the false impression that straight and gay are the only options. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, in the days before the internet, I was very confused about my sexuality as a result.

    I kept telling myself that I had to be straight since I was very much attracted to girls, and suppressed all other fantasies. Alas, everyone assumed I was gay due to my “effeminate” speech and mannerisms. It didn’t help that I was into heavy metal and goth, made some gender-atypical fashion choices, and went a little overboard with products like eyeliner and hairspray. Most of my childhood friends suddenly ostracized me. Some pretty much told me to drop the act and stop pretending to be straight.

    So not only did I go through the same hell as any gay teenager at the time, I also felt misunderstood because I had convinced myself that I was straight. All my romantic efforts were focused on girls, and all girls of my age had heard the rumors of me being gay. Gossip travels fast in a small town. I remember that one girl hit on me at school, but I knew that she was in a relationship with a “friend”, and so I didn’t return her advances. Later on, I learned that my “friends” had conspired to put me through some sort of gay test.

    That’s the kind of shit you go through as a bisexual kid, so please don’t tell me that we’re any less oppressed than gay individuals. Nevermind not oppressed at all. We had just as much reason as other sexual minority groups to fight for marriage equality, even though we’re still erased from the picture by people who insist on calling it “gay” marriage. Bisexual and biromantic people (some of us are actually homoromantic) never know who we might fall in love with. If the love of our life is a same-sex person, we still can’t get married in many countries.

    On top of all this, we’re treated like chopped liver by the rest of the LG”B”T community. Your post is the perfect example. Queer bating? Gay fetishization? Wtf. Many straight men fetishize lesbian relationships, but how is that a reason not to include lesbian characters in the media. I don’t care how many straight dudes feverishly masturbate to these characters. The important thing is that young queer individuals have role models and don’t feel as invisible and marginalized as I did as a kid (and probably still would if I grew up with today’s media landscape).

    PS: No, bisexual media characters don’t have to engage in relationships with both genders. Being openly bi isn’t the same as being promiscuous. That only reinforces the nasty stereotypes that bisexuals can’t be faithful to one partner. Well-written queer characters can be entirely celibate and still have a sexual orientiation and queer identity.

  • Charles Davy

    “we’re any less marginalized than gay individuals” You are less marginalized. You received the treatment you received because of the choices you made “gender-atypical fashion choices” and “went a little overboard with products like eyeliner and hairspray”.

    You could have “straightend up” at any time and enjoyed all the benefits of being heterosexual ranging from participating in public relationships, fitting into the standard social hierarchy, and experienced all the typical coming of age stuff. However through your behavior you didn’t. Gay people don’t have that choice, bisexual people do.

    “If the love of our life is a same-sex person, we still can’t get married in many countries” 48% of the population is straight females and 2% is gay males. Additionally social institutions are set up to match women and men. Bisexual people are significantly more likely to end up in heterosexual relationships just because of the numbers. Additionally the concept of “love of our lives” isn’t really valid. Using the “secretary problem” you would only need to “sample” 1-2% of a dating pool of 1,000 to find the optimal partner for you. So bisexual people can easily choose to only look for partners of the opposite gender and are just as likely to find an “optimal partner” because of the small number of people interested in the same gender.

    “Queer bating” is a type of homosexual fetishization that does not end up with representation. A lesbian relationship may be a fetish for straight men however there is a canon relationship. However with queer bating a character can be portrayed or subtexted as bisexual “like dean and castiel in supernatural” which attracts fan girls while an actual relationship never materialized which means there is no representation.

    Finally queer characters can not be “celibate” and be queer simply because being straight is the default. Unless it is otherwise stated and shown it doesn’t mean anything.

  • Crazy Cat Lord

    You received the treatment you received because of the choices you made

    Oh, you’re one of those ◔_◔ Fyvm then. Now run along and troll some other website, Mr. default person.

  • Charles Davy

    Sorry someone told you, your misery was self inflicted.

  • Crazy Cat Lord

    Yeah, because gender expression is completely voluntary. Voice pitch and speech patterns, posture and body language, it’s all just choice. I could simply have decided to sound like Jeremy Irons, like sports, love beer, and burp like a proper man. And while I was at it, I suppose I should have stayed in the closet for the rest of my life. Because sexual orientation is also self-inflicted according to assholes like you. We can all just “straighten up”, right? Fuck you, you right-wing piece of shit.

  • Charles Davy

    Yah you could have done that. You chose to not partake in certain activities that society views as appropriate for your gender. So you can’t really complain when society doesn’t want to associate with you. You made a choice and society disagree.

    Secondly yah gender expression is completely voluntary. Because its gender EXPRESSION. You continually make choices that reflect your gender expression. So it is very much voluntary.

    Finally as a bisexual you had the opportunity to fit perfectly into society and engage in completely fulfilling heterosexual relationships, a choice that gay people don’t get to make. You had a choice and wouldn’t have been giving up anything if you had chosen to ignore your attraction to the same gender the same can’t be said for gay people.

    You made choices knowing full well what the social repercussions would be. You could have made alternate choices without giving up anything and fitting in with society but you didn’t. You can’t complain when you had a choice and chose the hard route.

    So yes bisexuals are less persecuted than gay people. To fit in with society gay people have to make significant sacrifices. The same can not be said for bisexuals.

  • Uhm…using the word “choices” in the context of living out your sexuality is either dumb or ignorant and simply offending. I don’t know which one applies here. (PS, before you complain about me calling you dumb, ignorant and offending – I’m not. I’m simply calling the act of using that word dumb, ignorant and offending)

  • Charles Davy

    Living out your sexuality is a choice literally by definition. That being said there are pros and cons that a person weighs when making that choice. Gay people have a lot more cons when it comes to staying in the closet than a bisexual does.