People from our LGBTQIA+ community have been shown to have worse mental health issues. Most explanations point at the way social constructs around gender and sexual orientation affect the individual’s perception of themselves – not to forget about abuse and harassment that they’ll experience because of their sexuality/identity. If the negative impact on queer people is due to cultural norms, what is the resonance of LGBTQIA+ representations on the media?
We treat Netflix shows as something that has no effect on us or our mental health; they are just there, in the background, to entertain us through the day. But, as a bisexual woman, I think we need to hold TV productions responsible for the role that they play as bias reinforcers and, on the flip side, as a breaker of traditional stereotypes.
I have spent many binge hours cringing at the representations of bisexual people like me on the screen. “This is so wrong!” I shouted recently at the telly when re-watching How to get away with murder Annalise Keating’s various love interests. Other than the fact that in this show six seasons too long, the one representation of bisexuality that is offered to the viewers is the one of a morally questionable defence lawyer that has a weird co-dependent relationship with her students and is involved in more murders than an average American serial killer. Most importantly, the bisexual nature of the HTGAWM main character seems to stem exclusively from the writer’s desperate attempt to throw in any kind of plot twist that might improve their ratings.
This feeling of unease for the representation of my sexual identity gave way to a deep-dive in bisexual depictions on the small screen. The pattern became clear: over 100 TV shows have somewhat brought to life characters that might be defined as bisexual. However, most of them have their sexual orientation exposed after some seasons, in what seems an attempt to resuscitate a catatonic plot.
This becomes almost too obvious in Glee when both Brittany S. Pierce and Quinn Fabray are revealed as bisexual but only later on in the season when they seem to have exhausted all the other options of plot development. Even more upsetting is the fact that rarely we are presented with the bisexual identity from the beginning: this always seem to be forced onto a random character as a big ‘Oh-my-God’ reveal to be then thrown to the side.
A second observation that I made looking at my fellow bisexual fictional characters is that many of them, like with Chuck Bass (Gossip Girl), Brittany S. Pierce (Glee), Sterling Archer (Archer), seem to be defined primarily by the number of their sexual relationships, rather than the quality. What all these questionable bisexual characters have in common is a long long streak of different partners that is always shoved in your face. No wonder, when you tell anyone on Tinder that you’re bi, they’ll assume you live a Geordie Shore kind of lifestyle.
However, there are still a few gems that bring to the audience beautifully complex and well-rounded representations of bisexuality. Adam Groff’s emotional journey through Sex Education’s episodes brings to life the struggles and confusion of coming to terms with one’s feelings towards the same sex, after several years of exploring only within heteronormative lines. His delicate transition from self hate to fully embracing his feelings has the power to resonate with the viewer and bring courage to people in similar situations. In this instance, Adam’s bisexuality does not come across as thrown in for plot-filling reasons. Instead, his journey is brought to the fore and fully explored in a way that feels authentic to the character.
A very different but equally brilliant depiction of bisexuality is Piper Chapman, the main character of the Orange is the new black sensation. Leaving her controversial likability to the side, Piper is presented from the get-go as a bisexual woman, with no ifs or buts. Her sexual identity is explored in a subtle and fluid way, so much so that the word bisexual is never actually used. However, the writers actively make this non-labelist choice work by portraying this part of her identity with consistency. In a way, this approach to characters’ sexuality is a determinate aspect of the show – such as Vee warning Taystee not to be -gay-for-the-stay’ – and communicates to the viewer that one word does not define us, the totality of our actions does.
This is in no way an attempt to say there are right or wrong ways to be or interpret bisexuality. Just like gender, bisexuality itself is extremely fluid and lived differently by each and every fellow queer. Especially because our gender identity is embodied and celebrated through a million ways of life, what we need as viewers is the same fresh and authentic variety that brings our beautiful community to the screen too.