Though we’re far from reaching any level of true equality, it can be said that the level of representation of queer identities in popular culture is improving. However, while the representation of gay men (or more accurately, gay white men) continues to see an increase in mainstream media, other letters in the LGBTQ alphabet are not so lucky.
According to GLAAD’s annual survey of LGBTQ characters in major film releases, in 2016 18.4% of films contained characters that identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. This is up a whopping 1% increase since 2015 (I know, slow down right?). Of these ‘inclusive’ films, gay men made up 83% of the representation in these films, with lesbian characters making up 35%. Trailing significantly (though not as significantly as the representation of trans people, with one single transgender-inclusive film) was the representation of bisexual people, in at 13% – and remember, this is 13% of films that included LGBTQ people at all, not of all major releases. If my maths is correct, that’s about 2.4% of major films including bisexual representation.
I’ll say that again – bisexual people only appear in 2.4% of films released by major Hollywood studios.
“What’s even more frustrating is seeing characters that so easily could have been bisexual – all the coding is there, just not the confirmation.”
As a bisexual woman, this is hardly encouraging. Especially when you consider the ever-frustrating ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, which sees 23% of lesbian and bi characters meeting an untimely demise in television and film. And what’s even more frustrating is seeing characters that so easily could have been bisexual, but showrunners take the safe option of labeling them straight – all the coding is there, just not the confirmation.
Alyson Hannigan’s character in sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Lily Aldrin, could quite easily be read as bisexual. Throughout the series she has talks about her sexually-charged dreams about Cobie Smulders’ Robin, and will often suggest that they make out (only to dismiss the idea as “stupid, just stupid” when Robin refuses). However, her sporadic but intense attraction to women is played off as a ‘recurring gag’, reducing the concept of being attracted to more than one gender to a joke.
The character of John Watson in BBC’s modern-day adaptation of Sherlock could also be read as bisexual, with much queerbaiting a romantic connection between the title character and his roommate. Watson spends a significant amount of time assuring everyone “I’m not gay!” when they comment on the clear connection between the two men, and dates a lot of women (eventually marrying one) over the course of the series. But the idea that he might be bisexual is never even mentioned. Not only is the possibility of a homosexual relationship between Sherlock and Watson dangled over queer audiences, never delivering, but a completely valid sexuality that would explain Watson’s supposed attraction to Sherlock as well as the women he dates is erased entirely.
It can be disheartening to see bisexuality used in this way as a minor plot device to gain laughs or tease queer audiences rather than a fleshed out, legitimate part of a character. In female characters it is often used to make a character seem more quirky or sexy, especially when viewed through the eyes of a male audience. For male characters, it’s the age-old ‘I’m not gay I promise’ joke rolled out again and again.
“In clawing for some semblance of bisexual representation in Willow, I was ignoring her own affirmation of her sexuality.”
A recurring theme with queer women characters in popular culture is that they might start off ‘straight’, and attracted to men, before ‘switching’ at some point to being gay… however, this is a lot trickier to navigate, and can cause rifts between queer audiences. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is another character played by Alyson Hannigan; Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who comes out at a lesbian in season five.
At first, I was disappointed that Willow was written to identify as gay rather than bisexual, after a history of deep, romantic and sexual attractions to male characters. I felt as though those experiences and relationships had been discarded, and that her feelings had somehow not been real.
But this reading completely disregards those who do go through a period of attraction to members of a different gender, which are every bit as real as later attractions to the same gender, before coming out as gay. For many lesbian women, Willow represents clearly the fact that your sexuality is still valid, even if you experienced other relationships previously. My first reading of Willow, though I didn’t intend it to, reinforced the idea of a ‘gold star lesbian’ (a lesbian who has never been with a man). In clawing for some semblance of bisexual representation in Willow, I was ignoring not only her own affirmation of her sexuality, but the sexuality of many other lesbian women who previously had relationships with men.
The solution to this problem of queer audiences having to ‘steal’ characters from each other, is pretty simple; write more strong, recurring queer characters, and stop coding characters as bisexual but sticking to a binary labels for their identities. Using bisexuality as a gag is not only insulting to bi people, but it reinforces the idea that our sexuality is not valid… and worse, might even cause us to invalidate the sexuality of others when desperately trying to see ourselves in our favourite characters.
2.4% is not enough representation for bisexual characters (and while we’re at it, 18.4% is a disgustingly low percentage of major films including LGBTQ characters at all). We need to do better.