Why Are There “So Many” Bi People on TV Right Now?

3/12/2018

istock/GoodLifeStudio

A couple weeks ago, a piece came out in Vulture titled, “Why Are There So Many Bisexuals on TV All of a Sudden?” The piece was all over Bi Twitter, and since I first read it, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

This is partly because I find some aspects of the piece problematic, but then I’ve been wondering if I’m overreacting. I think the piece provided a perspective of straight viewers watching television. So often, especially when we discuss visibility (and the importance of it), we discuss how visibility impacts members of that marginalized group. In other words, when we see a bi person on TV, we discuss how this helps other folks who are bi or questioning embrace their identity.

We don’t really speak about how it influences the straight people who are watching the show. We simply assume exposure is good. And for the most part, I think it is. In general, I think people see bi people on TV, they realize that we do exist, and this helps to decrease ignorance and biphobia (as long as the show is not reinforcing negative stereotypes about bi people).

But there were two things about this article I struggled with.

First, the notion that there are “so many,” when the author mentioned only a handful of bi characters in her piece. Now when we go from one bi person on TV to five, that is a 500% increase, which sounds huge. But if you say there are a total of four more bi characters on TV this year, the percentage is put into perspective.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a great first step. I think we’re just beginning to see more bi characters on TV, and as more time goes by, we’re only going to see more. But I guess the author’s language somewhat threw me off. “So many” makes it seem like there doesn’t need to be any more. It almost, to me, could be taken for “too many.” I would have preferred to see “Why have we seen an increase in the number of bi characters on TV?” Again, I admit I may be nitpicking and overthinking this, but language matters, especially as a writer.

Second, what got me feeling a little uneasy was this sentence, “Almost universally, the stories that these shows have found to tell about their characters coming out, about their romantic relationships, and about the mysteries of sexual attraction are more interesting than the straight stories.” (The italics were actually in the piece, not added by me.)

There’s something slightly fetishizing about the statement. We’re simply on TV because we’re more interesting. I imagined the author with a glass of red wine on her couch, watching the storyline of a bi character unfold, saying to herself, “Wow, this bisexual thing looks like so much fun!”

But when I spoke to my best straight/cis friend about this, he said, “But isn’t that true? I’ve known you for two decades now and I can safely say that your love life is far more interesting than mine.”

At which point I responded, “Not my fault straight people have boring-ass relationships.”

But I think there is some truth to the “more interesting” statement. Bi individuals have more interesting relationships because often, not always, there is more conflict in our relationships. We go out on a date with someone, everything is going well, but the moment they find out we’re bi, they break up with us.

I’ve heard countless stories of straight and even bi female partners who wonder (and worry) if their bi boyfriend would be happier or “better off” with another man. (One of my exes who was bi often wondered this too, which did put some strain on our relationship.)

From my experience, more bi people are open to the idea of having ethically non-monogamous relationships. (Of course this doesn’t mean that all bi people are cheaters are want open relationships, but I do think many bi people, who are somewhat forced to live outside of the heteronormative world of dating, are more open to non-traditional types of relationships.)

As we all know, more conflict, more emotions, and more drama leads to better television. Now there are plenty of bi folks in the world who are in happy, monogamous relationships with their partners, but I doubt we’re going to see many of those bi characters on TV, for the reason that it’s really not interesting. But then again, a show that centered around a straight couple with no relationship problems is hard to find on TV, because that makes for lousy television, too.

The real reason I believe that we’re beginning to see more bi characters on TV, and what the author was hinting at, is that it attracts more viewers. At the end of the day, it’s naive for us, as viewers, to think that the majority of large producers care about bi visibility. They care about viewership and money. When a character comes out as bi on TV in recent years, the show gets good press. God knows I write about it, praising the show for its bi inclusion. So too, do the majority of major LGBTQ outlets (and even major non-LGBTQ-specific outlets).

But is this necessarily a bad thing? I think that’s the question I’ve been struggling with the most.

At the end of the day, does it really matter the reason why we’re seeing more bi characters on television? If these characters are nuanced and offering realistic depictions of the blessings and struggles that come from being bi, should I be concerned with the motive of show-runners? In fact, shouldn’t I want more people of all sexual orientations to see the show, just like the show-runners? Doesn’t that help increase visibility, which in turn, helps to decrease stigma against bi folks?

Perhaps I need to breathe, relax, and be happy that we’re starting to see more complex depictions of bi characters on TV, regardless if we’re being slightly fetishized. Maybe this is the trajectory bi visibility needs to take before we’re neither stigmatized nor fetishized.

All I can say for sure is that I like seeing myself represented in television, and if I had seen more depictions of bi men on TV when I was younger, I’m fairly confident I would have saved myself from years of shame, confusion, and anxiety.

Zachary Zane
Zachary Zane a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, speaker, YouTuber, and activist whose work focuses on (bi)sexuality, gender, identity politics, relationships, and culture. He's a contributing editor at The Advocate Magazine, a columnist at Bi.org, and currently writes for The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Out Magazine, and PRIDE.