ARTICLE / LONG READ
BISEXUALITY is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented sexualities in the media. Looking at the way bisexuality has been characterised on screen, we can see a specific and common creative choice being made in how it is depicted. When David Bowie came out to the media as a bisexual man in the 1970s - one of the first high profile public figures to do so - the general consensus was that Bowie challenged the public perception of sexuality. There was no one else in the spotlight who had openly identified in this way and this presented a whole new world of understanding for not only media outlets but also the general public.
More recently, celebrities who are outwardly bisexual are frequently mislabelled by the news media, such as the regular labelling of Kristen Stewart and her girlfriend Alicia Cargile as “just friends”. Bisexual erasure such as this makes it hardly surprising that such a mindset has been translated into fiction. In film and television, we regularly see the invisibility and erasure of not just bisexuality but any sexuality other than heterosexuality.
Within what can be called “queer cinema” - that is, stories following characters who identity as something other than straight - we witness a vast mismatch in the representation of gay characters over bisexual characters. In an essay on “Queer Theory, Queer Cinema” published in a 2010 collection of academic essays titled COMING OUT TO THE MAINSTREAM: NEW QUEER CINEMA IN THE 21ST CENTURY, Bob Nowlan notes that in queer theory there is a privileging of homosexuality over bisexuality, referring to the latter as “more troubling, boundary-crossing and boundary-dispensing”. This acknowledges the very existence of bisexual representation in films, but even in queer films where different sexualities are expressed on screen there is still an erasure of the bisexual community.
The implications of this attitude in this community may then lead to negative opinions regarding bisexuality, coming from a place of misunderstanding that results from a lack of visibility. If there is such a prejudice and invisibility in one of the most open spaces of filmmaking then it leaves us to question where successful representation fits in mainstream cinema. However, the idea that bisexuality is completely hidden can be challenged. While its representation has not been depicted to its true potential, there are multiple instances in film and television where popular characters can be seen to have bisexual tendencies or a more fluid sexuality. Such characters may not explicitly state their sexual identity, may dismiss it as a “phase” or state that they were heterosexual and are now completely homosexual. An example of this can be found in SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD (Edgar Wright 2010) where Scott (Michael Cera) and Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) have a conversation about one of Ramona’s ex-partners: “It was just a phase”, Ramona explains, “I was just a little bi-curious”. “You had a sexy phase?” Scott then muses.
WE REGULARLY SEE THE INVISIBILITY AND ERASURE OF NOT JUST BISEXUALITY BUT ANY SEXUALITY OTHER THAN HETEROSEXUALITY.
This comment, which could be considered as just a throwaway moment in the film, is a typical example of the erasure of bisexuality in film. The characters seem to present and understand sexuality as something very black and white, suggesting a person is only attracted to one gender at one time. Ramona’s dismissal implies that time in her life was a mistake, rather than a core part of her sexual identity. In addition, in Scott’s reference to Ramona’s bisexuality as a “sexy phase”, the comment presents her sexual identity as something to be objectified and sexualised, something that does not need to be considered seriously. Such a portrayal perpetuates many of the stereotypes that those who identify as bisexual have to face with people rejecting their sexual identity.
To critically examine representation, we need to understand some of the terminology regarding bisexuality. The term “monosexuality” refers to when a person’s attraction relates to a single gender. In other words, they identify as homosexual or heterosexual, something perpetuated by mainstream film and television.
Yet approaching sexuality in such a binary and fixed way excludes any sense of sexual fluidity and diversity. In her 2013 book THE B WORD: BISEXUALITY IN CONTEMPORARY FILM AND TELEVISION, media studies scholar Maria San Filippo refers to “missed moments” in representing bisexuality on screen, the “textual and critical elisions” that result from “when a monosexual perspective is imposed upon a text rich with bisexual potential.” As Filippo expresses, filmmakers might set up opportunities where a bisexual character could have been introduced into the story and it would have been relevant and fitted with the plot. However, she argues, they opt instead for a depiction of monosexuality and the character is constructed as homosexual or heterosexual, erasing an entire sexuality. Sexuality is confirmed as fixed, something that will be decided and a character will not waver from this identity.
This is opposed to real life where sexuality is more fluid and more likely to undergo a change. In a 2014 article “Exploring the Umbrella” published in LGBT publication Advocate, journalist Trudy Ring draws from social science research to argue how sexual fluidity is becoming increasingly evident. Ring cites one study where 10 to 14% of American women describe themselves as mostly, but not completely, heterosexual. What this suggests is that sexuality is not as sharply defined as has been widely perceived. It can be subject to change.
An example of a so-called “missed moment” is present in the popular teen show PRETTY LITTLE LIARS (ABC 2010-2017), where the sexuality of a central character, Emily (Shay Mitchell), shifts from heterosexual to homosexual. It could be argued the compulsion of monosexuality in this case is used for dramatic impact. However, this would have been a perfect time for a bisexual character to be introduced into the long-running television series. The novels on which the series is based present Emily’s sexuality as more fluid and they more clearly state her bisexuality. This definite creative choice made in adapting the books to screen emphasises the erasure of bisexuality on screen. The choice to make the character bisexual could have been especially impactful on a show that is aimed at a teenage demographic, as adolescence is frequently noted to be a crucial time for discovering sexuality.
The impact of bisexual invisibility and erasure has been felt by audiences. It is often left to fan speculation over the sexuality of characters as it is never explicitly stated, or it can be misrepresented by filmmakers. This can lead to a lot of frustration for those in the queer community. The hints of fluid sexuality that find their way on screen call for a broader debate about the extremely low rate of representation of bisexuality in film and television.
SEXUALITY IS NOT AS SHARPLY DEFINED AS HAS BEEN WIDELY PERCEIVED.
A number of popular television shows have been accused of “queer baiting”, a term used to describe attempts to interest queer fans by alluding to sexualities of their written characters, yet displaying little intent to develop their depictions of queer relationships and characters. Accusations of queer baiting were levelled at long-running television fantasy series SUPERNATURAL (Warner Bros Television 2005-) after details emerged on social media about a potential romantic relationship between key characters Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) - who has shown bisexual tendencies throughout the series - and Castiel (Misha Collins). In a 2014 article for Advocate, Eliel Cruz reported how fans felt led on by a same-sex subtext that was not followed through. With their “just friends” status considered questionable and out of place, the show received a lot of backlash after its producers responded with that they thought having a bisexual character would not serve anything to the show. However, sexuality should not be a simple plot point but should be at the core of creating believable and relatable characters.
SEXUALITY SHOULD NOT BE A SIMPLE PLOT POINT.
The representation of bisexual characters on screen should not challenge filmmakers and television producers any more than when they represent characters of another sexuality. It will be seen to be judged as to whether they will stick to conventional stereotypes or depart from them. That is, if they allow any screen time for bisexual characters in their work at all.