watch

Bisexuality Stories Onscreen, Explained

Few groups have been as misrepresented in film and TV as bisexuals. Even as bisexuality and pansexuality have become increasingly common, they remain relatively scarce on screen. While media has generally become more inclusive toward homosexuals, why have we struggled to give bisexuals and pansexuals the same recognition? Here’s our Take on how pop culture has shaped our view of bisexuality, and how the increasing prominence of sexual fluidity has left them both more—and less—visible than ever.

TRANSCRIPT

When it comes to sexuality, few groups have been as misrepresented as bisexuals. Even as bisexuality and pansexuality have become increasingly common, they remain relatively scarce on screen. Filmmakers have also been reluctant to embrace it. And when bisexual characters do appear, they’re often depicted as sexually greedy, untrustworthy, or confused.

Will Truman: “Oh, bisexuality isn’t even a thing. It’s like saying, ‘I’m a cat person and a dog person.’” - Will and Grace 11x09

Pop culture continues to reinforce the idea of bisexuality as an experimental phase or a passing trend—or worse, a myth.

Bob Armstrong: “Bisexuals are like demons or aliens, they don’t exist.” - Insatiable 01x09

While film and TV have generally become more inclusive toward homosexuals, why have we struggled to give bisexuals and pansexuals the same recognition? Here’s our Take on how pop culture has shaped our view of bisexuality, and how the increasing prominence of sexual fluidity has left them both more—and less—visible than ever.

Brittany Pierce: “I’m also a unicorn. Maybe a bi-corn. Either way, I’m starting to believe in my own magic.” - Glee 03x02

The Bisexual Femme Fetale

On-screen, bisexuality has long been associated with uncertainty—if not outright deceit. Women like Cher’s title character in the 1969 film Chastity had affairs with men and women because they were lost, unsure of who they really were. In 1967’s The Fox, Anne Heywood’s Ellen lives in isolation with a woman she loves, yet she’s seduced by the first man who happens by their farm.

Eventually, this uncertainty would be weaponized. Bisexual women were portrayed as untrustworthy femme fatales. In erotic thrillers, the idea that women could sleep with anyone made them sexy—and dangerous. As lecturer Katherine Farrimond has noted, the bisexual femme fatale is “a gratuitous attempt to pander to the heterosexual male gaze,” using their sexuality as a provocation.

In 1992’s Basic Instinct, Michael Douglas’s detective finds himself caught in a web of sex and murder with two women whose bisexuality is portrayed as alluring, sinister, and key to their duplicity. The film garnered protests from activists who decried it as anti-gay and anti-women, reinforcing the stereotype that anyone queer is evil or not to be trusted.

But even 1996’s Bound—which was lauded for its depiction of romance between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly—still makes bisexuality part of its characters’ deceit. Tilly’s character falling for Gershon’s lesbian ex-con marks the beginning of her betrayal of her criminal boyfriend. In these depictions, bisexuality inevitably revolves around men, with women using it to mislead or titillate them—and usually, both.

While not as prevalent—or eroticized—depictions of the bisexual man are often just as dangerous and untrustworthy. In the 1970 black comedy Something for Everyone, Michael York’s bisexual Konrad seduces the son and daughter of a rich family to gain access to their fortune.

Lotte Von Ornstein: “The dogs approve of you. They only approve of murderers and perverts. Which one are you?”

Konrad Ludwig: “Both.” - Something for Everyone (1970)

He’s insincere in all his affections—his sexuality is defined solely by how he can exploit it for personal gain. The 1988 TV series Midnight Caller offered a far more menacing spin with a controversial episode about a bisexual man who deliberately infected people with HIV.

Jack Killian: “He feels that if he pretends he doesn’t have the disease, if he denies its existence, it won’t kill him. Now that’s sad for him, but it’s deadly for those he sleeps with.” - Midnight Caller 01x03

Although these kinds of portrayals are largely in our past, the myths they fostered remain pervasive. A 2013 study in the Journal of Bisexuality found that the misconception of bisexuals as hypersexual led many to say they don’t trust bisexuals, believing they’re more likely to cheat. Bisexuals have long been viewed with skepticism, even disdain by both heterosexuals and homosexuals. That is if they accept that bisexuals even exist.

Carrie Bradshaw: “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists.” - Sex and the City 03x04

The “Secretly Gay” Man

The mistrust of bisexuals manifests in another damaging stereotype: the idea that bisexuals are simply confused. Pop culture has often portrayed the bisexual man especially as secretly gay—even in ostensibly sex-positive shows. When Will and Grace‘s Will, a gay man, is introduced to the bisexual Trevor, he refuses to accept it. On Sex and the City, Carrie reacts with disgust when she finds out a guy she’s dating is bisexual. And whereas the female bisexual is celebrated as sexy or exotic, the male bisexual mostly just causes others to recoil.

