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.
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.