Charlotte Moore (she/her)
Existential Bi-sis is a monthly column about bisexuality, by a bisexual. Join Charlotte as she tackles taboos and myths, recounts personal experiences and looks to the future.
There’s a moment in Brooklyn 99 where Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), comes out as bisexual. Watching it was like time slowing down. She answered three perfunctory questions, “how long have you known?” “What made you decide to tell us now?” And “are you seeing anyone now?” before the show bowled on without skipping a beat. And, long after I’d closed the screen on my laptop, I couldn’t stop smiling in the knowledge that somewhere, someone would finally feel like they’d been seen. And, they’d feel more powerful for it.
Representation is a word that’s bandied around a lot. But, at the heart of it, it’s pretty simple. A lot of us just want to find a version of ourselves that feels akin to a reflection. Or, just someone enough like us that we too feel like we’re being seen.
Eric Stonestreet (who plays Cameron Tucker in Modern Family) is frequently told that gay couples are asked who is the Mitch and who is the Cam in their relationship, and their relationship, played on a huge show, became a tool for better conversations. While this in itself feels problematic by today’s standards, back in 2019, it was revolutionary. Through Modern Family, viewers had seen themselves and their family in Mitch and Cam’s struggle to find time for themselves and raise a child. As they fell in love with the show, they also fell head over heels for Mitch and Cam.
“Representation is a word that’s bandied around a lot. But at the heart of it, it’s pretty simple. A lot of us just want to find a version of ourselves that feels akin to a reflection”
While Modern Family isn’t the most representative show out there, for some, it’s made a difference. And this ‘Mitch and Cam’ effect can be seen in other media. Channel 4’s It’s a Sin resulted in huge donations and support for those living with HIV and Orange is The New Black increased awareness for the challenges of incarcerated women and trans women.
Finding representation for bisexual people is tougher. Back in 2003, GLAAD concluded that there had only been ‘a few’ bisexual characters on TV. And by the late 2000s things weren’t much different. Which is why so many of us born in the 90s fell in love with Glee. It was camp, ridiculous and, by today’s measurements, offensive. But, it was a show with gay, trans and bisexual characters and it was on prime-time TV.
Unlike many other shows at that time such as Sugar Rush, Queer As Folk, and The L Word that had a quiet, but cult following, Glee was mainstream. With a seemingly endless budget and a huge fanbase. Even as someone that wasn’t out during Glee’s run, there was something magical about love songs being sung by (and for) gay characters. It gave the audience of impressionable teens the hope that one day, they could have that too.
“When we reduce people to bisexual stereotypes we’re not offering a solid base for LGBTQ+ people to touch upon”
But even in Glee, a character’s arc for an entire episode is “realising that ‘bisexual’ is a term that gay guys in high school use when they want to hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change.” And, while queer representation of any kind satiated my teenage self, as an adult, I’m painfully aware that it’s not enough.
Only last September, Zachary Zane and Adrianna Freedman concluded in an article for Men’s Health that it is “not easy to find media with bisexual characters,” especially not easy to find one “that offers a positive and authentic depiction of bisexuality,” saying this is terrible for bisexual people. And they’re right. Because there’s a big difference between representation and positive representation.
Akin to a carnival mirror, technically, you’re seeing yourself, but the version is so distorted, there’s no actual humanity reflected back at you. When we reduce people to bisexual stereotypes (usually promiscuous fantasy if you’re a woman and closeted gay if you’re a man), we’re not offering a solid base for LGBTQ+ people to touch upon. There’s no Mitch and Cam or Blanca, no Angel, Sophia or Rosa Diaz to compare ourselves to.
The other issue is a very specific type of queerbaiting that happens only to bisexual characters. The idea of ‘no labels’.
“The idea of ‘no labels’ is as old as queerbaiting itself”
Piper Chapman, the main protagonist of Orange Is the New Black, confidently admitted she was attracted to “hot men, hot women, hot people” and yet, across the 91 episodes she was referred to, by other characters, as both straight and gay. But never bisexual. The idea of ‘no labels’ is as old as queerbaiting itself. One of the worst offenders, BBC’s Sherlock, offers infamously queer undertones. But while John is always quick to shout ‘I’m not gay!’, it’s as bisexuality doesn’t exist in the universe of ambiguously homoerotic detective work.
Of course, we need representation for those that don’t want to label themselves, yet it’s frustrating to constantly see character after character rolled out for a one-night-stand with an attractive person and then claim that they’re on the ‘road to gay-town’ (actual quote from Sex and The City), rather than bisexual.
And, with bisexuals rarely being offered any support that is specific to them and biphobia literally damaging our health, rarely seeing anyone like us succeed in one of the most consumed areas of media is a huge issue.
Representation is important. A stranger on Instagram reaffirmed my faith in the world when she mentioned that after she closed the screen on *that* Brooklyn 99 episode, she banged on her mum’s bedroom door and announced that she was bisexual.
A day later they watched the episode together. “Oh, she’s feisty! You’re just like her!” Her mum laughed.
That’s just one example of what good representation is and can do. We have to keep going.
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