Jane Villanueva: “When women hook up it’s looked at as sexy, but men are immediately marginalized because our whole culture revolves around the male gaze.” - Jane the Virgin 04x05

This aversion is even more pronounced among people of color, where black men, especially, are expected to be hypermasculine. When Insecure‘s Molly discovers her new partner Jared slept with a man in college, she panics about what this means for his sexuality—and their own relationship.

The myth that bisexual men are secretly gay has been propagated even by the media that, ostensibly, aims to tell their stories. Romances between men are inevitably marketed as “gay,” even if their stories are more nuanced than that. Brokeback Mountain‘s reputation as a “gay cowboy movie” contradicts the fact that—even if Ennis and Jack clearly love each other most—they also end up married to women they do exhibit attraction to and share sex lives with. Jake Gyllenhaal has averred that it’s really about “two straight guys who develop this love, this bond.” His co-star Heath Ledger saw no need for labels at all, saying “the whole point is that it was two souls that fell in love with each other”.

Jack Twist: “I wish I knew how to quit you…” - Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Call Me By Your Name is frequently referred to solely as a “gay love story” despite the fact that both Elio and Oliver are seen enjoying female attention—and Elio clearly gets great pleasure out of his first sexual experience, which is with a woman. A similar erasure occurred around the 2016 film Moonlight, which was praised as a film about “black gay life”—But its protagonist, Chiron, has only ever had one sexual experience—with his childhood friend, Kevin, an open bisexual. And we’re seeing Chiron at the beginning of even connecting with his sexuality, far from clearly defining it.

Thus, even though we’ve become more sophisticated in our depictions of queer romances, we still see them labeled according to mono-sexist ideas that erase bisexual, pansexual, and more sexually fluid experiences. This reflects our societal compulsion to ignore or dismiss more ambiguous ideas of sexuality and deny the rights of queer people to dictate their own identities.

The Visible And Invisible Bisexual

Abbi Abrams: “And then I realized the only reason I wasn’t automatically asking them out was because she was a woman.” - Broad City 05x05

Increasingly, gender and sexuality have been understood as far more fluid than those traditional labels suggest. Pop culture has embraced the idea that love and attraction are about the person, not a gender, and can encompass a vast array of non-binary identities.

Victor Salazar: “Some guys like guys. Some guys like girls. Some guys like both. I’m not even sure what I like.” - Love Victor Trailer

This idea has taken root in shows that, significantly, also treat this as no big deal. Judy on the Netflix series Dead To Me has relationships with men before entering into a romance with a woman. It’s a shift that her friend Jen accepts without questioning what it means for Judy’s sexuality. As showrunner Liz Feldman explained to Refinery29: “[…] at this moment we’re living in, I know so many people for whom it just is what it is. You love who you love, you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to.”

The Schitt’s Creek character David expresses similar sentiments after sleeping with his female friend Stevie, who had just assumed he was gay. David and Stevie then go on to date the same man at the same time, before David ends up in a committed relationship with his business partner, who similarly awakens to his own fluid sexuality. While David says he’s not into labels, he actually does have one.

The growing embrace of fluid sexuality has also led to an increase in queerbaitingstories that hint at a character’s sexual ambiguity, without ever actually defining them as queer. This has often been played for laughs, as on The Good Place, where Eleanor repeatedly drops hints that she’s attracted to Tahani, without ever explicitly identifying her sexuality.

Eleanor Shellstrop: “She’s tall and glamorous and has cappuccino skin and curves everywhere. And now I’m complimenting her. And kind of turned on.” - The Good Place 01x03

This can be a form of erasure—as can the general reluctance to use words like “bisexual” and “pansexual” at all. Characters who present themselves as sexually fluid, like Piper in Orange Is The New Black, demonstrate their sexuality without putting a label on it, which certainly offers a more modern, enlightened approach. But it also frustrates bisexuals and pansexuals who long to see themselves represented, openly and meaningfully, within that larger spectrum.

Fortunately, bisexual representation seems to be growing in quality, if not yet in quantity. Characters like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Rosa Diaz have been straightforward about their bisexuality, without the show turning it into a joke—or a conflict. Jane The Virgin has used bisexual love interests not just to explore those persistent societal myths, but openly interrogate them. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend introduced no less than three bisexual characters across its run—even giving them their very own anthem.

Darryl Whitefeather: “I don’t know why, but I like ladies and I like guys.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 01x14

Far from being portrayed as villains, punchlines, or confused anomalies, bisexuals are increasingly treated thoughtfully and compassionately. This recognition matters, giving those who identify as bisexual the feeling of being seen in a culture that’s long viewed them with snark or skepticism—if it’s looked at them at all. And for the audience, including these characters makes for a far more realistic, diverse, and compelling depiction of who we really are.