In the last two parts of this series, I introduced biphobia and bi erasure in fiction and then explained some of the most common bi-erasing tropes. Today, I'm talking about stereotypes. I'm not sure which I dislike more, the tropes or the stereotypes. Both can be all right when handled well; both are simply awful when they're not.
Here is one thing I don't understand: why some authors create bi characters (or characters with bisexual behavior) seemingly for the sake of putting them down or giving the story some kind of relational tension.
There are a number of dreadful stereotypes about bisexual people which I'll get to in a moment. First, though, I want to make an appeal to writers not to do that kind of thing, even for "realism." Is it true that some gay, lesbian, and straight people are ignorant and even hateful toward bisexual people? Yep. Is it possible to put it in a story effectively? Absolutely. It just has to be done with caution. If you have a character who is ragging on bisexuals, do try to have something---anything---to counter that. If your bi character is behaving badly, try to make sure it's not because of being bisexual.
If the bisexual character is peripheral---that is, not the main character or the MC's love interest---I would rather not have them in the story at all than have them be a stereotype or the recipient of put-downs. It's not necessary for a bi character to show up just to be the cheating half of a relationship, for example. It's not important to the plot to have a gay character refer to a bisexual person using a slur or disparaging remark in order to be "realistic."
It would horrify most of us, rightly so, to have a cameo appearance by a person of another race, religion, or nationality only to have a main character say something rude...and leave it hanging. We would expect that another character would correct them or that the cameo would turn into the person learning not to stereotype. Best case scenario, we wouldn't see random token use of people at all and it wouldn't figure into the plot.
The same sorts of things can be established without using minority groups as pawns. For example, it's not necessary to have a cheating partner be bisexual---that person could simply be a cheater. Nor is it necessary to have gay characters randomly remark on anyone else's perceived sexuality when it's not part of the plot. A guy's ex married a woman? Great for him. How about the character not make nasty comments about why that might be, please. If the ex isn't central to the plot, then it's just more noise.
For me, the real problem is not in the stereotypes themselves but in having those be the majority of representations. If there's nothing to counter the stereotypes, we become one-dimensional, even as main characters.
Some not-so-fun stereotypes that are overused in storytelling:
1. "Slutty" bisexual. I mean this in a negative sense. There are some great bi characters who are sexually very free and open and who really, really like sex. I'm talking about the bi character who represents bisexuality by being indiscriminate in choosing partners and who is typically shamed for it. Everyone is fair game. Well, typically that means every cis person who represents cultural norms of beauty and masculinity/femininity. The "slutty" bi usually doesn't choose non-binary trans or gender non-conforming people. When they do have sex with trans people, they're usually binary, gender-conforming trans people, and it's also viewed as an example of the "slutty" bi's transgressive nature. Other people find this person somewhat off-putting, and they are frequently used as a foil to the good, faithful, monogamous characters.
Why it's bad: It's not a good representation of us in isolation. If that's you're only way of writing bisexual people, you need to rethink your strategy. When it's done poorly, it's all about how the bisexual character can't keep their hands off other people. In that case, they're usually not a main character or even an important one---just the "slutty" ex or the person getting sneered at for having too many partners. With nothing to counter it, that makes it look like we're all that way, and it reinforces the view that we're greedy. It implies only bisexual people have lots of partners, and it shames people for having many relationships.
How to fix it: Write other characters who are sexually liberal. Write people of all sexualities who live that out in all sorts of ways. I actually love reading such characters. I've even written them! They're fun because they are so comfortable and confident in themselves and because they can explore in a way society says is taboo. This is especially true for bisexual people. At the same time, write faithful, monogamous bisexual people, too. Many of us have been in long-term relationships with only one partner.
2. Cheating bisexual. Someone needs to be cheated on? Sure, let's have it be the bisexual (or the "bicurious" one) who does it. It's a milder version of the "slutty" bi. It should be noted that this is the counterpoint to the spouse who discovers he/she is gay/lesbian and then has an affair. I guess at least this version acknowledges we exist.
