Bi representation: what does that even mean?

In recent years, the topic of bi characters on TV has been gathering increasing momentum. Sightings of bisexual characters in various shows, lists counting bi characters, as well as criticisms of shows for their bisexual erasure, have all become more and more common. When a bisexual character is spotted, this is usually received with accolades, praising bisexual visibility. Indeed, in 2017 certain bisexual pundits have even started granting a Bisexual Representation Award to shows that feature major bisexual characters.

However, the more these dialogues expand, the more obvious the fact that most of them focus on just one aspect: visibility in and of itself. In the midst of all this celebration, relatively few sources seem to be discussing the meaning of these representations: how these characters portrayed, how they are handled, and how their bisexuality is formulated and used.

Bisexual representation is important. We are justified in wanting to see our existence acknowledged and our experience humanized within culture and society. But simply looking for bi characters is not enough. The mere presence of bisexuality on screen is neither new nor automatically positive. In fact, there is a long history of bisexual representation in film and television – and its current incarnations are still mostly in keeping with that history.

So what’s the problem?

Both currently and in the past, bisexuality is almost never depicted for its own sake. Instead, it’s used as shorthand for characterization, conveying specific meanings that dominant culture associates with bisexuality. Both currently and in the past, bisexuality has been used to depict characters as duplicitous, unreliable, manipulative, lying, hypersexual, hedonistic, or (increasingly in the past few years) morally gray. Ignoring this to only favor the appearance of bisexuality disregards the context and meaning of these characters and their bisexuality.

Another aspect often praised by commentators is the notion of “normalizing bisexuality” or ”not letting characters be defined by it.” This refers to cases in which a character’s bisexuality is only one aspect of it, playing a relatively minor role in their narrative. According to these accounts, this type of representation helps promote an understanding of bi people as complete and well-rounded individuals. This point borrows from the fact that in film and television history, gay, lesbian, and trans characters’ narratives have tended to focus on the imagined “tragedy” of their identities. However, throughout the history of bi media representation, bisexuality had never been used as a center focal point for characters or narratives. Rather, it has always been used as cursory, as a quirk, as incidental, and as a way of conveying other characteristics. 

In both cases, problematic uses of bisexuality, that are mostly in keeping with its historical depiction, are being turned around and praised for doing the same thing, except more often.

Aside: why stereotyping is not the (only) problem

Aside from lists and articles praising bi characters just for being present, the main type of commentary about this issue focuses on biphobic stereotypes. And although stereotypes are strongly present within media representations of bisexuality, there are a few problems with using them as our focal point.

Criticisms of stereotypes assume that stereotypical behavior is always both false and negative – that “real” bi people don’t act in these ways, and that these behaviors are necessarily immoral. This generally goes together with a plead for bi characters to be represented as “good,” “moral,” or normative, meaning it leads us to respectability politics. But not all bi people behave in “respectable” ways or lead “respectable” lives, nor are these behaviors inherently negative – some of us even take pride in them. In fact, these ideas that society projects onto us indicate anxieties that cishet society associates with bisexuality – they reveal its subversive power.

In addition, this sort of perspective can miss out on other aspects of the characters and narrative, especially in cases where stereotypes don’t automatically translate into negativity. Many bi characters are depicted in stereotypical ways, but at the same time are humanized and presented as positive. In fact, what defines characters as “evil” or “immoral” isn’t the presence of stereotypes – it’s dehumanization.

In general, though it’s important to acknowledge and examine stereotypes, using them as our main tool means that we are limited to only asking one thing: Does this text offend me? It assumes a set of dominant values based in normative respectability, and gives more weight to the question “What will the cishets think about us?” than “How do we and can we read this? And what does it mean?”

So what does bi representation even mean?

And so, on the one hand, we have automatic praise for almost every depiction of bisexualiy, regardless of context and meaning, while on the other, we have closer inspections of those depictions, but ones that only generate a partial picture. We are either uncritically pleased at the appearance of bisexuality, or we are trying to judge whether it shows us in a bad light. This keeps our dialogues at a surface level and prevents us from going deeper into what things actually mean.

Instead of being limited to one of these two poles, we should be asking about the meanings created by the presence of bisexuality: How it is being used? When and why does it show up? What else is associated with it? And what does it mean? Asking these questions means we pay attention to both problematic and positive aspects, and are able to account for nuance and complexity.

For example, Bo (Lost Girl), Oberyn (Game of Thrones), and Captain Jack (Doctor Who) are all characters that have been very positively received by bisexual communities. To look at them from the framework of automatic praise, each of these characters was groundbreaking given the context of bi erasure and demonization – being bisexual without also being a villain. Under this framework, this depiction in and of itself is cause for celebration. However, a reading of stereotypes reveals these characters as highly stereotypical: they are all presented as promiscuous and sexually deviant. Bo is literally a sexual predator, as she drains people of their energy through sex; Oberyn is promiscuous, aggressive, and hot headed; and Captain Jack is a former con man who flirts with anything that moves.

However, neither one of these perspectives are sufficient to fully understand their bisexuality: they aren’t either positive or negative representations. Rather, they’re all simultaneously depicted as positive, humanized characters, have their bisexuality erased from the text of their shows (since their identity is never spoken) and removed from reality (by being supernatural, immortal/from the future, or existing in a fantasy world). They all link between bisexuality and hypersexualization in ways that reveal bisexuality’s subversive potential in a sex-negative, monogamous and heteropatriarchal society. As bisexual viewers, these characters’ multifacetedness can give way to many responses (both mental and emotional) – and we can read them in all their complexity.

Once we let go of our attempts to either praise characters for existing or to denounce them for being stereotypical, we could start asking better and more interesting questions. Where can we see their bisexuality? What does it mean for us? Under what conditions is it allowed to appear? When does it disappear? And how we can reclaim them? All while still remaining critical about the problematic ways in which bisexuality is used or treated. We all need to start looking deeper, begin this conversation, and together discover what bi representation actually means.

Sources:

Ellia Hanson, “Intoduction: Out Takes,” Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, 1999.

Glynn Davis and Gary Needham, “Introduction: the Pleasures of the Tube,” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, 2009.

Jo Eadie, “’That’s Why She Is Bisexual’: Contexts for Bisexual Visibility”, The Bisexual Imaginary, 1997.

Shiri Eisner is a bisexual, genderqueer, and feminist activist and writer. She is the author of the Lambda-nominated book “Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.” She holds a BA in interdisciplinary art studies, and will soon be returning to her MA in gender studies, writing about bisexuality on TV.