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Cultivating Female Bi-Visibility

by Sam Swank

As the LGBTQ+ community gains mainstream acceptance, stories involving LGBTQ+ characters paint our television screens more than ever. Yet of all the letters in that acronym representing a sexual orientation, “B” remains perhaps one of the most invisible.

“Silent B” refers to the phenomenon of bisexual erasure, which manifests as a lack of bisexual characters and the claiming of bisexual characters by nonbisexuals. One of the most unfortunate aspects of bisexual erasure is its enforcement by people both inside and outside the LGBTQ+ community. Whereas attitudes toward lesbians have slowly improved over the past couple of decades, perspectives toward bisexuals remain neutral or negative among heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals alike. In fact, both straight and lesbian women report more insecurity toward dating a bisexual person. They worry about infidelity, secret closetedness or straightness, and “fulfilling their needs.”

Female bisexuality is often viewed as an exploratory, temporary stage that either results in coming out as lesbian or remaining straight, depending on who a monogamous bisexual ends up with. The stereotype of “performative bisexuality”—engaging in same-sex behavior for male attention—persists. Women who participate in bierotic behavior are then expected to later settle down with a man and return to a heterosexual label.

Every letter in the LGBTQ+ acronym deserves to be seen.

Some postulate within the LGBTQ+ community that bisexuality is a faux label that allows gay individuals to retain heterosexual privilege while avoiding homophobia. Some also believe that bisexuals are “uncommitted to the LGBT rights movement” because they can “pass” as straight and therefore evade discrimination, whereas gay and lesbian individuals can’t.

But what is the media’s role in perpetuating the concepts that bisexual women are inherently promiscuous, unloyal, and confused? Or that bisexual women are merely straight women “pretending” to be a sexual minority? Why do bisexuals need specific representation to begin with—why can’t we just be satisfied with claiming both lesbian and heterosexual characters?

Let’s address the last question first. Assuming that claiming both homosexual and heterosexual characters should be enough implies that bisexuality is merely varying degrees of compromise between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Yet this definition of bisexuality as “having two opposite attractions at the same time” encourages the deduction that “bisexuality entails a persistent conflict between attractions,” which bisexuals finally ameliorate by “choosing a side.” Additionally, agenda-setting theory and framing theory suggest that including complex bisexual characters, for instance, would endorse the message that bisexuality is an acceptable, normal identity. And viewers are much more likely to accept different sexual identities by”‘knowing‘ someone vicariously” through television, even if they don’t know someone who is LGBTQ+ personally,  because fictional narratives can lower cognitive barriers to empathy and impede counterarguing.

If you write your character to be bisexual, then have them say it!

Yet even characters who display fairly straightforward bisexual behavior (pun intended) rarely utilize the term “bisexual” when describing themselves—in fact, they’ll often use pretty much anything but the word bisexual. For example, in Orange Is the New Black, the main character Piper has a sexual and romantic relationship with an ex-girlfriend while engaged to a man. When pressed, Piper says that she’s “not rejoining the softball team.” After Piper withholds information about her female ex from her male fiance, he reasonably expresses worry. Piper assuages him by saying, “You don’t turn gay, you fall on a spectrum somewhere. Like the Kinsey Scale,” a reference to the most commonly utilized measure of bisexuality in research. But Piper never calls herself “bisexual.”

And when they do, it takes a ridiculously long time. Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, displays both homosexual and heterosexual attractions within the first few seasons of the show, during which she has two consecutive, committed relationships with people of the opposite sex. In fact, she’s even told by her girlfriend Erica, “You can’t kind of be lesbian.” Callie responds, “Yes, you can,” but it’s unclear whether that refers to the statement about being “kind of” lesbian or the preceding comments about colleagues’ medical mistakes. Two seasons later, Arizona calls Callie “bisexual,” but Torres still doesn’t use the label for herself until season 11. And up to that declaration, Callie’s sexuality is more often discussed as lesbian.

Most fascinatingly, some research suggests that while gay/lesbian stereotypes are socialized, bisexual stereotypes are something we develop on our own or “deduce” using prior beliefs about sexuality. In other words, someone who knows less about bisexuality is more likely to express biphobic opinions, and someone with more knowledge of bisexuality is less likely to express biphobia. Therefore, it’s even more imperative to depict bisexuality fairly and honestly so that people can be more knowledgeable of bisexuality and implement fewer stereotypes.