Why it's bad: Oh, dear God. I hate this one. Why are the cheaters always bi? We're expected to be sympathetic to the spouse coming out and having an affair. We're intended to hate the cheating bisexual, which is why they are typically not main characters. When they are, the problem is always played up as being about bisexuality rather than about cheating. Having affairs is not a bisexual---or even a queer---thing. It's a human thing.
How to fix it: Again, this can be done, and I've played with the idea myself, but it should be a main character, not a passing mention. This should not be some poor woman's ex who decided she liked dicks better or the "bicurious" friend who decides to experiment with his gay buddy's boyfriend or the dude who cheats on his hubby just to see if maybe he likes women after all. We get enough of people believing we'll do that in real life that we don't want to read it in fiction---especially since we aren't any more prone to cheating than any other people.
3. Confused bisexual. This is the character who is undecided about their sexuality until they finally pick Team Gay (because they need to get with the other romantic lead, of course). Goes hand in hand with variations on the above two.
Why it's bad: Often, other characters apply pressure for the person to "pick a side"---and they do. In real life, that's incredibly harmful and leads to going from one closet into another. I've lost track of the number of people who ended up depressed and angry and afraid because they weren't welcome in queer spaces until they "came out all the way" or who were rejected from queer spaces because they did come out all the way---as bi.
How to fix it: Don't put a character through that unless you plan to deal with the fallout in a realistic way. Especially do not have another character apply pressure until the person agrees to an orientation. Do not write someone's coming out only through another character's eyes. Coming out is a process, so it's natural that some people might try on a bisexual hat before settling into comfortably and confidently gay or lesbian. I'm in favor of showing this, actually, because it's reality. I just want it handled carefully because the truth is, many people also try on gay or lesbian hats before settling comfortably and confidently into bisexuality. Even more people try on a bisexual hat, find it fits perfectly, and call it a day---that's how the vast majority of bisexual people are, in fact.
4. Binary bisexual. This isn't just a person who only likes (cis) men and women. This is rooted in the belief that all bisexuals only like (cis) men and women. In other words, all bisexual characters only ever have relationships with cis people. Typically, this means there are simply no trans people at all to be found or it means bisexual as an identity is set up in opposition to some other identity (multisexual, pansexual, whatever).
Why it's bad: I don't really care what label a person or character uses, but calling bisexual binary is not at all okay under any circumstances. Making up your own definition of bisexuality and trying to apply it universally is also not okay. There are bisexual political organizations fighting this language constantly. It's poor form to use it in a story. At a personal level, I don't always use bi either, but it's the label I choose for activism and visibility. That's why I don't care if a person uses the word "bisexual" for a character but get super pissed if the author uses it to set it up in opposition to some "better" or "more inclusive" sexuality.
How to fix it: Include more trans people. Full stop.
5. Unregistered bisexual. This is the character who repeatedly makes comments along the lines of "I don't like labels" or "I don't know what to call myself." It can also apply to situations where the word bisexual could easily be used but isn't. Also known as ABB---Anything But Bi.
Why it's bad: Bisexual people have as much right to be represented in fiction as anyone else. To erase us because you feel weird about the word means you need to do a lot more work to understand us. No one asks gay or lesbian people to reject labels; in fact, it's exactly the opposite (see above on pressuring bisexual people to re-identify as gay or lesbian). It's not a dirty word and shouldn't be shameful.
How to fix it: Use the word at least some of the time, and not just "Some people are bisexual, but I'm really gay." Have characters identify as bisexual. Part of the challenge of writing good bi characters is knowing when you need them to claim an identity and when you don't. The issue here is avoidance of the word or the identity.
6. Gender-representing bisexual. This is common when there's a threesome or when a person has multiple relationships over the course of a novel. The women represent femininity, the men represent masculinity. The end.
Why it's bad: It's unrealistic, it erases gender non-conforming and trans people, and it implies that a bisexual person's reason for being bi is that they like "opposites." We're treated like straight people enacting heteronormative roles rather than queer people in our own right.
