The Unicorn Scale: Madam Secretary

8/21/2018

Hey there, readers! I thought in this article I might give an insight to my reviewing process. As a regular reviewer of bi media on this site, I have a running list on my smartphone of movies and TV shows purported to have bi+ characters. Often I note the ones I want to come back to but don’t seem that urgent at the moment I think of them. Such was the case with Madam Secretary when the character Blake came out and his confession made headlines. I watched the clip and found it delightful. When I started writing for bi.org a few months later, I added the show to the list to review…eventually.

Then the next season came around, and the show saw what is becoming a beautiful new trend in the burgeoning TV landscape of bi visibility: a second character came out as bi! Now this revelation moved it up to the top of the list. Would the two characters interact with each other? Were they fully fleshed out? Were their coming-out processes any different? So I finally settled in to watch a show my mom has bugged me to watch for years.

Madam Secretary focuses on the low-key but incredibly capable Bess McCord (Tea Leoni), whom the president himself recruits to join the Cabinet and help him with international affairs. The series also includes stories about her doting husband (Tim Daly) and loving family, but avoids the trap of exploring the “can women have it all” trope. (Hey, TV writers: no one ever asks men that question.) Instead MS balances the weekly stories of political intrigue with Bess’ story, home life, and the brilliant characters that fill out her staff. It’s very much in the vein of The West Wing but with more realized compassion (and – much as I love that show – less cokehead pacing.)

WARNING: From here on out there will be minor spoilers for Seasons 4 and 5, respectively, as I compare the coming-out stories of Blake (Erich Berger) and Kat Sandoval (Sara Ramirez). As with most international borders, proceed with caution. And if you need a reminder for our review metric, you can peep that here.

WHAT I LIKED:

Full disclosure: I have not had enough time to watch all five seasons to get a full grip on Blake and Kat’s separate developments. But I did watch their introduction episodes as well as their coming-out episodes so I could better understand their characters and their approaches to life. So please excuse me if I mess anything up about their personalities.

First of all, I have to commend Madam Secretary for going beyond what most television is doing (except for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – I see you, Valencia!) and not just having one token bi character. I didn’t realize how much I wanted – needed – to see this representation until it was in front of me. So to have these two characters in the same room, be fully realized characters, and not have them killed by the time I got to the end of any episodes felt like a triumph in itself.

As such, their versions of coming out were wholly different, but that didn’t make them any less moving. Blake has been notoriously private about his personal life with his colleagues for years until he is lightly confronted by a biphobic ex. That leads to this touching, rambling scene with his boss:

I still can’t watch that without getting teary and fist pumping in solidarity. Blake lays out in one impassioned speech so much of the anxieties, pressures, and stigmatization bis (and particularly bi men) face in the world every day. He even manages to touch on his process of self-minimization so many of us experience as part of our personal journey. It’s a confession and a proclamation, and so full of humanity and desire for acceptance it’s hard to watch it happen without wanting to hug him.

And that’s exactly what Bess does. In her quiet moment of love she does what so many of us have wanted throughout our lives of coming out again and again as queer: hugs him with kind and loving acceptance. It’s a very powerful moment, and it’s what made me want to watch the series.

On the total opposite of the spectrum (pun intended), Kat’s coming out discussion is far more educational in tone. In the midst of an international LGBTQIA human rights fiasco, Kat and another character, Jay, have a quiet Chinese takeout dinner at the office and talk about the case at hand. This leads to Kat coming out as bi, followed by Jay’s litany of friendly but typical questions sketching out her sexuality and what it means to her. The scene and writing is done respectfully and affectingly acted, skewering even more stereotypes that may not have gotten dismissed with Blake’s confession for the viewing audience.

I enjoyed the introduction of both characters, both of whom are smart and driven in very different ways. Kat’s introduction was particularly charming as she helped solve a permafrost crisis. I wanted to be friends with this analyst-cum-avocado farmer.

One comment about the rest of the show (I could go on and on, but I wanna zero in on this): What a wonderful display of a straight married relationship. Bess and her husband are loving, funny, supportive, and equals in a way that made me yearn for any future husband I may have. It was so refreshing to see another romantic trope bucked: that of the unhappy married couple. Good job, guys.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Maybe it’s the dramatist in me that felt more drawn to Blake’s confession, but something felt very after-school-special-esque about Kat’s discussion of being fluid. It was nice to see an honest discussion about that on a national platform and I understand the writers wanted to do it justice, but something about the tone felt just this side of preachy.

I realize we’re in a changing landscape of bi+ representation, but I did find myself wanting to see fun representation that isn’t fetishized or in the tone of a PSA. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t have to corner the market on this point. I’m confident Madam Secretary can make its own mark.

All that said, I think I need to cut some slack for the classroom-lesson scene. I have to remember that Madam Secretary‘s viewing demographic tends to skew more towards older straight women – many of whom may not quite grasp the bi acceptance movement that is coursing through the younger generation. And it breaks down some specific ideas about gender identity in an easy way to digest that is often seen in part in the more academic and queer spaces I move in. So if this works as a way for the mothers and aunties of this land to better understand what the kids are talking about, then more power to it.

THE RATING:

Even though I had quibbles about how Kat came out, I still love these two characters (and the show as a whole.) They’re both honest about who they are, both used the term “bisexual” to clear up any confusion, and are defined beyond their sexuality. As icing on the unicorn cake, the producers cast an openly bi actress, Sara Ramirez, to play Kat. In short, I can’t wait to see where and how the show will grow with them.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.