A character’s bisexuality can be an essential characteristic without being the only characteristic. A person coming out should not abruptly morph into a completely different personality.

So what can you do as a visual storyteller to contradict these stereotypes while including wholly developed, complex bisexual characters in your series?

Use the label “bisexual.” If you write your character to be bisexual, then have them say it! Hearing that label conveys to viewers of all sexualities that the identity label “bisexual” is a valid one. Ambiguous language that beats around the bush, so to speak, simply creates more confusion about bisexuality. And because bisexual stereotypes are deduced rather than explicitly learned, it’s necessary to directly contradict misconceptions—letting them slide works against bisexual visibility and acceptance.

Include bisexual women in the writing of bisexual female characters, as well as throughout the filming and editing process. They will be able to infuse authenticity and nuance to your character by using firsthand experiences that nonbisexuals are less familiar with.

Remember: a character’s bisexuality “is just an additional layer to their identity and not emphatically central to their identity.” A character’s bisexuality can be an essential characteristic without being the only characteristic. A person coming out should not abruptly morph into a completely different personality. They were always bisexual—they just hadn’t said so yet. If you want them to become a more open or vocal individual, that arc includes many more moments of being vulnerable but fierce. It’s not something that happens overnight.

Distinguish sexual identity from sexual behaviors. Polyamory and consensual sexual behaviors are perfectly fine, but they are not inherent qualities to bisexuality. Many bisexuals are monogamous and don’t have sex with multiple partners simultaneously. Given how few depictions exist of committed, monogamous bisexuals, you don’t want to contribute to the dogpile.

Sometimes, though, a character’s sexual behavior is central to the plot. Such was the case of Bo Dennis in Lost Girl, a succubus who required sexual energy to survive. Bo also happened to be bisexual. Yet the show resisted using the word “bisexual” and failed to separate her bisexual identity from her polyamorous behavior. Additionally, while love triangles like those in Grey’s Anatomy or Orange Is the New Black may be juicy plot devices, they contribute to negative bisexual stereotyping if mishandled.

If polyamory or love triangles are central to the plot or character who happens to be bisexual, there are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Have a bisexual polyamorous character vocally assert that their bisexuality is incidental but distinct.
  2. Have another bisexual character who’s monogamous/not involved in the plot’s love triangle. Presenting more than one bisexual female in your show will not only help you evade stereotyping but will expand people’s views of bisexuality and help normalize it as a stable identity.

Don’t hypersexualize bisexual characters to appeal to the male gaze. Heterosexual men often eroticize female-on-female sexual behavior, as evident by the popularity of lesbian pornography among straight male viewers. While bisexual females should be able to express sexuality freely, we as storytellers know that there’s a difference between a sexually expressive character and a hypersexualized character. Find that line and stick to it.

Indulge in shows that get bisexuality right. For an exceptional portrayal of a bisexual character—and, in particular, their coming-out story—refer to Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Rosa comes out as bisexual in season 5, episode 10, and the actress who plays her—Stephanie Beatriz—is bisexual herself. Not only did Beatriz receive the opportunity to guide the writing of the scenes and infuse her own experiences into her character, but Rosa’s coming-out episodes were the 99th and 100th episodes of the series and were heavily advertised. Allowing a bisexual woman the opportunity to develop a bisexual female character in highly marketed episodes demonstrated a commitment to bisexual visibility beyond surface-level virtue signaling.

While bisexual females should be able to express sexuality freely, we as storytellers know that there’s a difference between a sexually expressive character and a hypersexualized character.

Bisexual representation needn’t be a ludicrously laborious endeavor. As storytellers, we can somewhat easily infuse bisexuality into our characters in accurate, interesting ways without painting bisexuals with a stereotypical brush. We can distinguish between their sexual identity and their character while acknowledging their sexuality’s influence on their character and their experiences. Given the record of bisexual representation up to now, it’s our obligation to approach bisexual stories cautiously, with nuance, and with input from bisexual people themselves. Every letter in the LGBTQ+ acronym deserves to be seen.

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