How to fix it: There's nothing wrong with feminine women or masculine men. There's no "correct" way to be queer. The problem is in forgetting that we are queer and therefore distinct from straight people, even when our relationships appear "straight" from the outside. Offer variety, and write characters who are attracted to people for reasons other than their perceived gender conformity.
7. Threesome or poly bisexual. This is when the character proves bisexuality via threesome or a poly relationship. Distinct from simply having a threesome or from a person who is polyamorous.
Why it's bad: Some of us are monogamous. Some of us are polys. Some of us have threesomes. Some of us don't. The problem with this stereotype is that it once again typically reinforces heteronormativity. There's a distinct tone of "wouldn't it be hot to be the guy/gal in a gay sandwich?" That's porn, not a relationship. It fetishizes gay and lesbian people and reduces them to sex acts. It also fails to recognize the distinction between an orientation and a behavior or the challenges faced by people who are in poly relationships, including more stereotyping and being ostracized by a society that views monogamy as the only acceptable type of relationship. It equates threesomes and polyamory, which are distinct from each other.
How to fix it: Another good time to really look inside the characters. Know them as people. Understand the unique challenges of people who have multiple partners and relational configurations. Polyamory isn't synonymous with threesome any more than bisexuality is. So if you're writing a threesome, it helps to know whether this is because your characters are all in a relationship or whether it's just that they've decided to invite someone in to play. If they're genuinely poly, do some research. It's not necessary to be poly yourself to write a great relationship or situation, but it does help to know people who are. It's also important to understand this is not a uniquely bisexual thing. There are gay and straight people who are poly, and poly relationships are not all identical. It would also be great to see some poly relationships where there isn't a threesome.
7. Proof-texting bisexual. This is the person who has to have sex with multiple genders in the course of the story in order to demonstrate their real, true orientation.
Why it's bad: Just as there are stories where a gay or lesbian person has sex with someone of the opposite sex before coming out (and this really can be done well without bi erasure/tropes) and it doesn't negate being gay, it is perfectly acceptable for a bisexual person not to have to prove it. Most of us in real life get sick of being asked what we're going to "do about" being bisexual.
How to fix it: I know the rule is "show, don't tell," but in this case, just go ahead and tell. Have the character say they are bi. Make it part of their back story. Have them come out to themselves and realize their feelings, even if they remain in a long-term relationship. Imply it. Have another character mention something. Have them run into an ex in the grocery store. I honestly don't care. Just don't "prove" it, especially if it means implying we're all poly or non-monogamous. It isn't wrong to have multiple relationships during a story. What's wrong is requiring it.
8. Fake bisexual. This is the bi character who upholds the belief bisexuality is for opposite-sex gaze. It ranges from implying the character is not really bi but just pretending to actually having the character pretend as a display for an opposite-sex partner.
Why it's bad: There are so many, many reasons. First, it's misogynistic---this one is only ever aimed at women. Second, it implies we know what someone's sexuality is just by looking. It's a pretty bold assumption that a woman kissing another woman in the presence of other people is doing it because she's playing a part. Sometimes, that's a safer way to explore. Third, it blames the victim. If a woman is doing something for a man's benefit, there's a possibility her relationship is abusive and unhealthy. There's a high rate of domestic violence against bisexual women, including sexual violence. Finally, even if it's part of a display, there is no possible way to know that she isn't a fully willing, enjoying participant. That's policing other people's behavior, and it needs to stop, even in fiction.
How to fix it: Personally, I would rather not see this one in any book ever, even to call it out. It's just not realistic. There's not some vast army of "fake" bisexuals out there giving the rest of us a bad name. If anything, we need to draw attention to men who force women to behave in ways they find uncomfortable. Instead of berating women for their sexual behavior, how about we point out abusive men who make their women "prove" their bisexuality or a society that thinks women are sex toys?
I hope that helps you process the ways in which stereotypes can be used in harmful ways. As I said before, these can also be used in good ways. We just have to be careful that we're not confusing "realism" and stereotyping. For the rest of the series, I'm focusing on the positives: what I do like to see, why we're so much fun to write, and my list of favorite bisexual fiction.