What’s So Funny About Bisexuality?
ABC’s The Real O’Neals depicts the life of a not-so-perfect Catholic family that attempts to reconcile the revelation their son is gay with their conservative values. Kenny, played by openly gay actor Noah Galvin, wrestles with his faith and sexuality as the audience watches the family grow together. The comedy gives an authentic portrayal of growing up LGBT in a faith based family.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something but I didn’t know how to say it without freaking you out,” Kenny’s boyfriend said in a recent episode on family acceptance.
“Oh god, here we go. Webbed toes, money problems, or worse – bisexual,” Kenny thinks while waiting for his boyfriend’s revelation. His boyfriend didn’t come out as bisexual but wanted to invite him to a concert and used the word “boyfriend” to describe their new relationship for the first time.
When PFLAG, the national organization for parents and friends of LGBT youth, who participated in The Real O’Neals episode was asked about the biphobia, they modeled allyship:
“We were so focused on the family acceptance portion of the episode that we completely missed the joke. We were really proud of partnering on the episode. It blew by as a teen looking for acceptance from his family,” Liz Owen, Director of Communications for PLFAG National told Teen Vogue. “In hindsight, we should have caught it, and we blew it. We should have done better and we will definitely do better next time. As allies, we have a responsibility to own it when we mess up.”
Kenny of “The Real O’Neals”
PFLAG’s statement contrasted harshly to Noah Galvin’s non-apology on Twitter (“sorry if we offended anyone”) suggesting bi people need to laugh at ourselves. The tweet has since been deleted. All the while, Galvin reminded his critics that The Real O’Neals advocates for the LGBT community and how he himself is also part of that community.
Yet there’s a theme of TV shows and films that have gay actors, characters, or show runners who, because they’re gay, believe they’re doing justice to a bi storyline. Though when challenged by bi people, they dismiss the concerns raised. Being for or a part of the LGBT community doesn’t automatically make you fluent in bisexuality.
The throw away joke on the Real O’Neals feeds into a larger narrative. While there has been a slight growth of bi characterizations in TV and film, the characterizations still fall into dangerous stereotypes. GLAAD’s annual Where We Are On TV report tracks LGBT visibility in film and TV and notes not all representation is necessarily good:
“This trend of inaccurate portrayals undermines how people understand bisexuality, which has real life consequences for bi people and their well-being,” GLAAD’s LGBT Media Watchdog, Senior Strategist Alexandra Bolles said in the report.
The incident on ABC’s The Real O’Neals is far from isolated. Similar things have occurred in MTV’s Faking It, which has been heralded as a TV show with positive portrayals of the LGBT community. Although there is a gay character, and a groundbreaking intersex storyline, when it came to bisexuality Faking It missed its mark.
In season 2, Faking It introduced a bi character named Wade whose development sadly lacked depth and fell into some obvious stereotypes. He just couldn’t seem to choose between the straight girl and gay guy that were interested in him so he took them on a throuple date. He even suggested a threesome, furthering the stereotype that all bi people want are threesomes.
This bisexual stereotype was followed with biphobia from Faking It’s gay character, Shane, played by openly gay actor Michael J. Willet. In discussing Wade’s bisexuality with his straight best friend Liam, Shane shared his biphobic ideas of bisexuality – specifically bi men.
Faking It’s writer’s room, which consulted with intersex activists for their intersex storyline but not bisexual activists for their bisexual storylines, dismissed the biphobia. Characters, they said, can have wrong opinions. They’re not wrong. Characters can, and many times should, have beliefs that are wrong in order to reflect how many outside of the fictionalized world have similar beliefs. Yet if those beliefs are targeting communities that are already at the margins, to depict beliefs that are harmful to minority groups without resolving them is irresponsible.
Media doesn’t happen in a vacuum and the representation of minority groups on TV and film affects the minority groups in real life. Most recently, Amber Rose, who is bisexual herself, said she wouldn’t be comfortable dating bisexual men. She echoed similar sentiments that have plagued the bi community, and in this case bi men, for decades. Her skepticism of dating bisexual men is the same skepticism seen in both Faking It and The Real O’Neal’s.
This skepticism is only on the rare occasions when bisexuality is even acknowledged as a sexual orientation. A large portion of bi people stay in the closet, even from their gay and lesbian peers, due to not being validated in their bisexuality. As studies have shown, staying in the closet can heighten rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
This isn’t to say that bi folks can’t be joked about. There is an important difference between punching down or punching up in which you either make jokes that contribute to an oppressive narrative or jokes that progressively challenge an oppressive narrative. Bob’s Burgers provides a great example of how to include bisexuality in jokes in a way that doesn’t perpetuate harmful bi stereotypes.
Darryl Whitefeather sings “Getting Bi”
Similarly, a character in the comedy My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend spent an entire musical number explaining his bisexuality and how it’s real. The show, which has two bi characters, gives comedic yet non-harmful portrayals of bisexuality. Unfortunately, this type of writing skill seems to be rare in writers’ rooms across Hollywood.
Headway has been made in LGBT visibility in Hollywood, yet still bi visibility lags behind. When we are finally seen on screen, we are generally portrayed in ways that harm us. Even those within the LGBT community aren’t always equipped with the education necessary to do justice to bi lives on the TV and the big screen.
The critiques of poor characterization on shows like The Real O’Neals or Faking It are at its core a request for better writing. If you can’t make jokes about those on the margins without contributing to their marginalization, your writing isn’t that good, your jokes aren’t funny, and bi people certainly won’t be laughing.